Busking for money along London’s famed Portobello Road in Notting Hill, a man stands upside down in a bucket.
Avoiding a Parliament funk when visiting London with your family
These London Travel Tips were initially published in 2006
We heard it from friends, from family and from folks we hardly knew; “You’re so brave,” or “Aren’t you scared?” or even “Your kids won’t remember it.”
When we finally decided we’d saved enough money to take our kids to the British Isles, we heard every excuse not to go. We listened politely and even took some of the warnings to heart. But my wife and I wanted to give our daughters an amazing learning experience and we, ourselves, wanted to have fun in a foreign country.
Instead of gearing our trip towards only what we adults wanted to see and do, (like watching a live session of Parliament with all the jeering), we planned our journey around our kid’s needs.
We thought they’d more enjoy several quick stops and not really get into retracing the pub antics of the Sex Pistols. We wanted them to have fun, not get too bored and certainly not get all Henry the 8th on us!
But we didn’t want them to be overloaded with historic sites and modern landmarks. We needed to balance our Magical Mystery Tour between a “Hard Day’s Night” and “Relax, don’t do it.”
Big Ben is actually the bell inside.
If our family can do it, so can yours. Here’s what we learned along the way.
First off, schedule a flight that arrives in the evening. You can mitigate jet lag by letting everyone sleep it off when you land. Try to pre-arrange a kid’s meal during the flight. It’s very easy to do online when you reserve your tickets and a fun dinner calms a child’s fears that their last best meal for two weeks was that cheeseburger they ate on the way to the airport.
But probably everyone’s going to be “knackered” for the first day. Take this day slowly. See about going back to the hotel for a brief nap, (by brief I mean about two hours).
Find a double-decker bus tour, (The Big Bus or The Original Tour are two of the most popular), and hop aboard for a guided tour around the city. Your family will be able to relax and let the city, history, fun facts and crazy accents wash over them while they ride along. Don’t try to do too much. Have a quiet dinner and go to bed early. A family meltdown isn’t pretty.
After your second night’s sleep, your family should be fine. London is a great walking city, but it’s also a mass transit dream. The Tube system is laid out in easy to follow lines, each with it’s own name and color. By the end of your stay, don’t be surprised if your kids have picked up how to navigate the trains. They also may try to lead you back to King’s Cross in order to look for Harry Potter’s secret departure platform.
There are always transportation deals that can get your family day-long or week-long passes for most all of London’s bus and tube routes. That way you can hop on and off or transfer without worrying about how much it will cost.
London Travel Tip For Kids: The London Eye is a very slow moving ferris wheel.
If you can convince your spouse to stand in the ticket line or “queue” for the gigantic ferris wheel slowly rotating over the city, your children could get a wonderful view of the city via the London Eye. The entire ride takes about half an hour and is neither frightening, nor motion sickness inducing.
Everyone talks about the changing of the guard and, sure, it’s interesting, but it’s more like a short parade. It happens every other day at 11:30 a.m. at Buckingham Palace.
Covent Garden is a series of markets and shops clustered together with restaurants and the ubiquitous “buskers.” These street performers are really the highlight of Covent Garden and our kids loved to watch the magic acts, jugglers and performers. Our favorites, though, were the folks who dress up like statues and look, for all the world, like they’ve been there for years. Toss a little coinage into their box and maybe they’ll give you a thumbs up.
My daughters were by turns intrigued, excited and weirded out by their experience with pedicures given by Garra Rufa, flesh nibbling fish.
The myth about bland meals in London has been exploded and the food there is as varied as the vast immigrant culture that makes up the city. Stop often for a bite to eat or a sip of tea. Your children will be much more likely to enjoy the trip if they have frequent breaks. Our family couldn’t get enough Indian food or crepes during our stay, but there are plenty of tastes to please even the most picky of palates.
If you don’t want to wait or sit down, practically every street in London has a pre-made sandwich shop called Pret a Manger.
Some of the world’s most amazing artwork is housed in London galleries and surprisingly, apart from a donation box at the entrance, they are mostly free. The great thing is if you want your kids to see a Da Vinci, Rembrandt, or Michelangelo then you don’t have to feel bad if they bore quickly. Sure the Picassos and Monets may have to wait, but at least you can feel like you gave them some high-brow, intellectual culture before taking them to Hamleys, the seven-story toy store.
There are several large parks within London proper and depending on the weather, perhaps you want to relax and let your kids run around.
Regent’s park has some open spaces and is home to the London Zoo where Harry Potter first talked to snakes. Kensington Gardens has the Princess Diana Memorial Playground of all things. Kensington is connected to Hyde Park where on Sunday afternoons, people congregate at Speakers’ Corner and get up on soapboxes and just start talking, or yelling, at the gathering crowds. Kids may be bored or fascinated depending on who’s talking or if they’ve just had a yummy “99p,” a delicious soft-serve cone with a Cadbury flake bar jammed into the top. The name refers to how much they used to cost, 99 pence, about 30 years ago.
