London for kids in 2021 – 23 essential insider tips

ArcellorMittal slide, Olympic Park, London for kids

How great is London? With palaces, titanic slides, sparkling Lidos and parakeets hiding in the trees it verges on a real life Disney at times. But what is it like in 2021 with limited ticketing and reduced capacity pretty much everywhere? Spontaneity may need to take its own back seat but the good news is London for kids can totally be done on a budget in Covid, even in the rain. Planning outside the box, you may even find new corners to explore.

Organising a trip is achievable but tricky. The amount of pre-trip research required would challenge a professional wedding planner, and the fluidity of risk assessment bring a City actuary to tears.  

Events should ideally be outdoors and pre-booked.  But everything has to be cancellable in case someone gets put into isolation at the last minute.  Unless it’s not a cancellable ticket – then do you still want it enough to buy it anyway? How far ahead are you prepared to risk your money when the last 10 days are the most crucial isolation-wise? And what if it rains? How many back up plans do you actually need? 

Here are my top tips for how to navigate setting up an itinerary for your London with kids trip in 2021, with a few lessons learned so you can benefit from the errors of my ways.

Barriers to booking London for kids in Covid

Pre-booking essential

As spaces are limited in most tourist attractions, be organised and book ahead. Places that you can normally just rock up to on the day are only available to the organised pre-booker. Be that person. This goes not just for the show stoppers like the Tower of London but for all London museums, restaurants, pubs,  swimming pools (including your hotel) and trains.

Only make fully cancellable or last minute bookings

But here’s the rub. When booking trips away at the minute, you cannot ignore the fact that there is a decent chance that one of your family will be contacted by school or Track and Trace to say they have to isolate for 10 days. Minimise the financial impact of this nightmare scenario by making as many of your plans as you can fully cancellable.

London for kids tip #1

 For attractions not offering refunds, book just before you travel.

Travel fail 1: Sadly zoo tickets are neither cancellable nor cheap. I had to hold off booking until a couple of days before travel to minimise the risk of throwing all my money away, but by this point all the tickets were gone. I had not made a cancellable back up plan for the day.

2 for 1 deals not available

I intended to build an itinerary around half price rail deals on top London attractions but all deals are off the table as, presumably all venues need the hard cash from fully paying customers.

London for kids tip #2

Maybe save the usual big attractions for future visits when you are pretty much guaranteed to get in for half price with a Tesco voucher, Blue Peter badge or Cornflake packet.

Outdoors is best

To avoid crowds of people breathing on you in confined spaces, generally avoid the shops of Oxford Street in favour  street markets in Notting Hill or Brick Lane.

Try a bit or park life in the glorious rose gardens or boating in the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Buckingham Palace is closed but for this summer only you can book a picnic in the garden, and it is still great for a drive by photoshoot.

The Ghost bus is available but the thought of too much trapped air for long periods put this on the post-Covid back burner. Ghost walks are more Covid-friendly.

Covid closed

  1. Battersea dogs’ home – you can usually pay £2 to play with puppies for an afternoon. This option is Covid-closed. Only customers actually planning to bring a dog home with them need apply. (Only one of our party falls into this category but he has not yet won that on-going argument.)
  2. The Royal Mews – designed by the same architect as Buckingham palace and home to stables and royal carriages is also closed for 2021, apparently.
  3. The Ice Bar – didn’t make it through Covid. One day a new one will be born again soon?

Make an itinerary in London for kids 2021

I have learned over the years to only book a maximum of 2 activities a day to avoid child burn out. Add optional extras, in case you have the energy and weather on the day but avoid putting money down on these.

From the incredible array of all that London has to offer I went for this itinerary for our Covid-friendly budget break:

Day 1 - Lido and Al Fresco curry

Parliament Hill Lido

Cost: £4.05 per Adult, £1..20 /child per hour

Tickets released every Monday for the week ahead.

