Part two of a two-part post. Click here for part one.
I won’t get into the general tourist advice. If you want to know about Oyster cards or what time the Guard changes, there are plenty of places to find that information. What follows are the sites our family has liked, what we liked about them, and advice on the best ways to see them with children under five.
Battersea Park Children’s Zoo – I am sure that the London Zoo in Regent’s Park is lovely. Really I am. But, I will tell you that little tykes, those not yet reading, get a heck of a lot more out of a little zoo than a big one. And there is no better little zoo than the one at Battersea Park. We were lucky enough to live a half-hour walk from Battersea Park and so we joined as members, which I highly recommend for those moving to London and living anywhere accessible to it. If you are a tourist, however, you will need to pay the one-time fee, which is not cheap (although free for under-twos). They need to charge what they charge to maintain the animals, so I don’t grudge them it at all, and it is way cheaper than the big zoo. So, get there at opening, especially if you will need to leave for naptime, so as to get your money’s worth.
The other benefit to getting there at opening is little perks like watching the ducks released from their nighttime hut or watching the little pony still in a blanket. The zoo is never crazy busy, but it is even nicer when you have it to yourself.
This zoo is very well laid out and you can easily do a circuit in about 45 minutes, seeing everything. There is a mouse house, lemurs, monkeys, tunnels to get into the meerkat exhibit (not very pregnant-woman friendly, I must add), and a barnyard area. I love the otters, Benjamin loves the ducks, their grandfather likes the meerkats, and both of my kids are terrified of the giant pigs. It is not a petting zoo, but you can stick your hand out and pet the sheep and the like. Then, once you have seen the animals, let the kids loose on the tractor and in the playground, which is a nice size and well-designed. Bring a 20 pence coin for the little rides (a car and a train).
The Science Museum – The cellar of the Science Museum has a rockin’ hands-on exhibit – actually several designed for different ages. GET THERE AT OPENING on weekends or school holidays. I cannot stress this enough. It is a madhouse by eleven-thirty. Bring a change of clothes because the kids get w-e-t. Child-sized bathrooms and stroller (buggy) parking are in the cellar, too.
Then, once they are totally overstimulated, head up to the ground floor. There are several steam engines, including one that Zachary insisted was the Emily. There is also a staircase that leads up to a viewing are above the hall with the trains and it has all sorts of kickin’ models (according to my husband – I was manning the stroller that we had stupidly brought back out of buggy parking in the cellar). There is a hands-on exhibit in the main hall on the ground floor, as well, which is all the way to the back of one of the entrances. I find this one less insane even once the museum fills up.
This, plus rocket-ships, bubble shows, and airplanes. Since it is free, you can go only until your kids are about to explode, and then leave for quieter environs.
The Natural History Museum – Right next to the Science Museum, it has DINOSAURS. Need I say more?
Again, a place to go at opening. It gets very, very clogged as people stand in endless lines to see the animated T-Rex.
Changing of Queen’s Horse Guard — I’ll admit it: we have lived here almost two years and never been to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It is too late for nap time. And, I cannot imagine camping out for good spots with the kids. We have been a few times to the changing of the Queen’s Horse Guard at Whitehall, which is early enough for us on Sundays. The kids like horses, and afterwards you can often pet them. It is really interesting as the horses and costumed soldiers ride in, but it gets frightfully dull after awhile, so position yourself in the back in case you want to slip out. Since it is right near Trafalgar Square, you can just head over there for some fake lions when the real horses start standing about.
But, then where should I go in the afternoon? Well, in truth, everything gets crazier in the afternoon. London is a big tourist destination, and that is the way of such places. So, assume I think you should hit every place at opening if you can. That said, here are some things that are less insane in the afternoon than others.
Princess Diana Memorial Playground – Set in Kensington Gardens, this is a Peter-Pan themed wonderland. Little wooden houses to hide in, a giant wooden fort with slides, teepees, small boats to cast out in the sea of sand, and, of course, the pirate ship. Kids wandering about barefoot as they dig and run and use their imaginations.
There are child-sized toilets and a concession stand with decent ice cream. There is always a line for the swings, and it is madness in the late afternoon. Nonetheless, we have often had a lovely time there even when it was jam-packed.
Just outside of Kensington Gardens, up by the Queensway Tube station, there are lots of restaurants, from waffle houses to a lovely Moroccan restaurant that always welcomed my kids.
Harrods – Did you know Harrods has a killer toy department? Or that you can play with many displays? Or that, if you sign up in advance, you can visit Santa there? Or, that Harrods has a chocolate bar (yes, an entire café dedicated to chocolate)? (Not that the chocolate bar did Benjamin any good. He could not figure out why we would suggest we did perfectly good berries into chocolate fondue.) Or, that there is a whole restaurant (not cheap) dedicated to pleasing children’s palates, yet with decently healthy and tasty adult options, too?
