London itinerary with kids - the best bits
No matter how many times you go to London, there is always something new to see. And luckily, there are so many brilliant things to do for free, it doesn’t have to break the bank.
On our last visit we ended up being covered in parakeets in Hyde Park, hanging out with Queen Victoria’s crown at the V and A and floating on thin air/glass above the Thames on Tower Bridge.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts that we learned along the way…
Where to stay as a family in London
Go for a bit of luxury and a free breakfast at a Novotel
The best and cheapest places to stay as a family in the UK are usually YHA family rooms, but in London staying 4-in-a-room in a family friendly Novotel is actually cheaper than a hostel. Crazy but true. Especially if you book a few months ahead and join their reward programme for discounts (see my budget travel page for more). And all you can eat breakfast is free for under 15’s.
London itinerary with kids tip 1: Stay in a Novotel for free kids’ breakfasts and a pool
Which part of London to stay in
- The cheapest Novotel in town is the Excel, where you can breakfast on the banks of the Thames and where we regularly bag a room for £66 a night. Arriving by boat and cable car is an added bonus of staying here.
- Greenwich is another of the cheaper places to stay. The Ibis and Novotel are very close to the Observatory in the park (do not miss the start of time at the Meridian line, which is painted on the floor as it passes through the park).
- You get a pool thrown in/ thrown in a pool at the very central Paddington and Blackfriars hotels, but they are a bit more pricey (from about £130/night).
Budget family rooms in central London
Getting around London with kids on the cheap
Adults: As an adult, the easiest thing to do is just tap your credit card on the clever gizmo on any train or bus you get on to and at the end of the day the system very kindly works out (and only charges you for) the cheapest ticket you could have bought for your day’s travel.
Kids: With kids its a bit more tricky –
Under 11’s: London transport is free for the under 11’s so you can use the adult credit card system above for your ticket and simply usher the kids through the family barriers with you.
Over 11’s: Over 11’s need a ticket. They generally don’t have a credit card, or it they do, it won’t know to charge them kids’ prices. We find the easiest and cheapest solution, is to use our family rail card and buy a discounted kids all-day, zones 1-6 ticket for each day of the trip, buying them all on the first day to avoid multiple queuing. It works out at about £2.60 per child per day. Bargain.
How to travel to London with kids?
Arrive by train
You could drive, but we are not that masochistic. The angry red double lines, 4 lanes of traffic and gridlock induce too much fear. I also raise in evidence the impossibility of parking and fines for being in the wrong type of car in the wrong part of London at the wrong time of day.
Instead arrive by train! In addition to saving your car bumpers and tempers, you get to take advantage of National Rail’s of 2 for 1 offers for entry to most main attractions.
London itinerary with kids tip 2: Check out the National Rail 2-for-1 deals and kids see most of London for free
Be Harry Potter and meet Paddington bear
Arriving by train, you also have a variety of child-friendly photo opportunities, depending on your station. In Paddington there are several statues of the small bear himself. This time we found a blue felt one.
If arriving at Kings Cross, very few kids/adults can walk past the Harry Potter trolley half-embedded in the wall, without flinging on a scarf and pretending to be off to Hogwarts.
London itinerary with kids tip 3: Go for a photo shoot with station celebrities
Day 1 of our London itinerary with kids
Taking our own advice, we arrived by train, took a selfie with Paddington and dropped the bags off at the Paddington Novotel, a 5 minute walk from the station. So far, so good!
London activity 1 - Brick Lane
Our first London with kids itinerary stop was the very cool Brick Lane. Here you can see hip street art and more markets than you can shake a stick at.
It was snack time (isn’t it always?) and Brick Lane has something of a reputation for bagels. Join one of the large but quick moving queues outside the popular bagel bakeries for a bargain taste bud treat. I paid £2.60 for a salmon/ cheese combo. Delish.
Were very excited to discover this rainbow version, which only one of us was willing to try, but he assured us that it tasted as good as it looked.
London itinerary with kids tip 4: Don’t miss the £1 rainbow bagels
Whilst tucking into the oh-so-bright bagel, stroll down the back alleys and admire the equally colour-saturated walls, before losing yourselves amongst the buskers and markets.
