By J.C. Thomas
With its incredible number of attractions, most notably historic landmarks, first-rate museums, expansive parks full of greenery and an eternally dynamic vibe, London is one of the world’s most coveted tourist destinations. It has immense appeal too, for families traveling with children. Here, parents can introduce their children to the city’s unrivaled heritage, castles and palaces right off the pages of their storybooks, Beefeaters and royal guards, shiny red double-decker buses and pigeons galore.
London’s eternal bustle might seem to be a challenge for those traveling with small children, but this is a city well-used to tourists of all ages – some 20 million per year, in fact. With a little patience, sensible planning, a realistic sightseeing schedule and a family-friendly hotel room to retire to, the rewards are remarkable. London first-timers should certainly make time for iconic destinations like the Tower of London, Big Ben, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. But I encourage you to consider the following kid-friendly attractions, and a hotel recommendation too.
The Best Place to Stay: Thistle Hotel Trafalgar Square
With tens of thousands of properties to choose from, in a vast city where hotel rooms are typically on the snug side, finding the ideal hotel in London for a family can be overwhelming. Before you devote hours to hotel room research, I highly recommend checking out the Thistle group, which has eight hotels in central London. The Thistle Trafalgar Square hotel hosted a recent one-night stay in a junior suite for my family of four (two adults and two small children), and we found it to be ideal in every capacity.
Firstly, the hotel’s location is superb. As its name suggests, Thistle Trafalgar Square is just minutes on foot from its world-famous namesake. Trafalgar Square is one of London’s most recognizable icons, home to Nelson’s Column and its lion guards, various statues, sculptures and fountains, and flanked on one side by the venerable National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Further, the hotel is within a very short walking distance of Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Soho and Covent Garden. Three Tube stations (Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross) are within a 5-minute walk, putting all of London within easy reach.
The hotel is in the midst of major hustle and bustle which gives it a great city vibe as well as the convenience of countless restaurants close by. Yet its setting off a small side street makes it a relatively peaceful spot, quiet enough to promise a great night’s sleep as well as a welcome break from crowds whenever you need one.
Thistle Trafalgar Square has 108 rooms and suites in seven configurations ranging from standard double/twin to executive king. Our junior suite had a king-size bed and pull-out sleeper sofa big enough for two kids, which was made up before our arrival. We found on the sofa bed two children’s packs – drawstring bags filled with a stationary set, water bottle, puzzle and activity book, all with a whimsical London theme. These are included with Thistle’s family package, along with free breakfast, free kids’ meals at the restaurant and late checkout. The packs are a thoughtful touch, as is the offer of tea, coffee or hot chocolate immediately upon arrival. Our chosen hot drinks were delivered to our suite shortly after we checked in and were especially welcome on a drizzly winter day.
The suite had two full walls of windows through which we watched the rain fall on aged grey rooftops and stone buildings neighboring the hotel. It was very spacious, in an attractive emerald and white color scheme, with ample room surrounding the sofa bed even when pulled out. London-themed coffee table books sat on the desk next to a state-of-the-art coffee maker with a choice of pods, plus a kettle and tea, of course. There was a full, marble-clad bathroom with a deep soaking tub and separate shower down a small hallway, and a closet with plush robes and slippers. Every room at the Thistle has a huge smart TV and free, unlimited high-speed Wi-Fi. It had everything we needed, and with 24-hour service at reception anything more was just a phone call away.
The family package and select other deals come with a complimentary breakfast, a lavish buffet served in the Squares Restaurant and Bar on the hotel’s ground floor. There’s also a lounge area with a fireplace and comfy seating, and in summer the restaurant offers terrace seating. Breakfast offerings included every element of a hot full English as well as continental favorites like yogurts, fruits, freshly baked breads, juices, cereals and more. We found the quality of the food outstanding, with every item freshly prepared and quickly replenished as the breakfast crowd feasted in preparation for full days of sightseeing. The restaurant is open all day and has a children’s menu, and the hotel also offers 24-hour room service too.
Details: Thistle Trafalgar Square, Whitcomb Street, Trafalgar Square, London WC2H 7HG. Call +44 (0)207 523 5064. www.thistle.com. Room rates start at £95.
Best Timeless Attraction: London Zoo
With close to 20,000 animal inhabitants representing more than 670 species, London Zoo is a fantastic attraction for children and animal lovers of all ages. Highlights include the Land of the Lions, inspired by India’s Gir Forest National Park; Tiger Territory with its Indonesian-style habitat for the resident Sumatran tiger; and the Rainforest Life exhibit with sloths, tamarins, monkeys, slender lorises and more.
