London is one of those cities that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Out of all the places I have traveled with my children London has got to be one of the best. To say there is a lot to do there would be an understatement. You could spend a week here doing multiple things a day and never run out of activities. London has a reputation as an expensive city to visit. But there are a wealth of attractions accessible for little or no charge, and it’s possible to spend several days sightseeing without spending very much money. In fact, you would need to spend a long, long time in London before all the opportunities for free activities had been exhausted.
The city has an architectural and cultural heritage spanning hundreds of years. It’s possible to spend days walking the streets or the banks of the River Thames taking in the wide variety of sights. There are buildings and monuments to be enjoyed across the city, from the regal splendor of Buckingham Palace to the contemporary arc of the London Eye.
Things to do in London
Tower of London
The Tower of London is a must. It is captivating how much history can be found in one place. The cost of your ticket includes a tour give by a Beefeater, a ceremonial guardian. Our tour was highly informative and entertaining. It included a lot of death talk. If you do not want your kids hearing about people having their heads cut off you may want to skip the tour. The world famous Crown Jewels are kept here and visitors are allowed to walk through and see them. I recommend taking a boat up the river from the London Eye to the Tower of London. The views of the Tower Bridge from the boat are unbeatable. Buy tickets in advance.
The London Eye is a the massive wheel that takes you into the air where you can enjoy spectacular views. In fact, it is the 4th tallest observation wheel in the world. For 30 minutes you can enjoy views of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben, Thames River, and Westminster Palace. Depending on the time of year you visit the line can be atrocious. If you go by here and there is little to no line go immediately. Buy tickets in advance.
See a Play
The talent in London is phenomenal, so I highly recommend going to see a show while you are in town.
We saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory during our visit and I must say London’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is phenomenal. It was hands down the best theater production I’ve seen. It can be difficult for younger children to sit all the way through a musical, but this one will better hold their attention. There are many discount ticket places near Picadilly Circus and Covent Garden. I was able to pick up cheap tickets right before the show, about 30 minutes before at a half price ticket place in between Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden
Remember not to take your kids to see a show on the same day you arrive. The jet lag will quickly catch up with them in a dark theater and they will end up sleeping through the show. I know because I’ve made this mistake before!
Walking tours can be further enhanced by choosing different times of day. The London parks offer a haven of tranquility at all times of day, but their silence has a particular quality early in the morning, as the city wakes around them. The evening brings a different pleasure, when from viewpoints across the city the silhouettes of unique structures stand darkly against the reddening sky. Hungerford Bridge offers a fantastic view of the London Eye, the Thames, Parliament and Big Ben.
Walking across the London Millennium Footbridge at sunset towards St. Paul’s cathedral is amazing.
There’s more to walking in London than just looking at the buildings; the streets are alive with interest. In addition to the huge range of day-to-day characters to encounter there is plenty of deliberate street entertainment, particularly around Covent Garden or on the South Bank, but also popping up in other places from time to time. The Horse Guards and Life Guards, in their distinctive dress uniforms, can often be seen parading in the area around Buckingham Palace and St James’ Park.
The day you go to the show plan to stroll around Covent Garden since it is near the theater. Covent Garden is a neat area full of little shops, restaurants and street performers “Buskers”. I recommend eating at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Union Jacks for dinner. They have reasonably priced kid meals and excellent sticky toffee pudding.
London Sightseeing Bus Tours
I have mixed feeling about the big double decker bus tours. Everyone says it is a must, but I disagree. Although my daughter and I enjoyed it, my two sons hated it. You know your children best, so make a decision based on their personalities. Also, keep in mind that they traffic in London can be a nightmare. There will be times where it will be faster to walk. The tour buses include the boat down the river that I mentioned before.
No guide to London for free can avoid mentioning the world-famous museums. Three clustered together in South Kensington – the Science and Natural History Museums. Both of these provide a day of entertainment and education for no charge, although donations are encouraged. The Natural History Museum is where you will find the dinosaurs.
Victoria & Albert Museum
Nearby is the Victoria & Albert Museum, with its focus on art and design, is a little more serious. But it’s also free, and offers hands-on opportunities to the young and young at heart. There’s plenty to look at and touch, and the new theatre exhibition offers the opportunity to try on stage costumes. The ground floor of the museum has a wonderful gallery of statues that the kids will find interesting, be sure to find Thetis dipping Achilles in the river Styx. From there head to the opulently decorated, pleasant cafe serving lovely salads, sandwiches, cakes and more in the most beautiful setting. You may luck out and have a pianist accompany your meal.
Most visitors to London don’t realize that there are many smaller museums also accessible for free. The Bank of England, the Guildhall, the Museum of London – and many more besides.
