London is my soul city. I spent a lot of time there in my early 20's and it always just felt "right" in a way no other place did. Fast-forward life a decade or so, and I'm a parent taking my kids across the Atlantic to London for Spring Break. I was a little nervous planning such a big trip with two boys ages 8 and 5, but it ended up being an amazing week. Everyone in the family was able to see and do things that interested them and nobody complained about sore feet even after hours of walking. I was able to re-visit some old haunts with new perspective, but also experience a lot of new bits too.
We didn't spend a lot of time in museums (of which there are many amazing ones in London) or hit all the big tourist attractions (the changing of the guards is hard to see when you're 4 feet tall). Instead we tried to focus on experiences which would be memorable and a great way to soak up some culture. Happily, they also tended to be some of the least expensive options in a very expensive city. Here are five of my favorite ways to experience London as a family:
1. Catch a football game. Tickets to the top teams can be expensive, but there are a lot of teams in London and the lower-tier teams are a bargain. Despite a reputation for being rowdy, the games are quite family-friendly these days. There was also tons of security to deal with any hooligans. We sat in the family section and quickly learned the team's chants and were cheering along with all the team's supporters by game's end.
2. Eat dinner at Brick Lane. London has amazing Indian food, and Brick Lane is the place to experience it. Brick Lane is a few blocks of wall-to-wall Indian restaurants in East London. At dinner time, there's someone outside every restaurant trying to lure you inside with tales of the best food and a free something or other. Inside the resturants tend to be decorated in colorful lights and playing Bollywood movies ("Hubba hubba!" as my 5-year-old remarked.) When you're done eating, skip dessert at the restaurant and wander into one of the many Indian sweet shops on the street to pick up some new treats to try.
3. Ride the public transport. Get an Oyster card and ride the tube and buses around London. You can skip the expensive double-decker tours and just ride the double-decker city buses to get you place to place. We tried to take the bus whenever we could. The tube is great and easy to use, but it's nice being above ground and seeing the city as you ride. My kids loved (loved!) the transportation options. They adored the endless escalators to get down to the tube. The different colors of the tube cars. Being able to go upstairs on the buses. Swiping the Oyster card at the turnstiles. Every aspect of the transport experience was exciting for them.
4. Chill at a pub. Pubs are generally all very family-friendly and a great place to hang out when you need a break from sightseeing. Pubs are all non-smoking now and most serve kid-friendly food like burgers and chips (i.e., french fries.) Mom and dad can grab a pint and the kids can chug a lemonade while everyone people watches.
5. Hit the playground. The Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park is the coolest playground we've ever been to. A giant wooden pirate ship is the main attraction, but there are plenty of other amazing attractions hidden in this magical setting, as well. There's teepees and rope swings and tunnels and climbing structures—all part of a Peter Pan theme. It was a little stressful trying to keep track of the kids here, but there were uniformed attendents helping to reunite kids and parents when needed. And the park is secure—only adults with kids can enter through the locked gate. Admission is free.
Vacation Countdown Caterpillar
Tracy Odell is the General Manager of Parents Digital Network and traveller at heart. (She even loves airports!) You can follow Tracy on Twitter at @tracyodell.