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Exploring London

A practical travel guide by our local expert to a historic city with modern verve.

 

Bette Midler once said, “When it's three o'clock in New York, it's still 1938 in London.” On the one hand, the diva of comedy was right, and on the other she was wrong. If you and your family want to live some history, Bette was correct. The Rosetta Stone, Shakespeare’s favorite haunts, the place where Handel wrote the “Messiah” (which later served as Jimi Hendrix’s flat) and Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop are just a few of the evocative artifacts that London has on display.

Though London was founded by the Romans in 50 A.D., it is far from an old and dusty has-been. Host of the 2012 Olympics, it boasts trendy shops, a celebrated theater scene, some of the best cuisine in the world (take that, Paris!) and a new Eurostar Chunnel service from St. Pancras Station to the rest of Europe. London is the epicenter of a new and cool Britannia. 

Timing

The high season in London is June through August. That’s when the weather tends to be at its warmest, but consider a trip during the first three weeks in May (last week is school holidays in the United Kingdom) or in September—the weather is usually just as nice, but you’ll avoid the jostling crowds and have a better pick of lodging and restaurants.

What to Wear

  • Bring a waterproof jacket. Barbour makes good waxed coats—even the Queen wears them.
  • Comfortable shoes for you and your kids are important. Since driving in the capital is a nightmare, I recommend you use public transportation, so you’ll be walking more than normal.
  • Even in the summer it can get cool, so bring a light sweater.
  • Get a money belt or wear a jacket with an interior pocket. Though London is a relatively safe city, there are opportunistic thieves in the tourist areas.
  • When you are there, carry some bottled water. The Brits don’t believe in public drinking fountains.

Getting Around

Getting around London can be a thrill, and the city offers a host of travel options that make navigating among sightseeing stops part of the fun. London is also a very walkable city, but for safety’s sake, always remember to look to the right when you’re crossing the road.

From the airport

  • If traveling from Heathrow, the cheapest option is to take the Underground (London’s subway system, also called the “tube”), as the Piccadilly Line will deliver you to Central London in 45 minutes for less than £6 (about $12). 
  • If you have a lot of luggage or small children, instead try National Express, which runs several buses per hour from Heathrow to Victoria Coach Station. The journey takes about an hour, and you can pre-book tickets online.
  • Heathrow Express is another good option—a non-stop train service between Heathrow Airport and Paddington Station. Trains operate every 15 minutes from 5 a.m. until 11:47 p.m., and the fees start at £14.50/$29 for adults and from £7.20/$14.20 for children. Gatwick Airport has a similar service.
  • Most expensive but most direct is taking a famous London black cab. The world’s largest taxi stand at Heathrow’s northern terminal road feeds all four terminals and cab traffic flow is computer controlled. The convenience will cost you—£45 to £55 (about $89 to $108).
  • If you rent a car at Heathrow, you’ll have to pay a congestion charge to enter London, up to £25 (about $49) for a larger model, and the payment system is not user-friendly.

Once in London

Once you are free from luggage, the Underground is the way to explore London. It is easy to navigate with a color-coded tube map, and if you buy a reusable Oyster Card, cost effective. Buskers in the tube station also take advantage of the acoustics to provide free and surprisingly talented entertainment. It can be difficult to navigate the underground with a stroller as there are long staircases and escalators, so if you have small children, you may want to splurge on a cab or use London’s excellent bus system.

If you are going for less than a week, focus your time on the West End and Central London. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Parliament, the Tower of London, the shops of Covent Garden, the theatre district near Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, and the British Museum in Bloomsbury are all within a few tube stops of each other.

West End and Central London

Historic Sites

To get the lay of the land, and ride one of those iconic red double-decker buses, it is not a bad idea to take a hop-on-and-off Original Tour, which does a regular circuit through the major tourist attractions.

Your first stop should be Big Ben with its Westminster chimes and a visit to the Neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament. After paying your respects to the statue of crusader King Richard the Lionheart outside, it is worth pre-booking a visit for a tour of the House of Commons, available from August to September. When Commons is in session, you can also stand in line for tickets to see parliamentary debates, which are often fiery and involve lots of shouting and hubbub. For a shorter wait, visit the more sedate and ceremonial House of Lords.

