Full of beauty, history, and a vibrant culture, London is a wonderful family vacation destination. I spent 17 years living in the vibrant city of London, England, and now that I live abroad, my family and I only get to visit once or twice per year. But I’m determined not to pay tourist prices and am always on the look out for good value family outings.
Once you get over the hurdle of finding a cheap flight to one of London’s five airports, there is an abundance of fun, free, or cheap places to take your family. Whatever your reason for visiting London, you are sure to find something to please you and your family that falls within your budget.
1. Natural History Museum
A mammoth dinosaur in the cathedral-like hallway greets you at the Natural History Museum. From dinosaurs, to wildlife, to the Earth Galleries, this museum is another family favorite. Children can enjoy the special hands on exhibits and explore further with the Discover Guide activity packs. Entrance is free and the museum is open daily (except from December 24th through the 26th) from 10am to 5:50pm.
2. Science Museum
London’s Science Museum hosts six floors of exhibits on energy, environment, space, and transport, which makes it an ideal location for a day-long visit. Hands-on galleries for children of all ages, as well as the IMAX 3D cinema and 3D simulators (extra charge) add an extra dimension of fun for older children. It is open daily (except for December 24th through the 26th) from 10am to 6pm, and entry is free.
3. Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)
Exhibits at the V&A Museum include the Islamic Middle East and China galleries and exhibits dedicated to fashion, jewelry, and furniture, both ancient and modern. Saturdays and school holidays are the best times for families to visit to experience gallery plays and workshops.
Grab a free kids’ activity backpack containing jigsaw puzzles, stories, construction games, and things to handle related to the exhibits. Family trail packs, which help explore the museum through puzzles, drawings, and observation games, are also available throughout the week. Entry is free and the museum is open 10am to 5:45pm daily, except for Fridays when the doors are open until 10pm. The museum is closed on December 24th, 25th, and 26th.
4. Museum of London
The Museum of London, packed with exhibits related to London through the ages, is located on two sites: one in the London Docklands area, and the other near the City of London. Family bingo sheets and activity bags, as well as the SCVNGR hunt smartphone game (where you answer questions, find objects, and take photos to win points) can be used to enhance your visit.
On Sundays and school holidays, the museums host special family activities such as workshops, storytelling, and drama. Both Museum of London sites are open daily – except December 24th through the 26th – from 10am to 6pm. Entry is free.
5. British Museum
The most visited museum in the UK, the British Museum is home to world-famous exhibits that include the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles. With its light and airy atrium, it’s the perfect place for families to explore world history.
Free activity backpacks and activity trails are available every day for younger visitors to get a deeper understanding of the world’s cultures. Special holiday and weekend workshops family events make this a great place to spend one or several hours.
Entry to the museum is free, and it is open from 10am to 5:30pm daily. The museum stays open until 8:30pm on Fridays. The museum is closed December 24th through the 26th.
6. Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum tells the stories of those whose lives have been shaped by war, from the First World War to the present day. Family multimedia guides take children on a fascinating journey though both world wars, telling the human stories behind the objects on display.
Exhibits range from small pieces of war memorabilia to replica warcraft, including a single-person submarine. Entry is free and the museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm, except for December 24th through 26th.
7. London Transport Museum
The £13.50 adult entrance fee (children are free) covers you for unlimited visits for 12 months to the London Transport Museum. Replicas of underground trains, buses, and other modes of transport past and present will delight transport lovers old and young. This museum is open from 10am to 6pm daily (from 11am on Friday).
8. Tate Galleries
The two London-based Tate Galleries are located on the north and south sides of the River Thames. Tate Britain features British art both historic and modern, while Tate Modern is home to a large collection of modern art.
Family multimedia guides are available every day. Art trollies, which encourage kids to imagine and explore with paper-based activities, are a nice addition on the weekends and during the school holidays. Entry is free, and both galleries are open daily from 10am to 6pm (and until 10pm on Friday and Saturday). The galleries are closed on December 24th, 25th, and 26th.
9. The National Gallery
The weekend is the best time to head to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. On Saturdays, there are hands-on family workshops for those with children ages 6 to 12, and on Sundays, you can catch the two-hour art workshops for children ages 5 to 11, as well as the under 5 storytelling sessions.
Activities also run daily during the school holidays. Entry is free and the gallery is open from 10am until 6pm daily (and until 9pm on Fridays) except on the 24th, 25th, and 26th of December.
Historic Landmarks and Attractions
10. Buckingham Palace
Although tickets to enter Buckingham Palace are pricy at £70 for a family, it costs nothing to watch the changing of the guard, which takes place in the Buckingham Palace forecourt daily from May to July at 11am, and on alternate days through the rest of the year. The same ceremony takes place at Horse Guards Parade daily at 11am (10am on Sundays).
