The Family-Friendly Guide to London
Chock-full of history, culture and character, London is one of the most popular destinations in the entire world ... but Great Britain's big, busy capital can be tough on families unless you know how to navigate it. Luckily, we've done a little research to make your family vacation in London stress-free and full of fun.
Call 'em tourist traps, say they're over-trafficked ... but there are some attractions that you just can't skip. Buckingham Palace is foremost: Who hasn't seen a picture of the legendary guards, standing mannequin-still and ramrod-straight in goofy-hatted splendor? The Changing of the Guard Ceremony happens daily at 11:30AM all summer long.
If you've got tweens or younger to entertain, Regent's Park is a surefire pleaser. London Zoo is located on the grounds, as is community sports pavilion "The Hub." There are two lakes: a large one for boating, and a small one just for kids. Shows are held in the open-air theater regularly. For a schedule, click here
There's always something happening at the Tower of London. This historic landmark and former dungeon drear is a must-visit even though some locals grumble it's "a chore to get to." If you're visiting during Halloween, bring older kids here for some spooky thrills -- make sure and let 'em know that it's reputed to be the most haunted site in jolly old England.
Look up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... the London Eye! Okay, actually it's a Ferris wheel built by a company best known for planes (British Airways). Standing 443 feet tall, with fully enclosed, air-conditioned "viewing capsules" that offer birds-eye views of the city during a leisurely 30-minute ride, this is more than just your ordinary Ferris wheel, though. Thousands of people ride the wheel every day, so it's worth the extra few dollars to buy tickets ahead of time and get a line pass. The London Eye operates all day and into the evening, but the "twilight flight" -- offered at sunset -- is probably the most memorable.
The Natural History Museum first opened in 1881, but it's still a hit with kids, thanks to the everlasting appeal of dinosaur bones, giant bugs and Egyptian mummies. Newer attractions include the "Earthquake Experience" and the interactive science center, "Investigate."
London is at its best at Christmas. Everyone in the city puts on their holiday finery and goes out to spread holiday cheer; on Christmas Eve, Father Christmas (their name for Santa) is pretty much the only poor sod who's not out partying. Shop on Oxford Street, take the kids ice skating in one of the many ice rinks (the Tower has a good one), and feast on Yorkshire pudding and roast beef.
The Flavor of the City
If you want to get the feel of the city, wander Notting Hill, with its famous Portobello Road Market and many trendy restaurants and pubs. This is a celeb-friendly spot that's been a backdrop for many movies and shows, most notably "Notting Hill" with Julia Roberts. Borough Market is another great open-air market near the famous London Bridge -- make sure and snap a photo while you're there.
With 350 acres of gardens, cycling paths, grassy knolls and lakes, Hyde Park is a favorite summertime destination for locals and tourists alike. Bring little ones to Children's Playground, located at Edinburgh Gate.
Dining is London is always a challenge -- restaurants are extremely expensive, and it can be hard to find the familiar flavors that kids often demand. Happily, the London Visitor Association recently compiled a "Budget Eats" dining guide that includes several kid-friendly restaurants. You can download the guide on their site, VisitLondon.com.
Get Outta Town
The towns just outside London offer a significantly more relaxed and less expensive experience than "The City" itself. And some of them are just as picturesque and historic, if not more so. Locally recommended, especially if you're looking for family-friendly lodgings, are the cluster of towns around Hampton Court Palace. There's Kingston, where the seven Saxon kings were crowned, laid-back Richmond, and Surbiton, where historic homes creep toward the countryside. The River Thames runs through Kingston, and there's a river walk with pubs, restaurants and shops—all family-friendly. There's also a market in the town center. And Hampton Court is a must-visit: you can tour the grounds, including the rooms, and have a picnic at Richmond Park (the Queen's Park).
Approximately five miles from London, these towns are just a quick drive or train ride from the center of the action. However, they're on the border of London's "Green Belt" (the imaginary circle outside which no one is allowed to build), so you're literally just steps away from the country.