Which brings us to money. Right now (updated to 2018) the dollar is pretty strong compared to the pound. So when you look at prices or menus, a simple rule of thumb is to just half-again the amount you see. For instance, if a nice greasy order of “chips,” (french fries), costs a mere two pounds, you can figure in your head that you just paid about three bucks. It’ll drive you crazy if you keep up with the math, so budget ahead of time and know that London is more expensive than Detroit. By the way, many restaurants in London automatically include the tip on your bill.
The many colored doors of London, England
There are a huge number of tours that families can take around the town. You can go on any number of themed walks which cater to very select audiences.Beatles tours highlight areas where the fab four made their music and their mark. Haunted London tours explain in vivid detail all the ghostly goings-on that the city has encountered in its centuries of habitation. And yes, there are a ton of Harry Potter walking tours too.
Maybe your family would rather take a stroll through the Tower of London. It’s not really a tower in the traditional sense, it’s more like a small village behind castle walls where kings and queens ruled for centuries. Try to get a guided tour instead of wandering around on your own; it’s more interesting. The highlight is, of course, the crown jewels although the line could be very long.
Our children were most impressed not by the ornate gold and diamond encrusted crowns, but by the mythic black ravens which are kept by decree within the tower grounds. Legend has it that if the ravens were to abandon the tower, then the monarchy would fail. They’ve made sure this never happens by clipping the bird’s wings. London is full of crazy and often strange little quirks like that.
For older kids who don’t get spooked as easily there’s Madame Tussaud’s wax museum or the Tower Dungeon. The creepy factor is pretty high and not recommended for the younger set.
The Natural History Museum is a gigantic science center with full size dinosaur bones and an enormous replica of a blue whale. Exhibits throughout the massive building cater to just about any inquiry a kid can imagine. This was our daughter’s most enjoyable museum.
Try to let your children have as much say as possible both in planning your journey and in choices once you’re there. Let them decide between a few different restaurants and certainly allow them some down time too. Learning about a foreign culture can happen at any time, including just letting them watch the “telly.” It’s natural to want to jam in everything, but your family will thank you in the long run if you limit the museum trips and expand the playtime options.
Our daughters loved to just stop into the corner convenience stores or the plentiful souvenir stands and check out the cheap stuff. They each brought their own money so we taught them real world budgeting while they mulled over Maltesers.
By taking things easy, your family will have a jolly good time and come back excited to tell everyone about their trip. It’s a much better way to return than in a sleep-deprived stupor or a London fog.
Fun things to keep the kids engaged:
• Show them one of the many Harry Potter sites including where Daniel Radcliffe went to school, (City of London School), or the train station, (Kings’ Cross), where magical platform 9 & 3/4 is supposed to be.
• Explain how Big Ben really isn’t the tower that they see or even the clock, but the large bell inside, hidden from view.
• Even though we speak the same language, talk about how many British and American words are different. A lorry is a truck. Football is really soccer. A lift isn’t a facial treatment but an elevator. It’s PC to say a Mac is a raincoat. Crisps are potato chips. Chips are french fries. A bloke is a guy. A Guy is married to Madonna. And, of course, the loo is the bathroom, (but singing “skip, skip, skip to my bathroom” would sound so, so, so silly).
• Have them practice saying words like the Brits do. Tomato is pronounced tuh-MAH-to and they’re packed with VIT-uh-minz.
Top Five Kid-Friendly attractions:
• Double decker bus rides. Let the kids see if they can get to their seats on the second floor before the bus starts up again.
• Covent Garden. All the street performing “buskers” who entertain with humor, music, magic or all three.
• London Eye. A cross between a giant ferris wheel and an enclosed gondola, the 30-minute ride gives kids a slow, unparalleled view of London from the air.
• Natural History Museum. Gigantic dinosaur bones or fun, interactive exhibits about the life sciences engage and amuse both kids and adults.
• West End Musicals. All the family-friendly plays you’ll find in New York City probably have been or are showing in London: Wicked, Lion King, Matilda. Maybe skip King Lear or The Exorcist until they’re a bit older.
Before you go:
• Get passports for your entire family. Everyone has to be present when you apply at the Post Office. You can get the forms ahead of time online. Bring them to the Post Office with proof of citizenship, (a certified copy of your actual birth certificate), proof of identity, (your driver’s license), and two photographs of yourself, (or you can pay for them to take the pictures there).
• Reserve hotels or Airbnb flats well ahead of time. London budget hotels are not like ours; their rooms are smaller and rarely have pools. Also, getting a room big enough for a family of four or a “quad” is more difficult to find. Airbnb has some great deals too.
• Spend time walking with your family ahead of time. It may seem like strange advice, but London is one of the most walkable cities on the planet and even if you take the Tube or bus you’ll still find yourself walking far more than you’re probably used to.
• Get kid-sized luggage along with your own. Sure, maybe you can manhandle your bags, but you can’t carry your kid’s stuff too. If each one of you is responsible for your own luggage it will make the trip much easier.
The kids were a lot older the next time we visited Jolly Ol’ England.