London with the kids - go on, you know you want to...

>> Sunday, 2 January 2011

Being a Brit abroad, and a long term London resident to-boot, I often get asked for my tips on London by people making short trips there. (I think this probably happens to most people who live or have lived in hot destinations for short city breaks). Over the last couple of years, to save typing - and, I have to admit, thinking - time, I've pulled together a stock e-mail that I send out in answer to such requests, and seeing a new London resident on the BMB site asking today for these sort of hints it struck me that it might not be a bad idea to share that e-mail on The Potty Diaries.


The suggestions below are my personal picks after living there for 20-odd years, 7 of those with children. Warning; they are highly subjective as a result and won't appeal to everyone...

A lot of these ideas are free, some are most definitely not, and the list is definitely central / West Central London-centric (which in no way belittles the wonderful places you could visit elsewhere), but if you're planning on visiting one of my favourite places on earth with your children, you might find them useful...

Here, then, for your delectation, are hints from The Potty Diaries on how to make the most of London on a short trip...

Let's start with the obvious: Museums and Galleries
Most - but not all - of the state-owned museums and Art Galleries are free to enter, but they also usually have paid for exhibitions running as well. To name a few:
The Natural History Museum: a must-visit for the dinosaur exhibit - get there early in the day to avoid the queues - and the incredible collection of moth-eaten Victorian stuffed animals.
The Science Museum: just around the corner from The Natural History Museum, great for interactive stuff
Victoria and Albert: wonderful if you like design-led exhibits, such as interiors, fashion and jewellery through the ages. Make sure to look up as you go in, there's an amazing blown-glass chandelier... They often have activity packs for kids, check the website to find out about this.
The British Museum ; fantastic for all things Ancient Egypt and I think also the Elgin Marbles - statues originally nicked from the Parthenon in Athens. (Am sure you will you know this but I prefer to go with too much information than too little... You might have noticed that about me by now)
The London Transport Museum; went there with the Boys and it's brilliant, much more so than it sounds. Would quite like to have been there without them and spent more time if I'm honest...
The National Army Museum in Chelsea is supposed be good but have never been round there (apart from children's parties in the Jungle Gym), as is the Imperial War Museum. Also, if you like this sort of thing, The Cabinet War Rooms are also fascinating (Husband loved it).

also,

The National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square. Great location and it does what it says on the tin...
Tate Britain; again, good location (by the Thames overlooking Battersea Power Station, very iconic), and be sure to check out the paintings by Burne Jones (if you like that sort of thing, which I do), and any Turner on view
Tate Modern; probably don't need to explain this one, and again, a great location on the South Bank. Be prepared to encounter lots of kids at this one (and not understand too much of what's on show), but children seem to love it.


Shopping / Taking in the atmosphere

AVOID Oxford Street at all costs - unless you have a specific shop to go to or want to visit Selfridges, which I admit is worth the trip, or St Christopher's Place (near Selfridges) which is quite nice for a pavement cafe experience. Of course, Hamley's on Regent St is popular with the children, try not to go at the weekend though as it gets crazy. Whilst we're at it, in Knightsbridge the locals prefer Harvey Nichols to Harrods, but as they're almost next door to each other you might as well do both at the same time, and Harrods food hall is always worth a look.

Instead, trek down the Kings Road, starting at Sloane Square Tube station, stopping at Duke of York's square for an overpriced coffee and cake in the sunshine at Patisserie Valerie or the Italian deli/restaurant next door. Kings Road does have all the usual chains but also a lot more one-off boutiques so doesn't feel quite as chain-store as a lot of high streets in the UK.

For a high-end shopping experience visit Westbourne Grove in Holland Park; just a small parade of shops but very nice and with a couple of nice cafe's to visit. This can be combined with a trip to Portobello Market (go early), but be sure to leave your wallet at home because the prices are generally outrageous...

Covent Garden; Again, leave the wallet at home (nothing too unusual to buy there and mostly over-priced), but just walk around soaking up the atmosphere of this converted old fruit, veg and flower market; if you're lucky some of the performers from the Royal Opera House will be busking in one of the galleries in their lunch breaks, which is always a treat. This can be combined with a trip to the London Transport Museum, which is in the South East corner of it.

I'm also told Hampstead is nice, but have never spent much time there (North London, darling? Are you sure?).


Open Spaces

Hyde Park - obviously. Take a picnic and walk along the Serpentine (or stop in at The Dell or the Lido Cafe for a not-too expensive lunch in lovely surroundings). The cuisine is not amazing but much better than it used to be and the views make up for it. The Albert Memorial was recently done up and is also quite impressive. If you have young kids be sure to visit the Peter Pan statue and the Princess Diana playground in Kensington Gardens (essentially part of Hyde Park, at the western end), and on a Sunday morning they often have model boats on the Round Pond - also good for kids. The actual memorial fountain to Diana is a bit disappointing, but can be seen from the Lido, and if it's warm enough lots of people paddle in it.

Holland Park - a hidden gem at the far (western) end of Kensington High Street. Visit the Japanese Garden, watch the peacocks, let the kids run off excess energy, and pick up a sticky flapjack from the cafe under the Arches. If you're feeling flush book lunch at The Belvedere restaurant.

Battersea Park - south of the river so a bit more of a trek but still lovely, green and open and has a great - very small-scale & low-key - zoo. You can easily while away a morning here.

