We have been living in London for 3 years and I have two very young kids, 3 ys and 18 months old. I know that visiting a city with little ones might be stressful unless you plan it carefully and follow some tips. I am here to tell you that your London first visit with kids can be enjoyable for all the family.
GETTING TO AND FROM THE AIRPORT
In London there are six airports, three more central (Heathrow, London City and Gatwick) and three farer (Stansted, Luton, Southend).
If you are arriving at Heathrow airport, you can take the Heathrow Express which takes 15 minutes to arrive to Paddington station central London. Trains depart from all terminals.
From Gatwick airport you can take the Gatwick Express into Victoria and main line trains into London Bridge.
You can also take a taxi (black cab), it will cost– cost £60 depending on time and traffic.
For more information about transfer and transport, please read How to organise a trip to London with kids
TRANSPORT IN LONDON
Public transport in London works very well: the tube and buses will get you everywhere. I suggest to download Citymapper, a free app that gives you the best transport mix to reach a destination based on your location. If you want to find out other important apps to download to visit London, please read this post about it.
Kids under 11 travel free of charge on most London transport means.
The Oyster Card is a prepaid card that allow you to pay every means of transport in London, including ferries and the transfer from Gatwick Airport.
You can avoid to buy the Oyster card if you have a contactless: read this post with all the possibilities to save money when traveling with kids.
GETTING AROUND LONDON WITH KIDS
When traveling by tube, it’s better to avoid travel peak times where possible – 07:30 – 09:30am and 16:30 – 18:30pm on weekdays.
If you are traveling with a buggy, I suggest to bring the lightest you have because only a few tube stations have the lift to reach the street level. You can find the step-free stations in this map.
Taking a double decker bus is a valid option, as children always have lots of fun getting up on the second level.
Other options are taxi, where you can pile 6 people plus a buggy and Uber, however it’s not safe if you need car seats.
Children under 11 when accompanied by adults travel for free without the need for any card on the bus, metro, DLR and overground, but not on trains, they travel free only up to 5 years.
To pass the turnstiles of the tube, go to those dedicated to the disabled or to bulky luggage, the adults pay and the children go with you.
If you plan to use the tube or any other public transport, it is recommended to buy the Oyster card or travel card, to have a daily cup. In this post I explain in detail what is convenient and why: How to get around London with children: Oyster card, Travel card or Contactless?
Consider that all the main attractions are in zone 1/2 and that visiting London without ever using the tube is quite unlikely.
WHAT TO SEE IN LONDON THE FIRST TIME?
I suggest to arrange to visit a big destination per day, choosing the most “boring” for them while they are having nap. Arrange short transfers among the various points of interest, so that they can be done on foot or by bus. Leave the longest journey back to the hotel at the end of the day.
Slow down and consider the following list, an easy guide to stress-free places for kids where spend some hours, or think over them as a child-friendly filler at the end of the day.
SOUTH BANK is a good start to visit the city. There is s pedestrian path along the Thames and several places of interest including the London Eye and the London Sea Life Aquarium, the Millenium Bridge, Shakespeare Theater, the Tate Modern and the Borough Market. If you continue along the River, once left the Borough Market, you cross the London Bridge and you can continue till the Tower of London.
Alternatively you can visit the main attractions along the Thames with the hop on hop off river cruises. Thames clipper cruises are very flexible, choosing from over 10 different piers to hop off and explore all London’s top sights from a unique view
A 30-minute-ride on the London Eye is great for panoramic views of London’s skyline. The attraction opens at 10am each day and it’s a great way to admire Big Ben and Westminster.
I suggest to book online the skip the line tickets for the London Eye – especially in summer – as the queues are very long and who wants to spend their trip to London waiting in line? You can also buy the combo ticket for the London Eye and the river cruise or the London eye Madame Tussauds combo ticket to save money.
DOUBLE DECKER BUS
A DOUBLE DECKER BUS is always an exciting thing to do with kids! It’s free for young children and I think this is also a good way to visit the city instead of paying a very expensive sightseeing!
Visit COVENT GARDEN early at the weekend, one of my favorite places in the heart of London. It’s a great starting point to visit Soho or Leicester Square, with its Lego shop. In Covent Garden there is also the London Transport Museum which is full of fun for children! It’s good to know that the Covent Garden tube station has the elevator!
WHICH PARKS TO VISIT IN LONDON?
LONDON PARKS are a good escape from the tourist schedule and city traffic. London is full of beautiful parks you can choose from. The best moments during sunny days, but even if the weather isn’t great they are hard to beat. Holland park in Kensington, Kew Gardens in Richmond, Regents’ Park, Hyde Park and Battersea park are among our favorites. If you are around Hyde Park, don’t miss the Princess Diana Memorial playground and its pirate ship with sandpit.
