Family Adventures in London

With the details of travel, lodging and budget out of the way now we can move on to the fun part! Subtracting travel time, we had three full days in London. Here’s what we did, plus a few tips for other families interested in exploring this amazing city with kids.


Between the old classic song and the scenes that played out in one of their favorite Magic Tree House* books, the kids were very eager to go to London Bridge and we made it one of our first stops. Though we had tried to prepare them, they were a bit disappointed to find that it was just an ordinary bridge. Looking up river, the Tower Bridge completely and understandably captured their attention. So, we stopped long enough to take a picture and kept walking.

london bridge

The Tower Bridge was much more interesting. We walked across it but chose to skip the long line to go up into the towers and the museum. It was also a bit pricey for our budget. While we tried to interest them in the bridge itself, what captured their attention most was a small cargo boat in the Thames below us.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge LondonBest attempt at a posed photo on the bridge – that boat down there is like a magnet!

tower bridge view

boat thamesThe boat that they just couldn’t stop watching 


While 3 and 6 might not seem like ideal ages for going to museums, we went to several and had a great time. London has many wonderful (and free!) museums to choose from and we spent time in three of them.

The National Gallery was the thing our kids most wanted to do in London. Yes, our 3 and 6 year olds were bouncing up and down with excitement at the idea of visiting an art museum. We owe it all to a fantastic picture book we discovered at our local library: Dogs’ Night*. The book tells an adorable story about the dogs found in the background of many of the paintings and focuses in on four specific and famous paintings.  It’s an engaging story with beautiful illustrations that we spent the summer reading over and over again, and seeing these paintings in real life felt like “a dream come true” for them. (Their words.) Unfortunately, about half of the museum was shut down due to strikes and lack of personnel, so we were only able to see two of the four main paintings. The guides were amazingly helpful and the museum website also has guides for teachers in both primary and secondary age groups to download. We highly recommend this book for helping kids learn about art and particularly for preparing kids to have a blast in the National Gallery!

dogs nightComing up from the underground and stepping into a familiar picture from a book? Priceless.

trafalgar squareThere it is!

dogs in paintingsA keen eye for dogs in paintings!

national gallery kids

bathersSo excited! Hands moving so fast the picture is blurry!

bathers2Comparing with the pictures in the book

Walking past the Supreme Court building, we stumbled across a sign for a free exhibit about the Magna Carta. This was an unplanned stop but well worth planning in if we’d known about it. There are a few different exhibits that all offer activities for kids, from coloring to puzzles and trivia. The Magna Carta exhibit itself has a cartoon video explaining the history of the Magna Carta and it’s importance today. I admit that I had forgotten most of this and learned a lot myself. You can also tour an actual courtroom when it’s not in use. It was not at all crowded – we only saw a few other people while we were there – and the security guards at the entrance were super great with our kids and gave them stickers. A fun, spontaneous, and educational stop along the way.

london supreme court

magna cartaCartoon about the Magna Carta

We also met up with friends at the Natural History Museum. The excitement builds almost immediately as you ride an escalator up into space (or what is made to look like space) as one of the first exhibits. There is also quite a collection of dinosaur bones, or so I’ve heard. The line was so long to get into it that we just didn’t have time to go in. But the kids have talked for weeks about the room that simulates being in an earthquake and the bug exhibits (enormous moving robot scorpion anyone?) We really loved this museum and learned a lot!


natural history

natural history museum london

About Town

I think I could fill an entire London vacation with just walking around the city, enjoying the different sights and neighborhoods without actually going into anything. Obviously that’s not the ideal trip for those among us with little legs, but still we did a lot of walking and the kids were amazing. Some of our favorite things from this trip were just out and about around town.

london alley

Street performers are everywhere, as in most tourist destinations. Usually we would choose to ignore most of them but the kids were fascinated. The best places to find street performers are Trafalgar Square (outside the National Gallery) and Piccadilly Circus. The kids especially enjoyed a tuba player who blew fire from his bell, a group of breakdancers/acrobats, and a guy blowing enormous soap bubbles. There were also chalk artists, which was delightfully reminiscent of Mary Poppins.

