London with kids ★★

A Lego palace guard with bearskin hat at the Winsdor Legoland (Photo by Jim Larrison)
A Lego palace guard with bearskin hat at the Winsdor Legoland

What do do in London that will make the whole family happy—Sights, experiences, restaurants, tours, and more

First off: Skip the obvious sights that seem aimed at famlies but are, in fact, a snore.

The Changing of the Guard bored me to tears at age 11 (still does), and Madame Tussaud's is an insanely overpriced house full of waxy mannequins of famous people the kids probably never heard of anyway. The London Dungeon is a lame attempt to make history ghoulishly fun (think: mediocre haunted house exhibits) and also grossly overpriced.

Classic London family fun

Much more exciting would be a Beefeater tour of the Tower of London (lots of good, bloody history to recount, and they try to make it particularly entertaining for the lads and lasses).

The Churchill War Rooms are pretty cool—a warren of hallways forming the underground bunker from which Churchill and his aides waged World War II, an odd mix of avant-garde interactive exhibits that go way beyond touch screens and frozen in time mannequins-and-maps tableaus in (you may have to explain what a "telephone" is to younger kids when they see the line of color-coded Bakelites in one room).

And you know, even though it's a museum, all the mummies and gigantic Persian statuary and the cool mummified dude from the bog and the glasses of glittering Celtic gold and other awesome stuff inside the (totally free) British Museum tend to be a highlight of a London trip for kids of all ages.

Children visiting London might also enjoy romping about the stalls of Portobello Road flea/antiques market on a Saturday, hanging out in one of London's vast urban parks, climbing to dome of St. Paul's to gaze out over the city—or do the post-millennial version, a ride in the massive Thames-side London Eye Ferris wheel.

Get your Harry Potter fix

You must, of course, make a pilgrimage to Kings Cross Station to look for Platform 9-3/4, from which the Hogwarts Express leaves in the Harry Potter books. (The station, showing a whiff of whimsey, has sliced a lugagge trolly in half and planted it in one out-of-the-way brick wall, as if in the process of pasing through it.)

There are other Harry Potter filming locations scattered around London that will be of varying interest to fans (die-hards can even take a Harry Potter walking tour, or head of town to visit some of the Harry Potter sets on the Warner Brothers Studios lot—or go all-in on a studio lot tour plus guided excursion to Oxford, where several Hogwarts scenes were filmed). » more

Go to Greenwich

Take a boat ride out to Greenwich to see the magnificent Cutty Sark clipper ship, then picnic and play on the grassy lawns of the city park leading up to the now-free Royal Observatory where they can set their watches by the official Greenwich Mean Time clock and have fun jumping back and forth between hemispheres on the Prime Meridian.

Kid-friendly food

When it comes to meal time, pub grub is a perennial favorite.

Also check out:

  • Belgo Centraal, serving sausages and mashed potatoes, roased chickens, and other hearty Belgian grub served at communal picnic tables by waiters dressed as monks. » more
  • Pollo for cheap, heaping platters of spaghetti and other classic Italian favorites. » more
  • Wagamama, a popular Japanese noodle house chain with multiple London locations. If they like Ramen, tell the kids this is the real thing, stocked with real meats and veggies andp spices, not just powder from a pouch. » more
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