London for Smart Kids

by Rachel on March 3, 2010

Smart Travel 4 Smart Kids: London

St. James Park, London

London is a world-class smart kid destination.  We spent nearly 11 weeks prowling the environs without running out of novel things to do.  The following list could keep you busy for two days, a full week or two.  I’ve listed the sights in the order I would approach them, and I’ve suggested opportunities to double up and see two places in one day.

I’ve made suggestions about the best café/restaurant options at each of the listed locations.  On the whole the London museums have fantastic food options in a range of prices.  Other public attractions, like the Zoo, are dicier – I’d recommend skipping them when you can.  London’s take-away food choices far outshine what we have in the U.S.  The most common lunch for a busy Londoner is the take-away sandwich.  There are a number of chains that are as ubiquitous in London as Starbucks is in the U.S.  I highly recommend two of them, and a third will do in a pinch.  Both Pret a Manger and Marks & Spencer offer a wide range of organic, fresh, tasty take-away sandwiches and salads that will satisfy vegetarians, vegans and carnivores alike.  EAT, which often sits in the same block as Pret, is a distant third in my book – but try all three places and decide for yourselves.  The grocery store chains sell prepared food too.  Of the many chains Waitrose is the nicest, but it is harder to find than the others.  A step up from the take-away sandwich joints is Wagamama, an Asian family-style sit down restaurant chain that has terrific food, and is loud and quick (again – lots of options for vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores).  Pizza Express is everywhere.  Heaps better than our fast food chains, Pizza Express offers a full menu with lots of salads, in addition to pizza and a full bar.

Our witty Big Bus tour guide.

Big Bus or Original Bus Company City Tour: I’m generally far too impatient to sit in a tour bus.  I made an exception for the double-decker tour buses of London and I’m glad I did.  There are two competing tour bus companies “The Original Bus Company,” and “The Big Bus Company,” and when I say competing, I mean it.  Two salesmen, one from each company, nearly came to fist-o-cuffs over which company was better, just as we were boarding.  I was ready to pack the whole thing in and continue on in my anti-tour bus mentality, but they managed to calm down and let us get on without serious injury to either party.  Both companies circumnavigate London allowing you to hop on and off at will and include a short, but quite entertaining river cruise down the Thames (and the early morning bantam weight boxing round aside, there isn’t much that differentiates the two companies – you’ll do just fine with either).  If you time it right you can hop off at Trafalgar Square at 9:30 a.m. (having boarded the bus at 9 a.m. sharp at Victoria Station) and you can take the also-included “Walking Tour of the Changing of the Guard.”  Our tour guide, a fabulous chap with a vast knowledge of British history and a terrific wit, led us on more of a “Sprinting” rather than “Walking” tour, not for the weak or weary (WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES AND BE READY TO JOG – this is not the day for impractical footwear or a heavy bag).  We ran alongside the fresh regiment that was marching down the Mall accompanied by a visiting band in bear hats from Ireland and sprinted again up to Buckingham Palace.  Other than a bit too much information about this famous Brit who lives in that neighborhood and that famous Brit who slept here – all of which was lost on my children, the tours are just the right amount of funny, plus history, plus getting on and getting off.  All of the guides are different.  If you get a dud – GET OFF.  Another bus will arrive in a matter of minutes and most of the guides are a hoot.  It’s a great overview of London with the notable advantage that you can quit and restart at any time for a 24-hour period.  Tickets available at the Victoria Station train station OR from the sales agents standing at most of the bus stops.  Adults £25, children £10, family of four £60 – check online for advance purchase promotional fares.

As the horses go marching in.

As the soldiers go marching in.

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace: I recommend watching the Changing of the Guard as a part of one of the Big Bus or Original Bus Company Tours.  They provide terrific commentary and will make sure that you get the full experience of watching the new guards ready themselves and then process down the avenue, arrive at the Palace and make the transfer.  Just holing up in front of Buckingham Palace is much less interesting and involves quite a bit of standing around.  Kids will find the bus tour version much more compelling.