See the popular Changing the Guard ceremony outside Buckingham Palace, that it’s a tradition that dates back to 1660. The horses, the band, the march with the guards in uniform, is a moment that strongly characterizes the city. As it’s in the morning, it could be easier to wait for a little while with your kids. The Guard is changed every thirty minutes during the summer (April 1 to Sep 30) and every hour during the winter (Oct 1 to Mar 31). It’s also free.
New for 2019 – Celebrating the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth, a special exhibition will reveal the story of how Queen Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace into the magnificent Royal residence it is today. Visit the Palace State Rooms, open for a limited period over summer 2019 (20 July – 29 September 2019). Step inside the same rooms used by The Queen and members of the Royal Family to receive and entertain their guests on State, ceremonial and official occasions.
Go to HAMLEY’S, the Greatest Toy Store in the World. I know that this seven-floor-cathedral full of toys can be full of hordes of people and it’s supposed that you buy something. But it’s like a indoor wonderland and you can agree them upon a small budget to spend. If your kids are Lego’s fun, on their 5th Floor there is a brand new area to celebrate 60 years of the Bricks. It’s on Regent St. just a short walk from Oxford Circus. There are also changing tables in all the restrooms and a cafe.
This is the world’s oldest scientific zoo and hosts more than 1.2 million visitors a year. If you make the trip, be sure to spend the entire day.
The aquarium and reptile house are both very good and all the conservation work is well explained. The animals are well cared for and the cages are spacious and well laid out. The attractions included Blackburn Pavilion, In with the Lemurs, Land of the Lions, Rainforest Life, Tiger territory, Reptile house, Aquarium, Penguin beach, Into Africa, Animal adventure, In with the Monkeys, and many more! Wonderful educational programs, and interactive exhibits, and lovely gift shops to keep those amazing memories alive once you get home.
The zoo is located within Regent’s Park, which itself is feast for the eyes with gorgeous gardens. On the highest point Primrose Hill are the most amazing vistas of the skyline of London.
New for summer 2019 is the ZSL London Zoo’s Animal Adventure that opens on the 31st of July, and entry is included in the Zoo entry price.
We suggest to book ONLINE TO GET 10% off.
FREE MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES IN LONDON
You can choose among Natural History Museum, British Museum, Science Museum, Tate Gallery, V&A, and Tate Modern. Anyway a little donation is always suggested. Both Science Museum and Natural History Museum are great for kids.
With its huge collection you could spend years exploring the various rooms and displays but there are some highlights you can’t miss to see:
- Rosetta Stone
- Parthenon Marbles
- Egyptian mummies
- Sutton Hoo mask
Inside the museum, the the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe.
The museum is open daily from 10.00–17.30 and until 20.30 on Fridays. Note – the museum is closed on closed 24, 25 and 26 December, 1 January and Good Friday.
There is no charge to enter the British Museum and view the main collection however you may need to pay to view special exhibitions and a small donation is encouraged. You may need to line up to pass security checks.
VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM (V&A)
The V&A focuses on art and design as well as sculpture, housing a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
For teens who are interested in fashion, and particularly the design and creative side of things is a must-see.
The museum’s fashion collection is the largest in the world and features items from five centuries of fashion including rare gowns, accessories and haute couture.
The V&A is open daily from 10.00 – 17.45 and on Fridays from 10.00 – 22.00
Check out their website as during weekends there are free workshops for kids.
The former power station converted into a museum features the very best of contemporary and modern art from Picasso to Warhol as well as sculpture and photography. Highlight include the drawing bar on level one, the Turbine hall where kids can run, the viewing platform on level 10 and many interactive family trails and activities.
TIP: look for some yellow shirts as they are special family guides and check Tate website as there are always family event that come up.
Tate Modern is a really family friendly museum with many interactive things and displays for kids, plenty of change facilities and picnic spots.
Entry to the Tate Modern is free for everyone with a charge for special exhibitions (but only if over 12s). You can read more about their family program here.
The Tate Modern is open Sunday to Thursday 10.00 – 18.00 and Friday to Saturday 10.00 – 22.00. There are several cafes and restaurants on site, don’t miss the one at the latest level for a wonderful view!
Facing Holland Park, one of the most beautiful park in London, is a great museum for adults and kids. It covers product, industrial, graphic, fashion and architectural design. Kids will enjoy good displays from architecture to electronic devices and fascinating collection of the familiar and unfamiliar devices from the past and present. You can see a 3D print machine while working and for kids there are activities, blocks, and a free to enter room with some lego and toys.
Open Monday to Sunday 10am – 5pm. The first Friday of each month it closes at 8pm. Free to enter for the permanent exhibitions, you will be asked to pay to visit the temporary ones.
