I’m thrilled to have on the blog today one of my favorite travel writers, Clare Thomson, and her “Ten Fantastic Free Things for Families to do in London”. Her wonderful blog Suitcases and Sandcastles is all about how to enjoy slow travel and culture with (and without) the kids, whether it be on a remote Greek island or in her home country in the U.K. Clare’s philosophy on travel is to take it slow and appreciate what you’re seeing and experiencing, rather than racing around trying to tick every site off the list. I couldn’t agree more. Clare’s writing is inspiring and captivating and makes you feel like you’re right there with her. She’s been published in the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and her blog is a Vuelio Top 10 U.K. Family Travel blog.
Clare has written many articles about the U.K., especially London, and has great ideas and recommendations for what to do with kids in London. I know that London is a place many of my readers either visit, live in, have lived in, or are desperately planning to visit or revisit again. It is on the top of so many peoples’ lists. Here, then, are Clare’s TEN FANTASTIC FREE THINGS FOR FAMILIES TO DO IN LONDON:
London is one of the greatest cities in the world and such a wonderful place to visit as a family. But like any city, London can be very expensive so when we visit we’re always on the look out for great things to do that don’t cost us anything.
The good news is that there are loads of fantastic free things for families to do in the city. Some of London’s greatest museums are free and have a range of superb activities for children, there are wonderful parks and so many of London’s most iconic sights like the Changing of the Guard and the Ceremony of the Keys won’t cost you anything to watch. Here are our ten favourites:
Discover more by walking around
What do you picture when you think about London? Most people’s lists of must-see sights include places like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London. London is a fantastic city to walk around and you can see all these iconic sights by doing just that. From Trafalgar Square you can walk down the Mall and up to the gates of Buckingham Palace. A pleasant stroll through St James’s Park takes you almost to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Further to the south east, the South Bank of the River Thames is another great place for a walk. Here you can see Shakespeare’s Globe and pick up something to eat from one of the fantastic stalls at Borough Market. Then walk past HMS Belfast and make your way over Tower Bridge and up to the Tower of London.
Watch the Changing of the Guard
Most people talk about the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace but we prefer the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at Horse Guards Parade. It’s much less crowded and there are no railings so you can see much more clearly. What’s more, it’s the Household Cavalry so the soldiers are on horseback with swords drawn and plumed helmets on their head.
The ceremony takes place every day at 11am (10am on Sundays). Click here for more information about Changing the Guard ceremonies.
Visit the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum
© Natural History Museum
The Dinosaur Gallery is rightly one of the biggest draws of the Natural History Museum but there is so much more for children to see and do here whether they’re into dinosaurs and furry frogs or cursed amethysts and duck-billed platypuses.
You can feel the earth move in the Earthquake Machine, play detective games around the museum and visit the growing fox cubs in the Wildlife Garden. The hands-on Science Centre is a great place for children to examine specimens from the natural world for themselves, using microscopes and other scientific tools.
Have a picnic in a park
When we’re in the centre of London we often have a picnic in St. James’s Park where we can feed the ducks and watch the pelicans being fed. But if you want to make more of an outing of it, head for Kensington Gardens where there are some great picnic spots, the Peter Pan statue and the wonderful Diana Memorial Playground with its huge wooden pirate ship, giant sandpit and teepees. There’s even a tree house encampment with walkways, ladders and slides. For added fun, cross over the road into nearby Hyde Park for a splash around in the Diana Memorial Fountain.
Do an activity trail in the British Museum
My kids love going to the British Museum. The mummies in the Ancient Egypt section are a particular favourite. There’s so much to explore whether you’re into the Aztecs and the Incas, the Vikings or Ancient Greece. It’s best to pick just one area to visit each time you go or it’s too much to take in.
On our last trip we went round the Roman Britain rooms with an activity backpack filled with artefacts, dressing up clothes and things to do. It made our visit even more enjoyable than usual. You can pick up backpacks, art materials and activity worksheets for specific areas from the Families Desk. Children can also take part in object handling sessions, digital and film-making workshops.
Follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter
Even Muggles can now visit Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station where Harry Potter boarded the train to Hogwarts. You can queue up to have your photo taken under the sign, complete with trolley, scarf and wand. There’s no charge for taking your own photos. Platforms 4 and 5 at the station were used for filming and the neo gothic exterior of nearby St Pancras International was used in the films to stand in for King’s Cross.
Now head down to Leadenhall Market, a covered market in the City used as Diagon Alley in the film of the Philosopher’s Stone. The blue door of the optician’s in Bull’s Head Passage was used as the entrance to The Leaky Cauldron.
Do a workshop at the National Gallery
© The National Gallery
The National Gallery is a great place to visit with children but did you know that they run free art workshops over the school holidays? The workshops are led by artists and inspired by paintings in the gallery. We’ve made flowers and drawn portraits but the workshop my two most enjoyed was making a sound picture with musical instruments of Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, a 15th-century painting of knights on white chargers. All the children sat in front of the painting making the noises of horses’ hooves clopping, swords clashing and drums beating. Utterly brilliant!
The workshops are aimed at 5 to 11 year olds and take place on Sundays at 11am and 2pm and over the holidays. Children under 5 can do the Magic Carpet Storytelling on Sunday mornings.
Watch the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London
© Historic Royal Palaces
The traditional locking up of the Tower of London has taken place every night for over 700 years. At 9.52pm exactly, the Chief Yeoman Warder comes out carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s keys in the other. He walks to Traitor’s Gate to meet the Foot Guards and the ceremony takes place.
Forty to 50 visitors are admitted into the Tower to watch it every day from 9.30pm. This can get booked up months in advance so be sure to book well before your visit. Book online here.
Dress up as an astronaut at the Science Museum
© Science Museum, London
There is so much for children to do at the Science Museum from morphing your face to see what it will look like when you’re older to investigating climate change and dressing up as a WWII fighter pilot. This is also the place to come if you want to see the Apollo 10 command module and Stephenson’s Rocket.
The interactive areas for young children are fantastic, from the Pattern Pod, a multi-sensory area for 5 to 8 year olds to the interactive Garden Gallery for pre-schoolers. There are also drop in experiments for all ages throughout the day at the Science Stations.
Watch the street entertainers in Covent Garden
You can see some of London’s best street performers every single day of the week on the famous piazza at Covent Garden. It’s so much fun joining the crowds to watch acrobats, mime artists, clowns and opera singers. Covent Garden is a wonderful place for wandering around the numerous shops, restaurants and market stalls – there’s a craft market six days a week and an antique market on Mondays.
CLARE THOMSON, Suitcases and Sandcastles
To read more about free museums in London, see another post on 10 Museums in London to See, many (not all) of them free.