London itinerary with kids tip 5: Play pick your favourite urban art
Markets - Life rings, DM's or painted broccoli anyone?
Vintage, artsy, eco – whatever your market taste it is catered for here. I found 3 or 4 separate markets without even trying:
- Brick Lane street market – DM’s life rings, leather jackets – I’m going with “Brick-a-brack” as a theme title.
- Spitalfields Market – a huge, covered warehouse and historic market site, now more of a chi-chi affair with leather-bags and bamboo t-shirts.
- London’s largest vintage market – with outrageous clothes from yesteryear.
- Backyard and Tearooms market – with an antique and souvenir trinket theme.
Plenty to look at, but entertaining enough for children? Yes and no. They did enjoy it but I had allocated too much time for a rainy day. We weren’t going to last all the way to our tea time Brick Lane curry booking that was for sure. I needed a filler (always have one in your back pocket)…
London itinerary with kids tip 5: Time scheduling is key – pack in too much and they will wilt, not enough and you are stood in a street in the rain without a plan. Always have a plan B in your back pocket.
London activity 2 - Lego and chocolate shops
The boys voted for sweets and shops – or sweetshops. I conceded on the basis that we also drop in on Chinatown for cultural balance.
Boys’ choice up first, we headed to the Lego store in Leicester Square.
It is a bit like going to Legoland for free, in that the shop is filled with over-sized Lego creations, and in non-Covid times you get to make your own mini-figures from a huge selection of body parts and accessories. A kiddie Lego dream come true.
Although this is a shop, there is always a queue (even in Covid). We hummed and ha’d. In the end, having been before, we opted to skip it and head into the world of chocolate instead.
M and M store
Directly opposite the Lego shop is M and M world. Again, this is not just a shop but more of a chocolate theme park.
You can browse an unending rainbow of chocolate discs, stroll Abbey Road style with human sized chocolate-beans/beings and even sit shotgun with a large M (and M) in a life-sized car.
And then buy the t-shirt, bag, chocolate fountain, mug, duvet or cushion to commemorate the experience. Or just take some photos instead.
London itinerary with kids tip 6: Snap an Abbey Road crossing M and M souvenir photo
London activity 3 - Chinatown
Head physically just round the corner, but culturally a million miles, to find Chinatown, accessed via the fabulously elaborate archway.
A Chinese dragon was dancing in the middle of a crowd and lanterns were strung across the street adding to the festival spirit. Shops sell exotic food and golden cats. The many Chinese restaurants smell amazing.
It was a bit of a shame we had pre-booked the Indian option for tonight.
Always caught between over and under-preparing, we had failed to book a restaurant on a city break to Windsor earlier in the summer and ended up in a kebab shop, as all other dining options were fully booked. Tonight we were going to eat a proper tea – even if it meant we had to travel across the whole of London again to get to it. But first, a seven minute walk away, was Neal’s Yard
London activity 4 - Neal's Yard
I’d seen pictures on the internet but somehow I’d successfully managed to miss this colourful courtyard in the heart of London on every single visit.
Today, albeit a bit of a gloomy one, was the day. It is a swing by on your way to Covent Garden kind of place, but pretty as a picture nonetheless. And now, finally, it was time for tea!
Eating out in London - Brick Lane curry
Brick Lane is famous for its curries and I’d never had one. This needed to be rectified. We’d googled the restaurants with the best reviews and booked a table with a 20% online discount at Aladin’s.
From the outside, it is not much to look at, but I can honestly say this is probably the best curry I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve been to India (and Birmingham).
Absolutely delicious. Bravado husband however had gone for a hot. Bad move. It just made him a bit teary and sweaty, and foolishly he issued a devilish chilli-challenge that youngest child couldn’t resist. 2 diners were in tears now.
But those who had guarded their taste buds were in dinner-heaven. Even better is that it is BYO, and your waiter will go to the off licence next door with your order on your behalf. Service above and beyond.