Cancellable up to 24 hours ahead

Website: Click here 

Nearest Station: Gospel Oak

Most Hampstead outdoor swimming pools are only open to over 16’s at the minute but you can book an hour at the Parliament Hill Lido for the whole family. An advantage of last minute booking (this was my zoo substitute) was having a weather forecast to work with and it was going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day. Yay.

Optional extras – Hamsptead Heath walks and High Street cafes.

Brick Lane curry

Cost: £60 for dinner for 4 with discount 

Website: www.aladinbricklane.co.uk/

Nearest Station: Aldgate East

A Brick Lane curry is a London staple.

Being a BYO and having a 20% online booking discount make Aladin’s an affordable family favourite.

Outside seating and market mooching available as optional extras.

Day 2 - Olympic Park and nitrogen icecream

Olympic Park

Cost:

ArcelorMittal slide:

Up to £17.50pp (Slide) £1250pp (view only)  if booked direct. Did not appear to be cancellable.

We went for family slide ticket £33 for 4 through Tiqets (fully cancellable).

Minimum age 8/ height 1.3m

Website: https://arcelormittalorbit.com/whats-on/the-slide

Bikes:

BMX hire £16 /family – only bookable on the day (long trousers and sleeves mandatory)

Nearest Station: Stratford 

The Arcelormittal is the stuff kids’ dreams are made of. A huge metallic sculpture has been transformed into the nation’s longest slide.

The vast Olympic Park complex would be our post-ride afternoon playground. Bikes are available for hire – road or BMX depending on your wardrobe and tolerance for trickiness.

Nitrogen Icecream

Cost: £5 for a sundae

Website: https://chinchinicecream.com/chin-chin-ice-cream/soho/

Nearest Station: Soho branch – Piccadilly circus

At ChinChin nitrogen ice cream shop the ice cream is frozen in front you in nitrogen clouds straight out of a sci-fi movie.

No booking is needed and the take-away option make this a Covid-winner.

Day 3 - Hyde Park boating and London Bridge ghost walks

Hyde Park

Cost: £29 for a family of 4 for 1 hour

Walk up only (factor in queue time)

Website: www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/

Nearest Station: Lancaster Gate or Marble Arch

A morning of bird feeding, rose gardens, boating and outdoor cafes was scheduled to conicide with another sunny day forecast.

Ghost Walk

Cost: £14/adult, £9/child (8+)

Cancellable up to 24 hours before.

Time: 19.30-21:00

Website: London Bridge Ghost Walking by Lantern Ghost Tours

Nearest Station: London Bridge

London, with its history stretching back to Roman times and its whole heads on spikes era, clearly has a lot of ghost potential.

Day 4 - Thames boat ride and Greenwich Meantime

Thames boat ride

Cost: £40  return family ticket (buy online or on boat)

Website: Thames Clippers

Nearest Station: Embankment

Like a speed boat past the iconic London landmarks – much more fun than the Tube.

Greenwich

Cost: £16/adult,£8/child  (no sign of cancellation)

Website: https://www.rmg.co.uk/royal-observatory

Nearest Station: Greenwich Station

Booked into Greenwich Royal Observatory for giant telescopes, Harrison’s clocks, the Meridian line and original Time Ball.
 
Ticket prices are steep considering all the other museums are free, but The Observatory is set, not surprisingly, on a hill with amazing views. Greenwich park, market and Cutty Sark are location bonuses.
 
This was a non-cancellable last minute addition the day before travel so decided to risk it as pre-booking a time slot is required.

Pre-trip tips

Rainy day plan

You may think, as I did, that having made an itinerary, you are London-ready but don’t neglect having a parallel rainy day itinerary in place. This is England the chances of rain stopping play are real and ever-present whatever the weatherman says.

Travel fail 3: Despite extensive planning, I did not have any plan B’s in my back pocket for rainy days. This was a mistake. A Covid focus took my eye off the weather joker in the pack.

Type up the itinerary Monica Geller

OK, so you might feel a bit like Monica, but typing up a table of your itinerary with timings and cancellation deadlines means you don’t have to remember it, so it is actually perfect for the lazy-minded traveller like me.

