The Mom's Guide to London
Kids real and imaginary have long loved London (just think of Peter Pan playing in Kensington Gardens and Christopher Robin taking a trip to London Zoo). But in recent years, the sheer volume of family-friendly spaces in London has truly exploded. It seems like everywhere you look, there is a dedicated kids section in a museum or gallery, a brilliant playground in just about every London park, kid-friendly fine dining options (no, it's not an oxymoron) and even stand-up comedy shows for elementary-age children.
Are you planning a stay in the U.K. capitol with kids in tow? Ahead are some of this here Londoner's top picks for family fun in The Big Smoke.
Where to stay
There's accommodation for all budgets in London. When traveling with kids, mini frills-free hotels by Nadler provide a great base from which to explore the city (prices are per room rather than per person, and the mini kitchenettes are perfect for family breakfast options), while budget chain Novotel offers excellent promotions on family rooms, including free accommodation for under-16s.
At the luxury end of the market, some London hotels offer a dedicated children's concierge plus kid-friendly afternoon teas to tempt tiny taste buds. For the ultimate indulgence, check out the St. James in Mayfair, The Landmark in Marylebone; or the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington (their children's afternoon tea includes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because classy).
Where to eat
The options for eating out in London are as varied as the city itself. Almost all cafés and restaurants in London would describe themselves as child-friendly, with many offering special menus to suit younger tastes. My own tried-and-true recommendations include Giraffe's extensive "world cuisine" menu, pizzas from the always-friendly Franco Manca and Mexican treats from Wahaca. Look out, too, for various restaurants where kids eat for free: Bodean's BBQ and The Real Greek are particularly wallet-friendly.
Even London's celebrity chefs are keen to corner the kids market. World-renowned restaurateur Mark Hix offers special children's menus, and kids eat free at certain Hix branches. Tom Aikens' Tom's Kitchen in Canary Wharf also has a great selection for little ones; we love their pancakes for Sunday brunch. Under-12s eat for free in Gordon Ramsay's London restaurants; don't miss the special pizza-making master classes and ice cream bars at certain locations.
Where to catch a show
Don't believe the lies: Becoming a parent does not preclude you from enjoying such elegant delights as are on offer in London's cultural scene. Rather, you may just find you're frequenting shows at a more bedtime-friendly hour than before.
Classical music fans will love Bach to Baby concerts in baby-friendly venues around the city, and if you're missing your pre-baby trips to the West End, there are plenty of showtunes (jazz hands at the ready) at the weekly Baby Broadway shows.
As your children grow, you can introduce them to even more of London's diverse music scene. There are child-friendly concerts (in the daytime and with short running times) on offer from the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the London Musical Arts Orchestra. London's iconic music venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Southbank Centre, and Wigmore Hall also open their doors at family-friendly times, meaning parents can share their love of live music with their little ones.
My son and I have particularly enjoyed concerts from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Their Tots shows offer the perfect introduction to orchestral music. You can even meet the musicians beforehand and learn about their instruments. Pro tip: Book early, and get a place on the stage so you're right up close to the action.
London continues to be one of the best places in the world to see live theater, and that's true whether you're 8 or 88 years old. While tickets for big West End hits such as The Lion King, Matilda and Aladdin tend to come with big West End prices, there are plenty of smaller venues where kids can sample quality live theater with a more reasonable price tag. Check out the Unicorn Theatre, the U.K.'s only purpose-built theater for kids near London Bridge, the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon or the Little Angel Theatre in Islington for a wide variety of theatrical experiences for little ones.
New parents can also get their stand-up comedy fix at London's Bring Your Own Baby gigs, offering mid-morning weekday giggles for tired moms and dads. And once your little ones are beyond baby stage, introduce them to your love of jokes at the Soho Theatre's Comedy Club 4 Kids. At these monthly shows, top stand-up acts take out the X-rated bits from their scripts and perform their material for anyone age 6 and over.
Where to party, BYO Baby-style
And if it's clubbing you're missing now that you're a parent — yep, London has you covered there too. Get your post-baby disco buzz on with top DJs pumping out tunes at Big Fish Little Fish family-friendly raves; Baby Loves Disco, a daytime dance party for kids under 6 and their parents at Zebrano on Carnaby Street; or Monksi Mouse's Baby Disco Dance Hall on London's Southbank, where kids up to age 5 and their parents can boogie the afternoon away to some fabulous beats.
Where to see art
You might not expect the venerable Dulwich Picture Gallery — the world's oldest public art gallery, full of Baroque masterpieces — to welcome kids. But when we visited, my son was greeted by a most tempting array of paper and colored pencils right at the front door.
In the center of town, the National Gallery hosts weekly Magic Carpet storytelling sessions for kids under 5, while older children can take part in drawing workshops inspired by the collection. South of the river, the ever-popular Tate Modern remains a firm favorite for families. Ticketed exhibitions are free for under-12s, there's a free buggy park, and you can even get hands-on with family-friendly "object cases" to help you explore the galleries. If you're not sure about tackling modern art with your kids (not being able to answer the question, 'But what is it?' can be either exhilarating or terrifying), the Tate's dedicated kids website is a fantastic place to start.
London's nonart museums, many of which are free, also provide excellent spaces for kids to explore. My personal favorites include the London Transport Museum, with a dedicated area for kids under 7; the Science Museum (check out the wonderful hands-on section in the basement for younger kids); and the National Maritime Museum, in the heart of one of London's most beautiful World Heritage Sites, Greenwich.
Where to let off steam
I once asked a father of four which was London's best museum for kids. He answered somewhat flippantly, "any with a garden." Now that I'm a mum myself, I can see the huge benefits of combining sightseeing with pure green space in which to let off steam. The excellent playground in Greenwich Park may well be the reason my family and I return to the Maritime Museum time and again; you can also combine a trip round Kensington Palace with an afternoon running around the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial garden. Or head out of town to Hampton Court Palace and match royal history with imaginative play in the Magic Garden. (Look out for the steam-breathing dragon. Yes, really!)
And speaking of the great outdoors, day trips to Kew Gardens, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or a city farm such as Mudchute will provide a welcome kid-oriented antidote to the more adult bustle of inner-city London life.
Bottom line: London is an enthralling city for visitors and locals alike — regardless of their age. And when it comes to keeping kids happy, remember Samuel Johnson's famous aphorism: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." And who could possibly tire of all that?