This travel post is written by Vera who blogs at Life is in the Small Things. She travelled to London with her petite travellers Noey (4 years) and Mei (2 years) in May-June 2013 and spent a week in the city and another week exploring nearby regions on day-trips. In this post, Vera focuses on the activities in the city of London. There's certainly plenty to do!
This holiday is suitable for families that enjoy immersing themselves in the hustle and bustle of a city, exploring sights and soaking up some history and culture.
I personally agonised about how to write this post because I think it is impossible to compress a city like London, with all that it has to offer in terms of historical sights, art and culture, food and shopping into just one post. It simply won't do it justice! But London really is a great place for a family holiday, not the least because you would definitely be able to find something for everyone.
While I was scrolling through photos in preparation of writing this post, my son came to look over my shoulder, and started exclaiming happily about how much he enjoyed the trip. We spent some time talking about our holiday and out of that, this post was born. Consider this a taster of what London has to offer, from the eyes of a 5-year old (and his mum!).
When we first drew up our itinerary, the museums were the first things we put on our list. London is littered with museums and many of them are kid-friendly. The best part is that entry to many of these museums is free! The kids' favourite museum is the Natural History Museum. Till this day, my son Noey still speaks fondly of our visit. So this is definitely a must-do for kids!
There are many interesting galleries at the Natural History Museum, but the hot favourite is no doubt the Dinosaurs gallery, and with good reason. Even us adults were wowed by many fully reconstructed dinosaur skeletons on display. There was lots to see, touch, feel and read about. It is very popular so if you wish to beat the queue, do book your free tickets in advance. Another gallery we enjoyed was the Mammals gallery with its large collection of taxidermied animals, though it was a bit unnerving coming eye-to-eye with some ferocious beasts! Don't miss the iconic Blue Whale in the large mammals hall, the unofficial mascot of the museum.
A fun thing to do if you visit with young children is to check out a free Explorer Backpack from the Hintze Hall information desk. In it you'll find an activity booklet which the kids can use as they explore the museum. It also comes with a safari hat and a pair of binoculars, which the children really liked playing with.
The British Museum is dedicated to the study of human history and culture and features an enormous collection of some of the finest samples of historical objects from all over the world. Of particular note are its gallery of Ancient Egypt, which houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt, and its gallery of Greece and Rome, which includes the controversial Elgin marbles from the Parthenon.
The National Gallery is a personal favourite of mine because I love paintings. In The National Gallery you will find Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers, Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait, Sandro Boticelli's Venus and Mars, and Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres, to name a few. There are also many pieces by famous British artists like John Constable and JMW Turner.
At both these museums, I was very impressed by the fact that plenty of provision had been made for families. There were kids activity packs which you could check out, kids trails to follow, and kids audio guides to lead them around the museum. We did the Art Detectives Audio Tour at The National Gallery and I thought it was great. It was pitched as a quest that the kids had to follow to solve a mystery, and at each painting it provided information on the painting in the form of an interesting dialogue. My 4-year old son was able to follow and enjoyed it. It was a worthwhile investment and we definitely got more out of our visit as a result.
Borough Market is London's most renown food market, and as someone who loves to cook, the place really made me hyperventilate from excitement. There's gorgeous fresh produce alongside exotic food products, jams and dips, yummy bakes, and food stalls where food is cooked on the spot and devoured. We bought a packet of cherry tomatoes from The Tomato Stall, and wow, they were the best and sweetest tomatoes we'd ever eaten. All of us couldn't stop munching on them and we easily finished our bag as we walked. Another gem was Fitz Fine Foods, where we enjoyed trying the pates and dips and went home with a couple of their mustards. Don't forget to stop by Monmouth Coffee Company to grab cuppa of the best coffee for miles around, though you should be prepared to wait in line!
Since we arrived in the mid-morning, we got some food and walked over to have lunch on the grounds of the adjacent Southwark Cathedral. On a fine day, there would be plenty of others with the same idea, but just find yourself a spot and make yourself comfortable. The cathedral is also good for a visit thereafter. The full market is open from Wednesday to Saturday every week.
