A trophy trip for teens, a storybook vacay for toddlers… London is one of those rare cities that meets almost every kid’s criteria. Parents love it too, of course, because this perennially-popular destination is easy to negotiate (there isn’t even a language barrier to stumble over) and sightseeing is surprisingly affordable. So pack your bags. London’s calling.
Since many local museums are free, families are able to sample a buffet of displays and exhibits without shedding any pounds. Your brood, for example, can get a crash course in art appreciation at the National Gallery, learn how fashion has evolved at the Victoria & Albert Museum, observe how the houses of middle class folks have changed over the centuries at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, or simply drool over retro toys at the V&A Museum of Childhood. If time (or patience) is limited, two museums have proven progeny appeal: the Natural History Museum and British Museum. At the former, kids can stare down an animatronic T-Rex, survive a simulated earthquake, and encounter live creepy crawlers; at the latter, eye poppers like the Elgin Marbles, the Sutton Hoo Treasure, and Egyptian mummies await.
Want More? Many museums have free kid-friendly trails and events (some of them hands-on). The Natural History Museum goes a step further—children under age eight can borrow an Explorer Backpack complete with a pith helmet, binoculars, drawing materials, and more.
Palaces here treat youngsters royally. Hampton Court, for starters, offers costumed interpreters, an age-appropriate ghost trail, plus one amazing maze; while the Tower of London (once home to medieval kings) downplays its fearsome reputation for families, promising a DIY trail and activity books in addition to the potentially scary Beefeater Tours. Even Buckingham Palace greets guests from late July to late September, and your crew can tour its opulent State Rooms using a dedicated audio guide. Better yet, the Changing of the Guard occurs right outside. In case you miss it, you can always gape at a tunic-clad soldier wearing a bearskin hat at the entrance to Horse Guards on the Trafalgar Square end of Whitehall. Just don’t take it personally if the poker-faced fellow won’t smile no matter how politely you say "cheese."
Want More? If you’re hoping to lay eyes on a real royal, your best bet is to check out the diary of public engagements at the monarchy’s official website; then search by name, location, or date.
Who wouldn’t love riding the 443-foot-high London Eye observation wheel? Well, maybe kids afraid of heights and adults freaked out by paying at least $26.20 (ages 4-15, $16.80) for a 25-minute spin. But that’s OK. Getting around London by public transit is adventure enough. Those iconic double-decker buses—vintage red Routemasters—serve two Heritage Routes, the No. 9 and No. 15, passing by many marquee sites; and single tickets for anyone over 10 are only $3.60. (If you don’t care about wheels going round and round, you can view old buses and other classic conveyances on display at the London Transport Museum). Hopping a river bus is fun, too. Combining transportation with a side of scenery, high-speed commuter catamarans provide a fast, inexpensive twist on touristy Thames cruises.
Want More? If your brood is big on theme park-style rides—or tiny plastic bricks—consider a day trip to Legoland Windsor, about 25 miles west of central London. It features kiddy rides dolled-up to resemble giant play sets along with detailed Lego dioramas.
London has a built-in allure for anyone who’s wild about Harry (or Hermione or Ron or Hogwarts in general). Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and other landmarks made cameo appearances in the Potter movies, and spots like the Reptile House at the London Zoo and Millennium Bridge are instantly recognizable to fans. Ditto for Kings Cross Station, where a sign marks the mythic location of Platform 9¾ (a luggage cart juts out beneath it, creating the ideal photo op). Just beware: you may need some potent magic of your own to resist making the 20-minute bus trip northwest to the Harry Potter Studio Tour. It showcases cool costumes, film props that run the gamut from quidditch sticks to 12-foot-tall chess pieces, plus actual sets—including the Great Hall and a 50-foot-wide model of Hogwarts used for exterior shots.
Want More? London Walks organizes themed strolls highlighting locations from the eight movies in the franchise. The charge is $4.50 for ages 8-14, $10.60 for older students, and $13.65 for adults.
All the world is not a stage, but in London’s West End you can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Crammed with theaters, it offers many possibilities for families—think musicals that range from the usual suspects (Les Mis, Mamma Mia, Lion King, and Wicked) to new debuts (like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, opening in June). Tickets, in theory, start at about $30. To get the best deals, though, you’ll have to purchase well in advance or take advantage of last-minute discounters like tkts in Leicester Square. An educational alternative when you have older kids in tow is to watch a play at Shakespeare’s meticulously reconstructed Globe Theatre; for $7.50 you can do like Elizabethan groundlings (except for the throwing rotten fruit part) and stand mosh pit-style in the yard.
Want More? If you’re eager to introduce your offspring to "high culture," try a Crush Room Recital at the Royal Opera House. The hour-long performances (held most Mondays at 1 pm) are palatably short, and tickets are free. But they do go fast, so arrive early or book ahead online.
Frequent Fodor’s contributor Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb has taken her kids to 30-odd countries on six continents. When not on the road, they live happily in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Photo Credits: Inside the Natural History Museum via Shutterstock; Changing of the Guard via Shutterstock: Double-decker Buses via Shutterstock; The Harry Potter Studio Tour courtesy of Olivia Feschuk; Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre via Shutterstock