London’s world-class museums are among the city’s biggest attractions — a perfect option for a rainy day and, with free admissions, wallet-friendly too. But which ones work best when kids are in tow? Take advantage of these insider tips and tidbits for a museum outing that will keep everyone in the family engaged and happy.
Natural History Museum
Let’s start with the daddy of London’s museums — arguably the most famous and located in the capital’s so-called museum quarter, South Kensington. The Natural History Museum is a bit like stepping onto the movie set of Night at the Museum. It’s a British institution, a wonderful, slightly dusty old building stuffed with exotic animals and geological treasures to delight children of all ages.
Sadly, the jaw-dropping star of the show, Dippy, is no longer on display in the Hintze Hall. After 35 years, this very famous life-size replica skeleton of a diplodocus has been retired to pastures new. In Dippy’s place, expect an equally impressive blue whale skeleton, as the museum shifts focus to conservation and awareness of the natural world.
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However, if dinosaurs delight your little ones, then the wing dedicated to these prehistoric giants is well worth a visit. With an animatronic life size T-Rex roaring and threatening to eat kiddies for lunch, plus a vast collection of fossils and videos, this area brings the story of dinosaurs to life. So too does the Red Zone. An escalator leads through the bubbling cauldron that is the earth’s core, and there are precious lumps of rock for budding geologists to explore. And the Creepy Crawlies will satisfy any child’s curiosity for all things arthropod, even if it leaves mum and dad feeling a bit itchy after! If you’re lucky, you may catch the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, chargeable but well worth it for the stunning photography,
Compared to its funky neighbour, the Science Museum (described below), we found parts of the museum a little dated — not surprising as some exhibitions such as the Blue Zone, dedicated to marine life, and Human Biology haven’t changed since I was a little girl! In the days of interactivity, children expect a little more, and stuffed animals in cabinets are certainly not cool in our family’s eyes. We’d much rather see them alive.
Even so, there is a new shift in the museum’s thinking and hordes of happy children of all ages stomp around these corridors daily. Give that admission is free, it’s definitely worth spending a couple of hours here just to say you’ve been to such an iconic place. A good idea would be to download the museum’s visitor app and ask at a help desk about daily age-appropriate activities for kids.
And be warned, there will be queues on weekends! Persevere or go early.
This place rocks. Right next door to the Natural History Museum, it’s child paradise. It’s modern and fun with interactive features that bring science to life. Even if your children don’t like this subject at school, I bet they will after a few hours here.
Aviation, trains, mathematics and energy are just some of the subjects to explore. They’re all beautifully displayed, in particular the maths exhibit, designed by the late award-winning architect Zaha Hadid. Our favourite, though, was space exploration. Wow! Rockets, space capsules and astronaut suits captivate all. And there are teams of staff on hand conducting regular talks on life in space. We walked past a group of elementary school kids listening intently and hooting with laughter when it came to the issue of astronauts’ poo.
The museum is designed to stimulate young minds and get them involved. For example, we noticed questions dotted around, asking the likes of “How do you save energy in your house?” And the free WIFI encourages visitors to text their answer, which become part of the displays.
Admission is free, but there are several activities that are chargeable. Wonderland, an interactive space where children can conduct their own experiments, is about £20 for the whole family. And if you fancy jumping into a flight simulator and experiencing life as a Red Arrows fast jet pilot, that’ll cost too. But it’s certainly not Disneyland prices.
And don’t worry — the little tots don’t get left out here either. My toddler loved the lights and sounds in The Garden, a multisensory space in the museum’s basement. The cafes are great, and if you manage to leave without splurging at the gift shop, you’ve done well.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Known world over for its dedication to decorative arts and design, the V&A makes up the trilogy of landmark museums in South Kensington. I feared it might be too highbrow for many children, unless Mum and Dad or older kids have real passions for what’s on display. However, the museum’s stunning building warrants a visit in its own right, and free admission makes that possible. But the V&A do a great job catering for kids too.
Unless there is something you specifically want to see, head up to Learning Station, where backpacks full of activity trails are free to hire. There are 12 different themes that essentially turn the museum into one big treasure hunt. And they change constantly: We visited in January when Chinese New Year was being celebrated, so making Chinese lanterns was one activity on offer. It’s a great way for younger kids to start exploring beautiful objects — not high-tech, but done well.
The theatre exhibition is also a little gem, with pop-up performances to keep children entertained. Check at the information counter for the timings. If you have a little princess in the family, she’ll love the beautiful tiaras and diamonds on display in the Jewellery Gallery.
TIP: When you’re done exploring the V&A’s neighbours, come here for lunch. The cafe is vast and serves good food at reasonable prices. But the best thing is the beautiful courtyard garden; you could be forgiven for thinking you’re lunching in Paris. If the weather’s good, children can run around and let off some steam before heading off to explore again.