The British Museum is another must while visiting London and it too is free. The British Museum offers presents visitors with thousands of years of human history. There is no better way to understand the depths of the pillaging and plundering the British did than to see all the “stolen” goods on display here.
There are the predictable rows and rows of cabinets full of artifacts, but also the breathtaking gallery of massive Egyptian monuments, the glittering Anglo-Saxon treasure of Sutton Hoo and the contemporary architectural triumph of the Great Court. This was once an outdoor space containing the circular reading room, but the entire area is now beneath a transparent roof. The Egyptian display is fascinating for kids. Plus, the Rosetta Stone is here. Located at Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG.
Not far from Shakespere’s theater you will find Borough Market. This market is bustling with activity during the day. Plan to visit during lunch to enjoy a sampling of their offerings. Be sure to try Ginger Pig sausage rolls if you fancy a true British treat. You can also try London’s famous Montmartre Coffee here, in addition to the cheeses, smoothies, sandwiches, honeys, jams, and mustards. There is an ATM located here. Located at 43 Borough Market, London SE1 9AH, UK.
Diana Memorial Playground
We do not visit any city without finding a fun playground to play at. Our favorite in London was the Princess Diana Memorial playground near Kensington Palace. This elaborate play spot was inspired by Peter Pan. Kids can roam all around a pirate ship, swing, slide, dig in the sand, and more. There are bathrooms at the playground and a snack bar right outside the playground.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a beautiful church dedicated to St. Paul. Unlike most churches in Europe, this one does not offer free admission. The cost for a family ticket is £48.50 and covers 2 adults and 2 -3 children. Tickets are cheaper if you order online. We walked in and could see some of it without paying. No large bags, large rucksacks or large suitcases may be brought into St Paul’s Cathedral.
Changing of the Guard
Everyone told us to go to Buckingham Palace to see this. The beginning was somewhat interesting, but there’s no way kids can make it all the way through. People get pretty pushy to get up close. Try to get as close to the center as you can otherwise you can’t see much.
Where to watch the Changing of the Guard: James’s Palace, just on the other side of Horse Guards Rd, you can see the mounted regiment line up for inspection at 11am and then head over to the Victoria Monument in front of Buckingham Palace to see the big shoe with starts at 11:30. Alternatively (and closer to the St. James’s Tube station) you can head to the Wellington Barracks just off the Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace and catch the other regimental band warming up at 11, they will leave to go into Buckingham Palace at 11:30. The real crux of the ceremony should be seen at the palace gates at 11:30 (arrive early to get a view) or the monument.
London shops supply another form of free entertainment. Most of us don’t go to Harrods or Fortnum & Mason to shop, we go to glimpse a world accessible to the rich and famous, and to be delighted at finding an apparent bargain in the midst of such exclusivity. Finally, there’s always plenty of fun to be had in Hamley’s, the huge toy store of Regent Street which is always full of toy demonstrations and more hands-on opportunities.
The Shard is a 95-story skyscraper with great views of London from floors 68, 69 and 72. Tickets start out at £24.00.
The Monument To The Great Fire Of London
Visitors can climb the famous Doric column commemorating the fire that began on Pudding Lane many years ago. It’s a long walk up to the top, but you are rewarded with a great view when you get there. It’s pretty cheap to visit: Adults £4, kids £2. Located at 45 Wellington St, London WC2E, UK.
For more things to do in London check out our other London articles:
How to Get Around in London
Buy a tube pass for the days you will be there. This is cheaper than buying one ticket at a time. I do not recommend getting a car. When you see how they drive in London you will see why!
Where to Eat with Kids in London
Sadly, many of the places we ate I would not recommend, but there were a few.
Murals on 54 Restaurant – I only had appetizers, but they were all excellent. It’s a fun place inside the Warwick hotel. The wait staff was friendly and efficient.
Queen Arms Pub – This is one of the cheapest places we ate while in London. The pizza, hamburger, and cheesy bread was good and the wine was super cheap as was the beer. The pie of the day is just okay.
Union Jacks – This is Jamie Oliver’s restaurant at Covent Garden and it is quite delicious.
Fortnum And Mason – In Picadilly you can grab a quick bit to eat. They’ve got ice cream, coffee, scones, cakes, sandwiches and salads. Parents will appreciate the Gin and Tonic float! It’s located at Constitution Hill, London SW1A 1AA, UK.
Belgo – Near Covent Garden families can save a bundle because kids eat free! They have options like moule, frites, and good beer. Located at on on Earlham Street.
Wagamama – Wagamama is a delicious noodle shop with fast service.
OXO Tower Brasserie – This is the ideal place to splurge on a meal with wonderful British food, live music and epic views. Be sure to have your photo taken out on the terrace with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. Located on the eighth floor of the iconic OXO Tower on London’s South Bank.