Double decker buses, red phone boxes, amazing museums for kids and a vibrant street culture: London with kids is awesome, says Juliet Kinsman, editor-in-chief of Mr & Mrs Smith and Smith & Family. (Don’t forget to enter the competition we are running with Smith & Family to WIN a family holiday in Port Douglas here.) As mother of Kitty (7), Juliet knows all the ins and outs of the United Kingdom’s famed city – from the best free things to do in London with kids to where to go when it’s raining (and that happens a lot, so there’s lots of fun places to go). She gives suitcases&strollers her insider’s scoop to everything to do in London with kids.
Why should parents plan a family holiday in London with kids?
Even though I live here, London still surprises me anew almost every day. There are kicks around every corner, from the classic sights to cool events and pop-ups. Look up and gawp at centuries-old architectural landmarks and then smile at some quirky street art or food truck a second later. There aren’t many destinations that can treat you to a captivating history lesson one second and then flaunt what’s hip so dramatically the next. And it’ll wow and inspire children of all ages. There are so many neighbourhoods, with such different personalities.
Where is your favourite place to take kids in London?
For inquisitive minds, there are so many fantastic world-class museums within a walk of each other in South Kensington: the Science Museum gives you a window into the future with lots of fun buttons to press, the Natural History Museum takes you back millennia with vast dinosaur skeletons to gawp at and then the Victoria & Albert gives you a tour of art design through the centuries right up to contemporary photography and fashion.
[For more travel tips on how to introduce kids to museums, see the suitcases&strollers story Art Galleries and Museums With Kids]
South Bank is also a winner. Head to Embankment, cross over the River Thames and you have a postcard-perfect view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament one side, then amble over Waterloo Bridge aiming for the now bright-red (Coca-Cola-sponsored) London Eye. All along the riverfront by the South Bank Centre there are street performers and entertainers.
Book a ride on the London Eye, the South Bank’s big wheel, for sight‑spotting and vertigo‑inducing views of five counties. Tate Modern has some free permanent exhibitions as well as the pricier touring shows. It’s worth visit just for a run around the Turbine Hall.
Want to work harder for your views? Cross over the pedestrians-only Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral and climb the spiral steps to the Whispering Gallery and then up and out to the Stone and Golden Galleries for magnificent panoramic views of the capital.
Where is your kid’s favourite place in London to hang out?
My daughter loves to ice cookies at Biscuiteers in Notting Hill – it’s a quintessentially English shop.
And she adores Hamleys, of course. The toy store is a total rip off and it’s not at all magical in its decor anymore but there are lots of people there demonstrating the games and gizmos which is fun to watch.
What is the best free activity to do with kids in London?
So many! The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is 11.30am daily in the summer.
[For more travel tips on free activities for kids available in most cities, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Where is the best place to take kids in London when the weather is bad?
London is used to bad weather, so there’s no shortage of things to see and do inside. Admire Norman Foster's beautiful Great Court at the British Museum, then ogle some genuine Egyptian mummies.
Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s official London home, is worth a visit just to admire the façade (or catch the changing of the guard) or take a tour of the State Rooms and gardens (open during summer and early autumn; dates vary). There are free State Rooms audio tours for children and in August there’s a kids’ activity room.
What are some of the city secrets that tourists might not know about but shouldn’t miss on a family holiday in London?
On the first Sunday of the month at 2.15pm and 3.30pm the Ragged School Museum in Mile End lets kids experience what it was like to be a child in Victorian times and sit in a "classroom" with teachers
What’s the best way for children to have an authentic London experience?
Hop on a red double decker bus (the new shiny curved Routemasters have been designed by Thomas Heatherwick) and race to get the front seat at the top see the city from up above.
Where are your top places for family-friendly restaurants for kids in London?
Soho House’s Pizza East restaurants are perfect. The original was in Shoreditch; now there are popular branches on Portobello and in Kentish Town: high-chairs, colouring pages and crayons and pizzas they can watch being made.
At YO! Sushi nippers love watching the conveyor belts of child-friendly vegetable-only rolls to other delights pass by.
[For more travel tips on feeding kids on family vacation, see the suitcases&strollers story with kids food guru Annabel Karmel.]
What are your tips for kids' shops in London?
Kidsen in Kensal Rise has the best stylish Scandinavian clothes for kids.
What are your recommendations for family friendly accommodation in London?
I love No 5 Maddox Street – designer apartments right in the very heart of town a skip from Piccadilly. They offer first-class, self-catering stays at a great price.
[For more family friendly accommodation options in London, see the suitcases&strollers story London Hotels.]
What is the ideal time frame for a holiday to London with kids?
Avoid the English school holidays such as Easter, our summer bank holiday weekend at the end of August and half-term weeks in February, May and October.
The run up to Christmas can be fun – Oxford Street and Regent Street twinkle with lights. In winter, ice‑skating rinks freeze into life all over town. The one at Somerset House was the first, and is still the best; Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum often have rinks too.
[For more travel tips on things to do in London with kids at Christmas, see the suitcases&strollers story 10 Ways To Do Christmas In London With Kids]
5 November is Guy Fawkes’ Night so there are fireworks displays in parks all over town.
What is the best way to move around London with kids?
Sitting on the top deck of a bus can be fun as you can see the city as you travel. Treat yourself to a black cab if the traffic isn’t too slow and you don’t have too far to travel – if you have a nice cabbie, a whizz around Trafalgar Square and down to Buckingham Palace can be fun.
Avoid the Tube at rush hour at all costs – it will have you all weeping.
Go to TFL to plan your route and, if you can, hop on Overground trains as they at least let you stay above ground; again avoid peak times.
What are your top 3 tips for families travelling to London with kids?
Enjoy a traditional afternoon tea with a tier of pretty cakes and scones with cream…somewhere classic and posh can be fun such as the Connaught and Claridges. But perhaps wait until your kids are old enough to want to make like they’re aristos rather then throw food at the nice waiter!
Avoid Madame Tussauds wax museum – why oh why oh why is there always such a long line outside that place? Expensive and naff.
Get your photo at Platform 9¾ is in King's Cross — it’s touristy, yes, but who doesn’t love Harry Potter? And they’ve created a fun little destination to represent the fictional spot in the western departures concourse near platform 9 (obviously!).
[For a rundown of the best Harry Potter experiences in London for kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Having A Harry Potter Experience In London]