london statue

fire tuba
piccadilly bubbles

From Trafalgar Square you can see Big Ben in the distance. It’s not a very long walk, and well worth it. You pass Downing Street, where the prime minister lives, and other important places (guarded by men in full uniform on horses). Beside the Houses of Parliament (Big Ben) there is a small square with an open grassy field. We chose this excellent patch of grass for a picnic one day and sat in the sunshine, surrounded by the beautiful parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey.

big benView of Big Ben from Trafalgar Square… behind that kid’s head

guardNot even sure what they were guarding here… but it looks important

parliament squarePicnic spot. Peter is being a pigeon.

big ben picnicA beautiful day in a beautiful place

London also has lovely parks. We walked through St. James’ Park on our way to Buckingham Palace. The kids played and jumped and fed some ducks. They were both fascinated by the pigeons (I know.) and Emelie begged to sit in the grass and draw them. So we did. It was amazing to watch her study them so carefully and translate what she saw to the paper. I was so thankful that I happened to have a few crayons in the bottom of my bag, and she drew on the back of a paper that also happened to be in there. In the future when we travel, we’ve resolved to always carry better art supplies with us for spontaneous creativity.

st james park
art in the park

It wouldn’t really be a visit to London without walking past Buckingham Palace. But that was really all we did. We chose to avoid the expense of touring the exhibit inside and avoid the crowds of the changing of the guard. Some day I’d like to do those things, but this was not that trip. Our princess-obsessed daughter was satisfied just to be standing outside a real palace and those guards are fascinating to watch at any time of day.

buckingham palace


We love music and theater, and it feels nearly impossible to me to be in London without going to a show in the West End. While we economized nearly every aspect of this trip, this was where we splurged. We took the kids to see the Lion King, which Staffan and I had seen before, but it was all fresh through their eyes. It’s so beautiful the way the dancers portray the different animals. Afterward, it was nearly impossible to stop our little ballerina from dancing through the crowded streets, which was both frustrating and endearing at the same time.

lion king


Food and Restaurants

Food and mealtimes are part of the travel experience, though England is not exactly world renowned for its culinary arts. Our general preference is for picnics, weather permitting. Whether we find a really great spot, like overlooking Parliament and Westminster Abbey, or the same spot everyone else has found, like a bench outside of the Tower of London, we still prefer to be out among the sights and sounds of the place we’re visiting. To save money, we usually find a grocery store and make our own picnic lunches, but in a pinch someplace like Subway works too.

tower picnic

chilly picnicPicnics are fun even if it’s a little chilly.

Pizza is always an easy way to feed tired kids. Near our hotel in Notting Hill was a place called Pizza Metro Pizza. They boast the longest pizzas in London. When you order multiple pizzas, they build them end to end in one long pizza. Four pizzas makes one about a meter long. They have unusual (for us) toppings, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever choose a dollop of whipped cream on pizza ever again, it was something new to try. They bake in a wood oven and the kitchen is an open area in the middle of the restaurant. The kids loved watching the pizzas being made, which made the waiting time for hungry bellies go a lot faster. It’s a little pricier than a typical neighborhood pizzeria, but it was fun.

pizza toss
pizza by the meter

Fish and Chips is a must, of course, when visiting England. We walked for quite a while trying to find the “right” place to get fish and chips one evening. There are plenty of restaurants in the most touristy areas, and they all offer fish and chips, but we were trying to avoid the typical tourist trap places and their prices. If there was someone out on the street trying to convince us to eat there, we would definitely go elsewhere. Eventually we found a small place on a side road called Dheens Fish and Chips that wasn’t crowded but had a few other customers who didn’t seem like tourists. The prices were a lot more reasonable, too. For the future, though, it would be good to get a few more tips. Where should one go for fish and chips in London?

fish and chips

Our last restaurant was the Rainforest Cafe. The kids loved the atmosphere and animal decorations, but overall we were very disappointed with our experience and wouldn’t go back. We had booked a package together with our theater tickets which included a reservation two hours before our show time. This seemed like plenty of time, but we still had a long wait to be seated and the service was so slow that we didn’t have time to finish our meal. We knew that the menu for the package meal was limited, but we didn’t know that things like drinks were an additional charge. We were seated in a back corner of the restaurant where you couldn’t see most of the robotic animals and decorations. It was extremely crowded and very loud. The food wasn’t great and on the whole it wasn’t worth the stress. It certainly would have been better if we weren’t worried about missing the show, but I’m still not sure I’d have been happy about spending several hours of my vacation in an over-crowded, over-stimulating restaurant. Not our favorite.