The British Museum: A few years ago the wily Brits brought in a massive regiment of cutting-edge museum folks and wiped away every slightly dusty, rabbit warren-like corner of the British Museum and replaced it instead with well lit, fabulously signed, slickly engineered, knock-your-socks off displays.  Room after marvelous room with nary a dark corner, nor dust bunny in sight.  It’s truly amazing.  I hardly recognized the place from prior visits.  You absolutely must see the Rosetta Stone now trapped behind a massive plexi looking case, but impressive all the same, and the Elgin Marbles – artfully displayed in a glorious room with lots of space to wander and tons of daylight.  The rest of the choices have to do with whether you plan to stay all day, or just for two hours – which is really the minimum you can allocate to the place without leaving disappointed.  Seriously consider signing up for a Blue Badge tour, we found ours riveting.  There is no way we could have seen or learned as much on our own.  The Guide was a bit of a geek – but in a good geeky way.  We dined at the posh and pricey Great Court restaurant upstairs.  The food was splendid, as was the view.  If you have antsy, loud, cantankerous kids who only want to eat grilled cheese and chicken nuggets take them to the downstairs cafeteria.  The British Museum is open daily 10-5:30, later on Thursdays and Fridays, admission FREE.  If you spend the morning at the BM, consider letting your kids spend the rest of the day outdoors.  Take in one of the many amazing parks.  High on my list are Hyde Park, Regent’s Park or Kensington Gardens – all of which can be accessed by public transportation, or by cab from the British Museum.

The Natural History Museum: We could spend a full week at the London Natural History Museum and not run out of compelling things to do.  The entire Stern contingent gave a massive thumbs-up to the explosive section on Volcanoes, as well as the one devoted to birds.  They have a full size mock-up of a Kobe, Japan grocery store that rocks and rolls to simulate the 1995 Earthquake.  I loathed it.  I’ve got enough PTSD from the Santa Monica/Northridge quake – no need to relive it on summer holiday in Britain.  One of the biggest draws in the museum is the section devoted to Dinosaurs (just to the left as you go in the main doors).  Though it is pretty snazzy, the crowds can be overwhelming AND the place is not, and I repeat NOT air-conditioned and it will become an oppressive tomb if you go there mid-summer on a hot day.  There are often lines to get through security when the place opens even mid-week.  Be prepared to wait a solid 20-25 minutes to get in (warn your kids so they aren’t shocked and disappointed when they arrive).  Remember to have your well-provisioned daypacks with you and you’ll be prepared for the delay.  There are a couple of cafeterias and cafés.  The small one on the ground floor near the birds is quite good and attracts fewer crowds.  Remember that you are literally next door to the Science Museum.  It gets far fewer crowds (no lines at the door).  If your time is limited and the Natural History Museum is too packed, walk around the corner and hit the Science Museum instead.  It has the added advantage of splendid air-conditioning.  The Natural History Museum, open daily from 10-5:30, admission FREE.  Cromwell Road, London SW7.  Closest tube station South Kensington.

The Natural History Museum, London.

The Science Museum: Located immediately around the corner from the London Natural History Museum it draws half the crowds of its next-door neighbor and I don’t understand why.  Comparable to the best Science Museums in the U.S. (think the San Francisco Exploratorium on some serious steroids) at remains a bit in the shadow of its more famous neighbor.  There are floors and floors of fabulous stuff, from exhibits on energy, to transportation, to medicine and biology and the ever-popular SPACE.  Much like the British Museum, these guys have hired some seriously skilled museum designers and the exhibit halls are for the most part massive demonstrations of ingenuity, modern technology and inspired design.  The third floor is devoted to an interactive space called “The Launchpad” which is just as fun for grown ups as it is for kids.  The Imax Theater is new and spiffy, but remember, you can watch Imax movies at home – tickets sell out quick, decide first thing in the morning if you want to go or you’ll be sold out.  The Cafeteria is not the highlight of the place, but it will do in a pinch.  The London Science Museum, open daily from 10-6, closed December 24-26, admission FREE but charges apply for Imax Movie Tickets.  Closest tube station is South Kensington.  You’ll be on Museum overload if you try to see both the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum on the same day.

The Tower of London: What’s not to like about the Tower of London?  Really nothing, except the crowds.  Though the Tower appeals to grown-ups and travelers with a sense of history, even with a wickedly funny Yeoman Warder “Beefeater” leading our tour, my kids would have rather been at the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum.  First of all, the place is PACKED.  Buy your tickets online before you go or expect to wait FOREVER at the ticket booth.  Online tickets convert into real tickets at a slightly out of the way office to the right of the main entrance.  If you can muster it, arrive in time for the first Yeoman tour of the day.  Once the day gets going so do the crowds.  My kids will absolutely fight their way to the front of any tourist group, which is essential if you want to hear what the Warder has to say.  Shy children are going to find the whole thing completely overwhelming.  They’ve modernized the way one visits the crown jewels.  There is now a conveyor belt that whisks you past them so that no one can linger too long and hold up the line.  See the jewels first – you actually have time to see them between when the gates open and when the first Warder tour leaves.  It’s well worth it.  If you wait until later in the day you’ll be standing in a seriously miserable line.  The main café is quite nice and has a range of offerings suitable for kids and adults.  Unless your kid is a history buff and you’re willing to arrive early, I’d put this lower down on the must see list.  The Tower of London is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00-5:30, Sunday and Monday 10-5:30 it closes one hour earlier on weekdays in the winter, admission is £17 for adults (£16 if bought online ahead of time), £9.50 for kids under 16 (under 5 FREE), the Tower is closed December 24, 25, 26.  Closest tube station is Tower Hill.  As of February 2010 they were dismantling a major exhibition and some of the Tower was closed off.

