One of the benefits of visiting a city repeatedly lies in familiarity. Having visited London multiple times before we had kids, we know our “favorite” places and areas to hang out. Of course, with two kids under four in the mix, a lot of things change by necessity. However, we found that having a nice baseline and knowledge of the city helped us greatly when touring our kids – especially since it was our first stop and we were still in the throes of jetlag.
Despite the stroller unfriendly Tube, London actually turned out to be a great city for our preschooler and infant. Better yet, nothing we experienced had an admission fee. Here are some attractions we found worthwhile (granted we only had three days), and some reasons to consider each.
Walking is free
Walking is the perfect place to start because it’s one of the best ways to get around the city. The very first day (aka the get off the redeye at 7 AM day), we spent the majority of the afternoon walking from our hotel to Covent Garden and back (roundtrip about 4 miles).
The next day we walked from the Bank Tube station to see the Tower Bridge (M insisted on seeing London Bridge and we decided that was the best looking one), through Borough Market, and then over to the Tate Modern. After taking a ferry to Embankment we walked to go see Big Ben, had dinner in Covent Garden, and then walked back to the hotel. Another 4 mile day.
Our last day we did a shorter walk through Hyde Park, maybe 2 miles tops. If you’re willing to put the mileage in, you can see almost all of London’s major sites on foot. You avoid the Tube and gain the ability to go at your own pace. Pushing two strollers isn’t that bad, though some parts get very crowded (I’m looking at you Oxford Street!).
Parks are Free
We also spent a lot of time in various parks. Hyde Park is a lovely place – like Central Park there are a lot of different things going on. We of course spent a bunch of time on the playground and looking at ducks.
As a bonus, we were there during British Summer Time – a festival they have in the park two weekends in the summer. Basically: food stalls, free Wimbledon viewings, and free movie viewings. While we did not have the attention span for the latter, the former two were pretty nice!
The nice thing about London (and Europe in general) are there parks everywhere. There was a little park, Portman Square, right across the street from the Hyatt Regency London. They too had their own little summer in the city event. Again, free Wimbledon viewings and food carts.
I actually liked Portman Square’s event better, you could borrow blankets for a small donation (or free if you insist) and there were lots of fun activities for kids to engage in. Giant Connect Four? Yes please!
You can spend plenty of time exploring London’s different parks – we were hoping to picnic at Kew Gardens but decided to bail due to the aforementioned junk (for strollers) London Underground.
Museums are free
Before we had kids, I thought free museums in London were pretty great. With two kids in two, I think free museums are game changing. Why?
Well, we enjoy art quite a bit, but have only taken M to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston twice. Why? Because if your kid has a meltdown in an art museum, you have to leave. Pretty much immediately. Then if you can’t settle them down outside, all your admissions fees are down the drain.
In London? Hop into the National Gallery for 15-30 minutes, see your favorite pieces, and get out of dodge before the kids even have a chance to think about losing it. Before our trip, I just assumed we wouldn’t be visiting the National Gallery at all, even though it’s a museum we enjoy. But the kids passed out on a long walk and we had a nice 30 minute visit. Is it the same as spending a couple hours there when we were without kids? No, of course not, but we still appreciated it nonetheless.
We also brought the kids to the Tate Modern when they were awake. H, being only 1, of course could have cared less. But at three and a half, M is at an age where she can “appreciate” the art a little more. Modern art lends itself to playing a simple game we came up with: “What do you think this looks like?”
Modern art is so…abstract…that there are no wrong answers really! M happily played this game for about 30 minutes and we got to visit the Tate Modern. But if she had been bored after 5 minutes we still would have gotten out of there without losing money. The free museums really allow you to take more “risks” with the kids.
The third museum we visited was the Museum of Childhood, a new one for us. I really enjoyed this museum. The exhibits feature a bunch of old toys – stuff that will make you nostalgic, stuff that you will think is cool like toys from other time periods, and stuff that you wish you had to play with as a kid.
Sprinkled throughout are more interactive play areas for kids – a sand pit, a kitchen, stuff you would find at a regular children’s museum. The play things are a bit worn and simple, but kids under 5 should have a blast. School aged children should be okay provided they aren’t the type who need the fanciest toys (so 99.8% of them).
The absolute highlight for H&M was storytime, which lasted for-eh-ver. Like half an hour! I was so bored by the end but M loved every minute of it and acted out the story again and again throughout the rest of the trip. A craft at the end of storytime was just the cherry on top. A delightful visit and I will be sad when the kids are too old to appreciate a museum like that.
We didn’t have time to hit up the British Museum (aka wow England sure took artifacts from a lot of different countries), Victoria and Albert (aka home of my favorite Chihuly chandelier ever), or the Tate Britain (aka learn about English history I guess?). I’m sure there are other free museums I’m missing too!
If you are introducing your kids to international travel, you could do worse than London. Sure, it’s filled with tourists, but there is a reason for that. Take advantage of all the things you can do for free in the city and you can have a great time on a small dime. We left realizing we could have spent an entire week there and been happy, but Scotland lay ahead!
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