Print off all tickets so you don’t have to faff around on your phone hunting down confirmation emails in your inbox with no battery/patchy signal.  In a move Monica would be particularly proud of, use a polly pocket so the rain doesn’t destroy all your hard work, like a dog eating your homework.

London for kids tip #3

Have a rainy day plan and print it or the rain will steal that too.

Booking your London for Kids travel

Advance booking

It is usually cheapest to book any train journey 3 months ahead through Ticket Alert (see Budget travel post for details). This is a laughable Covid strategy. Booking even a week ahead can feel wildly optimistic in this rapidly changing headline world.

This trip, ready to isolate at any time, we were last minute shoppers. Fortunately the 3 days  before travel price from Bristol with a railcard works out at only £26 pp return. Not as bad as I was expecting. I even remembered to book daily travel cards for the kids with railcard discount.

Travel fail 2: Having not booked a train for a very long time, I forgot to get a rail card discount on the adult tube tickets. 

London for kids tip #4

Book a London underground day pass for each family member when you book your  destination to get a railcard discount and to save the hassle of queuing up for a ticket when you get to London.

Seats

Booking late meant that all the cheapest nominated train tickets had gone.

Although I had the luxury of choosing any return train with my off peak saver ticket – the Trainline website was telling me that you needed to have seats booked to travel. We nominated one of the return trains for seat booking and wondered what would happen if we tried to flex it on an earlier return. Hmm.

In Covid you are not supposed to sit in the aisle seats, so the train is less crowded, but the flip side is there are less bookable seats available. As a result of this combined with the last minute booking, we had not secured 4 seats near each other but were instead to be dispersed around the carriage far away from central snack carrier.

On the day, we stole seats from invisible people who had decided not to follow through with their plan travel to London in Covid in 25 degree heat. Food was distributed and devoured immediately. (Packed “lunches” never last until actual lunchtime resulting in the total opposite of a money saving venture, involving the purchase of 4 meals each by the end of the day instead.)

Covid ticket conundrum

Covid conundrum summary – do you:

a) book early for cheap tickets and adjacent seats – but risk a £10 per ticket admin fee if you need to change it, or

b) book last minute when you are pretty sure you are still going to be able to go ahead, but miss all the cheap fares and maybe not be able to book seats either adjacent or at all?

Answer: It’s a trick question. There is no right answer.  Even the anytime return tickets which cost hundreds of pounds require travel within 5 days of your original date. Your appetite for risk and budget will be deciding factors.

Booking your London for kids hotel

Book into a family room at the Paddington Novotel for these travel wins :

  • fully cancellable booking
  • 5 minute walk from the station/Tube/canal/supermarket and cafes
  • a pool
  • kids under 15 eat for free
  • discounts, bookings using points and the odd upgrade/free drink if you join the reward scheme
  • 3 nights for the price of 2 deals.

Bit disappointed on check in to be told that each room was allocated one 15 minute pool slot for the entire say, as a hotel pool is a  holiday highlight, but we had a date with another pool to soften the blow…

London itinerary for kids Day 1

How it actually happened:

Parliament Hill Lido

The lido, built in 1938, is unheated and has an equally cool retro vibe. The base of the pool is made of a surprise metal, which shimmers in a very sparkly way, making the whole Lido experience one of a luxury holiday resort.

The pool is emptied and refilled with people every hour so is mirror-like and pristine on arrival. Limited ticketing meant the pool was pleasantly sparsely populated.  We grabbed a covered cabana and spent an hour pretending we were in Italy.

London for kids tip #5

In hindsight I should have bought 2 back to back 1 hour sessions, as this was a London holiday hit.

Afterwards, we nipped round the corner to the café for Lebanese snacks in the park. The Lido is next to a huge playground and the Heath offers walks to viewpoints over the city. On a sunny day, go for a stroll  and have a peek at the other more au naturel swimming pools, which look much less glamorous than the sparkly Lido option.  

