It’s big, busy and bewildering (not to mention being one of the world’s most expensive cities), but there’s no denying the fact that kids love London. Just being there, in the thick of it, crawling along congested streets in a double-decker bus or rising above it all on the London Eye, gives children a huge thrill. And that’s before you’ve hit any of the attractions. You can tailor a day out in London to suit all ages, whether it’s a London Zoo/Hamleys double-whammy for six year olds or a teenage pilgrimage to the shops along Oxford Street. Whatever you decide to do, resist the temptation to cram too much into a single day. London with kids is best in small, bite-size chunks. You can always come back for more.
Day one: The South Bank
The London Eye is not only a fun (30-minute) ride, but it’s also the best way for kids to grasp the scale of London and pinpoint a few landmarks. As the big wheel spins them 135 m above the Thames, they’ll be able to see everything from the Houses of Parliament to Wembley Stadium. Back at ground level, take a river cruise for a different perspective of capital attractions like St Paul’s Cathedral, HMS Belfast, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. However, if that sounds like too much sightseeing for one day, focus instead on other South Bank highlights.
The London Aquarium recreates a watery world of rushing streams, coral reefs, mangrove swamps and teeming rock pools. You can stroke rays in the touch pool and watch a piranha feeding-frenzy, but it’s the sharks in the huge Pacific tank that are the show-stealers. The National Theatre hosts a free outdoor summer festival between July and September called Watch this Space, featuring all kinds of live performances, from circus acts to music and dance.
The Tate Modern has holiday activities for families, while the Unicorn Theatre presents acts specifically for children. Altogether less refined, the London Dungeon ‘gorifies’ the capital’s less salubrious past with vivid portrayals of torture, plague and the Great Fire of London. There are even thrill rides like Extremis – Drop Ride to Doom, a simulated hanging for anyone over 120 cm tall. Located on Lambeth Road, the Imperial War Museum takes a more dignified approach to history with its impressive displays of weaponry and sobering insights into the world wars. Steer younger children towards the Home Front exhibit where they’ll be intrigued by concepts like rationing.
Day two: Classic sights
Start at Trafalgar Square where Nelson’s Column rises above a swirling torrent of taxis and buses. Flanking the famous plaza are three arty attractions. The National Gallery offers talks and workshops for families, as well as a choice of two paper tpails – one on a Chinese Zodiac theme, the other in pursuit of ‘winged things’. The National Portrait Gallery provides activity rucksacks containing jigsaws, dressingup gear and other goodies to stimulate four- to 12-year-olds in the Tudor, Victorian and 20th Century Galleries.
However, if it’s good old-fashioned brass rubbing that gets your creative juices flowing, head to St Martin- in the Fields. Grab a snack lunch at the cafe in the crypt, before strolling down The Mall, nipping into St James’s Park to see wildlife officers feeding the pelicans (daily at 14.30). Continue to Buckingham Palace to wave at the queen, and then take a bus to Knightsbridge where the Food Halls of Harrods should distract kids for at least a few minutes before they drag you to the toys on the fourth floor.