Across Abingdon Street is Westminster Abbey, a Gothic abbey devoted to memorializing the great and good, including Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, and Isaac Newton, whose tomb was featured in The Da Vinci Code. The Abbey is not much fun for pre-school age children, but older kids will like the Children's Trail, a guide available for free at the information desk, and the chance to dress up as monks with the help of Museum staff. Don’t miss the funeral effigy room, where you and your family can really see what past monarchs looked like. Death masks, wax figures, and original painted wooden effigies that were on top of royal coffins are displayed.

A short walk to the west leads you to the living monarch’s official residence at Buckingham Palace. The Changing of the Guard ceremony occurs daily at 11:27 a.m. from April to July, and on alternating days the rest of the year. Get there early for the best view. You also can watch the Horse Guard Parade, held every day at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. on Sunday), which is just as full of pomp and circumstance. Telephone +44 (0)171 839 1377 to book ahead, or you can get tickets from the Ticket Office at Green Park. The Horse Guards really will stand motionless, silently and patiently if kids want a photograph with them.

In the summer, when the gardens at Buckingham Palace are open, this is a great place to let children run off steam. For the adults, the Royal Gallery is worth a visit. It features some of the choice artworks from the Royal Collection.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, a Baroque masterpiece designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century, is the distinctive feature on the London skyline. A symbol of British patriotism for surviving the Blitz of World War II, the Cathedral contains the American Memorial Chapel to commemorate U.S. servicemen, as well as the tomb of Winston Churchill. The Whispering Gallery is worth the long winding stair climb for its unique acoustics and stunning view of London. Check out the education section of St. Paul’s Web site to print free booklets designed for self-guided tours with children.

Don’t miss the 900-year-old Tower of London. Kids who like ghosts won’t be disappointed in the Beefeater guided tour. The Crown Jewels in the Waterloo Block are also part of the show: You are taken along on a moving conveyor belt past a bewildering variety of gold and glitter, including the Cullen diamond, which is more than 530 carats. To prepare kids for the visit, see the online Tower of London kids guide.

If you want to watch the 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys, in which the Tower is locked up by the Chief Yeoman Warder, you can get free tickets. You must book in advance by sending a request listing the names of all attendees, a selection of dates, a return envelope, and British postage stamps or International Reply Coupons to:

Ceremony of the Keys Office, HM Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB, United Kingdom.

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square, commemorating Lord Nelson’s naval victory over Napoleon, is home to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, and the beloved parish church of St. Martin in the Fields. It is also home to crowds and crowds of pigeons, which children may enjoy feeding, but I tend to view as pests. If you are an inveterate art lover, you could spend the entire day at the galleries—don’t miss Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks or Holbein’s Ambassadors in the National Gallery. If you have an older child who is interested in the fine arts, the National Portrait Gallery offers a series of art workshops, such as body casting, digital photography, or stenciling portraits in the style of Andy Warhol. The National Gallery also sponsors NGA kids, a series of activities including workshops, films, and guided tours.

The parish church of St. Martin in the Fields is also worth a visit. The church itself has lovely and inexpensive candlelit baroque concerts if you’d like some Vivaldi after dinner (call +44 0 20 7766 1100 to book concert tickets). Downstairs is the Crypt Restaurant, one of the more unique eating establishments in London, and the London Brass Rubbing Centre, where your children can make rubbings from a huge selection of replica medieval brasses of kings, princesses, St. George and the Dragon, or even William Shakespeare. The Rubbing Centre is open until 10 p.m. so parents can finish their meal while children are kept busy. 

The British Museum

The granddaddy museum of them all, the British Museum in Bloomsbury (tube stop: Russell Square) is visually stunning inside and out. The museum is best known for its collections of Egyptian and Greek antiquities. Not to be missed are the Rosetta Stone, which gave Enlightenment linguists the key they needed to crack the code of hieroglyphics, and the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens.