A funfair had set up in the sunshine to complete the festival atmosphere.

Brick Lane Curry

Our next stop over on Brick Lane, is surely a contender the best curry in Britain. Arriving an hour early, we ducked into the pretty courtyard café  93 Feet East where kids are allowed onsite until 7pm, after which, looking at the menu. they were going to get the party started big time.

Greenery, fairy lights and glitterballs provided their own day time party atmosphere.

London for kids tip #6

Cocktails, curries and family trips are not mutually exclusive affairs

The curry house tables were set up in the street which was fun, if a little close to the odd passing bus (5 inches maybe?). But it tasted fantastic as ever, and you get to do some extreme people watching at the same time.

Score for the day: 9/10 – the Lido was an Oasis in the urban jungle

London itinerary for kids Day 2

Olympic Park

Much anticipated was Day 2, with the ArcelMittor slide booking at 11.30.

The slide, a converted Olympic sculpture, is shiny, tall and twisty with metallic black out sections. Riders are inserted into a tube at the top and issued with strict instructions about not popping your head up.  

You can book the slide itself, or, for wimps, an elevator to the views at the top and a 441 step climb down. The “to slide or not to slide” ticket choice split the family: 2 definite yeses, 1 maybe, one probably not. It was cheaper to buy 4 slide tickets as a package than 3 slides and a view, so I’d gone for it on the basis that maybe I’d man up on the day (or maybe claustrophobia would win out).

A wet day 2 dawned and we headed out on the hour long journey through the un-forecast lashing rain. Emerging from the Tube, we navigated crowds of shoppers at the Stratford retail park, which is incidental in London but bigger than Bristol’s main Cabot Circus. After passing an Olympic Aquatic Centre and an entire stadium we arrived at the foot of the slide monster.

I wanted to see the faces of the emerging sliders before making a final descent decision but the place was weirdly deserted. Approaching the ticket office a workman popped out holding a dishcloth and informed us that the ride was closed for testing, but we could book for the next day. Two thoughts:

1.The slide was scary enough when I’d thought it was in full working order. If the joints were a bit dodgy, did we still want to ride? 

2. Tomorrow was taken, but maybe we could go early on the Hyde Park boat plan, shoot across town for the slide and still fit our evening ghost tour in?

Deciding that sliding straight after testing was probably the best time to go in terms of safety we decided to commit to a rule-breaking 3-event plan the next day.  We said yes and tried to work out what to do with the rest of the day.

I’d imagined hiring a Boris bike and meandering around the Olympic Park checking out art trails, maybe throwing in a family BMX track session. Rain put paid to these afternoon dreams.

The information booth informed us that the Velodrome had static indoor bikes available for £40pp. We said no. The Aquatic Centre (like we needed more water) could only be booked online. Despite valiant efforts in patchy wifi conditions and even signing up as a member of a leisure centre, booking Olympic swimming for children proved impossible.

London for kids tip #7

Book a museum way in advance as a back up plan if there is any chance of rain. You can always cancel and it is free.

Razer gaming shop

Rainy day plans (when all the museums are booked) are going to involve shopping and booze, and so it was.

The Razer gaming shop was located for the IT crowd in the family. Green lights illuminated racks of high-tech laptops and glow-in-the-dark keyboards. There was even a huge snake-like insignia on the wall. But the downstairs land of neon where you test the games was Covid closed. Doh. (Travel fail 3 – tick.)

London for kids tip #8

The Razer shop is a rainy day-proof but not a Covid-proof plan. 

Nitrogen frozen ice cream

The next London for kids activity was brought forward and we headed off to sample a Chin Chin icecream. We’d not eaten since the huge free buffet breakfast and it was now mid-afternoon. An late icecream lunch seemed to fit the bill. I’d read that nitrogen was used to freeze the icecreams and imagined plumes of smoke and the kind of workshop you might find in a Despicable Me film.