St James' Park - if you visit Buckingham Palace then you're practically there. Am coming across as a cafe freak but the restaurant in the middle of it is quite nice; Inn the Park. Very romantic if you're there in the evening, though they are not always open then. Otherwise it's open during the day for sit-down meals or you can sometimes pick up a picnic lunch there.

Walk along South Bank from Westminster Bridge past the London Eye, (worth a visit, pre-book online to avoid some of the queues),the London Aquarium (OK, doesn't compare to what they have in Florida etc, but not bad for a central city one), past the National Film Theater where you will see lots of street artists practising standing dead still, along to Gabriel's Wharf for yet more cafe culture.


Food

Pretty much anything goes, but here are a few ideas on chains:

Carluccio's - good Italian food (the chocolate ice-cream is fantastic), and great with kids as they do a very reasonably priced menu for them and provide crayons etc to keep them happy. There's one opposite South Kensington tube station if you want somewhere to go when you visit the Natural History Museum / Science Museum / V&Albert Museum.
Wagamamma's (a chain you'll find almost everywhere) for decently-priced yummy Japanese Noodles and dumplings (no sushi). Refectory-style bench seating and the kids usually love it.
Pret a Manger for yummy sandwiches and wraps
Gourmet Burger Kitchen; don't know if they compare to the real deal, I doubt it, but they are quite good
Paul's patisserie for delicious French treats (their macarrons are to die for and of course not diet). Try also their hot chocolate which is so thick you can practically stand a spoon up in it.
Strada is pretty good for pizza, as is Pizza Express

And obviously you must have a curry, but these are not usually chains so you'll need to find your own way on that one, and whilst we're talking about One-off Eating Experiences:

Head up to Soho and Bar Italia on Frith Street in the late evening if you want a coffee soaking up the bustle of London out on the town, and if you're feeling adventurous and in need of a bagel at 3am take a cab to Brick Lane and the Beigel Bake where you can get incredible hot salt beef-filled beigels or yummy cakes 24 hours a day and for an amazingly low price.

For more expensive meals try:

The Wolsey on Piccadilly - French bistro style and they always keep a few tables in a section at the front free, and you get to celeb spot too
Hakkasan near Tottenham Court Road - Delicious Chinese food, lots of media wannabe's
The Enterprise (more of a pub / bistro) on Walton Street in South Kensington. Not as expensive as the first two but usually pretty nice food.


Pubs
Not that I get to go too often and these are west London based, but they are a good start and also serve OK food:
The Anglesey Arms, Selwood Terrace in South Kensington
The Grenadier, 18 Wilton Row - hard to find, near Hyde Park Corner, but worth the effort. They serve fantastic bloody Marys on a Sunday morning and if the sun is shining have a couple of nice tables you can sit at outside with the children...

And that, I think, is quite enough for the moment...

Update:

Or it was, until I decided to put a McLinky related to this in the post above... So if you want to share your own ideas on what to do in your home town, please feel free to post and put a link in the list.

7 comments:

geekymummy 3 January 2011 at 06:01  

Great list! I went to college in south Ken, love those museums. The anglsea was our local. Used to get very pissed there on pimms on a summer evening! Were taking our kids to London this summer so will definately take them there. The museums, not the pub.

Iota 3 January 2011 at 13:59  

The very weird thing is that I haven't lived in London since 1998, but I know a lot of these places. Even the obscure ones like The Grenadier. That is such a nice feeling. You've made me very happy.

I used to think I was the coolest of cool urban chic if I had a coffee at Bar Italia. Though espresso just before bedtime is never a good move, is it?

Though you have made one very serious omission... Begins with P... Ends with V... Perhaps it isn't child-friendly enough to make the list.

Iota 3 January 2011 at 14:00  

Very helpful post, by the way. Bet lots of people who take their kids to London who don't know the place will thank you for it.

Sparx 5 January 2011 at 14:08  

Great - what about the Museum of London though? Subjectively of course, my favorite of all - everything in it was dug up from beneath the streets of London, pulled out of the Thames or rescued from somewhere else in London. I'd marry it, if one could marry a museum... sigh...

Potty Mummy 8 January 2011 at 18:43  

GM, oh, those childless evenings in the Anglesea...

Iota, it's there! I promise! No link, but it is in there! (And yes, I have been there with the boys). Glad you liked the post, anyway; you see, I knew we were sisters under the skin...

Sparx, you know, I've never been there. Definitely one to rectify in the summer.

MTFF 11 January 2011 at 05:38  

The Observatory at Greenwich and the park there is lovely (beautiful views) if you're sarf of the river (wot?) plus Greenwich market is fun on a Sunday. I think the Cutty Sark burned down which is a pity but you can take the boat along the river to Greenwich and walk through the foot tunnel to the other side for shiggles.
I love Hampstead Heath (Freemason's arms - lovely pub with garden for kids) and Primrose Hill (views!) and you simply cannot miss out on Regents Park and the London Zoo if you have children. It's pricey but so lovely. I also think it's tremendous fun to walk either to or from Butler's Wharf passing Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the Clink, The Globe Theater and winding up near the Tate Modern (even going beyond it to Gabriel's Wharf, South Bank etc). If you walk east you can go to Butler's wharf, have lunch, cross the bridge and go to the Tower of London (why do children always love the gore?) and take the number 15 back to town which, at least last year, was still a ROUTEMASTER which in my book is the ultimate London experience. Okay. I will stop now.

MTFF,  11 January 2011 at 05:39  

P.S. HOMESICK! WAHHH!

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