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The Museum of Childhood
The V&A also has a separate museum dedicated entirely to kids, called the Museum of Childhood. Based in Bethnal Green in East London, it boasts to be the largest museum of its kind, dedicated entirely to the experience of being a child.
It’s not difficult to get here, but it is a little out of the way from most of the tourist hot spots in Central London. If you like what you see at the the V&A and want to experience more, pay the Museum of Childhood a visit. They have the most wonderful collections of toy figures, games, cuddly bears, dolls and miniature vehicles that will send Mum and Dad down memory lane if not the little ones! It can get busy with school groups, so the museum recommends visiting after 2p for lighter crowds.
If the Natural History Museum is the daddy, then this titan is the granddaddy. The British Museum is a vast place. It’s of the biggest museums in the world, showcasing one of the largest collections of world artifacts — 2 miles’ worth, to be precise. Located in beautiful Bloomsbury, the heart of London’s university community, and anchored by a jaw-dropping glass atrium, this place is a must-visit. But be smart and plan what you want to see in advance! The main attractions are the incredible collections from ancient Egypt and Greece. In the UK, these regularly pop up on the school curriculum so are a great addition to classroom learning. But don’t try and see too much; your children will become as bored as the mummies on display! And, of course, it’s free to get in.
The Design Museum
This is London’s latest offering, opening in swanky new digs on High Street Kensington in early 2017. Housed in the former Commonwealth Institute, it’s an homage to all things design and another place where you could justify a visit just to experience the awesome cathedral-like building.
It’s free, and great for teenagers and young adults with an interest in design and iconic pieces that have influenced modern culture. They’ll love the grown-up and sophisticated vibe. For younger ones? Well, for the first time, the museum has regular family programmes for 5- to 11-year-olds, which are worth checking out. Or you could bribe them with the prospect of a post-visit ice cream in neighbouring Holland Park to keep them on their best behaviour.
Imperial War Museum
I’m a big fan of this place, but I get that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you have children aged 8 years or older who are interested in tanks, fighter jets and stories of brave soldiers, then this is well worth checking out. It’s not a huge museum, so you won’t need more than a couple of hours and it’s just a short cab ride from Waterloo Station, just south of the Thames. Because it’s off the beaten track, it doesn’t get the same footfall as the well-known museums, which means fewer people.
The building, constructed post-WW1, is beautiful with a stunning atrium. And first impressions make an impact: Suspended in midair is a Harrier jump jet, a Spitfire, a V1 and enormous V2 bomb built by the Nazis to blitz London. Everything displayed here has seen military action, doubling its impact.
There’s a lot of focus on WW2, so for kids who are studying that, it may be helpful. But the displays go right up to modern times and are sensitive and tastefully done. The spy section may be of particular interest if there’s a James Bond fan in the family!
Some areas are not appropriate. The Holocaust Exhibition is deeply moving and will only allow children age 14 and over, though I think that may still be too young.
If your children are interested in WW2, the it might be a good idea to combine a visit here with one to the Churchill War Rooms, the secret underground cabinet chambers where Churchill orchestrated the Allies attack. Based in Whitehall, just round the corner from Downing Street, it features everything left just as it was at the end of the war and is an incredible step back in time.
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Museum of London
The Museum of London, a fantastic museum that celebrates London’s rich history, is off the radar of most visitors to the capital, especially overseas tourists. That could be something to do with its location, effectively in the middle of a giant roundabout in an area called London Wall. It’s not far from St. Paul’s and Barbican tube station, but it’s best to pile everyone in a cab to get there, as it can be a little tricky to find. Being bang smack in the middle of financial district also means no crowds in the area at weekends, even though Sunday is the museum’s busiest day.
Despite being a Londoner for 20 years, I have to confess I’d never been here until recently, and I was impressed! There’s a big focus on family visitors, from exploring Londidium (the city’s name in Roman times) to the Great Fire of London and a real-life Victorian shopping street. It offers free admission too, and like the V&A, has backpacks to hire that are full of great age-appropriate activities (the info desk can help with this). My advice would be to combine a visit here with a look around St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is nearby and deserves to be seen.
This makes the list as something slightly different. The Horniman was set up by a successful tea trader more than 100 years ago who brought back exotic finds from his travels around the world to his home in southeast London. Compared to the central London museums, the Horniman is pretty small and somewhat quaint. However, it’s loved by local mums and schools, who bring their children here in droves all year round. Aimed directly at children, there’s a small aquarium, a Great Hall full of stuffed animals and a big section on bugs and insects, which kids seem to love.
What’s great? It’s far more chilled out than the big museums, so works well for smaller children, say ages 3 to 8. And it’s set in beautiful gardens with wind chimes and a playground, and boasts one of the most spectacular views of London’s skyline.
The Horniman isn’t particularly easy to get to if you don’t know London well, so treat yourself to a cab. The museum would be great place to visit if you’re in the locality anyway, or just fancy some time away from central London and want to experience life as a local family.