Blown glass, Main Entry Hall, V&A Museum.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a shrine to high style and design.  I must note again that the Brits have cornered the market of topnotch museum designers.  The jewelry room in the V&A is insanely handsome.  It isn’t just the outrageous beauty of what is in the cases, but it is the room itself, all black and gleaming with silver spiral staircases and fabulous silver beams criss-crossing the space.  The V&A offers (if you know to ask) activity backpacks that kids can check out for free and take with them into the museum.  Each one focuses on a particular part of the museum and has a well put-together spiral binder of activities (not too many, not too few – just the right amount).  Numbered Ziploc bags have interesting projects that range from quite challenging to just plain fun.  There are nine in total.  I’ve never seen anything like it in the US.  Kids between 5-10 will find them compelling.  You do have to walk to one of the side entrances of the Museum to pick up the packs.  Ask at the front desk and they’ll send you to the right place.  Highlights of the V & A collection likely to capture the interest of curious kids: 1. Plaster casts; 2. The jewelry room (even my boys thought it was amazing – make sure you hit the interactive computer that allows you to put together your own jewelry); 3. Theater costumes (in the way back of the section on the theater they have a set of real theater costumes you can try on); 4. The history of fashion (not as intriguing for boys – but a show stopper for girls).  The bigger of the cafés is worth a visit, lots of good food options and it’s really beautiful.  The upstairs in the museum can get toasty on a hot day.  If you arrive mid-summer make sure to head upstairs first.  It will get into the mid-80s in many of the rooms and they don’t have much ventilation.  I loved the room full of antique silver – but it was impossibly hot two of the times we went.  The Victoria and Albert Museum is open daily 10-5:45, admission FREE, closed December 24, 25, 26.  Located a half block away from the Natural History Museum and a block from the Science Museum – I don’t think you can do two of these museums in the same day and survive – but you could try.  Closest tube station is South Kensington.

Beautiful things are everywhere at the V&A.

Regent’s Park is singularly worth a plane flight across the pond.  We wandered there while studiously ignoring the looming rain clouds and threats from the wise folks at the Weather Channel of showers all day (nary a drop fell) – British summer weather in a nutshell.  The Queen’s Garden in the center of the park, all roses, had peaked but still shared with us the promise of what it must have looked like at its zenith.  Addicted to the notion of British Wetlands we trooped over to that part of the park and were rewarded with a visit from a large number of geese and duck families.  We plotted a course through the rest of the park that would take us through the Informal British Garden and back into town.  The Informal British Garden looks like the front yard of Versaille.  I don’t quite get what is “informal” about it – though perhaps they were referring to us.  We looked pretty scruffy that day.  There was nothing at all scruffy about the garden.  It was stupendous.  The juxtaposition of colors, a band of red, then purple, then green, was breathtaking.  We strolled out of the garden feeling as if we’d won the lottery.  How often do you get to see such exquisite beauty?  The London Zoo is located inside Regent’s Park and you could see the two in the same day – though you’d have totally tired toesies.  You’re close to Madame Tussauds (just say no) and Hamley’s Toy Store (just say NO, NO, NO).  Regent’s Park opens at 5 a.m. every day, closing times vary by season.

Exquisite beauty, Regent's Park, London.

Hyde Park is hard to avoid since it’s right in the middle of absolutely everything.  There are so many reasons to go there, not the least of which is that it makes a convenient crossing point between all sorts of other fabulous locations.  There are many, many things to do in the park including riding in paddle-boats, walking along its miles and miles of wonderful paths, gazing at gorgeous flower gardens, running through fountains on a hot summer day (there are at least two of those a year – and who knows, you might get lucky and experience one of them), tossing around a ball and watching the passers by from a comfortable bench.  Hyde Park is open daily at 5 a.m., closing times vary by season.  Could be combined with Harrods, strolling through Knightsbridge, watching the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, or The Royal Mews.

