72 Hours in London with Kids: Day 1

view of london bridge

View of Tower Bridge from St. Paul’s Cathedral

72 hours in London will go by very quickly — there is quite simply too much to do in and around the city with kids to even make a dent in that long list of attractions you should experience.

My first tip is the most important. Forget about what you should see – stick to an absolute priority list and count on the fact that you will be back at some point.  London is big. Seeing London takes time. Rushing through London detracts from the experience and impact.

We were there over a glorious spring weekend in April. To be honest, we didn’t follow this advice and regretted it. We tried to do too much and ended up in a cranky place. As a result, I have loads of tips to share. So many, that I’m breaking this post up into a few articles.

Strategy for visiting London with kids

At a high level, the key is to organize your days by location so you don’t waste time and money getting from one place to another.

buckingham palace changing of guard england

Crowd gathering before the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace

As Nancy points out in her top kid-friendly activities in London with kids article, the concept of royalty is new and novel for kids visiting England.

We started our sightseeing with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The ceremony starts at 11:30a on most days (see the schedule to confirm details). Our hotel recommended that we get there at least 15 minutes early … we did not do this and paid the price. It was packed and my 8-year-old didn’t see a thing. He couldn’t wait to leave! Not the desired result for our visit …

TIP: Don’t make this mistake — get there early or don’t bother, particularly over prime tourist periods. In addition, we weren’t sure where to stand, but later determined the best place is not out in the traffic circle where the ceremony begins, but near the palace gates.

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After the ceremony, we hopped on the double-decker tour bus at Green Park for a city overview. You can’t see anything from the tube in London so the tour bus option ends up being an affordable and enjoyable way to get around. The price you pay, however, is that traffic can be painfully slow and kids may end up bored.

hamleys toy store london spaceship demonstration

Exhibiting the latest and greatest toys at Hamleys

I remedied our rough start with a stop at Hamleys toy store on Regent Street. A better bet is to save this stop for the end of the day (so you don’t have to carry any purchases around and kids won’t be distracted from the sights), but the bus drives right by at the beginning of the tour, so it made more sense to visit early in the day.

This isn’t just any old toy store! It is truly one of the most amazing toy experiences anywhere (the best we’ve seen by a long shot). We loved the all the demonstrations of cool and unique toys — you could be entertained in here for hours. I set a time limit before we walked in the door (highly recommended).

Regent and Oxford Streets are shopping meccas (particularly for chain stores); the nice thing about Hamleys’ location is everyone can take a few minutes for retail therapy within a relatively small area.

Then it was back on the bus for a drive by Westminster Abbey and Parliament. These buildings do not disappoint, but ensure you give your kids an overview (including photos) before you see them in person to maximize interest.

TIP: When your kids see the London Eye they will want to stop. Don’t assume you can show up mid-day and won’t have a giant line. The best strategy to ride the ferris wheel is to show up when it opens at 10a (see the full schedule here).

st pauls cathedral stairway to dome

Stairwell leading to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral

After all the time sitting on the bus, we needed to burn some energy. I can’t think of a better way to exhaust every member of the family than climbing to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Climbing Europe’s historic monuments with school age and up kids is a terrific way to engage them in what they are seeing. What a difference it makes!  We climbed the Duomo in Florence earlier this year and I got the same reaction — intense interest in the experience versus a cursory glance.

TIP: The climb to The Golden Gallery (the highest point of the outer dome at 280 ft) is 528 steps. The steps become progressively more narrow and are very, very steep. This is not appropriate for toddlers and very young children (the exception would be an infant in baby bjorn-style carrier).

If you are claustrophobic or afraid of heights, one workaround is to just walk to The Whispering Gallery (only 259 steps) where you will still get a feel for the climb and get close to the unbelievable architecture without having to endure the intense part of the stairs. Despite the eye-popping view at the top, we had the most fun whispering to one another across the dome.

pedi cab ride london

Pedi-cab ride back to our hotel

We ended our Day 1 with an evening performance of The Lion King — given our recent trip to Africa, this show was our first choice, but there are a number of kid-friendly shows from which to choose.

See VisitLondon’s list of Children’s Theaters in London for ideas. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gets rave reviews. I’ll see if our “London Mum”, Anna Tobin, can put together a list of family favorites in the next few weeks.

The photo above was taken after our pedi-cab ride back to the hotel. In retrospect, I’m going to give this a thumbs down for families. Although it was exciting, it was a little too exciting as London’s traffic makes it dangerous (vs. our experience in Rome down back streets which was much more fun).

Stay tuned for more on 72 Hours in London later this week.

Photos courtesy of Amie O’Shaughnessy


Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended family hotels London

72 Hours with Kids in London: Day 2

72 Hours with Kids in London: Day 3

Top kid-friendly activities in London with kids

London Eye photos and tips

London Double Decker Bus photos and tips

72 hours in Amsterdam with kids

72 hours in Rome with kids

Information for expatriates in London – InterNations

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  • Thanks for this insider’s view. I’m planning a trip next year with my daughter – she’ll be 9 by then and it’s good to have an itinerary to follow. Can’t wait to see what’s on the agenda for day 2!

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