London for Kids – The 2014 Travel Guide

By – Updated May, 2014

Getting Started

The 15 Best Things To Do with Kids in London

1. Tower of London

Tower of London
This well-preserved medieval castle is one of London’s premier attractions – for adults and children. Interior exhibits are interactive and informative. The castle was eventually converted to a prison and the site of many executions. Much of its history is dark and gruesome – which kids love, of course. Arrive as close to opening time as possible and head straight to the White Tower which is loaded with interesting and kid-friendly exhibits (lines start forming shortly after the gates open and grow longer throughout the day). Next visit the Crown Jewels. There are free guided tours that start every 30 minutes and last 45 minutes – grab a program before you enter (by the ticket booth) which lists all the events for the day. (1 restaurant)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 5 +
  • tube: Tower Hill
  • open: March to October Sunday & Monday: 10:00 to 17:30, Tuesday–Saturday: 9:00 to 17:30; November to February Sunday & Monday: 10:00 to 16:30, Tuesday–Saturday: 9:00 to 16:30.
  • costs: family £55, adult £20, child £10, kids under four years are free.

2. Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge
London’s number one icon. The bridge opens and closes almost 1000 times a year (schedule posted online and at the bridge). The Tower Bridge Exhibition provides a history of the bridge and allows access to the bridge’s top walkway by way of an elevator. You can also get a look at the steam-driven machinery that raised bridge for the first hundred years of its existence. (Historical note: The Luftwaffe didn’t bomb the iconic bridge during WWII because it needed it as a landmark.)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 5 +
  • tube: London Bridge or Tower Hill
  • open: April to September 10:00 to 18:00, October to March 9:30 to 17:30.
  • costs: family £11, adult £8, student £5, child £3, kids under four years are free.

3. British Museum

British Museum with kids.
One of the world’s best museums has a kid-friendly attitude and fun children’s audio tours. The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles, and the Egyptian mummies are some of the jaw-dropping exhibits. Get activity trails and activity backpacks (weekends and holidays only) from the family center in the Great Court as you enter the museum. (3 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 4 +
  • tube: Holborn, Tottenham Court, Goodge St., or Russel Square are all within a 5 minute walk.
  • open: Saturday to Thursday 10:00 to 17:30, Friday 10:00 to 20:30.
  • costs: Free.

4. London Transport Museum

London Transport Museum
This is one of our kids’ favorite attractions in London. A great collection of buses, trains, trams, and subway cars. Kids can enter most exhibits. It’s a very hands-on and fun museum filled with video screens, posters, maps, illuminated boards, subway signs, and models. There’s an under-fives play area and a very cool museum shop. (1 restaurant)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 3 +
  • tube: Covent Garden
  • open: Saturday to Thursday 10:00 to 18:00, Friday 11:00 to 18:00
  • costs: Adults £13.50 (and good for one year of re-admission), under age 16 are free.

5. National Gallery

National Gallery in London
A stunning collection of 2300 paintings. Free tours everyday at 11:30 and 2:30. Kid-friendly audio tours are available for £1 or can be downloaded in advance. Sundays have family sessions for under 5s and 5-11s. (2 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 4 +
  • tube: Charing Cross or Leicester Square.
  • open: Saturday to Thursday 10:00 to 18:00, Friday 10:00 to 21:00
  • costs: Free

6. National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery in London
A scrapbook of British history in museum form. The gallery houses pictures of the major (and not-so major) figures of the nation’s history from King Henry VIII to David Beckham. It makes a great introduction to British history for both kids and adults. Kid-friendly audio tours are available. (2 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 6+
  • tube: Charing Cross or Leicester Square.
  • open: Saturday to Wednesday 10:00 to 18:00, Thursday and Friday 10:00 to 21:00
  • costs: Free

