My son Alfie, aged 7 and I decided to take a 4-day break to the Capital to take in all the sights of London in the October Half Term. I am sure there are many of you who have done the same and have had to endure the many endless queues to get to see any the famous attractions. As London can get so busy in school holidays I have compiled a list of recommendations and what to avoid so that your trip to London doesn’t turn into a battle against the crowds.
If you have recently visited London with kids in school holidays you may agree with me, that visiting the more famous attractions in the Capital can become a battle of endurance with queues. We all know visiting London with children in tow can be expensive so you want to get the most out of your time there. Please find my best tips in surviving a family break in London during peak times.
Traveling around London
Buses can take longer, but a cracking way to see London and take it all in, and generally less stressful than the Tube. Routes No. 9 and 15 are great for taking in the views. The No. 15 route was running some 50 year old Route Master Buses too. Go on top deck and at the front of course! Bus routes are not as easy to navigate as the Tube is, but many Apps for smartphones allow you to plan travel via tube and bus together with live traffic updates. We relied on ‘Google Maps’ and the ‘London Transport’ App. London has blanket 3G and 4G mobile coverage so take advantage of the smartphone.
I strongly recommend the Oyster Card. They are much cheaper than paper tickets and more convenient too. You have to pay a one off £5 for the card itself, but you will have saved that amount in two days, and you can use it next time you’re in London. Kids go free when travelling with an adult on tube and buses. You need to go through the wide barriers in the Tube stations otherwise one of you will get trapped in the automatic turnstiles.
London’s Famous Attractions
It should go without saying if the weather is lovely, take advantage of it…try and do stuff outdoors. London has some of the best parks in the world. We spent a morning in Hyde Park in glorious sunshine. It was a pleasant break from the tourist queues and the hustle and bustle of London. Another great day out in London if your lucky with the weather is Greenwich Park which has great views of London plus free to visit National Maritime Museum.
How to beat the queues in London at peak times
The only thing that potentially spoiled the half-term trip was the queues. I highly recommend that you plan only one main attraction which would have big Queues per day – and do this first thing in the morning.
Visiting The Tower of London after noon had enormous queues to get in plus a further queue over 90 mins if you wanted to see the Crown Jewels. We went to the Tower the following morning at 9am, saw Jewels at around 10am which took 10 mins in the queue. We saw everything we needed in the Tower by midday. When we left at midday the queues for Jewels was an hour and increasing plus queues outside to get into the Tower.
The Natural History Museum is of course highly popular with children as they all want to see the fantastic dinosaur exhibition. A friend of mine with a family of 5 tried to visit at 11am, queued for 50 minutes then there was a further queue again for the Dinosaur exhibit, which my friend abandoned after 20 minutes. It was difficult to move around inside which spoiled the experience somewhat because of the sheer volume of people. We have been to the Natural History Museum previously and I know it is excellent. I suggest that if you want to see the Natural History Museum properly then plan a full day on a dull weekend in February, or simply out of the kid’s holidays. We plumped instead to visit the Science Museum also in South Kensington and we enjoyed the space exhibition and probably spent our time more wisely than battling the queues at the Natural History Museum.
Visiting The London Eye – it has big queues but it is open until 8.30pm, and we got on straight away at 8.20pm. No need for online booking, fast track tickets, etc…so leaving this attraction to last thing in the day seems to work to beat the queues. The clear night skies gave magnificent views of London.
View from The Shard Tip – we pre-booked a slot at 4.30pm, collected tickets and we were at the top in 10 minutes – pretty efficient operation. The good thing with the Shard is that there is no official time limit you can spend up the top, unlike the Eye which gives you 30 minutes (1 rotation). The 4.30pm slot allowed us to get daytime, dusk and night-time views by spending almost an hour up there. It was a little crowded, but general shuffling around of people meant that you eventually get to the windows.
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace was a disappointment. Unless you are in the first row at the railings you don’t get to see anything; the reason being the thick railings prohibit viewing. Too many people in one place and it’s not geared up for a viewing experience (few raised height areas, railings, you face into the sunshine at 11.30am, etc.). If the guards did their changing in the road/roundabout area in front of the Palace gates then this would be much better. Recommend seeing the Changing of the Guard on a wet day.
Covent Garden is a must for visiting London with kids – the entertainers are really world class. Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Leicester Square all a must too and best in the evening – kids take in so much, eyes wide open taking in the hustle and bustle.
I suggest taking in the sights by foot where you can and traversing over the many bridges – this give a great perspective to London, picking out all the landmarks. You don’t have to go up high to see these!
Child friendly accommodation in London
Remember that you’re here to see London, not to see the accommodation. If you want to be pampered then there’s plenty of Spa type hotels away from London at reasonable prices. Stay somewhere within the Circle Line boundary or just South of the Thames to be within reasonable distance. The new over-ground lines can get you in quickly and provides an option to more reasonably priced accommodation to the North and East of the city.
We did a mixture of posh (4 star child friendly hotel) and thrifty (YHA family room). No complaints at either one. Staff at the YHA were great, place was safe, a manned 24 hour reception and in lovely central leafy suburb of London. Rooms were very basic. In fact, doing a mixture of accommodation types informs kids on what accommodation types and choices there are, but allows you to save money (e.g. staying 2-3 nights in Hostel) and perhaps treat yourself to a more luxurious room for one night. Moving between places was not a problem for us (two lads just needed one bag to carry). Even trying different places on different nights is another way to get the best deals and experience different tastes.