The icecream-making booth was right at the back of the shop, almost invisible to the naked eye, but some white chemical cloud action was in progress so I took a photo anyway. The sticky toffee pudding icecream was amazing. Fairly happy with the visit up to this point (a 6/10), things took a turn for the unexpected when the entire room filled up with a dense cloud as nitrogen spilled towards us over the counter. Brilliant. There was a brief moment of fear that one of the children’s feet might turn to ice and shatter like in a cartoon but no, all feet remained attached. I imagine this was more of a mishap than a show put on regularly for customers but it made our day.

Camden Market

London for kids tip #9

Camden Market is a London for Kids winner in literally any conditions – pandemic or weather.

As a semi-indoors things to do with kids in London option, Camden Market seemed a genius next step. 

The indoor/outdoor combo was a great Covid and weather compromise and someone had kindly put up about a thousand umbrellas for us in readiness. Not even the usual resident punks were braving the weather. I’d like to have witnessed a Mohican bad hair day.

We whistlestop-toured the subterranean neon Cyberdog shop and browsed the funky DM’s before settling down into an afternoon of rum and chips at the Wetherspoons overlooking Camden Lock. 

London for kids tip #10

You can rely on a Wetherspoons for cheap eats and free refills of hot chocolate, tea and coffee.

Abbey Road walking with the Beatles

It was still only 5pm and we’d already had our potato-based tea. Was there time for one more London with kids activity?

Google told me that a 30 minute walk down the canal from Camden would take us to Abbey Road. Perhaps we should cross the crossing in the manner of a 1960’s Beatle? There were 4 of us after all.

“Yes,”  said the grown ups, “meh,” said the teenagers. We had the bus tickets and room key so we won.

The canal path takes you along the edge of the zoo, so we did get a little look at what we could have won if we’d secured our golden zoo ticket. A couple of hogs were hiding by a fence.

Arriving at the crossing, we checked the album cover to get the right angle and duly stopped traffic for a photo of 3 (hadn’t really factored the photographer role into the 4 person photo plan). We might photoshop a Beatle in later.

There is an Abbey Road studios shop but we missed closing time by 5 minutes. Travel fail 4.

London for kids tip #11

For Beatlemania head to Abbey Road crossing and shop (check times!)

Score for the day 6/10 – slide disappointment but valiant rain recovery activities

London itinerary for kids Day 3

Darcie Green Flower Barge

This was park day, so thank the Lord, the sun was back. In a groundhog day style, we tucked into an overly enormous buffet breakfast to fend off hunger for the day and maybe avoid having to pay for lunch.

Like bloated balloons we set off for a day of Blur park life, but within yards of the hotel were distracted by the flowery brilliance of the Darcie Green barge floating prettily in Paddington Basin. Its orange blooms glowed in the hot sun, and we were unable to Dionne Warwick walk on by. (The children knew better and told us quite pointedly it was not time for a stop/we had just had food/we already had a bonus activity to fit in the day’s schedule etc. but the barge prettiness closed our ears to reason.)

Around us, young types feasted on salmon and poached eggs, and cracked open bottles of champagne. Despite having had 3 each already about 10 minutes previously, we ordered lattes all round and soaked up the vibes.

For future reference we noted small groups boating past us on electric dinghies complete with dining tables and fizzy pop. Immediately Googled GoBoats and made mental note to book one into my next itinerary.

London for kids tip #12

Hire a family friendly  Go Boat for 8 people  £89/ hour or £129 for 2 hours to see London by canal.

Hyde Park birds

We’d all stolen an apple from breakfast and were ready to tempt flocks of parakeets from the trees in Hyde Park into breakfasting from our hands.

Oddly, the birds which had landed on our backpacks and heads on our October visit, had flown.   2 or 3 parakeets were shuffling in the branches about our heads, and had we not experienced the previous hoards, this would have been exciting in its own right. All the hopeful human feeders were saying the same thing, that there are usually hundreds of these bright green birds. Only the man who had bought sunflower seeds met with hand feeding success.