7. Royal Air Force Museum

RAF Airplane Museum near London
If you love planes you’ll love this museum – regardless of your age. 100′s of aircrafts from every age of flight are on display. The Battle of Britain hall is particularly interesting. It does take some effort to get here as it’s located in the London suburb of Colindale – 30 minutes by tube from central London. (2 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 3+
  • tube: Colindale Underground Station
  • open: Daily 10:00 to 18:00
  • costs: Free

8. Imperial War Museum

Imperial War Museum in London
Update: As of May, 2014 most of the museum is under renovations. It’s highly recommended to wait until it reopens in June/July 2014 to make a visit.
One of the best museums in the city. It features an incredible array of airplanes, tanks, guns, gear, and historical information. Displays and exhibits are meticulously detailed. Videos have survivors and soldiers re-telling the horror and challenges of war. The audio tour is a must. The holocaust exhibit on the top floor is rightfully restricted to kids 11 and older. The National Army Museum is another museum potentially worth a visit. It’s focused almost exclusively on the history of British forces and not nearly as interesting as the Imperial. The NAM does, however, have a Kids Zone in the basement that is a great play area but does get busy so reservations are recommended. (The IWM has one restaurant. The NAM has a small cafe.)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 4+ if they like tanks and planes, but older to really appreciate the material.
  • tube: Lambeth North or Elephant & Castle
  • open: 10:00 to 18:00
  • costs: Free

9. Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard in London
Some kids find this a little dull, others love the pomp and tradition. The best place to see the guards is on The Mall, near St. James’s Palace. If your kids are small they won’t see much squashed in with the crowds at Buckingham Palace. There is also a Changing of the Guard at Windsor Palace (35 minutes outside of London by train) that sees far smaller crowds but offers more pageantry.

  • Reviews
  • ages: 2+
  • tube: St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner
  • times: 11:30 but be in place by 11:00am at the lastest. It takes place every day May through July and alternating days otherwise – check the schedule.
  • costs: Free.

10. Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace with kids.
Think of this as a grandly decorated Victorian home and you won’t be disappointed. Kid-friendly audio tours available. If kids are expecting the castles of legend then Windsor Castle will better feed their imaginations. (Buckingham Palace has one cafe on the terrace.)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 6+
  • tube: St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner
  • open: 9:45 to 18:00 and only in August and September when the Queen at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
  • costs: family £46, adult £17.50, child £10, ages four and under are free.

11. National Maritime Museum

National Maritime Museum in Greenwich
500 years of maritime history packed into one fantastic space. Hands-on exhibits make it fun for younger kids but this is definitely an all-ages attraction. Battles and boats galore plus free themed talks. (2 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 3+
  • tube: Maze Hill or Cutty Sark (DLR)
  • open: 10:00 to 17:00
  • costs: Free

12. Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum in London
One of London’s best museums for all ages. Dinosaurs, blue whales, saber-tooth tigers, elephants, volcanoes, meteors, earthquakes, and all sorts of creepy crawlies. The ideal mix of kid and adult fun. Multimedia guides are available and can be booked in advance. (2 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 3+
  • tube: South Kensington
  • open: 10:00 to 17:50 daily, 10:00 to 22:30 on the last Friday of every month
  • costs: Free

13. HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast Navy Ship on London river
A floating musuem in the form of a retired World War II ship. 7 levels to explore and kids can go everywhere. The living quarters, naval guns, anti-aircraft weaponry, and Operations Room will fill 2 hours easily. This is a much better use of time than visiting the nearby Golden Hinde ship. (Small cafe open during peak hours.)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 6+
  • tube: London Bridge (5 minutes) or Tower Hill (10 minutes)
  • open: March to October 10:00 to 18:00, Novermber to February 10:00 to 17:00
  • costs: Adults £14.50, under age 16 free

14. London Eye

London Eye with kids.
This giant ferris wheel offers fantastic views of greater London. It takes 30 minutes to go around and the wheel moves at such a calm speed it’s not scary for any ages. Passengers are completely enclosed in air conditioned and heated glass pods that fit 25 people.

