A Local’s Guide to Free London with Kids

After recently reading a very famous travel magazine’s online article of the best free places to visit with kids in London, I felt the need to write an article of my own. I couldn’t help but feel the author of said article is not a parent or perhaps doesn’t even live in London. It was a very touristy list of things to do and so dull for kids compared to other more vibrant experiences to have in this fabulous town.

I am out and exploring with my children very regularly. I can tell you that they would be miserable being dragged through Harrods – maybe your kids like shopping but mine do not. They prefer to be outside. The Diana playground is gorgeous but there are many places for kids to hide and having a lost child on your hands can occur pretty quickly if you are juggling a few little ones at the same time. It’s also loaded with tourists. If you come to visit this gorgeous capital I would advise you against the touristy spots like Oxford and Regent Streets, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. Look to where the locals hang out with their kids and really get to know London because there is so much more to offer than an overplayed checklist of attractions.

When I head out for a day of sightseeing with my children I usually plan a museum visit and then find a local park nearby for play time and lunch. Amazingly, London has a plethora of green space throughout the city—about 47%–and 60% of it is open space. This is how we balance our culture with some physical activity and fresh air. It’s a fully immersive experience.

So here’s my list of recommendations when visiting London with your family. Most of them are free, but I’ve also included a handful of low-cost attractions.  I’ve organized it by area to make it practical for planning your days out just as I would plan my own and includes seeing the must see touristy bits without having to really navigate through them.

Kensington Parks and Museums

Start your morning early at one of the brilliant and free museums of Exhibition Road. Choose from:

The Royal Geographical Society –  They generally have small and free exhibits of photographs and art relating to mountaineering and outdoor adventure. My kids and I always pop in here when we are strolling by because the exhibits are always thought provoking. We are outdoor enthusiasts ourselves and are always impressed by what we find here.

The Victoria and Albert Museum – The V&A (as it’s referred to by locals) is housed in such a gorgeous building which alone justifies a visit to explore this visually pleasing collection of art from all over the world. Every item within is so thoughtfully placed and grouped that it awakens all the senses. It’s free and is easy to stroll through with the kids.

The Science Museum and The Natural History Museum I’m grouping these two big guys together as they are next door to one another and can easily be seen on the same day. There is plenty to see and do here with loads of interactive exhibits for the kiddos. The science museum has a really fun educational experimental science zone to linger in with your children. The Natural History museum will win big points with the kids especially with their dinosaur exhibit. The two museums are large and have loads to offer so leave plenty of time to explore them fully. The downside is that they are regularly very crowded. Get there early and preferably on a weekday to avoid the crowds.

Walk north up Exhibition Road as you aim for Kensington Gardens for lunch. On your way stop by the Serpentine Gallery for a quick bit of art appreciation, wander past the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall to tick the touristy bits off your list.

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Our adventurous Aunt Betty in front of Royal Albert Hall

Plan to picnic in Kensington Gardens by the Round Pond . Feed the birds at the pond, gaze at Kensington Palace, bring a kite, or a ball to kick around. Relax in this beautiful green space as most Londoners fondly do.

A short walk into Hyde Park will take you to a small lake called the Serpentine. Here you can rent paddle boats , or on a hot day cool your feet off in the Diana Memorial fountain. There is so much to do in this vast park, make sure to leave plenty of time to enjoy it as a family.

 

Covent Garden and Soho

Start your day in Trafalgar Square ticking off Nelson’s Column, let the kids climb around the four bronze lion statues, have a look at Admiralty Arch and the National Gallery. The square is a perfect place for photos and watching street performers. You can easily spend an hour strolling and being entertained for free. My children love to stop and watch when we are here.

In many areas of London, in order to be able to pursue a street performing career one must go through a process to receive a busking license. They don’t give these out to just anyone who applies and from what I’m told they are very critical, only accepting the most talented of artists.

The National Gallery – I have been here several times with my children practising sitting and talking with them about the paintings. We have enjoyed many discussions about our favourite ones, why we like or dislike some and what we see when we take the time to really look at them. However, when I do this it is only for short periods of time as they tend to burn out after an hour or so. I recommend coming here if you have older children or budding artists.

The Transportation Museum – My kids love this museum and their free “Trail” which acts as a treasure hunt of sorts. The vehicles to climb on are a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. Parents too will find the history of London’s transportation really fascinating. There is a fee to enter but children are discounted. In addition, your paid ticket becomes an annual ticket if you wish to return again.

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Covent Garden Market – A former fruit and vegetable market now transformed into a shopping and dining destination. Another great location for watching high end street performers.

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Inside Covent Garden market

The Iris Theatre – Located at St Paul’s Church (not to be confused with St Paul’s Cathedral, discussed below) within Covent Garden, the theatre puts on fabulous family-friendly and affordable productions in the summer months which are performed in the outside garden space and in the past with audience participation. We have all thoroughly enjoyed the productions here and we able to buy tickets last minute at the venue.

