By Amy Suski
We'd always wanted to bring our kids to London, so when we had the chance to spend a long weekend there we jumped on it. Although we were there only three full days, we managed to fit in some neat experiences that captured a lot of London's character. Instead of waiting in line at some of the bigger attractions like Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, we experimented a little and were often surprised by what the kids enjoyed (and didn't).
Our 24-hour journey to London started with an overnight flight from the U.S. into Paris, a transfer to Gare du Nord, and a high speed train through the Chunnel to London. Not surprisingly, this is what the kids looked like about 15 minutes into what I thought would be an exciting train ride.
Where We Stayed
Happily, we were all able to sleep off our jet-lag in picture-perfect flat we booked through onefinestay. In addition to being completely lovely (and decorated with 007 movie posters), the Notting Hill flat had everything a family needs to survive: a kitchen, washer/dryer, and was within walking distance of the tube, restaurants, shops, bookstores, and markets. It also had a private courtyard where we could relax with a bottle of wine while the kids slept soundly stacked in their bunkbeds. Sooooo much nicer than being crammed into a small hotel room!
Image credit: onefinestay.com
Although not as centrally located as the major hotels, the comfort of the flat and the added charm of staying near the Portobello Road Market (below) was well worth the few minutes of extra travel time in and out of central London.
I'd never booked a private residence for a vacation before and was a little wary of person-to-person rentals, so onefinestay seemed like a safer bet. Because it is professionally managed we didn't have to worry about shady homeowners, a dingy home, or bringing our own linens. Instead we were met by a greeter, someone was always on call to respond to our inquiries, the home was professionally cleaned, and included amenities like toiletries and fresh linens. Another godsend: the kitchen was stocked with fresh fruit and groceries that we pre-ordered online -- allowing us to collapse on arrival and enjoy healthy late-night snacks and a home-cooked breakfast in the morning. I would definitely use this service again--my only wish is that they were in more cities that we travel to. [This may sound like a paid endorsement, but they have no idea I'm writing this...I was just very happy with the service!]
Double-Decker Bus Tour
Once we'd all slept off our jet lag, we started our visit with the "Original" hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus tour. Riding in the open air bus was a lot more fun for the kids than it would have been to slog through the whole city. On our lazy man's tour we got to see many of the iconic sites of London (the London Eye, Parliament, Big Ben, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, etc.) without wearing out the kids.
Tip: although you have the option to get on and off anywhere along the bus tour (and you should!), don't be tempted to use the bus tour as a taxi-service for say, getting to dinner or making a show. Epic traffic in the center of the city means that the bus is often moving at a snail's pace. If you have a destination in mind its much faster to take the Tube or a cab.
In addition to seeing the big sites, you'll also get a peek as some famous neighborhoods and fancy shopping centers like Mayfair (below). Window-shopping was all we could do here anyway, so a drive-by was fine!
One of our favorite stops along the tour was Saint Paul's Cathedral (best known to my generation as the site of Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding). The interior of the cathedral is awe-inspiring and the crypt was neat to explore, but the most fun for the kids was climbing a series of steep and winding staircases to get to the top of the dome.
Once outside, we had shaky legs but were rewarded by the most amazing 365 degree views of the city.
London Spy Walk
When you're ready to hit the pavement, consider one of the famous London Walks. These informal tours gather at various spots throughout the city. No reservations are needed and for a small fee, highly knowledgeable guides walk you through the quirkier parts of town and share lesser known histories of the areas. Themed walks include Harry Potter, Jack the Ripper, Ghost Walks, and more. We joined a Spy Walk which was a fascinating history of WWII, cold war spies, CIA, MI5, and MI6, with a little James Bond and John LeCarre trivia thrown in (the bookstore appearing in TInker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is pictured below). This paricular tour was more geared towards adults, but the kids really enjoyed walking around and hearing the colorful stories about London's history.