The London Wetlands Centre: The London Wetlands Center is a bird refuge/sanctuary that is a combination zoo and safe haven for migratory birds whose normal stomping grounds have shrunk as London and its suburbs have stretched further and further into the hinterlands.  We visited the 42-hectare site at an opportune moment.  A massively high percentage of the resident population had been feeling a wee bit frisky.  We saw more baby birds in one day than we have collectively seen over the course of our entire lives.  There are few more adorable sights than group after group of little ducklings and goslings (sometimes as many as 17) lined up to swim behind Mum.  I only have two offspring and I cannot get them to line up behind me without serious threat of bodily harm.  Clearly I’m not nearly as good at parenting as the average duck.  We took the free docent led tour.  Though it was a smashing summer day only one other person showed up so we had the docent all to ourselves.  The woman who led us around was a font of information and fun. We learned that the really flashy duck varieties only mate for a season and the dull looking ducks mate for life.  We went in and out of a number of duck blinds.  We walked through gorgeous marshy areas and shot a million photos of birds big and small.  The birds come from all over the world (we saw migrants from Africa and Iceland, just to name a few far flung spots that were well represented), and they are used to human visitors so they go about their business just two feet from you on the lovely walking paths. Though none of the Londoners we met had ever been to the Wetlands Center, we gave the place four thumbs up.  The two downsides of the Wetlands Centre are, 1.the café on the property had some of the grimmest food offerings this side of Ukraine and 2. it’s a tad out of the way.  We took an expensive cab ride to get there and another expensive cab to go home.  The nearest tube station is a hike and you’ll need to carry a phone with you and call yourself a cab when you’re ready to go home.  All that said – we really loved it there.  The London Wetlands Centre is open daily 9:30-5 winter and 9:30-6 summer, closed Christmas.  Admission is £9.50 for adults, £5.50 for kids 4-16.  Bring your own lunch and the phone number for a cab company.

The London Wetlands Centre.

A Bird Hide at the Wetlands Centre.

The London Zoo: If you want to win back children with a day just for them, The London Zoo is a perfect option.  Founded in 1827 as the world’s first scientific zoo, it has quite a different feel than big American Zoos.  It’s not nearly so large as the LA Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, or the Washington D.C. Zoo, but in a lot of ways its more modest scale works in its favor.  We were able to see nearly the whole place in an energetic four hours.  There was a wonderful animal show with a wry British hostess who was both witty and smart and whose accent was just this side of incomprehensible.  I think that the British success with public gardens plays into the feeling of the place.  Sometimes American Zoos feel a bit severe with wide concrete walkways and big animal enclosures.  The London Zoo feels like a garden and then you come around a corner and low and behold, it’s an Okapi.  It should be noted that although most British museums are FREE, other major tourist attractions, like Zoos, are not.  In fact, they are frightfully expensive.  The London Zoo is no exception.  Admission fees vary by season.  In the dead of winter a family of four will pay £47.50 to get in, and in summer it jumps to £57.50.  Open 10-5 daily, closed Christmas.  The Zoo is located on the north side of Regent’s Park.  You can get there by public transportation – the closest tube location is Camden Town Station, which is a solid 15-20 minute walk from the Zoo entrance.  You can take a cab, but it’s a long way out to the Zoo from central London.  It will add a pricey cab fare to the already steep price of admission.  Not wanting to lug a picnic lunch in our already full daypacks we opted to eat at the Zoo.  The main restaurant is fine, though not nearly as nice as the many cafés inside the London museums.  I found myself wishing we’d just bought a take-away sandwich and brought it with us.  If your child loves Harry Potter, make sure to go to the Reptile House.  In the first Harry Potter film young Harry talks to a boa constrictor within these walls.