11. British Library
Discover some of the world’s most exciting and significant books, from the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, to Handel’s and the Beatles music scores, and see the earliest versions of some of the greatest works of English literature, all at The British Library. Free guided tours of the reading rooms are available, and family activities and workshops take place during school holidays. The library opens at 9:30am (11am on Sunday), and closes between 5pm and 8pm, depending on the day – check their website for details. Entry is free.
12. Greenwich Royal Museums
These three museums make up the Royal Museums of Greenwich. Admission to all three is free, and the museums are open from 10am to 5pm daily.
- Explore the National Maritime Museum, the world’s largest maritime museum. Exhibits include the uniform Nelson was wearing when he was fatally shot at the Battle of Trafalgar, and a dynamic audio-visual installation that tells the stories of British voyagers. As you move throughout the museum you can “virtually” collect objects that interest you by inserting the museum’s Compass Card into dedicated units placed in the galleries, then follow up in the Compass Lounge or at home to reveal hidden stories.
- Contemplate the universe at the Royal Observatory, home of the Greenwich meridian, the official starting point of each day. Unravel the mysteries of the cosmos in the interactive astronomy galleries, try your hand at being an astronomer, and get answers to the big questions from on-screen experts. The likely highlight for kids will be being able to touch a 4.5 billion year-old meteorite!
- Art lovers can admire The Queen’s House fine art collection, while those with more scientific tastes will enjoy the geometric elements in the architecture of the house, including the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain, the Tulip Stairs. Fans of the supernatural can find out the truth behind the Queens House ghost.
13. The National Theatre
Explore behind the scenes of the National Theatre. During school holidays, workshops and backstage tours allow families the chance to see, among other things, the platform stages, the revolving stage, and the set and prop workshops. Workshops and tours costs start at £5. The theatre is open Mondays to Saturdays, from 9:30am to 11pm, and from noon to 6pm on many Sundays throughout the year.
14. Battersea Park Children’s Zoo
Save money by visiting the family-friendly Battersea Park Children’s Zoo. Here, a family ticket costs £26, as opposed to the larger and more famous London Zoo (where family tickets cost around £70). Monkeys, otters, and lemurs are some of the animals on display. In the summer, the zoo is open from 10am to 5.30pm. The zoo closes one hour early at 4:30pm during the winter (starting November 1st).
15. Battersea Park Adventure Playground
Your kids will love climbing on, under, and through the equipment at Battersea Park Adventure Playground. Older kids can try the zip lines, tire swings, climbing walls, and giant slides. The adventure playground is open from 3:30pm on school days, and from 11am on the weekends and during school holidays.
16. London City Farms
Get up close and personal with farm animals at one of the 12 city farms in London. Entrance to each farm is free, but opening days and times vary, so be certain to check opening hours before setting out.
17. London Wetland Centre
Visit the beautiful, internationally renowned wildlife reserve located on the outskirts of the city in southwest London. For a £30.60 family ticket, you can take part in walks, bird feedings, wildlife watching, and guided tours, from 9:30am until 5pm every day except Christmas.
18. DLR Driverless Trains
Pretend to be a train driver by taking a seat in the front carriage of the “driverless” Dockland Light Rail train, which operates from the city to East London. Fares are charged at the same rate as on the regular Tube network, around £7 for adults and children aged 11 and older for a one-day Central London travel card. Children under the age of 11 travel free when accompanied by an adult.
19. London Cycle Hire
Through the London Cycle Hire, adults and children aged 14 and older can rent one of the street bikes available at docking stations located throughout Central London. Bikes can be rented at one self-serve location, then returned to another. No advance booking is necessary. There’s a £1 access fee for casual riders, and rides under 30 minutes are free. Payment can be made at the docking stations using either a credit or debit card.
20. Winter Outdoor Ice Skating
Open from November to January, London’s 16 outdoor ice rinks are one of the highlights of the British winter. From the 1,000-square meter ice rink in the spectacular setting of the Natural History Museum’s grounds, to the ice rink in the moat of the Tower of London, kids and adults can show off their skating skills on the ice or watch from the sidelines while drinking hot chocolate at a rink-side café. Opening times and prices vary.
Parks and Gardens
21. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Kids will love wiggling through tunnels and sliding down the giant pitcher plant at the indoor play zone at Kew Gardens. The kid-size badger sett and the 18-meter-high treetop walkway are just some of the family-friendly attractions at this 250-year-old botanical garden. Adults pay £13.50 for admission, but kids get in for free. Kew Gardens opens daily at 9:30am.
22. Kensington Gardens
Situated next to Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens is home to the amazing Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground, complete with a huge pirate ship covered with climbing, crawling, and dangling kids. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, a shallow stone ring of trickling water, is also popular for wading. Entry is free, and the Memorial Playground is open for families only, starting at 10am. Closing times vary between 3:30pm and 7:45pm, depending on the season.
