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.
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. Here is a well-designed plan for 3 days in London
We started our sightseeing with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The ceremony starts at 11:30 a.m. 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.
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.
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 or pre-book skip-the-line tickets.
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!
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.
We ended our Day 1 with an evening performance of a show in London’s West End. See VisitLondon’s list of Children’s Theaters in London for ideas.
If Day 1 was an introduction to London’s royal heritage and iconic sites, an ideal Day 2 is one where you roll your sleeves up and dig into a neighborhood. The best way to learn about a place in a meaningful way is to go on a walking tour with a professional guide. Not all guides are created equal, but the good ones give you perspective you can’t get on your own.
Finding a guide who is experienced with children is critical; you need them to be patient, not be offended when kids don’t listen or take interest in what they say, and most importantly, tailor information with kid-friendly lingo and content. Our travel advisors excel at matching client’s interests with highly qualified guides.
We decided to do a guided tour of of Kensington Gardens, South Kensington, and Knightsbridge. Although I lived in London 10 years ago, I was amazed to discover what I didn’t know about the history of this area. We started our tour with a walk through Kensington Gardens and learned about it’s history and the current use of Kensington Palace by various members of the Royal Family (it’s also where Princess Diana lived and where Prince William and Kate live now).
We were lucky to have our tour on a gorgeous spring day. London in good weather makes all the difference in the world. Absolutely everyone is out and about when sun is shining (given the typical grey weather — this is a population that appreciates a nice day). Normally, I’d say that you don’t need to see a park with a guide. In London’s case, however, the numerous parks are full of history and stories so it’s worthwhile to wrap at least one park into a walking tour. More information about our favorite London parks is found here.
The highlight of Kensington Gardens for families with young children is most definitely the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. The centerpiece is a huge wooden pirate ship, a giant sandbox, and numerous paths and places for children to explore.
TIP: At age 8, our son still had a fun running around here, but it didn’t interest him for long. Princess Diana Memorial Playground is toddler and pre-school heaven and must be on every itinerary for children that age.
Once we got a brief bit of playtime in, we continued our tour at the Albert Memorial. Our guide used this iconic monument as a way to describe the reign of Queen Victoria and her great impact on London and the world. Although I can’t say this particular site ranks as a school-age favorite, it’s a visual way to tell an important story. The strategy worked — she had our son’s attention and he even engaged her in a flurry of follow up questions.
From there we hit two of London’s must-visit attractions with kids: London’s Natural History Museum and Science Museum. These museums are engaging for kids of all ages. And, they are free! Amazing. Our guide introduced us to both museums at a high level on our walk, and we went back and viewed the exhibits on our own. We’ve got a more robust roundup of favorite London museums here.
TIP: Both museums open at 10 a.m. and have extensive exhibits. Leave a block of 3 to 4 hours open if you want to see both museums. Even then, you’ll need to spend some time on the web or with their brochure to create a priority list of things to see.
We also did a brief walk through of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is an often overlooked museum (guilty as charged). Our guide took us through a few of the rooms to demonstrate the great variety of artifacts on display from all over the world. An incredible place. The Victoria and Albert Museum would also be a good venue for an art-focused kid-friendly guide or even just a podcast that walks you through the displays of interest to kids.
TIP: The dining hall at Victoria and Albert received rave reviews from our guide and I can see why. We lost the time to eat there, but given another opportunity, I would absolutely go here for lunch. Stunning design and the food looks delicious. Fast and on the loud side, i.e. perfect with kids.
Our guide walked us to Knightsbridge for the final leg of the tour. Home to the world-famous Harrods department store, Knightsbridge is another good stop for retail therapy. We hit the Harrods’ toy department and it was indeed impressive, but Hamleys remains our favorite.
TIP: Is Knightsbridge a must with kids? Not really. If you have tweens and teens who are into shopping, Harrods is an eye-popping treat. Otherwise, if you must, this is one stop that can be moved down the priority list.
This is all you can fit into Day 2 if you engage a guide and want to hit the museums. It provides some play time which is key, and a good break from just moving from monument to monument.
We finished Day 2 with dinner at Daphne’s restaurant offering authentic Italian food in a cozy setting. This place has been around forever and attracts devoted locals as well as tourists. The restaurant is delightful year-round with a conservatory roof that opens up in pleasant weather. It’s upscale, but the early seating has plenty of families. We have more London restaurant suggestions here.