  • Reviews
  • ages: 3+
  • tube: Waterloo or Westminster
  • open: Daily 10:00 to 20:30. Closed for yearly maintenance in January (January 7 to 18, 2013).
  • costs: Standard ticket is £19 for adults, £11 for kids 4 to 15, £60 for a family. £28 adults, £115 family for Fast Track tickets to bypass queues. Booking online saves up to 20% on all tickets

15. Museum of London Docklands

Museum of the Docklands at Canary Wharf
This is one of my personal favorites. Geared to slightly older kids the exhibits do a great job of tracking the history and growth of the London riverfront from Roman days to modern times. (For more London history check out the excellent Museum of London.) Sailor Town is a reconstructed Victorian port town done with fantastic detail. If you’re based in central London it’s a little out of the way but worth the 20 minute journey to East London. (2 restaurants)

  • Reviews
  • ages: 6+
  • tube: Canary Wharf, DLR: West India Quay
  • open: Daily 10:00 to 18:00
  • costs: Free

Kid-friendly Theatre and Musicals in London

London is loaded with great shows and tickets for even the most popular shows are available on relatively short notice (though obviously book well in advance if there’s a particular show you want to see).

TKTS is the main discount site (though there are many others). They have a booth at Leicester Square but the website posts discounted tickets as well.

Use Ticketmaster.co.uk to check seating maps and theatre layout but by your tickets elsewhere.

These are the best shows for kids:

  • The Lion King (tube: Covent Garden) – Playing since 1999. Fantastic music and story.
  • Shrek The Musical (tube: Covent Garden) – Great special effects and very funny. The dragon steals the show.
  • Wicked The Musical (tube: Piccadilly Circus) – The the untold story of the Witches of Oz. Supremely entertaining for both kids and adults.

The Best Parks & Playgrounds in London

  • Kew Gardens (tube: Kew Gardens) – A treetop walkway with great views, an indoor playroom, and days-full of fun.
  • Hampstead Heath (tube: Hampstead) – The best place in the city to feel like you’re not in the city. Great for picnics and lakeside walks.
  • Hyde Park – There’s lots here. The Diana, Princess of Wales pirate-themed playground is very popular with kids (tube: Queensway). You can also rent paddle boats and row boats or cool off in the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain (tube: Knightsbridge or Hyde Park Corneer).
  • St James’s Park (tube: St James’s Park) – A beautiful park with one of the best playgrounds in the city. Visit the pelicans on duck island.
  • Battersea Park (tube: Sloane Square then bus #137 or train to Battersea Park station) – Boating on the lake and the Children’s Zoo are the highlights. The zoo features kid-friendly animals (butterflies, small primates, farm animals) and an excellent playground with a fire engine (open 10:30 to 17:30 in summer and 10:30 to 16:30 in winter).
  • Regent’s Park – There are several excellent playgrounds, the London Zoo, boat rentals, and a beautiful rose garden decked out with waterfowl and Japanese bridges.
  • Need more parks and playgrounds: list of adventure playgrounds in London.

Using the London Tube with Kids

  • The tube is easy, convenient, and safe for families to use. Most stations are far beneath street level and require a lot of steps or escalator rides. Many stations do not have lifts (elevators) from street level to the train platform making it very difficult if you’re traveling with a young child or stroller.
  • This is a map of the London tube stations and their accessibility options (pdf file). The stations marked with a green circle and an A are the most accessible.
  • Kids 10 and under are free on the tube and Docklands Light Rail (DLR). Kids 11 to 15 do need to pay. Be sure to travel with a Oyster card or Travelcard as they offer big savings (details below).
  • If you have an Oyster card you scan it as you enter and leave the tube station. If you have a paper Travelcard you insert it at one end of the turnstile and it pops out the other side.
  • If you’re traveling with kids 10 and under (who won’t have a ticket) be sure to use the gate entries instead of the turnstiles which are meant for individuals.

