I think London is the most iconic city on Earth. Images like a red double decker bus winding its way down a busy street, a friendly Beefeater at the Tower of London, or the pomp and circumstance of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace are famous the world over. These are the experiences that many visitors from abroad seek out when coming here. And they are indeed fabulous and memorable.
After spending the past 18 months living just an hour north of the city, I’ve learned of some London experiences that are every bit as wonderful, just not quite so famous. As a mother to two young boys, I can happily report that they’re family friendly, too. I wouldn’t call these “hidden gems.” Most Londoners know these places well. But many Americans don’t, and it’d be a shame to visit London and miss out.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is near the top of most people’s London must-see list. But it’s not the most kid-friendly attraction. If you’re content with lovely views of grand buildings like this, then head to One New Change’s rooftop terrace. One New Change is a mall/retail development just across the street from St. Paul’s and the terrace will offer your family spectacular views of the Cathedral and beyond.
Your kids will enjoy running up and down the gently-sloping ramps, too. And the mall has several family-friendly restaurants should you need a bite to eat.
London has some fantastic museums, but it’s hard to talk yourself into spending a day inside one when there is so much to see all over the city. Inevitably, you’ll have a rainy day, though, and the best place to spend it, especially with young kids, is the London Transport Museum. You’ll get a wonderful lesson in London’s fascinating history, not to mention photo opps that will scream “I’m in London!” to all your friends as your children board buses, tube trains, and more. Plus, it’s conveniently located in Covent Garden, a wonderful spot in the city to eat, shop or just watch the various street performers.
Naturally you’ll find yourself walking by Buckingham Palace, and perhaps you’ll even venture to Kensington Palace to try to catch a glimpse of Will, Kate and Baby George. But for a truly visitor-focused royal experience, head to the lesser known Hampton Court Palace. It has so much to offer families, including costumed presenters, children’s trails, even a playroom. It’s a bit outside of the city, but well worth the journey.
English food doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. But I dare anyone to visit Borough Market and not be completely blown away by the variety of tastes and smells on offer. It’s widely considered to be London’s best food market, and includes everything from fresh produce to exotic tapas. Got a picky eater? No worries. The best grilled cheese sandwich of my life was purchased at Borough Market. And you’ll find sausages, hot dogs, gourmet burgers and more. Plenty to please everyone. My advice is to gather up food for the whole family and then head to the church yard at neighboring Southwark Cathedral and eat there. The kids will have a bit of space to run around after eating, instead of navigating the crowded paths of the market.
No one wants to travel all the way to jolly old England and miss out on afternoon tea, right? But I also hate the thought of dragging tired, jetlagged children into posh hotel ballrooms or small cafes and forcing them to sit still and be quiet for several hours in order to experience it. My recommendation: Book a reservation at The Parlour at Fortnum & Mason. Fortnum & Mason has been an institution on the London shopping scene since 1707 and its teas are considered the finest in the world. The parlour is their ice cream shop, where your children can happily (and somewhat noisily) indulge in a Knickerbocker Glory sundae or just a scoop (or two!) of chocolate in a cheerful, friendly environment. But moms and dads can order up the same fantastic coffees, high tea, even a light meal, that are served in the more posh tea rooms.
No doubt, you’ll find yourself traversing the city on the Tube, by taxi, and maybe even aboard one of those hop-on, hop-off buses. But as you’re plotting out your strategy of getting from Point A to Point B each day, don’t overlook London’s new light rail system. It works on the same Oyster card ticket system as the Tube, but it’s almost entirely stroller-friendly. Instead of spending your transport time tucked away underground, you’ll be watching the city fly by as you soar overhead. Plus, for some areas of the city, it’s truly the fastest and easiest way there (like the newly re-opened Olympic Park, where you’ll find one of the best playgrounds in the city). It’s easily my favorite way of getting around town.
My children and I have learned that around every corner in London, from Richmond to Stratford, there are special memories to be made. Pack your umbrella, mind the gap, enjoy your visit and report back with your favorite discoveries!
Nicole Wiltrout is a freelance writer and a mom of two young boys. Originally from Indiana, she now calls England home. She shares more details about her family’s adventures around the world at Arrows Sent Forth.