When you only have 3 days in a big city like London, mild panic is a distinct possibility on your last day when you take stock of all that is left to do.
Walking by Whitehall
My advice: Don’t fall into this trap! Major attractions missing from our trip included the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The British Museum, Tate Museums (Tate Britain and Tate Modern), Covent Garden, the inside of Westminster Abbey, a ride on the London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Churchill War Rooms, and a boat trip down the Thames … to name a few.
And, this is only the big stuff! Needless to say, even after 2 full days of sightseeing the list is overwhelming.
Neighborhood Stroll in Chelsea
Since we spent the previous days doing intense monument/museum-focused touring, we decided to start our last day with a relaxed neighborhood stroll and brunch. Chelsea is perfect for sightseeing downtime with an attractive high street, unique shops, and enchanting residential architecture.
We chose Bluebird Chelsea for our meal. It’s love! In addition to an upscale restaurant and bar, they have an indoor/outdoor cafe with casual, fresh and delicious food. I would imagine this turns into a vibrant adult-focused social scene at night, but in the day, it’s a perfect venue to dine with kids.
TIP: Engage in a neighborhood experience in London. There are so many monuments and museums to see that it’s easy to get caught up in moving from one to the other without getting a taste of current-day life in London. The options are endless as each neighborhood has a distinct personality. A full round-up of favorite London neighborhoods is here.
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At this point we opted to visit Westminster Abbey only to find that it is open for worship only on Sundays (see the opening hours schedule for reference). In retrospect, we should have integrated a visit into our Day 1 itinerary. Westminster Abbey is definitely worth a full visit!
Many of Europe’s grand cathedrals are all about the past. Not here. As we learned during William and Kate’s wedding, Westminster Abbey is an active part of current-day worship and pageantry in London.
TIP: To fully appreciate the history and splendor of Westminster Abbey, go with a guide. If it doesn’t make sense to add it to a walking tour, the church offers their own guided tours (requires planning).
Photo opp with Horse Guard
Given the glorious weather during our visit, we couldn’t resist another park visit and play time. We spent time happily wandering through St James’s Park. You can combine this with a walk through the awe-inspiring Whitehall (exterior) and a photo opp at Horse Guards Arch.
Covent Garden is a lively neighborhood known for shops, restaurants, an open-marketplace, and street performers. Although the shopping is mostly chain stores, a bit of everything is here. Ditto for the restaurants although most are loud, casual, and perfect with kids.
The street performers will captivate your children’s attention — although as we discovered, don’t count on the content being 100% kid-friendly.
TIP: Covent Garden is a good place for dinner with kids. I wouldn’t spend daylight hours here unless you in the immediate area and need lunch — i.e. it need not be part of the main sightseeing schedule.
At this point our 72-hour stay was over as we had to fly out of town in the early evening.
Checking out the action on the Thames River
Thames River Boat Cruise, London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Tower of London
In retrospect I’d play the 3rd day differently and do a Thames river boat cruise. Cities look so different from their waterways. You can easily combine this with a hop-on hop-off bus pass and visit to the London Eye. There are many operators running different boat cruises. Since we opted not to do this on this trip, I can’t recommend one over another.
With older kids, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater is an appealing addition to the itinerary. At the end of the day, however, a must-visit attraction is the Tower of London. We missed experiencing it as a family and I’m disappointed.
Royal history comes to life in this fortress with a fascinating array of stories about kings, queens, and a laundry list of famous prisoners. Little boys will delight in the weaponry and little girls will love the crown jewels. Be sure and read up on their family activities and tickets page before you go.
A London pass allows you to access attractions without paying cash at the door and at some venues, you can access an entrance fast lane. They gave me a few passes to sample during our trip.
London Pass markets their pass as providing “free” access to attractions — this is not an entirely true statement as you have to buy the pass. That said, depending on what you plan to see, spending money on the pass can provide substantial savings.
TIP: Given that this fee is a value ONLY if you visit enough attractions to experience the savings benefit. Review the list of the attractions you can visit with the London Pass. The useful website lists the “normal” ticket price for each attraction so it’s simple to do quick math to determine if buying the pass with save you money when you add the list pricing up for your attractions of interest.
The pass may include a Travelcard option (costs more money) where you get unlimited travel on all public transportation. Given that kids under 11 may travel free of charge on the tube and buses anyway in London when accompanied by a paying adult (London Pass specifies that a Travelcard is valid for this), there is no point in buying this option for kids within that age range.
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