Riding the Bus with Kids

The kids riding a double-decker bus in London.

Riding a double-decker bus is a great (and cheap) way to see the sights of London.

  • The bus is a fabulous option for getting around London. Most buses are of the iconic double-decker variety and offer great views of street life and many popular London attractions from the top deck.
  • Unlike the tube you won’t have to negotiate stairs, escalators, busy train platforms, or transfers between lines. Buses run about every 3 to 10 minutes depending on the route. (We’ve rarely waited more than 5 minutes for any bus.)
  • The Oyster and Travelcards (details below) that are used for the tube are also accepted by the bus. Central London buses do not accept cash so you pretty much have to buy either an Oyster or Travelcard (or individual tickets from a tube station but this is an expensive way to travel).
  • Here is a map of central London bus routes (pdf).
  • And the London Bus Checker iPhone app.

Using an Oyster Card for Public Transit

Oyster cards are plastic (credit-card sized) cards for using the tube, bus, or DLR (Docklands Light Rail). You pre-load them with money at a tube station. To use them you swipe across an electronic sensor as you enter a bus or tube station.

With the Oyster card you get large discounts on fares and you’ll never pay more than you would have by using individual tickets – always less, usually about 50% less.

Oyster cards not only save you money but they make getting around the city very easy. There’s no having to worry about having the correct change or figuring the fare for a bus ride. It turns London into a big hop-on/hop-off network of buses and trains.

Things to know about buying and using Oyster cards:

  • Oyster cards require a £5 deposit which is refundable (along with any unused balance) if you return your card at a tube station.
  • Kids 10 and under are free on the tube, bus, and DLR so they don’t need an Oyster card
  • Ages 11 to 15 will need to submit a photo to get an Oyster card. This can be done in advance but is still a hassle. I’d recommend doing one day travelcards for kids in this age range unless you’ll be in London for more than a week. If you’re in the city for more than a week then it’s worth it to get the photo card whether it be an Oyster or 7 day Travelcard (which also requires a picture).

Using Travelcards (and getting a 2 for 1 discount for attractions)

An alternative to Oyster cards is buying Travelcards. They are roughly the same cost as Oyster cards. Their big advantage is that they allow 2 for 1 entry to several top attractions in London: The Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, river cruises, and the ZSL Zoo. (Full list of qualifying attractions here.)

The best thing to do is to get Oyster cards for the adults and 1 day Travelcards for the kids aged 11 to 15. On the day you plan to go to one of the attractions covered by the 2 for 1 deal (the most popular being the Tower of London) get Travelcards for the adults and use them to get the discount into the attraction. (Remember that the Oyster card is simply a means of payment so if you don’t use it one day there’s no “cost”.)

Using Travelcards for the 2 for 1 discount isn’t straight forward so here are a few things to note:

  • To qualify Travelcards must be purchased from a railway station in London. These Travelcards will have the rail logo in the bottom corner.
  • Travelcards purchased from any other outlet (e.g. tube station) are not valid for the 2 for 1 discount.
  • You can buy Travelcards from the ticket offices of the following rail stations: Paddington, Euston, St Pancras, Kings Cross, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Charing Cross, Waterloo and Victoria. Travelcards sold at airports are not valid for the 2 for 1 discount.
  • Travelcards can be bought for 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month. The 7 day or 1 month Travelcards require a photo id card. Photos must be brought to the ticket office when purchasing.
  • The 1 day tickets must be used on the same day as the visit to the attraction will occur. (Although they can be bought a day or two beforehand.)
  • The 2 for 1 discount also applies to domestic rail tickets to and from London. Your visit must to the attraction must fall within these 2 dates (as they naturally would for most people). Most foreign visitors to London are not arriving at London from a different UK city and then departing again by train within the country so this is mainly for UK citizens.
  • And finally but very important, vouchers must be printed for the attraction you are visiting. To get the discount you’ll need 2 validated Travelcards and one voucher. (Vouchers can be printed from the Offers Page by clicking add to basket or instant download.)

