Jolly old England once conjured up images of stuffy old men smoking pipes in their armchairs, in a dingy pub rife with dank air and lousy food. Well, rest assured that jolly new England is a family-friendly mecca with ancient cities that seamlessly offer up the best of old and new, fields and farms to roam and discover, castles to conquer, excellent gastropub cuisine, museums to treasure and, yes, lots of Harry Potter sites for your favorite Muggles to enjoy. But you’ll need a few tips in your back pocket, like the very best places to take kids in England, to make a trip to England for kids feel as magical as the setting.
What makes England such a wonderful international destination with kids? The language is familiar, the public transportation is very well organized, it’s family-friendly and it is a manageable size. You’ll be spoiled for choice as you decide where to go here — your biggest challenge may be narrowing down all the excellent possibilities on offer.
We’ve been helping families craft unique and personal itineraries throughout the UK for nearly 15 years. Here are the top 52 tips for visiting England we’ve gathered along the way.
• If you are staying in England for just a week, limit your itinerary to the city of London, perhaps with a day trip to an easily reachable area like Oxford, Bath or Brighton. For longer stays, you have time to explore farther afield and spend a couple of days in the Cotswolds, the Lakes District or Devon, all favorites for families. With even longer, expand to some of our other favorite UK places to visit with family, like the Welsh countryside or Scottish Highlands.
• With 10 days, you can easily take a 1-hour flight or 4- to 5-hour train ride from London to Edinburgh and experience the eclectic beauty of the ancient city and surrounding countryside. (To see much more of Scotland you’ll need at least an extra week. England and Wales are also easy to combine, but again, you’ll need more time.)
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• Kids interested in England’s history will love York, which has seen its fair share of momentous events. From the Vikings and medieval shopping streets to Gothic cathedrals and castle remnants, York’s story covers thousands of years. While you can visit as a day trip from London, we don’t recommend it — it takes about 2 hours each way to get there and back, and York deserves more time for exploring.
• The Cotswolds region is known for its picturesque homes and lovely landscape, which is why it has been protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This is where you’ll find those iconic views of England’s countryside, like a painting come to life. Here is our insider guide for making the most of the area with kids.
• In Bath, the family-friendly Roman Baths feature costumed characters who roam the site most days. Kids’ narrated audioguides are included free with admission. Stonehenge is about an hour by car from Bath, but doing both in a day is too rushed. (An insider tip: Many history buffs prefer the stone circles of Avebury to Stonehenge; Avebury is also about an hour from Bath. Not only are crowds lighter, but you can walk freely amid the stones, whereas Stonehenge is roped off. Unless you book a special-access tour, you’ll only see the circle from a distance.)
• No trip to England is complete without visiting at least one of its legendary castles, though some are better than others when it comes to holding kids’ interest. Our top picks offer plenty to keep the younger set engaged. And don’t forget that one of the best castles in the country, the Tower of London, is right in heart of the capital.
• London is awash in wonderful museums, but not all are geared toward families. The good news? Many are free to enter, so you can easily sample a wide variety. Get our shortlist of the best kid-friendly museums as you plan your time.
• Buckingham Palace is only open to the public a few short weeks of the year. Read our tips and tricks for visiting so that your little prince or princess won’t be disappointed.
• Kensington Palace currently plays host to a real-life prince and princess and their children. Its scale and location in Kensington Park make it a family-friendly stop. Enjoy the palace, have a spot of tea in the café or the Orangery, and then let the kids romp around the park. You can even rent bikes.
• Consider purchasing a membership to the Historic Royal Palaces. This not only covers Kensington Palace, but it also includes that perennial favorite, the Tower of London. You’ll save your family a lot of money and help to preserve England’s history.
• The Shoreditch area of London is a great place to explore with teens. It’s home to an incredible array of some of the world’s best street art, created by artists from around the globe. Teens also love Camden Town, which has a lot of cool shops and covered markets. The food courts offer freshly prepared, cheap and cheerful fare from all over the world.