The Imperial War Museum is one of the many London Museums that outshine 95% of the museums we have available at home.  The ground floor is devoted, in part, to a massive exhibition of weaponry largely from World War I and II.  This includes the immense V2 (the first real ballistic missile) that was launched against Britain by the Germans at the tail end of the war, and pieces of Rudolph Hess’s plane that he crashed into the English countryside when he came to the U.K. to attempt to reach a peace agreement with the Brits (completely unbeknownst to Hitler).  There is a touching, smartly done exhibit on WWII from a child’s perspective.  I had no idea how many children were evacuated from London in the months that led up to the War.  Many of them were sent into the English and Scottish countryside, but an even larger number were sent out of the country to foster families abroad.  One of the ships carrying children was hit and sunk by the Germans.  Some of the evacuations were done so quickly that inadequate paperwork was completed and at the end of the war the children were lost.  Parents had no idea where the children had been sent.  A considerable number of these families were never reunited.  My boys loved the tanks, airplanes and missiles and my 10 year-old found the exhibit about the children very, very sad.  There is an incredible exhibition on the holocaust but it is only appropriate for teenagers – and even then it is quite challenging.  Visiting this museum was one of the most educational parts of our lengthy London stay.  It gave my kids a very non-US perspective on war, and in particular on WWII.  I highly recommend a visit.  The London Imperial War Museum is open daily 10-6, closed December 24, 25 and 26, admission FREE.  Located on Lambeth Road, the closest tube station is Lambeth North Station, approximately 5 mins away.  Closest other attractions are the London Eye and the Tate Modern, neither of which are high on my list of must-sees.

The Imperial War Museum, London

The Tate Modern, housed in a former power station (think something big enough to manufacture entire submarines), contains a collection of contemporary art that runs from the frightful to the ghastly.  I started our family visit with my arts lecture on the importance of seeing art not just as something that has to be beautiful.  14 paintings of severed heads, some truly creepy videos, pencil drawings of lacerations and tortured children, and a room full of large brown objects that seriously had to have been turds and even I had to call it a day.  My younger son spent most of the time walking around shielding his face with a museum map.  It was not super.  I’m certain that there are more approachable things in the permanent collection and one’s experience probably has much to do with what is currently on display.  2009 was not an easily accessible year for the Tate Modern.  The work was challenging, confrontational and often of a subject matter that would distress many children, no matter how well educated they have been about contemporary art.  The upstairs café at the Tate Britain has an exemplary view of the Thames and a limited but tasty enough menu of breakfast and lunch items.  The Tate Modern is open daily 10-6, later on Fridays and Saturdays.  General Admission is FREE but charges apply for special exhibitions, closed December 24, 25, 26.  Though we didn’t much enjoy the Tate Modern, we did like the Tate-to-Tate Thames River Cruise.  Not so much a cruise as a shuttle service, the Tate-to-Tate is a decidedly not fancy boat that moves visitors between the two Tates by means of the Thames River.  Far faster than any other form of transport between the two places, it makes seeing the two museums in the same day that much easier.  My children enjoyed the 20-minute boat ride far more than they did the 90 minutes at the Tate Modern.  A visit to the Tate Modern can easily be combined with a walk over the Millennium Bridge, or a visit to the London Borough Market.  Closest tube stations are Southwark, or London Bridge.  If you want to come over the Millennium Bridge you can exit the tube across the Thames at Blackfriars Station or Mansion House and walk to the bridge.

The view from the Tate-to-Tate Boat shuttle.

The Tate Britain houses a noteworthy collection of British Art that spans 1500 to the present.  There is a remarkable commissioned work by sculptor Eva Rothschild that fills the entire 200 foot-long entry hall.  Much like a spider’s web, its leggy steel beams thrust up to the ceiling and back down again inviting visitors, large and small alike, to climb in and around it where it touches down – and my boys did just that.  Just unveiled on June 29th, 2009 it is first-rate and worth a visit.  We spent an agreeable 45 minutes with the Turner paintings that are neither ghastly, nor frightful but rather startlingly beautiful, moody and sublime.  For us it was best to begin at the Tate Modern.  At least we ended our Art outing on a high note.  On our second visit to the Tate Britain we discovered the upstairs room in the Turner exhibition.  A permanent part of the museum, they’ve put a remarkable exhibit together on how Turner “saw” color and how the color palette he used changed depending on where he was living and painting.  It is one of the better interactive exhibits I’ve seen in a major Art Museum.  The informal café in the basement of the Tate Britain is first-rate.  There is a sister business, also in the basement, that is far fancier but even my worldly, eat anything children, couldn’t find much that appealed to them on the menu.  Save your pennies and eat at the cheaper, still very lovely, casual café.  The Tate Britain is open daily 10-5:50, closed December 24, 25, 26, admission is FREE but special exhibition charges apply.  Closet tube station is Pimlico.  You can walk from the Tate Britain to Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