No visit to London would be complete without a visit to the cacophony of Piccadilly Circus. The bright lights, shops and street performers were a lot of fun. And if you have any soccer/football fans in your family, don't miss the Lillywhites, a multi-storied footballer's dream store in the heart of Piccadilly. After a late night visit we left there with a Premier League club jersey, a limited edition ball, and even a pair of cleats.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
I admit, this was a risky one. I wasn't sure how the kids were going to react to spending three hours on a hard bench watching MacBeth. But we were determined to inject some culture into their otherwise screen-dominated lives and thought Shakespeare's Globe Theatre couldn't be missed. We told them they had to stay at least until Intermission but much to my surprise, when Intermission came, all three kids wanted to stay for the ending.
We were in the cheap seats, slightly wrapped behind the stage, which was actually a pretty interesting perspective on the scenes. And even if the Elizabethan language was often over their heads, I have to believe they were taken in by the melodrama, setting, and live action. It probably also didn't hurt that Lady MacBeth was recognizable to my teenager as Tara Fitzgerald, the actress who portrayed Selyse Baratheon in Game of Thrones. We also spotted Silcon Valley's Matt Ross in the audience, presumably in town for a special screening of Captain Fantastic, a movie he directed. Whatever the reason, we were very pleased (and relieved) that this experience was such a success with the kids.
Another cultural experiment of mine was to take the kids to the Tate Modern. Two family members had sore feet and waited in the lobby, but my two youngest were game, so we took a whirl-wind tour through the colorful galleries. They look a little bewildered, don't they? Although they were impressed by all the large colorful art, I think they were still in shock from some graphic video images involving a tube of toothpaste and a blow-up doll. I did my best to explain it, but honestly a few art classes in college did not make me a very convincing advocate. I can say that their eyes were opened to an entirely different kind of artistic expression and at the very least they amused fellow gallery visitors with their honest reactions. Overall, the Tate is very family-friendly, with really cool ways for kids to interact with the art. When visiting, be sure to stop at the information desk to find out about special activities for kids including a digital drawing bar, an interactive art time line, and art hunt.
Other great museums for families to visit are the British Museum (for treasures from ancient Egypt), the V&A Museum (where in addition to decorative arts my daughter was happy to see an exhibit of historic dresses) and the Imperial War Museum (where we saw sobering artifacts and exhibits from the world wars). If we'd had more time I think a visit to Churchill's underground bunker would have been cool. Maybe next time!
Pubs and Other Eateries
My husband lived in London in his twenties and was looking forward to returning to the pubs. But visiting a pub with kids is an entirely different experience, best done before dark. It was fun to get fish and chips, have a pint, and experience the ambience, but at night when the real drinking began it was obviously time to pack up the kids and head out. Still, we all had fun, as evidenced by my son's most-interesting-man-in-the-world-look.
In addition to pubs, London is famous for the quality and variety of its international cuisine. One of my favorite restaurants we visited was Tas Pide, an authentic Turkish restaurant near the Globe Theatre, offering a pre-theatre menu that was yummy and affordable.
Unfortunately, on another night we overreached with reservations at a fancy Indian restaurant. However ornately beautiful it was, and however gracious the servers where, it simply wasn't worth the hundreds of dollars it cost for a family meal. In case you're wondering, this is what a $16 freshly-pressed green apple juice looks like.
To make up for that extravagance, we ate the rest of our meals either in the flat or at Pret-a-Manger, a super convenient grab-and-go chain that offers freshly made salads, sandwiches and soups. "Pret" also really saved us when we just needed a yogurt a coffee to get through to the next meal.
What We Missed
There is obviously so much more to see and do in London with kids, but I felt we gave the kids a pretty awesome introduction. If you have younger kids and a little more time, I would definitely recommend visiting the London Zoo, street performers at Covent Garden, boating on the Serpentine, and the Diana Memorial Playground. We also didn't time it right to see the Changing of the Guard, but we'll make a point of it next time!
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of the businesses or entities mentioned. We received no special discounts or offers during this trip. All rights reserved (c) 2017.
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