• Do you have sports lovers in your family? Consider timing your trip around one of London’s major sporting events, such as the Wimbledon tennis tournament or a Premier League football (soccer) match.
• For kids 10 and up, the Churchill War Rooms offer the opportunity to see firsthand where Churchill and his cabinet worked and lived during World War II (and what they did to win). The War Rooms are part of the Imperial War Museums, which include branches in London, Duxford and Manchester. The H.M.S. Belfast warship, moored on the Thames near the Tower of London, is affiliated as well.
• The city’s plentiful parks are perfect for kids to burn off energy. We especially love Richmond Park — more than 500 years old, it’s home to many ancient trees and stocked with both red and fallow deer. It offers room to roam and sweeping views of London and the Surrey countryside. There is also a lodge with a café.
• London is well positioned for any number of wonderful day trips. Here’s where to go if you want to get out of the city. We suggest asking your children what they fancy. Aspiring actors and writers might enjoy exploring Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare’s birthplace. Or young builders might want a day in Legoland Windsor. If you prefer to explore closer to home, visit one of the wonderful villages on London’s outskirts, such as Greenwich or Hampstead.
• London is among the most expensive cities in the world. As a traveler, one of the moments that you will most feel this is when it comes time to pay your friendly innkeeper. Book accommodations as early as possible for the best deals, and consider a rental apartment instead of a traditional hotel, which has the twin benefits of affordability and extra space. Our CB! Family Vacation Advisors maintain a list of vetted rental agencies specializing in apartments suited to kids.
• Not all accommodations have air conditioning, particularly private apartments, and London can get hot at the height of summer. If AC is important for your family, be sure to check this.
• London is quite spread out, so there’s no “best” area to stay. Just aim for a property that’s convenient to public transport for the things you want to see and do and meets your pricing and space requirements.
• Do you have one or more family members who are just potty for Harry Potter? The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel will fulfill Harry-lovers’ dreams while offering all the amenities and comforts you need; the hotel was used as the filming location for the exterior of King’s Cross train station. Then hit the road and take your fans to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour — The Making of Harry Potter. Tours here sell out fast, so book early.
• Many countryside accommodations are wonderful because of their individuality. But that one-off, quirky former estate may be far from public transportation and not child-safe or family-friendly. That’s where CB! shines — we offer our clients unique, tried-and-true options that exude character yet welcome parents and kids.
• In the past, accommodations in England were not known for including well-designed kids’ clubs. Luckily, that has all changed, and there are now some great choices.
• The British rail system consists of several privately owned companies. The lines crisscross the country, and they are a great way to explore. Buy your train tickets in advance, especially during peak times; research and plot ahead via the National Rail site.
• The London public transport system, managed by Transport for London (TfL), is the best and most convenient way to get around the city. It includes the tube, trams, buses, overground rail and some boats.
• You can buy an Oyster Card (TfL’s official way to pay) at any tube station or place that sells them, with varying discounts for kids ages 11-17. Kids under 11 travel free on most public transport with a paying adult. That said, locals and increasing numbers of visitors prefer contactless cards or mobile payment over Oyster Cards. If you’re going this route, read TfL’s guide to contactless payment here.
• Stand on the right on all escalators going into and out of tube stations — trust us!
• There are so many airports in England, especially in the London area, that England makes a great jumping-off point for exploring other European countries. If you would like to add France, Belgium or the Netherlands into your itinerary, take the Eurostar across the Channel Tunnel from London to Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam.
• When you take a cab, it’s customary to tip about 10 percent on your fare or round up to the next pound.
• Driving on the other side of the road does take a bit of getting used to, but it’s not as bad as people think. As the driver, you always want to be on the side of the car closest to the middle of the road (i.e., always have your right shoulder at the yellow line going down the street).
• Keep repeating this mantra to yourself: “Stay left.” You might even enlist your kids’ help — before you come to a junction or a roundabout, make a game out of having them shout the phrase out.