It was definitely worth travelling from China (town) for. And I was forgiven for all earlier scheduling misdemeanours. Sadly, I have no pictures as curry sauce never photographs well.
London itinerary with kids tip 7: The hottest curry on the menu/ chilli challenge is never a good idea
Day 2 - London itinerary with kids
London activity 5 - V and A
When visiting London with kids we always go for a museum because a) they are some of the best in the world, and b) they are free.
We usually go for dinosaur bones and meteors at the Natural History, but I was keen to try a new one. It took a bit of persuasion to talk the 3 male family members into trying out a museum that is ostensibly dedicated to costume. I promised them that an art and design focus would be just as impressive as the other top hitters, and they reluctantly agreed to give up the chance of hanging out with mammoths and to give it a whirl.
As we are now living in Covid times, I had be more organised than usual and pre-book our V and A entry. I had opted for a respectable 11am on the basis that we could lie in and then go for a post-breakfast swim on the way.
But once again Covid intervened. Pool slots had to be pre-booked and neglected to book this at check in. By the time we booked in the evening, the only session left was at 6am in the morning. We took it anyway, but the lie in was in the bin.
London itinerary with kids tip 8: In Covid pre-book your museum and your hotel pool session before your day of arrival
The plus side of visiting museums by appointment in these troubled times is that once you are in, you virtually have the place to yourselves. Brilliant. We headed down a yellow corridor under the gaze of white body-less heads and wondered where to start.
I really wanted them to come alive like in the Night at the Museum for a bit of a chat, but sadly their stares remained silent.
The first exhibit we stumbled upon turned out to be the cast rooms on the ground floor, where Victorian explorers have taken plaster casts of the most impressive columns/door/graves from across the world and transported them to create life-sized reproductions for the general delight and education of the man in the street (or museum) back home. The scale of these pieces is jaw-dropping. They had to add a high-ceilinged extension to the museum to fit them in.
Bollinger Jewellery Gallery
In the heart of the museum you find the very appropriately named Bollinger gallery – a room containing 3,500 Champagne-lifestyle jewels, from the ancient Egyptian to the strangely modern.
There is a small queue but it is a free exhibition and, due to social distancing rules, free of people!
London itinerary with kids tip 9: Whilst queuing for exhibits ask the curator for their favourite piece, for a great background story and so you don’t miss the stars of the show.
You drift around the darkened exhibits, very much like an exclusive jewellery shop crossed with a nightclub, ascending the neon-lit glass staircase to view more manly, but still diamond-encrusted swords and clocks on the mezzanine level.
We all got to choose our favourite exhibits, and for me it was the tiny crown designed by one of the museum’s namesakes, as a gift for the other. This was proper treasure in my book and a top tip from the curator. Effectively you are seeing the Crown Jewels for free.
London itinerary with kids tip 10: Don’t miss the Crown Jewels (and the neon-lit staircase) in the Bollinger gallery
The ceramic staircase
Amazing staircases appeared in many guises and at every turn. I stopped for a small rest in a stairwell between exhibits only to discover that this section of the building itself was a marvel in its own right.
With intricate cherubs and flowers covering every available surface, it resembled an elaborately decorated cake. On closer inspection I read that one stairwell’s ornate panelling represent arts, the other science, whilst painted Roman gods fly overhead.
The initial intention was that the entire building would be decorated this extravagantly, but as is often the building-project way, they ran out of cash. The fabulous ceramics of the staircase remain testament to their vision of grandeur (although to be fair the rest of the place turned out not to be too shabby in the end either).
One of the main incentives for visiting the museum was that it was home to outfits of pop star legends David Bowie and Elton John. When we eventually found the right room (the whole place is an enormous maze of corridors and levels) the sign informed is that this exhibition was currently closed (“Nooooo” – and that was just me).
But the rest of the costume collection was still spectacular, and contrary to expectation, the whole family were fascinated by the stories and history behind the crazy changing fashions.
