London travel with young kids: the ultimate guide
Big city adventures aren't just for the teens and adults, with the right planning London can be an epic holiday location for all ages. I recently spent 4 nights in the Big Smoke with my 5 year old. Here's my London travel guide for what I'd recommend when holidaying with young kids.
Travel to London with young kids
I've done a reasonable amount of travelling by plane with the girls from as young as 4 months old and I'd say that at best, it's not particularly enjoyable. So much waiting around and trying to get from one place to the next, dropping off bags, picking them up, endless queues... it's probably the last method of travel I would choose with young kids. After reviewing the options for travel this Summer I was surprised to see that it was a few pounds cheaper to buy two first class LNER tickets Edinburgh to London return than to fly and then get the Gatwick Express into the city. I booked the tickets and even with having to make a quick switch of days when the latest round of July rail strikes were announced, the process was very easy.
The journey itself was smooth, on time and really relaxing. My daughter was entertained with colouring in, the free snacks, drinks and the fact that a button opened and closed the toilet door (oh to be 5!). Not to mention unlimited screen time courtesy of my favourite ever purchase, the Amazon Kindle Fire Kids tablet. From Edinburgh the train takes around 4 and half hours and takes you straight to Kings Cross Station, really convenient for onward travel to your hotel.
London public transport is great, every corner of the city is easily accessible through a combination of underground, overground and bus. I have used the underground often in the past when in London for work and using contactless or an oyster card is very simple. During the hotter weather and wanting to avoid too many steps, this trip we used the bus more often than not. Even for short journeys, it was worth doing to help my daughter last a little longer on our days out. She loved the top deck and getting to sit at the front window when we could.
Kids age 10 and under travel free across the network and 11+ travel free on trams and buses with a photocard, see the TFL website for details.
Self-catering / Airbnb / Vrbo are usually my first choice when travelling with the kids as it gives us all some space and means that once the girls are asleep we can relax properly in our own space and enjoy the evening. It's worth checking out and when I looked there were some good options around South Kensington and Hyde Park but as I booked the trip somewhat last minute there wasn't anything that suited our particular group (me, my 5 year old and my mum). Instead we went with an aparthotel called Marlin Waterloo, based a 5-10 minute walk to the London Eye, Sea Life London and Westminster Bridge. It was clean, relatively spacious and in spite of being based on a busy round, once inside the rooms were very quiet.
My other top choices for hotels in London on a family trip are:
Value & quality: The Tower Hotel
Museum & park life: The Resident Kensington
Location location location: Haymarket Hotel
Luxury: The Landmark London
Budget: Z Hotel Shoreditch
Spacious living: Citadines Trafalgar Square
Tourist attractions: Premier Inn London County Hall
Even with utilising a great public transport system in London, little legs get tired quickly. I find the best approach is to eat a large breakfast out and then stop for a main meal early afternoon to give everyone a break. That then meant we could fill up and pick up a sandwich or something quick in the evening to have a picnic in the room before bed. The other benefit is some of the better quality restaurants are usually more relaxed for breakfast and lunch so even if want to eat something you really enjoy and your kids are young and not perfectly well behaved at all times (are anyone's?) it shouldn't be a problem.
Here are my top picks for eating out in London:
Breakfast with style: The Wolseley (pictured)
Afternoon tea: Strand Palace
Fresh pizza: Pizza Pilgrims Victoria
Vegan: Mildreds Camden
Chain restaurant: Cote Royal Hall
Hidden gem: Apero
Ice cream: Amorino London Long Acre
No trip to London is complete without taking in a show and there's something on offer for everyone, including even the youngest of patrons. For the most popular of shows in the West End, you will need to book in advance. This is especially true for the first show we picked for our most recent trip to London, family blockbuster Frozen (note admittance for age 4+ only). Tickets can be expensive, but you may be able to secure a good deal for obstructed or partly obstructed view seats and if doing this I recommend checking A View From My Seat to determine if the discount is worth it. Many of the obstructions simply cut off a small part of the set that wouldn't hamper your enjoyment, but some can be more disruptive, particularly for young kids. Frozen was the highlight of our trip for all our group (ages 5-70), highly recommend whether you're a big fan of the film or not.
The second show we chose to see was a spur of the moment purchase at breakfast. We booked The Tiger Who Came To Tea a delightful adaptation of Judith Kerr's picture book, it is perfect for a younger crowd. Lots of babies and toddlers in the audience, but my 5 year old was equally enthralled. My other picks for family friendly shows:
Peter Pan - all ages, but more suited to 4+
Peppa Pig's Fun Day Out - great for the youngest, under 6
The Lion King - recommended for 6+, no under 3s permitted
Matilda - recommended for 6+, no under 4s permitted
Kids love being outside and luckily, there is so much on offer in London to let them enjoy nature including the many parks and ponds. Buckingham Palace opens its doors for a few weeks every summer and while the mums and dads can enjoy a tour of the State Rooms and carriages, younger guests can indulge in ice cream or afternoon tea on the terrace and a trip around the gardens (pictured).
It's hard to narrow down the other choices, but here are my other picks for outdoor fun with kids in London:
Kew Gardens - a trip out of the city but well worth it on a sunny day
Uber Boat - a cheaper alternative to the many tourist boats, from £2 one way
Pelican Feeding at St James's Park - a popular sight, daily 2.30-3pm
Spitalfields City Farm - yes an actual farm in the heart of the city!
Go Ape at Ally Pally - min. height 1 metre, adults must accompany children under 6
Hampton Court Palace Maze - covering a third of an acre, don't get lost!
The real winner here, fun for all the family that doesn't have to cost a penny. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Science Museum (pictured), so much to see and do it can be overwhelming. I recommend you start on the top floor and work your way down, the ground floor always feels the busiest. You need to book an entry time on the website and can pay a voluntary donation online or when you arrive. There are always several other exhibitions on, so research in advance to see if they are suitable for your age groups and either book tickets online or when you arrive.
My other top attractions that won't see you reaching for your wallet:
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs - open daily and not just for the dinosaur enthusiasts
Tower Bridge - coincide your visit with a bridge lift to experience the full effect
Princess Diana Memorial Fountain - bring a picnic and dip your toes in the water
Big Ben - a surprising hit with my 5 year old, she loved hearing the bells chime
Natural History Museum - learn about the titanosaur, the biggest dinosaur
Jubilee Gardens - a lovely area to rest, near the including a good children's play area
In my 5 year old's eyes, there is nothing more thrilling than getting to act like a big girl and for our trip, this included getting her nails painted. She was delighted with the appointment I booked at Nail'd It in Harvey Nichols, exclusively for the youngest of clients. The salon is decorated with faux flowers and the perfect sugar pink accents (including the nail artist's gloves!).
Then a short walk over to Harrods, for a rather expensive look at their amazing toy department. I much prefer visiting here with my kids than the overwhelmingly popular Hamley's. The latter is often packed and quite difficult to get around, the choice is also huge and I find that all a bit too much when the kids are so young. Harrods toy department is nicely spaced out, has a great range available and isn't too busy. My daughter loved the Barbie area, all decked out for promotion of the film.
To round off our trip we spent some time at Covent Garden before we headed for the train home. A really enjoyable walk around some boutique shops, market stalls and we all enjoyed watching a few street performers in the sun while eating some delicious ice cream from Ladurée.
I hope you feel inspired and more confident about taking your kids to London, whether for a day or a week. I was fortunate enough to visit several times growing up and even as an adult having travelled there many times, there is always something new to discover and enjoy. Let me know what your favourite thing to do in London with your family is!