All eyes are on London as the world prepares for the 2012 Summer Olympics and the city just happens to be one of my favourite family destinations. English author Samuel Johnson famously said, "If a man is tired of London, then he is tired of life" and there's no reason that this adage can't apply to people of all ages and genders. London is a city that can be visited again and again and you will still only have scratched the surface.
On a first trip to London with kids you will definitely have to visit the city's famous landmarks. Many of these can be described as "touristy" but I honestly don't think that label matters when traveling with kids. Often it is those "touristy" spots that the kids have heard of and they want to see what all the fuss is about for themselves. They also know that when they return from their vacation that everyone is going to ask them "so did you see Big Ben?" and they want to be able to answer "yeah, and it was so cool". Even for parents who have seen the landmarks before, it can be thrilling to see them for the first time through your child's eyes.
1. LONDON EYE:
Since its opening in 2000, The London Eye has become the most popular paid-for attraction in the United Kingdom and visitors eagerly join the sometimes lengthy queue for the opportunity to ride the world's largest cantilevered observation wheel. If by chance the kids haven't heard of it before arriving in London, they will be clamouring to ride it as soon as they get their first glimpse. It's best to arrive first thing in the morning before the queues get too long and a clear day is better for enjoying the breathtaking views across the city and beyond. It's also a good idea to make sure that the kids understand ahead of time that this wheel moves very slowly!
2. TOWER OF LONDON:
The Tower of London is another must-see attraction for families with something to appeal to everyone. Visitors of all ages can learn more about the Tower's gory history, see suits of royal armour, and admire the display of crown jewels while exploring the fortress. Older kids will enjoy the free 60 minute tours conducted by the Yeoman Warders (popularly known as 'Beefeaters') who entertain the crowds with intriguing tales of imprisonment, torture and execution. The kids will be fascinated by the Tower Ravens which are seen around the grounds as, according to legend, the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the resident ravens ever leave the fortress.
3. WESTMINSTER ABBEY:
Westminster Abbey, which has been the coronation church since 1066, is a treasure trove of art and history and is the burial place for 17 monarchs and many of the most significant people in the nation's history. I was skeptical that the kids would be interested in exploring the Abbey but we had a successful visit, in no small part, because of the brilliant scavenger hunt that the Abbey staff provides for kids. The scavenger hunt cleverly leads the family through each area of the Abbey where parents can browse the tombs and memorials while kids are engaged looking for the answers to their list of questions. A completed questionnaire earns a treat from the gift shop so the kids have the incentive to find answers to all the questions and learn a bit of British history in the process.
4. TRAFALGAR SQUARE:
Trafalgar Square is the heart of London and everyone who visits London ends up there sooner or later - sometimes more than once. The kids are likely to recognize the lions which guard Nelson's Column, and will definitely want photos taken with the bronze beasts. Sadly, feeding pigeons is no longer allowed in Trafalgar Square (or outside St. Paul's Cathedral) so, in order to avoid disappointment, it might be a good idea to explain ahead of time to pint-sized Mary Poppins fans that they won't be participating in any renditions of "Feed the Birds".
5. ST. PAUL'S CATHEDRAL:
There has been a cathedral located on this site since 604AD and the current building was designed by Christopher Wren and built after the Great Fire destroyed its predecessor. St. Paul's Cathedral is the nation's church and an important symbolic landmark in the city but there are two things about St. Paul's that kids love - climbing to the dome for a view across the city and experiencing the Whispering Gallery for themselves. In this quirky gallery, a whisper against its walls is audible on the opposite side. Very impressive to the kids when demonstrated by a staff member and very amusing when mom can't manage to whisper correctly.
6. MADAME TUSSAUD'S:
Madame Tussaud's is as tacky and touristy as one can possibly get. It's expensive, it's crowded and the lines can be incredibly long BUT kids love it! If anyone has told them about the wax museum prior to the trip then there is no possible way to avoid taking them there. It's best to just try and get in the spirit of the attraction and have fun as your kids beg for photos with all of their favourite celebrities. The Spirit of London cab ride through 400 years of the city's history is enjoyable but I wouldn't consider going into the Chamber of Horrors with younger children.
