2012 London Olympics: What to do with Kids

The London Eye and Houses of Parliament at night, London, England
The London Eye and Houses of Parliament at night, London, England  (Davis McCardle/Digital Vision/Thinkstock)

There’s plenty on offer for kids of all ages in Britain’s capital—from flagship attractions like the London Eye to iconic palaces and royal gardens. And it needn’t break the bank—many of London’s attractions are both fun and free. Here are some of the best.

Castles and Palaces
London has a castle, palace, or stately home for every week of the year. The Queen’s home, Buckingham Palace, will be open to visitors from the third day of the Olympics (July 31). Families can walk through the state rooms where the Queen has greeted a dozen U.S presidents and see a collection of priceless diamonds including some of the largest in the world. Boys love the gory history and the ghost stories at the Tower of London, and the huge collection of swords, battle axes, and suits of armor. Girls will enjoy the Diana Princess of Wales exhibition at her former home, Kensington Palace, telling her tragic life story and showcasing many of her iconic dresses. And children of all ages will be enchanted by the medieval maze, hallways, and gardens of Henry VIII’s great Tudor palace at Hampton Court.

Rides and Attractions
There are a cluster of family attractions along the River Thames. Top of the Bill is the London Eye—a 443-foot high Ferris wheel sitting right opposite the Houses of Parliament. It rotates so slowly you can hope on and off, and the views of the city from up high are breathtaking. To avoid waiting in line for hours come early and on a week day. Also on the South Bank are the gory London Dungeon and the Clink Prison—two theatrical history museums which revel in the city’s gruesome history—from Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber to the bubonic plague and great fire. You can also take a river ride. Best value is the Thames Clippers, public boats which whisk along the river stopping at many of the iconic sights, including the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and the Royal Maritime Museum and Meridian at Greenwich.

Museum and Galleries
The big museums and galleries in central London are all free. The best is the British Museum—London’s equivalent of the New York Met. It’s packed with unique and priceless exhibits, including ancient Egyptian mummies and artifacts like the Rosetta Stone, the marble friezes carved by Phydias from the Parthenon in Athens, and an Easter Island head just like the one in Night at the Museum. There are plenty of smaller, lesser-known museums too. The Sir John Soane’s Museum is a kids’ favorite. It’s the former home of an eccentric 18th century architect with an ingenious, Chinese box of an interior, with folding walls and a sepulchral basement which houses the sarcophagus of an Egyptian Pharaoh, a Mummy’s head, and the desiccated corpses of dozens of cats entombed in the walls of the city’s buildings by medieval Londoners who believed a cat corpse permanently warded off rodents. The room’s Gothic horror feel is played upon by the staff on their spooky candlelit tour, which allows children to put their hands in a bag of squidgy eyeballs. But parents needn’t worry. They’re really just lychees.

Parks and Gardens
London is one of the world’s greenest cities, with scores of parks and gardens. If the weather holds up, they’re great places for a picnic and all have special play areas for kids. Perhaps the best in the center is Kensington Gardens, right next to Kensington Palace. Here you’ll find a statue of the original pre-Disney Peter Pan, the Diana Memorial Fountain, and the Diana Memorial Playground, set-up to remember the princess’s special devotion to children. It has a cool little wooded adventure area where kids can romp and scramble. Adjacent Hyde Park will host the triathlon and the ten km open-water swimming events at the Olympics. Other good London parks include Richmond Park, a former royal hunting ground and still home to herds of wild deer and Hampstead Heath, which affords superb views of the city skyline.

For more information
There are a wealth of resources out there for families planning to visit London where you can find out more. Footprint Travel Guides publish a special book on London with Kids which is packed with tips on sights, things to do, and how to do them as well as more general information on travel and budgeting. Visit London has special tips and recommendations for families, including a calendar of events, and the Olympics website shows how all-comers can join-in with the games.

Published: 19 Jun 2012 | Last Updated: 17 Jul 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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