London is positively brimming with attractions for children and there are many must-dos during any visit. So, you've been to Hamley's, seen a show and visited the Tower of London, what next? We’ve rounded up the best of the current, the overlooked and the completely free…
New and current
Until Sunday 27th February, The Southbank Centre is hosting the Imagine children's festival. A great one for younger children, highlights include Dan Zanes’ 'hand-made family music' and a puppet show of Polly Dunbar's award-winning book, Penguin. There are also plenty of free workshops and activities.
Just opened at The O2, Dinosaurs Unleashed is thebig one this year as 24 full-size prehistoric creatures lurch into London for this awe-inspiring, state of the art animatronic spectacular. There’s probably no kid alive who won't want a piece of the action.
Also just started, the Doctor Who Experience at Olympia Two invites you to take an interactive walk through time and space as assistant to the perennially popular TV character. Includes exclusive scenes with current Doctor, Matt Smith, a 'real' Tardis and displays of original costumes and sets, charting the history of the show. (Until 30th Nov 2011.)
For something you'll enjoy as much as the kids the Thames RIB Experience is a perennial thriller. Cover all the major sites on speedboat down one of the world’s most famous rivers, with wittily presented history thrown in and all within an hour.
Free and inexpensive attractions!
Luckily, many of the best places and activities that truly indulge children in London are the cheapest and often they’re completely free. The classic, must-sees are the free and ultra-interactive Science Museum and the adjacent Natural History Museum, but a little trip away from the central sites can be just as rewarding.
A walk in the park
A good place to start (on a nice day) is South East London's Crystal Palace Park. Head straight to the dinosaur area, where life size (albeit slightly anatomically incorrect) replicas of prehistoric reptiles have dominated the landscape since the 1850s. A nice trick is to tell the kids it’s just a walk in the park and wait for them to spot the iguanadon crossing their path or the plesiosaur swimming in the lake.
Hands on history
From Crystal Palace station, it's just a five-minute ride to Forest Hill, home of the highly recommended Horniman Museum. Start with the Horniman’s gorgeous award-winning gardens before proceeding inside to be met by the huge, slightly comically overstuffed walrus who 'guards' the ultra old school, Victorian style Natural History collection. When they've had their fill of the stuffed and skeletal, check out the aquarium, the music gallery (hundreds of instruments) and the awesome African Worlds collection.
The Horniman’s Hands On Base, where kids can touch and 'study' an array of masks, nature specimens, musical instruments and other artefacts, is the real find here. Most weekends have ticketed (but free) timed sessions for a more in-depth, guided experience. For more hands on exploration, the recent addition of the Nature Base, which features a handful of live animals including the UK’s smallest rodent, the harvest mouse, rounds things off nicely.
Grizzly and gruesome fun
So, you’ve seen the Horniman's famous walrus, want to see what he looks like inside? The Grant Museum of Zoology is another Victorian institution we love and a treat for kids with a passion for the curious. Crammed to breaking point with specimens of the living and extinct, it offers an up-close and highly educational tour of the natural world. A dodo, an iguanadon and rows and rows of weird and wonderful creatures preserved in glass jars, what's not to like? While it may seem a little creepy to mum and dad, in our experience most young ones get wide-eyed at the site of bones and bisected heads.
If your kids are old enough, tough enough and like the gory and grizzly, Speed Surgery at the Old Operating Theatre will have them transfixed. Pre-anaesthetic, pre-antiseptic operation demonstrations are given every Saturday (and weekdays during some UK school holidays) at 2:00pm.
There's no substitute for the real, living thing of course, so a trip to the farm is highly recommended, especially for younger children. Yes, there are farms in London, 15 in fact. Our favourite is East London’s Hackney City Farm, which aside from housing a number of regular farmyard friends has some cute and cuddlies in the form of chinchillas, rabbits, degus and guinea pigs. The farm's Frizzante Café offers award winning Mediterranean style eats, all fresh, seasonal and locally sourced. Yum.
If you make a day of it on a Sunday check out the Columbia Road Flower Market & Shops. Just a stone’s throw from the farm, the market offers a cornucopia of eclectic and quirky gift stops.
Alternatively, if you're visiting any of the other aforementioned attractions and want to stay south of the river, don’t miss out on Battersea Park Zoo. A lot smaller, but (at £6.50 for kids) also a lot cheaper than London Zoo, this is the 'up close and personal' version, with lemurs, Shetland ponies, meerkats, monkeys and much more. Absolutely perfect for smaller children, just make sure you’re there for feeding time!
The wizard's portal
Finally…if you're continent bound on the Eurostar from St Pancras International or just happen to be round that way, be sure to pop round the corner to King's Cross. Since being immortalised in the Harry Potter books and films, this gateway to the Hogwarts Express has become a reality. Sort of. Complete with its sign and half visible luggage trolley, platform 9 ¾ is a perfect photo memento spot. Any post-holiday stories about what happened 'beyond' the wall can be left to the kids’ own imaginations.
Live in London or have you visited recently with children? Do you know of any unusual or special kid-friendly attractions? Share with us in the comments below.
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About the author: andrewAndrew Bowman
Andrew is an occasional contributor to the Virgin Atlantic blog. He lived in the Japanese countryside for two years until he could no longer resist the pull of London's galleries, pubs and clubs. He likes to pretend he can speak Japanese and also sometimes writes about music.