Maybe, the birds were able to find their own food in Spring and Summer.

The bird front did have something to offer though in the form of multitudes of fluffy grey cygnets, which the many swans had produced for an ah factor.

London for kids tip #13

Lesson learned: Bring bird seed if you want a hand landing.

Boating the Serpentine

At this point we were a bit worried that our flower barge and bird seeking dallying could yet scupper our plans by allowing the sunny-day Hyde Park boat queue to build up. Fortunately not. I suspect the lack of international  tourists and the decision by all wise Londoners to head to Cornwall for half term had saved the day. There was only one person ahead of us and several boats moored up ready for hire.

We hopped aboard a giant pedallo and fought over who should be pedalling whom. Some firemen were using the lake for hose target practice, so avoiding the jets of  water added a themepark-ride edge to the trip.

London for kids tip #14

I’d totally recommend paying for the full hour (£29) rather than half an hour (£24) to give you time to tour the lake, island, birds and bridges, building in opportunities for general laziness and drifting.

Olympic Slide (take 2)

Running late, there was only just enough time to march to Oxford Street and throw a meal deal down our necks before dashing across London for the slide. 

So far we had been lucky with Tube travel. Most of the trains had been pretty empty and we’d been lulled into a false sense of security that this was the usual capacity in these troubled times. This time it was a sunny Saturday and the crowds had ballooned. The Tube from Marble Arch to Stratford was rammed. Covid soup. It would be buses all the way after this dance with death.

London for kids tip #15

Try buses for less crowded and much more scenic London travel 

The time had arrived to slide. Or not. 

Riding the slide would entail sacrificing all bags and phones to a locker before entering the lift. There would be no pictures at the top if I slid. I totally bottled it, deciding to play cameraman/chicken instead.

Exiting the lift into a glass room wedged amongst the bright red lattices of the sculpture, we were rewarded with not only views across the city, but huge wobbly mirrors whose job it was to weirdly invert the skyline (and insert alien blobs when viewed from the wrong angle). Turns out it was worth taking a camera – cowardice exonerated.

It is unclear if the mirror magic is here to entertain or distract you from your impending descent (doom?) while you wait.

The next step is to don a comedy slide cap – like a fuzzy swimming hat, strap on some elbow sleeves and wait your turn to pop into a slide bag. 

London for kids tip #16

There is a handy glass frame around the slide entrance and the first section of slide tube is also see-through for your spectator photo/amusement.

The ride takes 40 seconds, which probably feels like a long time to be hurtling down a tube. Walking the 400 steps down takes a bit longer, but I arrived to find everyone was still alive at the bottom, and giving the slide a big thumbs up.

Lesson learned: Be braver. I have the photos now so no excuses for next time. Travel fail? Maybe.

London for kids tip #17

Before you exit, don’t forget to look up at the sculpture from underneath to appreciate its full grandeur and get a few slide hero photos.

London bus ride

And the day was not over yet, but probably should have been. Having learned the Tube lesson, we took  the bus from the Olympic Park to London Bridge and were treated to an incidental yet spectacular tour of central London.

Ghost tour

The ghost tour starts at the historic Bunch of Grapes pub. A better person would have booked their family in for a pre-tour drink, but I was not that person and there was no room at the inn (which did look pretty great from the outside).

London for kids tip #18

Book the Bunch of Grapes or The George, a 17th century coaching inn round the corner, at the start of the ghost walking tour for sustenance and an atmospheric starter for 10.

Our party of about 15 assembled in the street, dodging stray mopeds and headed towards London Bridge. Here a spike sculpture commemorates the traitors’ heads that were placed on the bridge as warnings to behave or else. One minor royal who had not had the chance to sit for his official portrait before his execution, was exhumed and temporarily reunited with his severed head for the painting to be completed. It was interesting to examine at the portrait displayed in on the tour guide’s tablet and try to spot the elephant/corpse in the room. His scarf does a wonderful job.