Getting into London from Heathrow Airport

  • The easiest way into the city is with hired car (40 minutes into the city). www.expressways.co.uk is well regarded though there are many companies. A hired car is surprisingly inexpensive when booked in advance and the best option for a family of 4 or more. Larger cars are available for bigger groups. One-way to or from Heathrow will be about £50.
  • Taxi’s (40 minutes) are expensive. Walking out the door of the airport and hopping in a taxi will be almost double the price of arranging a hired car.
  • Tube (45 minutes) is the cheapest. The Picadillly line connects Heathrow with central London. But if your hotel isn’t directly on the Picadilly line it will require a transfer. The tube doesn’t have any dedicated spots for luggage so if you have a lot it will be a pain (and there will be stairs to contend with on the London end.) A one way trip on the tube will be between £3 and £5 depeding on the time of day. Buy an Oyster card at the airport to make it cheaper.
  • The Heathrow Express (15 minutes) can be a good option if you’re staying near Paddington Station. Otherwise, it’s just expensive – and requires another tube or taxi trip to get to your hotel or destination. Tickets are £18 and £26 for adults 2nd and 1st class; £8 and £13 for children.

Getting into the London from Gatwick Airport

  • The best way between Gatwick and London is the GatwickExpress train service (30 minutes each way). It’s the cheapest and fastest, and there’s no good reason to use any other transport. One way fares are £29 for adults and £15 for children age 5 to 15. Save 15% by booking online.
  • If you want to take a taxi book a hired car in advance (SimplyAirports is good) and cut the cost in half.

The Best Hotels for Families

Hotels in London are expensive – probably the most expensive place we’ve traveled with kids – and it’s a challenge to find rooms large enough for a family of 4 or more.

Tips for hotels:

  • London Family Hotels – Our guide to the best hotels for families in London.
  • Book early. The best deals are found online and about 2 to 3 months in advance. Larger family rooms are not common so booking them early is recommended.
  • The best website for hotel discounts is CheapZebra.com/London
  • The best website for longer-term rentals and apartments is Flipkey.com/London-Vacation-Rentals
  • 4 and 5 star hotels will have better deals on weekends (when business travelers on expense accounts have gone home) and budget and mid-range hotels will have better deals on weekdays (when kids, college students, and parents are at back at school or working).
  • Some hotels outside of Central London but near a tube station can be a great way to save money so if you’re a little desperate use a large search area.
  • Best Bed & Breakfast for Families: Bed and Breakfast Belgravia London
  • Best Apartment w/ Kitchenette for Families: Athenaeum Hotel & Apartments
  • Best Luxury Hotel for Families: The Langham, London
  • Best Mid-Range Hotel for Families: Marriott London County Hall
  • Best Budget Hotel for Families: Hart House Hotel

Hotels in London with Swimming Pools

Most hotels in London (including those listed below) have restrictions on when children can swim. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s the rule not the exception at London hotels.

There’s usually a designated time in the morning and late afternoon for when the kids can swim which means you have to plan your day in order to get back to the hotel for the swim time if that’s important to you.

If you’re staying at a hotel that doesn’t have a pool here are some good indoor pools and outdoor swimming pools that are open to the public.

Eating in London with Kids

Most restaurants are fairly kid friendly. Nearly all London restaurants will happily welcome a family with well behaved kids but they’re not as indulgent as American eateries with loud or rambunctious children. Be sure to tell your kids that quiet and mature behaviour (within reason) will be expected of them.

Reservations are recommended for most restaurants that aren’t a pub or cafe. And if you’re part of a large group or family you’ll definitely get a better table by reserving in advance.