London Borough Market: If you like good food it is hard to imagine a better place to spend a Saturday morning or afternoon than London’s Borough Market.  Not only do they have all kinds of amazing foodstuffs, they are quite cheerful about offering free tastes of everything.  A contagiously friendly family of Iranians selling Turkish Delights in every color and taste combination, as well as chocolate covered fruits and nuts fell for my offspring’s superior wit and charm and were soon showering the boys with treats.  After trying and buying the Iranian Turkish Delights, some truly savory pies, delectable fresh pasta, and several small containers of olives, we made our way to Neal’s Yard Dairy which sits just cattycorner to the covered market and will let you sample of every single one of its 300 cheeses.  This may well be true, though unfortunately we do not have personal proof of this assertion.  Try as we might, we hit complete cheese overload at about a 5th of that number of tastes.  We let our youngest, the family cheese hound, try as many cheeses as he wished and we went home with six little packets of delicious dairyness.  It is important to arrive at the market HUNGRY.  There are prepared foods, a couple of sit down casual restaurants, and a plethora of things to taste and take home.  A visit to the Borough Market can easily be combined with a walk over the Millennium Bridge (either on the way too or from the market) – and you’ll want to walk over the bridge at least once during your London stay.  If you have a Harry Potter fan in your midst, in film #3 Harry makes his way through London on a bus that leaves him at the Leaky Cauldron.  This exterior for this shot came from Stoney Street which sits on the southeast side of the Market.  The London Borough Market is open Thursdays 11-5, Fridays 12-6 and Saturdays 8-5.  The closest tube stations are London Bridge or Borough.

Gorgeous fruit at the Saturday market.

Beautiful veggies at the Saturday market.

The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms: Although I quite liked the Churchill Museum, its charms were entirely lost on my children.  Teenagers and kids with a really strong interest in history may fare better.  A tad claustrophobic down in the basement, they left all of the Churchill Cabinet War rooms intact, just as they were on the day they stopped using them at the end of WWII.  The audio guide is absolutely terrific but not terribly kid friendly.  It’s filled with lots of in-depth commentary about Churchill, the war, and the manner in which the Brits chose to steer their course, directly from these rooms.  There is a tiny café – and I mean tiny.  My kids retreated there for drinks while they waited impatiently for the adults to finish the audio guides.  The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are open daily 9:30-6, admission £14.95 for adults, children under 16 are FREE, closed December 24, 25, 26.  The Churchill Museum is close to Buckingham Palace and could easily be done after a Big Bus/Original Bus Tour, or could be combined with a visit to Westminster Abbey, seeing Big Ben, attending the Summer Opening of Parliament or strolling in St. James Park.  The closest tube station is St. James’s Park.

Summer Opening of Parliament: During the summer recess of the Houses of Parliament the Brits graciously welcome the masses in what is known as the “Summer Opening.”  It is a well-ordered, well-conceived social studies mini-course for the masses.  They trek thousands of folks, tourists and fine British citizens, through the hallowed halls of the Lords and the Commons.  We had a smart, full-of-himself, guide who wasn’t prepared for the large group of completely inattentive Italian tourists with whom he was saddled, in combination with me, my children and two visiting friends.  The poor man was peppered with questions by the Yanks while the Italians treated him with boorish indifference.  It was quite the combination.  We loved the tour.  We learned ever so much and could easily pass our A-levels if put to the test.  I don’t think we offer anything comparable in the US.  Smartly run, high level, intellectual tours of the U.S. Capitol complete with a lengthy discussion of the history of the democratic process?  Not so much.  Summer Opening of Parliament reservations generally open on March 1st of the year you want to go.  It is best to go online to check the exact dates and times that will be available.  Generally the dates are in August, September and October.  Just across the street from Westminster Abbey and adjacent to Big Ben, a visit to the Parliament could easily be combined with a visit or stroll past the Abbey.  It’s also not far from the Churchill Museum, but that might be too cerebral a combo, even for really bright kids.  There is a Westminster tube station that is literally across the street from Parliament.

Westminster Abbey: Although I personally think Westminster Abbey is beautiful and even a mite bit inspirational, these days visiting it is no better than trying to go to Disneyland in Mid-July.  The place is totally over-run with tourists.  Who do they think they are anyway?  As a consequence its inherent charm and sense of history was completely lost on my children who are generally game for anything.  If you have kids between 4-14 I’d take the briefest swing through – and sadly, it is pretty challenging to make a brief swing these days.  The lines are long to get in and it takes forever to circumnavigate the place.  Worse yet, there aren’t enough Loos.  The lines to use the restroom were reprehensibly long.  I hate to say it – but it may be better to take in its charming visage from the street and call it a day.  Westminster Abbey is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9:30-4:30, Wednesday from 9:30-7:00, Saturday from 9:30-2, it is closed to tourists on Sundays.  Admission is £15.00 for adults, children 11-18 pay £6, children under 11 are free.  Ask for family rates, they are generally cheaper.  The fee includes an audio guide but not a guided tour.  The closest tube station is across the street – aptly named Westminster Station.

Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian only suspension bridge that connects “Bankside” London with the “City.”  In terms that make more sense for tourists, it crosses the Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on one side and the Tate Modern/Globe Theater on the other.  It is 1,214 feet across and makes a great 20-minute outing and photo taking opportunity.  You can easily combine it with a trip to the Tate Modern or a visit to the Borough Market.  It can be a tad breezy, so take a windbreaker.  Go on a clear day (yeah, right) and shoot a bunch of photos with the city behind you.  Millennium Bridge is always open and there are no admission fees charged for trekking across.

The View from the Millennium Bridge

Kew Gardens: The British understand public gardens.  They have an incredible mix of both the formal and the informal.  Within Kew Gardens there are vast wide open spaces that give the sense that the acres go on forever, as well as tightly designed flower gardens with glorious patterns of color cleverly conceived and implemented by the finest garden designers around.  I suggest visiting all of the glorious Victorian Glass Houses, including the one that houses the Lily Pond (though it can be stifling hot in the summertime).  Kew Gardens are open daily from 9:30 a.m., closing times vary by season, and the gardens are closed on December 24, and 25.  Admission is £13 for adults, children are FREE.  Kew Gardens are located 10 miles from central London – which is a ways.  You can get there by tube – take the District Line to the Kew Gardens station and you’ll have an additional five minute walk from the Station to the Gardens.  You can also take a taxi – it will be a costly ride.

The glorious Kew Gardens.

Inside the glass houses, Kew Gardens.

Covent Garden is not actually a Garden. “Covent Crowded Shopping Mall” or “Covent Outdoor Performance Area with Magicians who Spend More Time Asking for Money than Performing,” would be apropos, but there is not so much as a blade of grass or an informal flower garden in sight.  The performers have the fine art of repetitive begging followed by brief flashes of entertainment down to a science.  If you have serious shoppers amongst your brood there are a lot of other options you might consider before adding Covent Garden to your list of must-sees.  I’d go to Harrod’s or Harvey Nichols, or walk around Knightsbridge (super expensive) or Notting Hill/Portobello Road (pricey – but a bigger range of options), or Sloane Square/Chelsea before I’d go back to Covent-not-so-much-a-Garden.  Closest tube station is Covent Garden.

Trafalgar Square: Adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square is an easy place to visit as one moves from one part of London to another.  Kids like the central fountain and the people watching.  I liked the world’s cleanest public restroom that sits just off the base of the Trafalgar Square steps.  It’s important to keep your priorities straight.  I’m all about a good clean bathroom.  Closest tube station is Charing Cross.

Trafalgar Square, London

See a Musical: Once I discovered how simple it was to take in a little theatre in the UK, I was all over the London Musical Scene.  Unlike LA where I’ve taken to packing rations for the long, unpredictable drive between my home and Downtown (all of 11 miles) – from our flat in London it was a short 15-minute walk to the Victoria Station area that houses a number of the larger theaters.  It is true that I am a constant grazer, but even I can make such a walk without need for a snack.  Tickets are far less costly than in the U.S., even with our disadvantageous exchange rate.  The theaters are on the small side, leading to a more intimate theater experience.  Tickets can be bought online, and although earlier is better – in terms of booking – the recession is making ticket buying tickets easier even on short notice.

Notting Hill: (for girls and shopping tolerant boys) During my lengthy stay in London I initially resisted spending a day in Notting Hill.  I’m not sure what my worry was, perhaps a nasty run-in with Hugh Grant, he can be quite the scoundrel, if memory serves.  It just seemed touristy and required using one’s Mastercard.  I hate to admit it, but I loved my day in Notting Hill so much that I dragged my children back there for a second round of exploring and it turns out, using my Mastercard.  Unlike neighborhoods like Knightsbridge and Sloan Square which are filled with higher-end chain stores, Notting Hill, and particularly Portobello Road, boasts a myriad of eccentric, one-of-a-kind shops, offering everything from antiques, to natty hats and crazy band t-shirts.  My children (both boys) loved Portobello Road.  There were just enough wacky items for sale to keep them completely enthralled.  We had a lovely lunch at 202 Westbourne Grove (a must if you end up in Notting Hill – order the haddock cakes with poached egg and hollandaise, absolutely delicious).  Closest tube station is Notting Hill Gate.  Shopping and strolling in Notting Hill could easily be combined with a visit to Kensington Gardens.