• When renting (hiring) a car in England, be sure to ask for an automatic transmission; standard transmissions are very common in the UK. The gearbox and pedals are on the opposite side of what you might be used to, and it really does take time to get the hang of it — not recommended when you are trying to enjoy your holiday with family.
• Gas is called petrol and it is sold by the liter, which is smaller in volume than a gallon. Petrol is more expensive in the UK than in the US.
• Some cars run on diesel; be very vigilant that you are fueling up with the correct fuel at the pumps. The stations attached to supermarket chains tend to have the best prices. Gas costs less in the country than in the cities.
• Gone are the days when England was known for its lackluster fare. The country has undergone a culinary revolution of sorts and many chefs, farmers and dairy and animal farms are working together to bring diners the “Best of Britain.” This commitment to quality stretches from the hallowed halls of London’s grand hotels to the excellent pubs dotted around the country. We have many favorite London restaurants for families to experience all this great food.
• French fries are called chips; potato chips are crisps. Cookies are biscuits and pudding is the general term for dessert.
• Many restaurants will automatically add a service charge to your bill. If they don’t, it’s customary to tip 10 to 15 percent.
• While British restaurants selling food must provide you with water, they can and sometimes do charge you for the glass.
• In smaller restaurants, there is a carryout price and a higher stay-in price.
• Pubs are a famous English symbol, just like a red double-decker bus and the Union Jack. In most pubs, you order your food and drink at the bar; don’t be surprised if no one comes by your table to take your order. When you do go to the bar, be sure to take your place in the queue behind those already waiting.
• In contrast to countries like France and Italy, where restaurant tables usually are yours for the evening, there are time limits on table bookings for many restaurants in England, especially in the major cities. When you make a reservation, note the time by which you’ll be asked to turn the table over.
• Brits love their fish and chips. You’ll find shops lovingly known as “chippies” specializing in the fare on lots of streets and many villages around the country — they offer up a fun and fast meal.
• Nando’s is a cultural phenomenon throughout Britain. This Portuguese-meets-South African restaurant chain makes a delicious peri-peri chicken, and they have great chips. Everyone from dukes to the down-and-out loves a Cheeky Nando’s, which refers both to the spiciness of the optional sauces and the festive feeling elicited by a visit to Nando’s with one’s mates.
• London food markets make for a fantastic family outing. Depending on the day and where your sightseeing takes you, head to Brick Lane Market in the East End; Camden Market in Camden Town; Spitalfields Market in Tower Hamlets; and Borough Market in Southwark. The choices and freshness are amazing.
• Few things are more quintessentially British than tea time. Fortum & Mason is one of our top picks; tea times there are wonderful and they are adept at hosting every age group. Many of London’s luxury hotels, such as Brown’s, St. Ermin’s, the Ampersand and One Aldwych, offer children’s teas with fun themes like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Pinkies up!
• For a quick, inexpensive lunch option when you’re out sightseeing, branches of the UK-based Pret A Manger chain are everywhere in London. They offer premade sandwiches, salads and other light fare to go, as well as coffee, pastries and snacks.
• Diapers are called nappies in England; strollers are pushchairs. A crib is called a cot.
• If you need a pharmacy, it’s called a chemist. The ER is called the A&E and the standard of care is excellent. If you have medical questions while traveling, dial 111. It is staffed 24/7 by nurses and they can provide answers or direct you on where to go for care. In a true emergency, dial 999 (the equivalent of America’s 911).
• Except for a razor plug, there are no electrical outlets in British bathrooms. It’s the law.
• Brits take queuing in line very seriously — break this rule at your own risk. Do not push, jostle or cut in.
• England gets crowded in the summer. You’ll need to book accommodations and popular attraction tickets early or prepare to be disappointed.
• Expect three seasons of weather in a single day. Wear layers, carry a rain jacket or a small umbrella and have a pair of waterproof shoes for everyone in the family.
• In many places, there is still one tap for hot water and one tap for cold water (you have been warned).
• Use your manners. Not only would your mom be proud, but it’s how things are done here.
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.