rainforest cafe
rainforest cafe london


The first question most people asked us when we said we were going to London was, “With the kids?” We genuinely love traveling with our kids, but naturally it adds some complications and changes the way we make decisions. It adds so much more than complications, though, and it’s absolutely worth it. Here are some things we try to think about to ease the complications and make the whole trip more fun for everyone.

Snacks. Snacks, snacks, snacks, snacks. Pack more than you think you’ll need, and always have them with you. We like to buy these in a grocery store when we get there, although we usually have a few things with us for the trip itself too. Yes, we occasionally buy ice cream in the park and things like that, but buying snacks at snack bars or tourist shops will cost you in money, quality and time. Sometimes you stumble across a really nice view and it’s great to just pull out something to munch on and take a break. Or when the kids are tired and starting to whine, a little kick of energy and blood sugar can improve everyone’s mood. Let’s not even talk about the potential to be stuck in a train longer than anticipated, or waiting in a long line to get in somewhere… a bag of snacks and some water bottles is worth carrying with you.

Bathrooms. This was our first trip with both kids completely out of diapers. Hurrah! Changing diapers in those tiny little airplane bathrooms? Not sorry to see that go. But we haven’t reached the stage yet where they hold it very well, and “I have to go!” is often panicked, declaring a state of emergency. It’s good to be prepared for toilet accidents, even in older children who rarely have them at home. Traveling can throw your body rhythms off and kids have a harder time adjusting to that. You’re also in a new place and don’t always know where the nearest bathroom is when the need strikes. Changes of clothes, wet wipes, and somewhere to put soiled clothing (to protect all those snacks in your bag) is a must. We also talked to our kids about these challenges and have a “use it if you got it” policy. We don’t leave the hotel, museum, or restaurant without using the bathroom. Even if you just went an hour ago. Even if you don’t feel like you have to go. This way, we eliminate most emergencies and accidents.

Stuff. Traveling with carry-on only helped us limit how much “stuff” we brought. When it’s time to pack, they insist that they can’t live without this toy or that giant book. We know, of course, that they can and a short trip is the perfect time to help them learn that. They could each choose one (small) stuffed animal to sleep with and cuddle on the plane and a few small books to look at on the plane and read for bedtime stories. We also brought the Dogs’ Night book for the museum visit and a couple of other books related to London. As I mentioned, we’d also like to add a small art kit into our future packing plans. There’s a balance between having tools to enhance their learning on the trip and the stuff actually getting in the way. We want to let the place itself be the main teacher.

Pace. Finding the right pace for the trip can be difficult but it’s so important. The pace of a trip with kids is automatically different than our pace when we traveled alone. Did we see all that London has to offer? No? Did we go up in the London Eye, ride a double-decker bus, or see the changing of the guard? No. We spent time drawing pigeons, jumping from tree stumps, even resting in the hotel watching a children’s show on TV. All things that we could have done without leaving our hometown. All this in complete defiance of that persistent voice in my head that kept shouting, But we’re in LONDON! We have so little time! We have to see and do all the things! We can rest when we get home, c’mon let’s go, go, go! But we know that this is a recipe for cranky kids and grumpy parents, for coming home exhausted instead of refreshed, and for teaching our kids that travel is stressful and there’s no time for fun. So we spent 10 minutes watching a cargo boat under Tower Bridge. We watched bugs crawling in the grass with Westminster Abbey in the background. We let them remind us about the beauty of the small and simple around us, which could otherwise get lost in the grandeur of ancient architecture and famous locations. There is room for both, and both are needed. When we let the kids set the pace, everyone has a better trip. All the things will still be there. We can go back.

jumpAn irresistible giant stump in St. James’ Park

What are your tips for traveling with kids? What did we miss in London that we should make sure we do next time we’re there?

*Affiliate links used for the books we recommended. If you choose to buy one of these books based on our recommendation, we hope you’ll use this link!

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