Recommended Restaurants for Families:

  • Wagamama – Noodles and more in a fun environment
  • Giraffe – Very kid-friendly menus
  • Bella Italia – Pizza, Pasta, Gelato
  • Rain Forest Cafe near Piccadilly Circus is very kid-friendly
  • Masala Zone – Shared plates makes for family friendly Indian food
  • Spaghetti House – The very fun kids’ menu has 2 courses for £5 or 3 courses for £7.50.
  • Pret A Manger and EAT are everywhere so you hardly need to be mentioned. Decent breakfast and sandwiches for a reasonable price.
  • Byron – A friendly hamburger joint with a good kids menu.
  • Pubs generally allow kids in (usually in a family designated area) until 9pm though you’ll need to ask inside to be sure. There are 2 types of pub. Chain pubs (that try very hard to resemble a traditional looking country pub) that serve terrible food. And independent or trendy pubs that are more expensive but serve great food. If you see this menu in a pub you know it serves terrible food without any character so run for the doors.

Websites for Finding Restaurants:

Saving Money

  • Buy tickets online in advance. This applies to train tickets, museums, tours, and a range of activities.
  • Many of London’s top attractions are free so hit these places first: the British Museum, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
  • The London Pass can save you some money but it doesn’t cover every attraction in London so be sure you want to visit the sites covered. (More detailes below.)
  • Ride a public bus instead of taking a tour bus – much cheaper and still great views from the top floor of the double deckers.
  • Get an oyster card or use Travelcards. You should never pay full fare for a bus or tube ride in London. It’s a must to get one of these cards.
  • Get a hotel with a kitchen. London restaurants are expensive. Eating-in even once a day will save you a lot of money.

The London Pass – Is it worth buying for families?

Should you buy it? Probably not. Here’s why and some more details on how the pass works:

  • The London Pass is a card you can buy that allows you into many (but not all) major attractions around London.
  • You lose flexibility by buying the pass as you have to choose a 1, 2, 3, or 6 day pass and then work hard to cram all of your sites into those days.
  • Remember that many of London’s most popular attractions and museums are free – and thus aren’t covered by the pass. If you’re buying the pass only for the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, or the ZSL Zoo you’re better off using a Travelcard for the day (details below) and getting the 2 for 1 discount.
  • A big selling point of the London Pass is the “fast track” line skipping but this is rarely an issue for visitors as most of the attractions covered have short to non-existent lines even in summer.
  • You can buy the pass with an associated Travelcard for transportation – but this works out more expensive than buying the pass and Travelcard separately.
  • That said, the London Pass does offer some savings, the pass can be a convenience, and the company itself is trusted and reliable. The most popular attractions covered by the pass are the Tower of London, Tower Bridge Exhibiition, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and the London Zoo.

When to Visit London with Kids

The summer months, of course, have the nicest weather but will also be the busiest and most expensive time to visit. January and February are the quietest (and coldest) months but you’ll often have top museums and attractions nearly to yourself. Popular exhibits like the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum can have crowds 5 deep during July and August. In January you can be the only one looking at it.

The Weather in London by Month
(high temperature, low temperature, days of rain)

January: 43°, 36°, 16 (coldest month)
February: 44°, 36°, 15 (driest month)
March: 50°, 38°, 20
April: 56°, 42°, 18
May: 62°, 47°, 19
June: 69°, 53°, 19
July: 73°, 57°, 19 (warmest month)
August: 73°, 55°, 20
September: 65°, 52°, 17
October: 58°, 46°, 19 (wettest month)
November: 50°, 42°, 15
December: 45°, 38°, 16

Toilets

All art galleries, museums, department stores, and public buildings will have public toilets. In central London there are so many cafes, pubs, fast-food restaurants, and hotels that will allow the public to sneak in and use the facilities that you shouldn’t be too far from a washroom.
Some tube stations have public toilets but these do cost 30p.

Hospitals in London for Tourists

Emergency care is free regardless of citizenship or insurance. For medical emergencies call #999.

Hospitals in London with 24 hour emergency care include:

See Also