London itinerary with kids tip 11: Hunt out the rock star outfits in the theatre section (but check it is open first)
The rest of the world
As with any London museum, you can’t hope to cover it all in one day. Each child picked a country they wanted to explore, and we learned:
- how to spot a Japanese Emperor’s red throne (look for the 5-toed dragon),
- that sculptors are tested on producing each of the expressions in a separate white head (disdain, boredom, disgust – hilarious), and
- that Henry VIII was the tapestry millionaire of this day.
We walked down aisles of silverware, past Wimbledon cups and mad tureens, reminding us it was time for a spot of eating and drinking ourselves.
William Morris cafe
Covid also stole our lunch plan. I’d bigged up the fabulousness of the cafe decorated by the man himself, but the museum had taken the Covid opportunity to have a bit of work done.
As it wasn’t raining, we were able to dine al fresco in the lovely courtyard cafe instead, so all was not lost. A packed lunch on the steps is available as a budget option if you are organised enough to have brought food.
London itinerary with kids tip 12: when it is open, the William Morris cafe is one of the fanciest in town
London activity 6 - Tower Bridge floating floor
Unbelievably the day was still young. We may have walked the boys’ feet off along kilometres of museum walkways, but we had a 3 o’clock appointment with a floating floor at Tower Bridge.
This activity was chosen on the basis that is has a surprise (to me, until very recently) glass floor walkway, and is free for kids using the 2 for 1 train ticket deal.
Getting your 2 for 1 deal
The system is a bit tricky to navigate to say the least. You need a real commitment to budget travel to see it through. I’ve just spent the last half an hour retracing my booking steps to work it out.
Buy the right type of train ticket: Not all train tickets are eligible for the deal.
- A day travelcard round London will do (but you need to have a travel card from a National Rail station, rather than just a tube). If you are relying on a London travelcard, don’t forget to buy it at the start of the day rather than tapping your card on autopilot or you’ll end up paying twice for your travel.
- The ticket needs to be valid on the day of travel, but an open return ticket will work, even if you are not travelling on that day.
- For a helpful summary of tickets that qualify check out this page.
- All 4 of you will need train tickets.
Buy your attraction ticket:
- Create an account at The Days Out website to get a downloadable voucher.
- Go to the Tower Bridge website.
- From the many more expensive options, select “entry to Tower Bridge”, plus date and time.
- Counter-intuitively don’t select adult/children tickets (I spent about 30 minutes down this dead end). Instead, scroll down to “National Rail Days Out Guide Tickets” ticket option and select 4 of these. They will all be adult priced.
- Enter your discount voucher for 50% off.
It took me ages to work this out. About an hour into the process I nearly gave up and paid the extra tenner. At least I’m set up for next time, if I can work out how to add a new voucher (which to be honest I can’t see how to do, please let me know if you find out!)
London itinerary with kids tip 13: The 2 for 1 ticket is hard to get your hands on. Don’t forget to bring your train ticket with you.
Walking up the many steps of Tower Bridge’s tower, you get to grab a breather and read about the feat of engineering it was to erect. Quite the tale of ingenuity.
You then pop out at the surprisingly light and airy walkway in the skies. One section of the floor has been replaced with (let’s hope toughened) glass. The timed entry emptiness meant we got great views though it of the river below us. More of a river window than a floor.
Would you be brave enough to stand/jump on it? I was for a second, and then sort of skirted around the edges. Sitting down helps, somehow.
London itinerary with kids tip 14: Look up to the mirrored ceiling for the full effect
London skyline views
Check out the London city skyline and views over the Thames through the side windows between the girders.
Walk the bridge at street level
When you descend on the other side, don’t forget your free tour of the engine room where you can read about Tower Bridge’s human side and the stories of the people who have spent their lives working here.
Give your legs a well deserved rest in one of the cafes on the riverbank (there is a great one right under the bridge itself) before heading back across the river at street level for some more bridge marvelling.
Look out for the views over the Tower of London next door.
London activity 7 - London bus tour
Using Google maps to show us the way and our all day travel passes, we hopped on a red double decker London bus for a tour London by night. On a double decker you have to go to the top deck!
It’s always surprising how many iconic London landmarks are crammed right next to each other. You can lose a sense of this on the Tube, as you pop up above ground to view each attraction in isolation. But on a bus ride, you get to sit down and be taken past the lot like a city tour for free.