The British Museum also has an excellent series of programs for children, and what kid isn’t interested in mummies? There are free activity backpacks, trails for kids to guide them around the exhibits, and a free children’s library. The shop has loads of affordable children’s souvenirs, including hieroglyphic stamp pad sets and a mummy pencil case that was popular with my niece. There are also hands-on activities throughout the museum, where you can handle museum objects and ask the curators questions.

West and Central London: Shopping and Entertainment

Covent Garden

While retaining its original purpose as a flower market, Covent Garden has metamorphosed into a major shopping and entertainment center in central London. The Royal Opera House is here for both opera and the Royal Ballet, but so are numerous street buskers that draw large crowds and entertain children. The arcade features a number of unique shops, such as the Banana Bookshop (located at 10 The Piazza), full of novelty books and children’s literature, and Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop, which has sold unique paper puppet theaters and French music boxes since the 1880s. Lush, which has now expanded throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere, sells hand-made soaps and cosmetics, including massage bars containing real Belgian chocolate.

Covent Garden and Leicester Square are also in the heart of Theatreland, with 47 establishments featuring musicals, revues, comedies, and dramatic theater for every taste and budget. The official London theatre Web site is an especially good guide to theater schedules, including a special section for children’s theater that goes beyond the obvious offerings of the Sound of Music and the Lion King. If you are in London during the Christmas holidays, a pantomime, or panto, is also a great family outing. Loose interpretations of fairy tales such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, pantos also include lots of slapstick and audience interaction.

Options in Greater London

If you are lucky enough to have a week or more in London, below is an insider’s guide to lesser-known but worthwhile attractions.

Museums

  • Museum of London. The history of the City, displaying household artifacts and other memorabilia of daily life from the era of the Romans to the present. Imaginatively presented, and the exhibit about the Great Fire of London in 1666 is especially well done. Kids programs let them talk to a Tudor merchant or to the Celtic warrior Boudicea.
  • Old Operating Theatre. Not for the squeamish, this museum is housed one of the few remaining operating rooms and apothecaries’ garrets built before the advent of anesthesia or antiseptics. Staff “demonstrate” what early operations were like, and there are herbal workshops where budding physicians can roll their own “pills” and learn about early medicine. Highly recommended, though not wheelchair accessible.
  • Handel House. Want to see the room where Handel wrote the “Messiah” and which later was part of Jimi Hendrix’s apartment? In posh Mayfair, the Handel House Museum delivers, with Handel memorabilia and intimate concerts.
  • Sir John Soane’s Museum. A monument to British eccentricity, Soane was the architect of the Bank of England, and an inveterate collector of bric-a-brac. Highlights include the Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement, and a hidden gallery containing artist William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress.” It can be crowded, and is only suitable for older children.

Amusements

  • The London Eye. This giant Ferris wheel constructed for the Millennium celebrations offers a wonderful bird’s-eye view of London. Booking ahead online shaves 10 percent off the tickets and is a great way to avoid a long wait. For special occasions, you can rent a private capsule and have champagne.
  • The Globe. A reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original Wooden “O,” the Globe offers Shakespeare in the world’s most authentic setting, but only in the summer (it is, like the original, an open-air theater). For £5/$10, you can be a groundling in the pit watching the action on the stage up close (the actors do throw bread rolls at the groundlings, so watch out!), but if you want a seat, that will cost you more. The Annual Concert for Winter during the holiday season is free and features local school children.

Destinations: United Kingdom, London

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel, Historical Vacations, Single-Parent Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Sightseeing


User Comments

WTH. Heh. They may ban my acc for this but im 13 years old and ive traveled from LA to london and I have to say that it is the best city I have traveled to. The London Eye is the best and you can see EVERYTHING from there. The underground was clean (well cleaner than the metro here in LA) and it was easy for our tour group to manuver. And a message to all parents out there: Dont be scared to let ur kids travel. Hey, they might learn something. Btw, did i mention we went in a group of students. ^_^ I so reserve bragging rights. Anyways, the british museum is relatively easy to navigate and when seeing the changing of the guard, i recomend you bring stilts. Crowds are huge anytime you visit. London is the best. I want to live there somedasy.

London Underground The first time I visited London I was intimidated by the Underground, but found it to be incredibly easy to navigate!

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