The children’s changing area has child-sized toilets, but it is a disappointing place to breastfeed because it is stinky. I used a dressing room.
Transport Museum – We’ve only been here in the morning, so I don’t know what it is like in the afternoons, but it is so well laid-out and spacious that I imagine it would be enjoyable even when crowded. There are hands-on exhibits, little passports that the kids stamp at stations, ramps, elevators, a simulator or two, and, of course, trains and busses. Shit – what kid doesn’t like trains and busses? It is annoying that you have to exit through the shop, but it is worth it.
That said, unlike many other museums in London, the Transport Museum is not cheap. It is a great value if you live in London and join, but one-time visitors pay a good chunk of change for the adults. Nonetheless, it is totally worth it. I am a bit of a public transportation geek (I thought that a friend was the coolest person I had ever seen the first time we met because she works for public transportation), and this museum has something for adults and kids.
Covent Garden – The Transport Museum is in Covent Garden, which is a great place for little kids. There are all sorts of street performers. We like to get there at 10:00 because we like the string quartets (they sometimes don’t start till 10:30 on the weekends), but it is actually better a little later on when all the performances get rockin’. (I don’t like crowds, can you tell? I hide in my house in the afternoon.) There are stalls selling all manner of merchandise (check out Pawprints), a stand with waffles (J is right: they are better without chocolate), a junk market, and sometimes the fastest carousel we have ever seen. The best part is the ambience is free, although the waffles, sadly, are not.
National Army Museum – Embarrassingly, we did not go here for well over a year, even though it is a short bus ride from our house. This is because I sort of did not want to bring my kids to a place encouraging war. I don’t like guns. But, finally, I went, because everyone told me there is a great play area for kids.
Even if you are squeamish about guns, you really don’t need to see any (although we did have to discuss the large cannon out front, with Zachary explaining to us that it is dangerous). Just after the entrance is a soft play area, with a castle for climbing in and costumes and toys. It is not a London site by any stretch of the imagination. You won’t leave thinking, “Ah, now I’ve seen London.” However, your kids will have fun and get very tired.
Word to the wise – on weekends and school holidays, the play area fills up quickly, and they only allow limited numbers in. Get there well before ten to get a spot in the morning, or you may have to wait for the next timed entry. Should this happen, head up to Sloane Square (4 minute walk) to bide your time, unless you want to wander about the actual museum (which does not work for us, since guns also freak out Zachary). Also, call in advance to make sure there isn’t a birthday party planned in the space.
Hampton Court Palace – After seeing this place, I get why Henry VIII decided to steal it from one of his friends (although, good lord, what a lot of rooms to clean). The kitchens are endless, the different apartments impressive, and the grounds stunning. We did not do the maze because Zachary and I had hit a wall (although the toddler and the father were still going strong), but I hear it is great. It has a full-service cafeteria on site and is well-serviced by trains.
I would definitely do this before Windsor. While Windsor is nice for adults, Hampton Court is more free form – there is no set walk to take that bores the crud out of little children. You can do it ala carte, seeing as much as you can handle and then stopping, rather than being stuck in the middle of the Queen’s Apartments with crowds ahead and behind, as happens at Windsor. (Or, in our case, being stuck in the middle of the Queen’s Apartments with someone who needs a change of clothes from the waist down while Grandpa has the diaper bag and is nowhere to be found.)
Brighton – If you are hankering for a day trip, do Brighton, which is fun for kids even in the winter. There is a pier with all the usual amusements (and you’ll shell out for all those damned rides). Then there are alleys of little shops, which the kids love. And, of course, there is the Royal Pavilion, which is just the wackiest palace we’ve seen in some time. I won’t do a whole guide to Brighton, since there are plenty of those out there, but let me tell you what I like about it for children in particular. It is close enough for a daytrip (our kids always napped in the car on the way back, but you can use the train). The pier and the beach are fantastically tacky. Most of the restaurants are family-friendly. The shops are lovely and the alleys are fun for the kids to wander. The people are much friendlier than Londoners, so it is a good place to go if you are starting to wonder about the British… (We have a tendency to head out of London whenever we need a reminder that LONDONERS may be cold and unfriendly, but the rest of the British are perfectly nice. Big cities, I tell ya.)
Kew Gardens – Honestly, we don’t get what all the fuss is about. Creepers and Crawlers, that kids’ area that the guide books love? Eh. Our kids were bored, and they can entertain themselves with clothespins when need be. Kew is a lovely place to visit, but it is enough of a schelpp out of Central London that, with kids, unless you are obsessed with flowers, just go to one of the lovely parks in London.
So, that’s it. My very, very biased view of London with tiny people. Anyone have anything to add?