London itinerary with kids tip 15: Catch a London bus – front seat top deck for a free city tour
Eating out in London - Pizza at St Pauls Cathedral
Eating with kids can be quite the budget-eater too on city breaks. We tend to hunt out a Franco Manca for a £7 sourdough pizza. The cheapest yet best in town – a winning combo. And in London, you are never too far away from one either.
Ours for the day was sited very prettily at the steps of St Paul’s cathedral. You can’t book and may have to queue for a bit, but it is worth the wait.
London itinerary with kids tip 16: Eat not just Mary Poppin’s bread crumbs, but sour dough pizza on the steps of St Pauls. The best seats are right in the window.
Day 3 of our London itinerary with kids
London activity 8 - Notting Hill
The day 3 plan was market based again but this time there were no timetabling constraints, we could just leave when we’d had enough.
Notting Hill is known for its carnival, the film, pretty pastel houses and Portobello Road Market. It is at its best in the summer, with music and food stalls, when the antique silver gleams in the sunlight.
It was a cold wet October half term and the market was smaller than usual, and sadly, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant were in hiding, but there were still enough stalls to poke around for a while.
There were plenty of cafe’s to grab a bite to eat and then we were ready for the last free activity of the weekend. Cannily we’d saved the best ’til last….
London activity 9 - Feed the mini-parrots at Hyde Park
Over the last few years a sizeable flock of bright green parakeets have set up home in Hyde Park.
Pack an apple each, and you have entertainment for a whole afternoon. The emerald-winged birds will land in entire flocks up the length of your arm as well as on your backpack and head. The braver ones will stay on your wrist for ages, defending their apple territory against on-comers. Just chuck the apple if it all gets a bit much.
London itinerary with kids tip 17: Take your apple to the Peter Pan statue by the Italian fountains to feed and entire army of birds
Feel like Dr Doolittle when other animals also pop by to say hello – squirrels, swans and geese were out in force for a bit of dinner.
After feeding all the bird types, do a little lap of the fountains and grab a coffee at the cafe while you review the thousand photographs you will have taken. I’ve restrained myself by only posting 4.
London activity 10 - Oxford Street window shopping
There was just time left before our train to swing our of the corner of Hyde Park by Marble Arch and check out some oversized decorations in Selfridges on Oxford street.
The game here is always to find the most expensive thing in the shop. Husband won with the £196,000 electric Land Rover (sadly he did not win the actual car).
The toy department is always fun, and we were invited to run up and down a floor keyboard, like Tom Hanks in Big. Santa’s, cuddly toys and Christmas decorations also came in a large.
As a final weekend bonus, we found an colour-changing illuminated bench on the way to the station. Only in London.
London itinerary with kids tip 18: Head round the corner to Regent street for Hamley’s, the infamous 5 storey toy store with interactive toy demonstrations.
London itinerary with kids - lessons learned
- When travelling with kids go for less time in the markets, and more time scheduled for theme park-like toy shops.
- Book ahead for pools and museums, but maybe only book time slots for start-of-the-day activities to leave a bit of flexibility for tired legs later.
- The V and A is equally as brilliant as the other top drawer London Museums and is more than just a coat hanger for costumes.
- Staircases and benches can be a weekend highlight.
- I am a glass-floor chicken but parakeet-braver than I thought.
London itinerary with kids - next time
There are so many free options for kids in London and we only scratched the surface with this weekend. If you haven’t already done so (or even if you have):
- head for the funky Camden Market to hang out with some retro Punks and a giant silver Cyberman,
- watch the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace,
- walk through botanical plants and look out over London town at the Sky Garden,
- hang out at the colourful Columbia Rd Flower Market,
- visit all the art galleries and museums (Science/British/Natural History are our A listers),
- do a free for kids’ tour of the Houses of Parliament (check out details of our visit here).
- post-Covid, check out a London show (kids can get free tickets in August).
What is your top tip for the best free thing to do in London with kids? Can’t wait for my next trip. I might nick some of your ideas!
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