The Komodo Dragon House showcases a noticeably not-shy dragon who roams and regularly approaches the glass viewing areas to delight visitors, while the high glass walls of the Penguin Pool promise an unmatched underwater viewing experience. Another remarkable exhibit is Meet the Monkeys. Its black-capped squirrel monkeys roam freely in a habitat designed to replicate the Bolivian rain forest, scrambling and swinging over visitors’ heads and free to land on shoulders, should they choose to. These little monkeys are adorable and playful, feasting on fruits and putting on an unforgettable show. The Butterfly House is a delight as well, not least on a colder day for its tropical temperature.
London Zoo is also intriguing as a historic landmark. The zoo opened to the public in 1828 shortly after acquiring the Tower of London menagerie, making it the world’s oldest scientific zoo. You can tell your kids it was once home to the real-life Winnie the Pooh. The American black bear named Winnipeg, or Winnie for short, was gifted to the zoo in 1914. A.A. Milne visited with his son Christopher Robin, who was so taken with the creature that his Dad was inspired to create the beloved Pooh. Know that London Zoo, while a historic institution, has undertaken massive restoration and redevelopment projects over the years to ensure its animal care meets the highest contemporary standards.
It’s not a huge zoo, so even a half-day visit allows you to see at least the highlights, even during winter when daylight hours are short. Note that there’s a wet weather guide on the zoo’s website. Getting there on public transport is easy, although it’s a 0.8-mile walk to the closest Tube stop. Buses stop just minutes away. Children under 3 are free, and the zoo offers prams and tricycles for hire. You’re also welcome to bring a picnic.
For more information, visit www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo
Best All-Ages Attraction: London Transport Museum
If you have children who love trains, buses and trams, the London Transport Museum is a must-see attraction. It’s also ideal for anyone with an interest in London’s history, filled with fascinating details about the city’s evolution intertwined with the development of its public transportation networks.
The museum’s striking venue in the heart of Covent Garden is a three-story high Victorian-era iron and glass stunner that was originally a flower market. In chronological order, explore genuine vintage vehicles – trolleybuses, omnibuses, trams, trains, cabs and buses – that evolve from horse-drawn to steam-powered to electric, with displays showing London and its communities evolving alongside.
Little visitors most enjoy climbing upstairs on old double-decker buses, sitting inside vintage train carriages and playing bus driver on a modern vehicle. They also stay engaged by collecting punch-stamps on a card, making sure to find every one of a dozen stamper stations throughout the museum. The All About Playzone designed for ages 0 to 7 includes mini vehicles, uniforms for dressing up, and interactive play such as repairing a miniature Tube train.
For adults, highlights include displays explaining how the London Underground (actually its predecessor The Metropolitan Railway, the first underground railway in the world) was constructed starting in the mid-19th century. The audacious engineering project, the tunneling and trenching techniques, and the fact that the first trains running underground were smoke-spewing steam locomotives all make for fascinating exhibits. The displays of poster art are another nice attraction, and the museum’s gift shop is excellent.
A tip: Buy tickets online in advance to skip the queue upon arrival. Visit www.ltmuseum.co.uk/ for more details.
Best Rainy-Day Destination: Kidzania
Kidzania, inside Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush, is “an indoor city, run by kids.” The huge two-story facility resembles a real-life city with a town square and streets lined with shops and businesses, all scaled down to kid size. It’s an award-winning attraction where children 8 and older can be picked up and dropped off, and all ages are welcome to explore and play independently.
After going through an airport-style check-in system, children receive an electronic wristband and “kidZos” cash, which they can spend in the gift shop. They also earn more cash by performing jobs inspired by real-life professions. Each activity is conducted as a timed group session with supervision from adults. Children can work as dentists, bankers, police officers and firefighters. The emergency services sessions involve riding in a scaled-down fire engine or police van, teaming up to secure the town and putting out a fire. Kids can also shop or work in a supermarket, play instruments at the music academy, work at a radio station, a fashion recycling factory and more. The experiences are fun and educational at the same time.
Parents with children under 4 should know that almost every activity at Kidzania is not available to younger children. There is a tots’ area, face painting and regularly scheduled disco dance party for all ages, though. There are dining options on site, as well as ample seating areas for parents.
For more information visit kidzania.co.uk.
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.