7. LONDON ZOO:
The London Zoo, which is located within the city on the northern edge of Regent's Park, is the world's oldest scientific zoo and has been open to the public since 1847. It's a small zoo by North American standards but it's a fun place to spend part of the day in order to take a break from other sightseeing. The zoo has at least two connections to popular culture that most kids will be familiar with. It is home to the reptile exhibit featured in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and it was home to a black bear called Winnie during WWI that was often visited by A.A. Milne and his son and inspired the author to pen Winnie-the-Pooh.
8. ANYTHING HARRY POTTER:
Harry Potter fans in the family will be thrilled to visit many of the film sites in and around the city of London. There are tours of various lengths that can be taken on foot, by car or even by bicycle around the city or as a day trip out of the city. Our family was thrilled with our 13 hour Harry Potter tour that included filming sites in London and the outskirts as well as the Village of Lacock and Oxford University.
Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross station
9. COVENT GARDEN:
The bustling Covent Garden Market is a great place to stroll with kids to browse the open-air stalls, indoor shops and neighbourhood boutiques for unique souvenirs or to find a great place to eat. It was raining when we arrived at Covent Garden so we headed indoors and stumbled upon Candy Cakes, a colourful little shop selling delicious cupcakes and cookies made from natural ingredients. Theatre fans will also think it's "loverly" to visit the place where flower girl Eliza Dolittle met Professor Henry Higgins and transformed her life.
10. CHANGING OF THE GUARD/HORSE GUARDS PARADE:
The Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace is one of the most popular attractions in London. Visitors start getting into position up to an hour prior to the ceremony in order to have a good view of the colourful ceremony which takes place daily at 11:30am from April to July and on alternate days from August to April. For those who don't want to spend the time waiting for the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, a nice alternative is the Horse Guards Parade which takes place off Whitehall each weekday at 11:00am and at 10:am on Sundays.
One of the great things about London for families is that there is free admission (although there may be a charge for special exhibitions) at many of the museums including the British Museum which is one of the world's greatest museums of history and where you can see incredible artifacts such as the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. The list of museums with free admission also includes the Natural History Museum; the National Gallery; the National Portrait Gallery; the Science Museum; the Tate Modern; and the Victoria and Albert Museum. We didn't have time for many of the museums on our first family trip to London but we did visit the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (which did have an admission fee) as well as the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The next time that we are in London we will definitely be finding time to explore more of the city's wonderful museums.
12. PARKS/GREEN SPACES:
London is one of the greenest capitals in the world with all of its fabulous parks enjoyed by residents and visitors year round. The parks are particularly welcome by visiting families when the kids need a break from sightseeing to just run and play. Some of the best parks to visit with kids are The Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens (with the Diana Memorial Fountain and Playground and the Peter Pan Statue) and Hampstead Heath.
13. DAY TRIPS FROM THE CITY:
Day trips from London are a great option as there are numerous places to visit within a short train ride of central London including Windsor Castle, Oxford, Stonehenge, Bath, the Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon. One of our family's favourite day trips was a river cruise to Greenwich where visitors head to the Royal Observatory in order to stand on the Prime Meridian or with one foot in each hemisphere. There is a machine in the courtyard which will print a Certificate declaring that you stood astride the Prime Meridian with the precise time GMT for one pound (be sure to have one pound coins on hand) which makes a great souvenir to take home to show friends.
Our family loves attending the theatre so the West End, where we saw productions of Legally Blonde, Lion King and Les Misérables, was one of our favourite places in London. There are so many productions playing in the West End that a family shouldn't have any difficulty finding a show to see. Discounted tickets to many of the shows can be purchased on the same day (or sometimes up to a week in advance) on the TKTS website or at the booth in Leicester Square. We were also able to tour Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and learn more about the history of the open-air theatre but we weren't able to attend a performance during our winter visit as it operates seasonally.
If the London 2012 Olympics have you dreaming about a trip to London then it's time to start planning. London is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city that kids enjoy every bit as much as their parents do. Our kids loved London and can't wait to return so I expect that we will be there again in the next year or two. We have already started our list of priorities for the next visit which include visiting the British Museum; seeing a play at the Shakespeare Globe; a day trip to Windsor to see the castle; and touring Warner Bros. Studio Tour London to see the sets from the Harry Potter films. Perhaps it's time for me to stop dreaming and start planning too!
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