Plan to lunch at an outdoor café in the square if the weather permits followed by a gelato at one of the several gelato shops around the market.

Stroll through Covent Garden and Soho to get a feel for the shops and cafes. Plan some after hours Mommy/Daddy alone time if a sitter is available to you. There are so many night time clubbing, drinks, and dining possibilities in this area if you can manage it.

Allow for some free run around time in Soho Square which is a small green space perfect for people watching and a picnic. Nearby you have all of the west end theatres, fabulous cafes and great coffee. If you fancy last minute theatre tickets for later in the evening, pop over to London Theatre Bookings at 1 Cranbourn Alley, WC2H 7AW, to find out what shows are playing at a discounted rate.

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Our friend, Sonia, exploring Soho Square

Victoria and Westminster 

Stroll from Hyde Park corner through Wellington Arch and wander around the front of Buckingham Palace. Plan to see the changing of the guard which I’m sure your kids will love if they can stand the wait. If it’s important to you to see the guard change plan to arrive early as it tends to get very busy with people lining up at the fence line when tourist season is high in London.

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Afterwards stretch your legs through St James’s Park to see the pelicans, a view of the London Eye and, if you have young children in tow, a trip to the playground within the park. Its adjacent to the palace and has a very sweet playground with wooden see-saw, wooden snails to ride, a large sand pit with boulders and a bridge to climb on. There is a café next door selling tea, coffee and lighter foods.

Walk towards the Thames and stroll through Horse Guards Parade (the guard’s exercise ground) to perhaps pose for a picture with a soldier or two. Wander further down White Hall to visit Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. To enter the Abbey you must pay a hefty fee of £20 (less for children: 6-16 year olds £17 and 0-5’s are £9) and it’s not worth it with the kiddos unless there is something you really must see inside. You will notice that the best view of these glorious golden buildings is from Westminster Bridge over the Thames so head out there for the obligatory photo op.

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If the kids need to blow off some more steam there is a lovely small park on the far side of the Houses of Parliament called Victoria Tower Gardens, which has a newly renovated playground and overlooks the Thames. The setting here is surreal with Parliament looming overhead.

 

The City

Start your morning at The Museum of London, for a heavily interactive exploration into the history of our English capital. My kids love to visit this museum and always find something new they hadn’t noticed before. The museum has the added benefit of being adjacent to some of the original Roman built walls of the city of Londinium dating from around 200 AD.

Wander outside and enjoy a picnic at Postman’s Park. This park is such a lovely place to have lunch and take a breather. It is very small but tucked away from the bustle of the city around it offering quiet solitude. A wall within the park is decorated with commemorative plaques dedicated to people who gave their lives to save another. I have brought many people here as it is very tranquil and my kids love to read the heroic stories.

After lunch walk south to St Paul’s Cathedral. Tickets to the Cathedral are also quite pricey but having a wander around the outside is enough with the kids unless you are genuinely determined to see the inside. The last time I visited I was able to walk inside to have a look without paying. You won’t have full access but can sneak a peek.

Walk towards the Millennium Bridge and enjoy the view over the Thames as you head to the Tate Modern Museum. The museum is free to enter and has their Kitchen and Bar restaurant on the 6th floor which offers stunning views overlooking the Thames and St Pauls.

Excellent shot along the Thames

Southbank, looking across the Thames

When you are up to your neck in art and ready for a change of scenery head back outside to  have a look at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre next door or wander along South Bank towards the London Eye where you will be entertained by street performers and can stop for some play time at the excellent Jubilee Gardens.

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Jubilee Gardens viewed from the London Eye

 

Notting Hill

We have so many parks in this area probably due to the amount of families that have settled here. Notting Hill is very family friendly with a famous reputation (thanks to a certain movie) and a small community feel. Loads of cafes and shops line the Portobello and Westbourne Grove areas. The Portobello market is in full swing Friday and Saturday but has some daily stalls that are less crowded during the week.

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Portobello Road looking uncharacteristically deserted

Kensington Memorial Park in North Kensington has a large playground divided between 5 years and under, and 6+. There is so much for the kids to do here that you shouldn’t expect them to become bored. Starting in May they open their water park which has many spraying water contraptions to keep the kids cool during London’s warmer months. Adjacent to the park is a café with ice cream and snacks for sale. Toilets are also right next door but outside of the gated area. This park only has the one gate to enter and exit and parents can watch the kids unhindered throughout the area.

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Kensington Memorial Park’s spash park

Little Wormwood Scrubs has a terrific adventure playground for 6 and up. Parents sign their children in and then go for a walk in the park as the kids play. Honestly, I wish adults were allowed in because they have some pretty awesome equipment to play on. At this park there are also two smaller playgrounds and a lovely circular ¼ mile path to cycle, scoot or walk on. In the summer it is bursting with blackberries and we load up several buckets many times throughout June and July. There is a small trail in the back wood of the park that has excellent den making possibilities.