WHAT YOU CAN SKIP TO SEE WITH KIDS IN LONDON
As many other cities, there are some attractions more suitable for adults than young children. London has a vast amount of things you can do and there are many attractions specifically designed for kids. You can avoid some landmarks that might be more interesting only for adults, or attractions that are overrated and too much expensive.
So these a list of things that you can skip if visiting with young children:
- St Paul’s Cathedral – One of London’s landmark buildings can be seen from outside and skip to go inside, as there is also a fee.
- Westminster Abbey – is another unmissable spot, however it’s better to visit with older children that can appreciate the history of this historic royal church where no less than 30 Kings and Queens are buried. There is the possibility of enjoying the quintessence of the most typical afternoon tea at the Cellarium, the original cell of the monks of Westminster Abbey created in 960 AD
- National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery – unless you have a week to spend in London, or you kids love podcasts, I would concentrate on other museums, like the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the London Transport Museum, the British Museum and the Tate Modern.
- Madame Tussauds – I don’t understand what the sense is to take pictures with wax celebrities, and it’s also so expensive for a family with two children.
- Shrek’s Adventure – it’s quite expensive and this a kind of attractions that it’s not really related with London. It’s based on the Shrek movies. You must be a huge fan to spend time there rather than the London Eye just in front of it.
WHERE TO EAT WITH KIDS IN LONDON
London is my top pick for children: changing tables everywhere, food chains ready to have children and easy accessible with buggies. You often receive, the second you are given a table, some busy things to let the kids entertained.
Some of our favorite places where to eat with kids are Wagamama for ramen and sushi, Bill’s for a brunch, Franco Manca for pizza, Byron for hamburgers, Kerbisher and Malt for fish and chips. Check out this post to know where to eat on a budget in London.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT LONDON?
I suggest to avoid peak tourism season, like summer, and the during Bank Holidays or Easter time (you can check UK school holidays), because the city can be too busy and you can find queue for everything. I think that Autumn is a great season for London, because of the cheap flights as it is low season. Read my post what do to with children in autumn in London for more information.
Regarding the weather, there isn’t really a better time, because it can be rainy even in summer! Christmas is really magical in London as well. During winter there are also plenty things to do, like ice skating at the Natural History Museum or the Tower of London or the Somerset House, visit Christmas at Kew Gardens, or Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.
WHAT ARE THE NON TOURISTY THINGS TO SEE IN LONDON?
FREE THINGS TO DO IN LONDON WITH KIDS:
In London there are many free things to do with kids. Here is our top 10:
- Explore a child friendly museum – see our favorites above
- Play and spend time in the parks – our favorites are Holland Park and Battersea Park and in the playground
- Stage a photo with Peter Pan in Kensington Garden, near Hyde Park
- Look at the medieval armor at the Wallace Collection
- Watch the Pelican feeding in St James Park at 2:30 p.m. each day. They are fed from behind Duck Island Cottage, near Horse Guards Parade.
- Watch the Changing of the Guard
- You can then visit 10 Downing Street (home of the British Prime Minister)
- Visit the museums and galleries – most are free for kids – for our favorites see above
- Take in the views from the Sky Garden – free viewing platform in the city’s walkie talkie building
- Take the perfect photos from the One Change shopping centre rooftop, with view on St Paul’s Cathedral
FIRST TIME IN LONDON: WHERE TO SLEEP
As I LIVE in London, I have never slept in a hotel, but I can recommend some, either because they are in a good area or have a good value for money, either because friends or relatives stayed there.
If you want to have a truly unique experience, why don’t choose a mews flat? Like this Mews house in Notting Hill, for a medium budget.
LOW BUDGET: YHA London Earl’s court (it’s an hostel with high reviews), The Z Hotel Shoreditch in Islington, rooms from 69£, The Britannia Hotel in Hamstead, a very good position close to Primrose Hill and with rooms starting from 49£.
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR TRIP TO LONDON
What should you consider when packing for London? We like traveling light and easy, however, whatever travel family you are, you probably have to consider weather, the type of luggage you travel with and the activities you want to do.
You will probably walk a lot, so you need comfortable shoes and a rain jacket (better is packable). Depending on when you travel, it can be chilly in the morning and in the evening, the best way is wearing by layers.
Weather in London can change a lot, it’s better to check the forecast before you leave.
Lastly, don’t forget a travel adapter for your tech and other appliances.
Last but not least, please consider to pack sustainable and plastic free. Check out how to travel zero waste for more tips.
DO YOU WANT ANY HELP TO ORGANISE YOUR TRIP TO LONDON?
Do you want to experience London as a local and discover itineraries outside the usual tourist spots?
Do you want me to create for you a personalized itinerary based on your specific interests (shopping, nature, culture …)? As a local, I can organize your trip with particular attention to family activities.
You can request this service for a whole weekend or for just one day. For more information click here or on the image below.