Covent Garden is another of my favourite markets for sheer vibrancy and fun. Covent Garden's piazza really houses three markets that sell all manner of lovely things, from British arts and craft to jewellery, fashion, homewares and antiques. It is a great place to browse. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants at which you can grab a bite. One of the highlights for kids are the street performers and "statues" found busking in the area. It has a great atmosphere and you can easily spend an hour watching some really good acts. Don't forget to take a walk down to Magic Corner near the end of James Street where magicians have been performing for over 400 years!
There are plenty of green spaces in London that are a joy to explore - when the weather is fine! Hyde Park is the most famous park around but we found Kensington Gardens at a corner of Hyde Park, a really lovely spot. The kids had a field day running around and puffing on dandelion heads and, just being kids. It is also in Kensington Gardens that you'll find the Diana Memorial Playground, a fantastic playground with a huge wooden pirate ship as its centrepiece. Inspired by Peter Pan, this is a really fun space with a sensory trail, teepees, and a beach around the pirate ship with toys and play sculptures. Definitely one not to be missed for the little ones.
If you have some time, you might like to consider making a trip out to Richmond Park where you will find Red and Fallow deer roaming freely. That promises to be quite a sight!
4. Historical and Royal Sites
It isn't often that you can get up close to a queen and a royal family. Little girls with princess dreams would probably be interested in checking out a real palace, and quite surprised to see it doesn't look quite like the fairytale castles of their dreams! Of the royal sites, the Tower of London has my vote for being the most interesting. Definitely take a Yeoman Warder tour and they will chill and thrill you with tales of the Tower and some of its more infamous residents. This is also where you get the chance to see, and be impressed by, the Crown Jewels. If there is one thing I regret about my trip, it is the fact that we totally missed visiting the Tower during our recent trip as my husband and I were totally incapacitated by flu for a few days and we ran out of time to make a visit. I still remember my visit to the Tower years back because it made quite an impression and I hope to bring the kids there again another time.
We did visit Westminster Abbey, my interest piqued by, ermm, the Royal Wedding that took place the year before. It was certainly quite awe-inspiring with all that history before you in the form of with the tombs of kings and queens spanning a period of more than 500 years. Scores of famous personalities in art, literature, music and science are also buried or commemorated in the Abbey and it was a delight stumbling upon them in the course of our visit. It is also an incredibly beautiful church and even the kids were very struck by it. That said, the Abbey is HUGE, and really not a place you can properly explore with young kids in tow. I also felt that the entrance fee of £18 was rather steep, even if it did come with an audio guide. They also didn't allow any photography, which was a bit of a downer. It's probably a place you'd want to visit at least once in your life but I probably will not do it again.
Shopping in London is great, especially with the current very favourable exchange rate! But for the kids, they only had eyes for one place: Hamleys. My kids' eyes nearly fell out of their head when we visited the huge toy store on Regent Street. Five floors of toys! There were lots of interesting displays, and many areas where you could play with the toys or watch some of the cool toy demonstrations. The only problem with that is that it is very easy to get sucked into the sales pitch! I certainly walked out with more than I intended to buy in the first place, but it was worth it for the experience. The candy and ice-cream the top floor was the icing on the cake.
While you're in the area of Oxford Street and Regent Street, here are a couple of things I think you shouldn't miss:
- Primark -- Here you will find a wide variety of fashionable clothes and basics at low prices. Some things are so unbelievably cheap, even we, coming from low-cost Asia, did a double take. Hard to resist and definitely worth a visit.
- Ben's Cookies -- I fell in love with these chewy huge cookies as a student and they are still good now! Best eaten warm.
- Pierre Hermé Paris Concession in Selfridges -- Positively the BEST macarons around, bar none. I admit it: I hid them in my bag and took them out only after the kids went to sleep so I didn't have to share any!
That's it for London City from me, though I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what London has to offer! If you have some recommendations or stories to share about what you enjoyed in London, do tell us in the comments. We'd love to hear from you!
Stay tuned for my next post where I'll be sharing about some theme parks an easy drive away from London which would be great for a family day out.