The tour was surprisingly light on ghost stories, but full of historical tales. One of the nuns who founded Southwark Cathedral was the unfortunate daughter to a miserly prior. The tradition of the day was for friends and family of the dead to fast during a week of mourning. In order to save a few pennies the wiley prior faked his own death. He had not bargained that his apparently untimely demise  would result in something of a party breaking out around his supposedly dead body. Infuriated, he sat up in his shroud, appearing to rise from the dead, only to be clubbed to real death by a terrified mourner thinking himself to be in the presence of an undead demon. 12th century karma in action.

We swung by the original “Clink” prison (after which all others are now slang-named) and were taken to the cross bones cemetery where 15,000 forgotten souls are interred.

There was  talk of a small black ghost dog belonging to a sailor, press-ganged from the Anchor pub and rumours of ladies of the night ghosts who wrap icy hands around the waists of men under the window of the Bishop of Winchester’s palace.

Interestingly, we were taken on almost exactly the same route (Borough Market, Golden Hind, London Bridge) as the Harry Potter walking tour, but with a less wizardy slant to the stories.


For the sake of legs and in the hope of more ghosts, we will be taking the ghost bus (also with a Harry Potter twist of lamps and furnishings) next time.

London for kids tip #19

Unless you have legs of steel go for bus not walking tours at the end of the day. And eat before you tour!

Best pizza in London

It was now a stupidily late 9:30 at night and tea had not yet been eaten. Google Maps pointed the way to a welcome Franco Manca family pizza in Borough Market. With its walk-in only policy, it works well for last minute plans. After emergency pizza it was so late that all the supermarkets were closed so no wine for in-room drinking for us. Darn it. (Drinking AND eating travel timing fails.)

Score for day 8/10 – exhausting but crammed a load in.

London itinerary for kids Day 4

Hotel Pool

15 minute hotel swim – tick.

Thames Boat ride

It is always a bonus holiday feature when the journey is also an activity.

For £40 the whole family can get a return 40 minute boat ride from Embankment to Greenwich taking you right under Tower Bridge itself.

Hop on the Thames Clipper (which also seems to be called the Uber Boat) and sit outside for the best wind-in-your-hair speedboat-style experience (and photos).

Royal Observatory

We’d come to the Observatory  to learn about time and star gazing. I was a bit fuzzy on the details so was looking for a handy audio guide. This might just be me, but without the commentary, I find it hard to get the most out of what I am seeing.

Audio tour

Disappointingly for lazy caption readers such as myself, visiting the Observatory in Covid meant there were no audio handsets to accompany us on our tour. Instead, visitors are required to scan an online app.  But with 1 glitchy app downloaded between 4, the other family members tended to wander off and you feel a bit of an idiot holding your phone out for everyone to hear as you walk around.

As frequently the only listener in the room I discovered that royal funding to study the stars was pledged to assist sailors in plotting their location at sea and thus preventing the many ship wrecks which were scourge of the high seas. 

Harrison's sea clocks

As the stars travel across the skies throughout the night, to plot their position from star charts sailors need to know the time.

Harrison’s 4 famous clocks shine in their golden glory and decreasing size as their architect struggled to master the thorny issue of how to make a clock tick on a boat (not using gravity apparently).

Step 4 is quite a comical jump in size (mantlepiece to large pocket) when he finally cracked it

Time ball

The astronomers needed a way of sharing their base line times with the rest of the world. To this end, a time ball, which could be viewed across the city and in the docks was rustled up.

The ball is covered in dents where builders knocked it round the yard as a football during renovations in the 1950’s. Today it is back atop its perch waiting to fall a small distance very gently at the allotted time. (New York it is not).

London for kids tip #20

Goat 1pm as this is when the time ball falls in summer. By lucky coincidence our booking was for 12.30. (A win!)

Octagonal Room

This is the room used by the Astronomer Royal for star gazing. As it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, I think I was expecting more St Paul’s Cathedral style decoration.  

