London for FamiliesLondon for Families
This is not the Griswold family’s London. Big Ben is but a blip on the radar screen as this regal European charmer gears up for the 2012 Summer Olympics. A witty and welcoming capital city with excellent museums, well-kept royal parks, and intriguing historic landmarks, London has the uncommon ability to make your next family vacation educational and fun. You may think you know London but with children in tow, you’ll uncover a side of London you intentionally missed on prior visits. Let’s face it, the amphibious Duck Tour failed to make the cut in your boozy backpacking days.
With so much to see and so little time, savvy families should embrace two essential travel tips when visiting London. First, take it easy on the little feet and target specific neighborhoods when sightseeing with your tiny world travelers. Also, avoid waiting in dreadfully long lines at London’s most popular tourist attractions by having your hotel’s concierge pre-order tickets.
Start from the top by heading to the south bank of the Thames River, where families can board the enormous rotating observation wheel that is the London Eye. Although as popular with the British as the Eiffel Tower is with the French, the London Eye offers families the most incredible views of London, including Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, the preferred resting place of noble Brits. It’s a great way for families to visualize the vast layout of this majestic city before venturing to explore it by foot.
Those who prefer underwater depths to soaring heights can skip the London Eye and head next door to the London Sea Life Aquarium. This wacky aquarium has apparently found Nemo and all of his Australian mates — and they are on display for the wee eye to see. The aquatic sounds are especially soothing for babies. When you come up for air, don’t miss the quirky street performances in Jubilee Gardens. For a small token, you may inspire the psychedelic cyclist or shaggy junkyard dog to perform their unusual talent for your curious little onlooker.
Lastly, a visit to South Bank is not complete without swinging by Tate Modern. Tate’s Family Zone is open daily and provides families with materials to guide them in their exploration of this fantastic contemporary art museum. Visit before January 2011 to catch the highly anticipated Gauguin exhibit.
Known for its fresh food markets and bustling theatre district, Covent Garden is also home to the London Transport Museum. Embark on a journey through time and explore 200 years of London’s rich transportation history. This superb museum embraces a hands-on, interactive approach to learning, allowing children to become fully engaged at the museum’s exhibits. Kids will enjoy boarding old train cars and double-decker buses with fellow mates, while parents get a heads up on holiday shopping at the museum’s excellent gift shop.
A short walk from Covent Garden is Trafalgar Square, home to London’s National Gallery. This stately building houses one of the finest collections of Western European art in the world, including works from Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet and Seurat. Plan to swing by on a Sunday and take part in magic carpet storytelling which takes place every week in front of a new painting.
Don’t leave London without experiencing the best Indian cuisine west of Mumbai. Local favorite Masala Zone boasts a delicious children’s menu, high chairs, and its Covent Garden location has hundreds of Rajasthani puppets adorning the ceiling.
Because of its central location, Covent Garden is also an ideal place to call it a night. Treat yourself to modern, well-appointed digs and book a suite at One Aldwych, a hip and family-friendly boutique hotel. The hotel features a sleek indoor pool with underwater music. During your stay, consider taking in a performance of the Lion King – the theatre is directly across the street from the hotel.
KENSINGTON & MAYFAIR
Princess Diana’s former stomping ground is a now a hotspot for families. Spend a morning exploring the Science Museum and Natural History Museum in South Kensington, both of which are free. The Science Museum boasts changing science exhibits, an IMAX 3D theatre, and wings devoted to aviation, mathematics and space. The Garden, an interactive gallery for toddlers, encourages the exploration of scientific wonders such as floating and sinking, while the Pattern Pod gallery invites older children to study patterns through play and exploration.
Little explorers can head next door to London’s Natural History Museum. This impressive Romanesque building is home to thousands of different species of animals, dinosaurs, and plant life for the wee eye to discover. Children under seven can pick up an explorer backpack complete with hats, binoculars, and activities. Children older than seven can head to the Investigate Centre to study plant, geological and animal treasures.
If the sun’s rays happen to make a rare appearance during your visit, head to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. This playground features an enormous wooden pirate ship, teepees, tree houses and plenty of space to let little feet and imaginations wander free. When hunger strikes, head to the Orangery on Kensington Palace grounds for a traditional and relaxed afternoon tea. The grand Orangery is a must for little princesses looking to perfect their tea party etiquette.
For longer stays in London, book a lavish apartment at the Athenaeum, located in neighboring Mayfair near Hyde Park Corner. This splurge-worthy hotel offers
luxury service apartments and boasts an expert Kids Concierge that will contact you before your visit to pre-arrange any tours. Children will beam with joy upon
receiving a customized gift basket filled with their favorite goodies at check-in. To rub elbows with Londoners in the know, head to the Wolseley for dinner. This impressive European brasserie and trusted favorite of London insiders features steak au poivre, roasted chicken and perfectly crispy frites. Although the marble floors, soaring ceilings and majestic columns dominate the spectacular interior of this former 1920’s car showroom, the restaurant’s accommodating, unpretentious feel is just as memorable.
St. Paul’s Cathedral & Tower Hill
Sitting atop London’s highest point on Ludgate Hill is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Soak up the neo-classical architecture of this 17thcentury masterpiece as you carefully climb the 259 steps to the cathedral’s awe-inspiring dome, where you can experience its Whispering Gallery. Low murmurs can be heard at opposite ends of the dome, making this an entertaining lesson in physics for adults and children of all ages.
Once you’ve finished sharing family secrets, head on over to the Tower of London. This imposing complex includes a fortress, royal palace, armory, and is home to Britain’s crown jewels. You’ll quickly lose track of how many people were murdered and tortured while touring the imperial grounds, home to the most grisly events of Britain’s history. Boys especially will enjoy viewing King Henry VIII’s royal armor, while little ladies may prefer to skip tales of warriors and torture to ogle over the dazzling crown jewels.
The entire family should stick around for the Tower’s famed Ceremony of the Keys. Every night for the past 700 years, Yeoman guards roll out the pomp and circumstance for the Tower’s official closing ceremony. Plan carefully -- tickets for this experience must be booked well in advance. If you’re in town over the holidays, don’t miss ice-skating on the dry moat of the fortress, with its stunning post-sunset backdrop.
Although London Bridge is a legend among preschoolers, Tower Bridge definitely deserves the playground buzz. This engineering and architectural stunner features a drawbridge that opens several times a day for passing boats. Take the lift to the elevated walkway for dramatic views of London and to learn more about the bridge’s inner workings. While towering over London’s commanding fortress, little knights and princesses (newly armed with the city’s rich history) are free to daydream about ruling their own kingdom one day, before heading back home to rule their local playgrounds.</p>