23. Crystal Palace Park
Gasp at life-size dinosaurs, get lost in the giant tea maze, visit the farm, or spend time on the boating lake at Crystal Palace Park, located in South London. Entry is free.
24. Hampstead Heath
Roam the 791 acres of parks, woodland, playing fields, and swimming ponds (including a separate ladies pond) at Hampstead Heath. Don’t miss the amazing views of London from the top of Parliament Hill. Entry is free.
25. Hyde Park
Swim, skate, ride a horse, or just walk at Hyde Park, London’s largest central park. Head to the Marble Arch end to catch the open air debating at Speakers’ Corner on Sunday mornings. Park entrance is free, and prices vary for activities.
While in London, visit one of the world’s largest and oldest toy stores. Hamleys is located on Regent Street in Central London, and is six floors of kids’ toys and games accompanied by demonstrations. Be careful though, or this can turn from a free outing to a very expensive excursion!
Considered the go-to place for high fashion, Selfridges department store offers family-friendly restaurants, as well as kids’ workshops and storytelling during school holidays.
Despite the strict visitor guidelines at this luxury department store, Harrods boasts five family-friendly eating spots out of its 30-plus eateries. Shop the Harrods Own department for great gifts to take back home.
Locals head to Primark’s Oxford Street store for budget cat-walk inspired fashion. It’s worth getting up early to avoid the crowds at this large fashion store.
Most of the museums and attractions have their own restaurants and cafés, but many also have indoor family “picnic” areas. Families on a budget can save money on dining by following local Londoners and grabbing cheap sandwiches, salads, and drinks at Boots, M&S Food, Sainsbury’s Local, or Tesco Metro mini stores located around Central London. Sandwiches and salads start at around £1.50.
As the home of some of the world’s finest restaurants, eating out in London as a family can get expensive. Adventurous families will love the multicultural cuisine that London has to offer. Listed below are five great mid-priced restaurant chains, which offer both tempting kids options and tasty cuisine for adults. Each has several locations in Central London.
Wagamama offers pan-Asian food served in Japanese bowls featuring rice, noodle, and soup dishes served at informal benches. Main courses start at £7, and kids’ dishes start at £3.
Highlights at the elegant but still child-friendly PizzaExpress include thin base authentic Italian pizzas and delicious chocolate and ice cream desserts. Be sure to ask for the kids’ activity packs. Main courses are priced starting at around £8. For £6.45, kids get baked dough balls, a side salad, a pizza or pasta, dessert, and hot milk.
It’s worth stopping off at Carluccio’s for tasty Italian food made with fresh, top-quality ingredients. Grown-ups will love the delicate Italian desserts, and kids will love their small tub of Italian ice cream included in the £6.25 kids’ meal. Main courses are priced starting at £10.
Giraffe is a great place to enjoy family-friendly international cuisine. Choices include classic American burgers, Thai stir fries, Indonesian noodles, and Mexican quesadillas. This restaurant chain also offers several options for those with food allergies. Entrées start at £9.95, and a kids’ meal with a drink costs £4.95.
Grab some Portuguese flame-grilled chicken, spiced to order at Nando’s. Order and pay for your meal at the front desk and grab your own plates, cutlery, and drinks, then sit back and wait for your table full of chicken to arrive. Main courses start at £5, and a kids’ meal is £4.25.
Best Times to Visit
Like most of Northern Europe, London is cold and often wet from October through February. Snow usually falls for a few days in January, and London as a city tends to grind to a halt during heavy snowfall. However, the public outdoor ice skating rinks, which are open from November until January, are a winter highlight.
June, July, and August are fantastic months to visit, although those affected by heat and humidity should take care. London also hosts many festivals during the summer.
Ways to Get Around
You don’t need a car to get around London. Despite a “congestion charge” fee of £10 to drive into the center of town, the roads of Central London can still come to a halt several times a day. The large number of one-way streets and traffic cameras make public transport the traveler’s friend. The underground system (the Tube) and buses will likely be your main mode of public transport around Central London, but suburban and long distance trains will offer you good options for visits to other UK towns and cities.
You can buy paper tickets to get around, but you’ll save money by buying an Oyster Card (one for each adult and child over 10) to get around. Credit can be added to the Oyster Card using cash, credit cards, or debit cards. The Transport for London website, with its amazingly useful Journey Planner, is the best place to get information on how to get from one point to another. With a smartphone and some planning, there’s not even a need to carry around a London guidebook.
London is a fantastic place to visit for families and groups on vacation. The vast swathe of open parks and frequent family activities at the city’s museums and attractions make London easy for both adults and kids. There’s something for everyone in this vibrant city.
Have you visited London with your family? Which activities would you recommend?
(photo credit: Stephen Bures, Ivica Drusany, Nito, Kamira, Shutterstock)