Meridian line

The atromomers divided the world into 24 sections (time zones) each marking how far the Earth could spin in an hour. The line nominated zero,  joining the North and South Poles  is marked here on the floor with a brassy strip. Walk along the Meridian Line and top  up vaguely remembered O level geography trace memories with small plaques before sitting down for a picnic straddling the start of time itself

London for kids tip #21

For a budget version watch the time ball through the railings. The Meridian line extends outside the walls of the Observatory so you can get your time selfie for free.

Giant telescope

Walk past an enormous telescope 10,000 times more powerful than the human eye. On the tour the conical roof to the universe is closed, but you can book onto star watching tours in winter. Interesting.

London for kids tip #22

In winter book on a real star gazing session.

Greenwich

The remainder of the day was spent walking through Greenwich Park, strolling past the colonnades of the Royal Naval college and poking about in Greenwich market.

The get-some-lunch-at-the-market plan was foiled by the length of queues we were no longer equipped with the legs to stand in. Another supermarket meal deal eaten under the Cutty Sark rigging saved the day before the boat, tube, train, taxi journeys home

Homeward bound

We were an hour early for our train. Could we risk jumping on the one on the platform that was due to leave in 5 minutes with no seat booked? Would they throw us off as Covid outlaws if we had to stand?

The ticket desk man said to jump aboard, but we walked in a panicky way  down 4 carriages, with seconds to spare before we found an empty seat.

London for kids tip #23

Save the trauma of having no seat and go for your booked train

Score for day 6/10 – time is money

London for kids Summary

London with kids is always brilliant.  I’m not going to lie, it is harder to plan for in 2021 than usual and you need back ups at your finger tips. But the upside of some main attractions being closed, is that it made us try London pastures new, and we found inspiration in the stars and boats for our next visit.

Do let me know your secrets for London with kids – what hidden gems you found?

Why not head over to my Free London Activities with kids post for planning activities in non-Covid times, which are hiding just around the corner?

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London for kids - activities and tips
London for kids - activities and tips
London for kids - activities and tips

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18 thoughts on “London for kids in 2021 – 23 essential insider tips”

  1. There are a lot of really helpful tips here! London is such a big city, so it definitely has many things for kids to do within it. Great idea to book things that you’re able to cancel for free too!

  2. What a fabulous and detailed post! travelling post-covid certainly needs a lot more planning but you’ve taken a lot of that extra work off my hands. 🙂 Thank you

  3. Wow what a great guide to one of the best cities in the world. So many fun things to do! I can’t wait to visit again when the borders open 🙂

  4. Interesting how different your trip was from ours and I think we must have been there the same week! Totally agree with your tip on booking early though! Our kids had never been tourists before so we managed: British Museum, National Gallery, breakfast at the top of a skyscraper (massive hit albeit mega expensive), science and natural history museums (top tip – membership of the latter was cheaper for us than the cost of the two exhibitions we wanted to see – wildlife photographer and fantastic beasts), Tower and Tower Bridge (thought the Tower bridge thing was surprisingly good and good value), walking all around the city, south bank and Covent Garden, Borough Market and a days shopping (with Granny while I had a meeting timed to fit in with our trip south). We stayed in an AirBnB on Fleet St which was amazingly central and allowed us to save a fortune on travel by walking everywhere and eating in 3/4 evenings (helpful when you have exhausted everyone!)….

    It was all good… although now we’ll have to go back to do all the things you did!

  5. It’s always hard to know how much to squeeze into a day, but like you say now we have the dilemma about how much to book in vs the risk of having to cancel. I enjoyed reading how the plan worked out in reality! It does sound like you had a memorable trip. Tip for you and your readers on a rainy day: Both Tate galleries usually have free tickets to book on the day for immediate entry. Thanks for joining in with #CulturedKids.

  6. Sounds like you had a great visit to London. We spent a weekend there a couple of weekends ago and I definitely over-planned. Everything always looks much closer on the map! We’ve yet to try the Orbital slide – it always seems such a long way to travel so such a quick ride! #CulturedKids

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