A street sign on Portobello Road.

The Albert Memorial

Kensington Gardens are truly beautiful.  Attached to Hyde Park to the west, Kensington Gardens are another piece of the city park structure that makes London one of the most livable big cities in the world.  At the north-west end of Kensington Gardens is the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground.  Aimed at kids from 2-6 years old, my older kids (8 & 10) still found things to amuse them for a solid two hours.  There isn’t an admission fee but the park is fully gated with a security guard at the exit and they hold strictly to their maximum capacity numbers.  There can be a long line to get in mid-day on the weekends, particularly if the weather is good.  Get there early if you don’t want to wait in line.  Diana’s Playground is open daily at 10:00.  Closing times vary by season.  Admission is FREE.  The closest tube station is Queensway.  If you go to Kensington Gardens you should absolutely visit the large pond in the center of the park.  You might also want to visit Kensington Palace and/or the Albert Memorial.

The Round Pond, Kensington Gardens

Harry Potter Tours: There are any number of companies that will take your hard earned dollars and lead you on a tour of the film locations and sights that “inspired” the Harry Potter books.  If you google Harry Potter Tours in London you will see a zillion options.  You can go in a bus, a limo, a private car, on foot and surely by private plane – if you have enough MONEY.  I’ve noted two important Harry Potter sites above.  Easy places to spot on your own are King’s Cross Station – where Harry departs for Hogwarts.  The station across the street from King’s Cross, St. Pancras, was used in the second film.  Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament both feature in the films, as does the Millennium bridge.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields: Located on Trafalgar Square, St. Martin-in-the-Fields is worth a visit if you love old churches and/or if you have a budding musician in your group.  The concerts are wonderful and frequent.  Check their website for offerings, times and tickets.  There is a brass-rubbing center in the basement that amused my children for a full hour on a rainy day.

National Portrait Gallery: The National Portrait Gallery is a rather stuffy place, and I don’t mean the ventilation.  If you need to see it I strongly suggest getting the well put together audio guide.  Even with the guide my children found the place largely inaccessible and were pleased when I gave in after an hour and took them to eat at the museum’s super posh restaurant.  Yes, I have been known to bribe my children with fancy food.  National Portrait Gallery, open daily 10-6, later on Thursdays and Fridays, closed December 24, 25, 26.  General admission FREE but charges apply to special exhibitions.  Check online for ticket pricing and purchasing.

Where not to go in London unless forced by someone larger than you who is carrying a really sharp stick:

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum: Idiotically long lines, crowds, freakishly high prices and famous people made of wax – it could hardly get any better.

Hamley’s: the British version of New York’s FAO Schwatz, is located somewhere on the 6th circle of TOY HELL.  Cluttered, chaotic, full to the brim with children chanting, “gimme that” in eleven different languages, it was enough to send me hurtling out into traffic for some peace and quiet.  We escaped after buying our children remote-controlled helicopters that self-destructed moments after we arrived back at our flat and never flew again.

The London Dungeon: Do I really need to go into why this should be avoided at all costs?

The London Eye: Long lines, huge expense and the actual experience is a serious snooze.

The London Sea-Life Aquarium: I should have known, it’s managed by the same people who own Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and The London Dungeon, two attractions high on the CHEESE scale of tourism.  However, my boys really like aquariums and they were so good about traipsing through every major art and historical museum, so I acquiesced.  The London Sea-Life Aquarium, located on the south bank of the Thames and conveniently attached to a McDonalds, a video game area and a bowling alley, was the worst and most expensive 55 minutes I’ve spent in I don’t know how long.  Entirely below ground, it is a rabbit warren maze of dark hallways punctuated by small fish tanks with inadequate signage (not to mention inadequate fishage).  The place is without a café or restaurant, but to my delight there was a small, slightly seedy candy shop mid-way through where pushy salesmen tried to sell us sweets and really awful photos of me and the wee chaps in front of fake scenes of the sea.  This was apparently the newly renovated, vastly improved London Aquarium.  I cannot imagine what crap it was before.  It led me to think that I should be charging all of my friends to look at my fish tank at home.  Mine’s really nice, and at no extra cost my kids will give an informative somewhat rambling commentary about the fish and the tank and the food, and the fish that we used to have, but they died, and the time the power went out and the tank pumps failed causing the water flow to reverse itself and pour over the top of the fish tank until my youngest noticed the water dripping through the ceiling into the dining room.  Instead I paid 47 pounds for the three of us to feel claustrophobic and homesick.  Can you feel the joy?

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