Dinosaurs, horses, and castles. These were the things I expected to excite my soon-to-be three-year-old twin boys on our trip to London. What I didn’t expect was just how excited they’d be about riding double decker busses and the trains around the city. Not only was it a great reminder of how thrilling even the small things can be when traveling with young children, but it also showed me that sometimes the best parts of a trip can be the little ones in between the big planned events. As a city for an adventure with two young kids, London was a perfect destination for a quick vacation.
My wife and I took the boys out to London to cheer me on in the marathon. It was our first international marathon trip all together, though the boys had been to Europe twice. In preparation, we planned a lot of walking to take in the sights, a visit to the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs, the changing of the guard to see the soldiers, and lots of interesting food. Learning from our trip to Portugal last summer and a lengthy flight to Seattle this fall, we booked a daytime flight where if the boys refused to sleep on the plane, it wouldn’t be a disaster like a red-eye would be. With the exception of a few jumps over the seat and fights over their stuffed Elmo, we made it there successfully and without getting too many dirty looks from our fellow passengers.
Before heading to London, we prepared the boys for the trip by allowing them to pick what toys to bring – with our help or we would have ended up with an entire suitcase full of Dr. Seuss books and dinosaurs – and to tell us what things they wanted to do. We even showed them some pictures of the main sights of the city. We knew we were going to have a great trip when they started telling everyone we met that they were going to see a Ferris Wheel and fly in a big plane to London.
London, as a huge international city, has a ton of transportation. One of the unexpected joys of our trip was riding around on the double decker busses London is famous for. The boys loved the busses so much that they’d go climbing up the stairs to the top and grab the front seat together, pointing out other busses and landmarks to each other. The only downside was the tantrums they’d throw when it was time to get off. We actually found the busses a bit easier to navigate than the Tube. Many of the stations, thanks to a long history, didn’t have elevators and required navigating steps or escalators, all while getting yelled at by commuters for blocking the way with a double stroller. We eventually realized which stations had step-free access, but often times the bus just worked better. While the boys got excited to go on the “big, fast train”, they were even happier to get on the bus and see more of the city.
Just walking around London can be entertaining for small kids. Sights such as Trafalgar Square with the massive statues that reach the sky and the huge lions are unique and intriguing. The Tower of London is a real life castle and the costumed soldiers and ravens that inhabit the grounds add to the experience. Even more commercial and residential areas are worth a visit. Leicester Square and Covent Garden often have numerous street performers and tons going on to watch. Neighborhoods like Mayfair are full of great restaurants and tons of family friendly spots like parks and playgrounds. Hyde Park, the city’s largest can’t be missed with long paths for walking, a big pond for watching the birds and boats, and even a real life castle to walk around.
Another of London’s most famous sights, the Tower of London is a must-do with kids. Not only can they see a real-life castle up close and explore the grounds, they can also watch massive ravens and guards in traditional Beefeater uniforms around the place and really feel like a piece of history. There’s also the Tower Bridge nearby, one of the most interesting bridges in the world and short enough to take a quick walk over. Don’t miss exploring the grounds to see the moat and maybe even a catapult or two too.
Across the river from Parliament and Westminster is the hard-to-miss London Eye Ferris Wheel. Though it’s very expensive for a quick ride up, the views can be worth it for kids who love cities and transportation. Even if you’re unwilling to wait in line for a while – probably a good idea with kids – it can be fun just to walk along the river promenade under the wheel and take in the views, especially just across the water to Parliament. A quick walk over the bridge to Westminster for the huge bell tower with Big Ben, statues of prominent politicians, and the gothic architecture of Westminster Abbey is a great way to make a short walking loop of many of the city’s sights.
An obvious destination for families with young kids is the Natural History Museum, fairly close to Hyde Park in South Kensington. Free to the public, it’s worth it to get there early to avoid a long line for entry and crowds inside, though since there’s no admission, the line does move quickly. The halls of animals including huge bears and cats and even whales and rhinos may not be as large as those in New York, but with such a packed menagerie of species, they’re sure to keep kids occupied for a while. Even better is the dinosaur hall. Inside aren’t just massive skeletons and fossils, but several animatronic dinos too. The star attraction is a massive T Rex that roars, grunts, and moves around. Our boys were so enthralled with it that we nearly missed our lunch reservation. While some kids may get scared of the life-like dinosaur, others may be enthralled by the movement and noises and won’t want to leave. There are also smaller robot dinosaurs there as well as in the café.
The surprise hit of our entire visit was a morning watching the changing of the guard between St. James’ Palace and Buckingham Palace along the Mall. For about an hour and a half, we watched soldiers go by on foot, a larger contingent go by with a band, then a detachment of cavalry soldiers go by on the road while the boys watch on entranced by the music and sights. Then, they went by again shortly later, including a Scottish contingent in kilts with bagpipes and even a small highland pony. While there was a little downtime while the guards actually changed at Buckingham Palace – skip getting showed by the huge crowds there and just watch from the Mall – the constant flow of soldiers and even mounted police was novel enough to occupy our kids the whole time.
There’s also such great food throughout London that children will love exploring and finding new things to try. London has some amazing food from all around the world, especially the reaches of what was once the empire. Indian food in particular is great, and goes way beyond the typical tikka curries. We barely got to eat at Gunpowder while our boys chomped down on some delicious shared plates like curry ribs. The outside table at Jamavar was perfect for a lunch where we needed some fresh air and space outside to prevent a meltdown in front of other patrons inside. There’s also Sri Lankan food at Hopper’s where the giant bowl shaped bread was a huge hit with the boys as were the chutneys to dip. Even traditional food like fish and chips was a new experience and the boys loved checking out the furniture and random items in several pubs while we enjoyed that London is finally embracing craft beer and no longer solely stocking warm ales.
London was the perfect place to take our just about three year olds. Thanks to a love of interesting buildings, seemingly every mode of transportation, and a living history cemented in landmarks and tradition, there was a ton to see and do with them. While London may not stick out as the most family friendly destination, there is actually plenty to entertain children and they’ll love seeing so many new things. For kids who love horses, history, huge buildings, or even just building shaped like eggs like mine, London is a dream destination and one you’re sure not to forget.