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Little Wormwood Scrubs

Little Wormwood is also where the highly acclaimed “Boy in the Woods” film was shot:

 

Greenwich

Start the day with a boat ride on the Thames Clipper (kids under 5 are free, 5-15 are 50% off), hopping off in Greenwich and making your way to the Royal Observatory where you may stand on the famous meridian line which divides eastern and western hemispheres. There is an entrance fee for the observatory but there is a place you can stand on the line for free…you will most definitely see other people doing this. Admire the view of London from the hilltop before making your way down to the Maritime Museum.  The museum is free to enter and has many exhibits to keep the kids entertained. There is also a children’s hands on area with lots of really cool interactive displays.

Emirates line – Take a scenic ride across the Thames on the Emirates cable car. Prices are inexpensive for the 10 minute ride: adults: £3.50 and children £1.70.

 

Canary Wharf

Start with a ride to Canary Wharf in the morning on the Dockland Light Rail (DLR). The train is above ground and often driverless so if you are lucky enough to jump in the first car your kids will enjoy “driving” the train.

Museum of the Docklands – We love this museum and all of the great interactive exhibits to play with. It’s part of the Museum of London offering education about the history of the docks and the role of its past related to shipping. The museum is newish and feels very modern even though it is housed in one of the older buildings in the area (an old warehouse). The museum is free and also offers a café and children’s play area.

When you are done with the museum, stroll along the nearby the bridges and canals. This area of London has a very modern feel to it and looks quite different architecturally than the rest of London. Large banking skyscrapers tower over the canals while many shops and restaurants can be found above and underground.

When you’ve had your fill of concrete and waterways hop back on the DLR and head over to Mudchute City Farm. Plan to spend the afternoon to visit and feed the animals, picnic, play and enjoy the green space. Best of all, it’s absolutely free!

  

Other Worthy Options

Walk along the Thames PathA free way to be out and enjoying the city together as a family. Take in all the historical sites, stop at a pub, watch street performers, or find some peace and quiet as you can stroll some parts that feel uninhabited and wild. The path is 184 miles long and offers endless possibilities.  Here’s a story about one of our days on the Thames Path.

Explore the London Markets – Borough, Camden, Portobello to name a few. Weekends tend to be crowded and if your children are younger in age it may be difficult to navigate through the swarms of people. However, with older children or on a slower weekday the markets are vibrant with their offerings of food, crafts and people watching. Each one is unique in its own way.

Double Decker bus tour – Adults pay a small fee to ride the bus in London and kids under 11 are free.  For bus routes look here: https://tfl.gov.uk/bus/route/23/?direction=outbound Forget about the expensive hop on hop off buses and try this instead. The kids love to sit upstairs especially in the front seats feeling as if they are driving the bus themselves.

Ride the 23 by Marble Arch, through Oxford and Regent Streets, Piccadilly Circus ending at St Paul’s Cathedral. Get off here and walk across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern.

Perhaps take the 52 bus from Notting Hill around Hyde Park, past Royal Albert Hall, The Albert Memorial, Hyde Park corner and then terminating in Victoria. From here you can walk through St James’s Park to Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. Optional stop offs include Hyde Park, Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace and the museums of South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Geographical Society Museum).

Cycling – Our local bike scheme Santander Cycles (formerly Barclays Bikes and locally referred to as Boris Bikes due to the introduction of the scheme by former London Mayor, Boris Johnson) allows anyone to hire a bike to tour around. Take a ride through the parks, on the canals or through the city if you dare. London has a large cycling community and many roads have dedicated bike lanes.

Regent’s Park has a large sand pit area with loads to climb on. It has just one gate so that kids cannot run out unnoticed and parents can see their children from most places within fairly easily. They also have toilets within the play area which is a major bonus.

Geocaching – When all else fails, install the app and go on a free treasure hunt wherever you are!

 

Other resources

Before arriving in London subscribe to Urban Explorers which email a weekly newsletter of family friendly happenings in London. There is also the very handy app from Hoop offering kid-friendly ideas wherever you may be in town.  The Londonist provides great information daily for the current goings on in London. They have a “Free and Cheap” section as well as a “Family” section so check them out.

I could go on and on about London with kids. We have so many museums, parks and adventures to be had. Please don’t stick to the touristy top ten lists which are in general not kid approved. Use my area guides and plan for fun filled days where everyone is smiling. Yes, have your guidebook and see the important sites but I also encourage you to dig deeper and see why over 8,000,000 of us call this home.

One thought on “A Local’s Guide to Free London with Kids

  1. Pingback: What I Miss About London | Five Abroad

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