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Family-Friendly London Travel Guide

Travel Editor Elizabeth Hansen discovers London isn't just for grownups anymore

View from Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament, the River Thames, Westminster and Westminster Bridge, with the London Eye in the distance, London, England.
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From a distance, grand historic buildings and parliamentarians in white wigs make London seem  stuffy. However, upon closer inspection, it’s really become a very family-friendly destination. I realized this recently when I spent time in the city with our daughter and 14-year-old granddaughter. Everywhere I looked, children could be seen ogling the sights, playing in the parks, and exploring the museums.    

Red telephone box filled with books on bookshelves underneath pink magnolia tree, London, England
Iconic red phone boxes can still be found throughout London

First stop: The London Eye. The landmark observation wheel cantilevered over the River Thames provides breathtaking views of the city. Unlike amusement park Ferris wheels, The Eye has 32 glass-enclosed pods that accommodate up to 25 people each. Passengers sit or stand during the slow 30-minute circuit and can move around the cabin to take in the panorama. London’s top attraction opened in 2000 and carries about 10,000 passengers a day. When I saw the waiting line, I rwas very glad we had purchased Fast Track tickets ahead of time. 

Two women kayaking on River Thames, Tower Bridge, London, England
Kayaking on the River Thames is fun for the whole family

The Tower of London is another must-see. The heart of the fortress, the White Tower, was completed in 1097. Colorful Beefeaters in red uniforms give tours here that include historic highlights with an emphasis on imprisonment, torture, and beheadings (a little sophomoric, but kids love it). Having said that, we three agreed that seeing the Crown Jewels was the best part of the visit to the Tower. The stunning crowns, orbs, and scepters have adorned generations of British monarchs. 

The best view of the city is from the glass pods on the London Eye
The best view of the city is from the glass pods on the London Eye

We took the Tube to the Tower and departed on one of City Cruises’ boats. This strategy gave us the thrill of walking over Tower Bridge and later enjoying a great view of this handsome landmark from the water. The Tube (also known as the Underground) is a great way to get around London. Children also love the city’s red double-decker buses. The Tube might be challenging to use with younger kids (stairs, escalators), but it was perfect for us and super easy, especially after we bought Oyster Cards, which we noticed locals were using.   

It Wouldn’t Be London Without Tea

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Of course, you and your family will want to have afternoon tea while you’re in London. (Would you go to Mexico and never touch a taco?) Everyone has their own opinion of the best place, but some of the most popular are The Harrods Tea Rooms, as well as these hotels: The Goring, The Dorchester, The Savoy, The Cadogan, and The Ritz. Regardless of where you go, expect to be offered scones with clotted cream and jam, delicate finger sandwiches, and a variety of fancy little cakes. In addition to tea, there are other beverage choices for the younger set. Tea at The Cadogan remains our granddaughter’s favorite memory from the trip.  

Afternoon tea at The Goring, London
Afternoon tea at The Goring is a royal treat

The Play’s The Thing

We all enjoy the theater, so prior to our trip we poured over the options. I couldn’t resist The Mousetrap, the world’s longest running play. The Agatha Christie murder mystery opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until March 2020, when stage performances were temporarily suspended because of you-know-what. It re-opened in May 2021. We all thought the play was great and two of us were very happy to learn that it’s traditional in London to indulge in ice cream during the interval. 

Of course, since we were in The Bard’s neck of the woods, we wanted to see one of his works and opted for Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre. It was a great production, and I was surprised to recognize the actor who played Beatrice, the female lead, from her role as the receptionist in Doc Martin, a British comedy/drama television series.

The next day, we relished the guided tour at Shakespeare’s Globe. The reconstruction of the theater where his plays were performed is located about 750 feet from the original theater. Plays are staged as they would have been by The Bard — open-air, under a thatched roof, and without artificial lighting. There’s also an area for audience members to stand in front of the stage as they did in the Elizabethan era. The project, on the south bank of the Thames, was spearheaded by late American actor Sam Wanamaker and opened in 1997. At the end of our London stay, my daughter and I agreed that our time at Shakespeare’s Globe was the highlight of the trip. Book well ahead for tickets to tour or to attend a performance. 

Shakespeare’s Globe

My Favorite London Hotel

I stayed at the Cadogan Hotel on my first visit to England as a travel writer. Even though that was many years ago, I remember the kind hospitality, the beauty of the leafy neighborhood, and the cozy pots of tea that were delivered to my room every morning. I’ve been back to the city a handful of times and tried other places, but on this special trip, I wanted my family to experience the hotel that still holds a place in my heart. 

From the taxi, I recognized the pleasant surroundings, but when I arrived at the hotel, I almost wondered if I was in the right place. “Yes,” assured the staff member who greeted me, “we closed from 2014 to 2019 for a complete re-imagining.” And oh my, what a difference. Throughout the hotel — spacious foyer, tea lounge, restaurant, bar, spa, and 54 guest rooms — the décor is stylish, soft, understated, and elegant. 

Happily, guests still experience the same level of caring attention. I called the concierge from California to request help with theater tickets and he had them ready for me when I arrived. He and his team also provided sage advice on dining, shopping, and using public transport. And it wasn’t just us. They spent copious hours on the phone with airlines trying to track down guests’ missing luggage (which made me glad I only had a carry-on). 

The Cadogan is an easy walk from Hyde Park, where families can rent pedal boats on the Serpentine or play in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. Across the street from the hotel, guests have access to a private park with tennis courts, swings, and plenty of room to play. Nearby, the trendy shops on King’s Road are popular with teen travelers. And, everyone enjoys London’s magnificent cathedrals, palaces, world-renowned museums, enormous train stations, and concert halls located in the city’s grand historic buildings.

Featured Photo The London Eye and Big Ben occupy opposite sides of the Thames
Image Credits Intro: Photo courtesy of Visit Britain / Andrew Pickett; London Eye: Photo courtesy of Visit Britain, Red Phone Box: Photo courtesy of Visit Britain / Bei Na; River Thames: Photo courtesy of Visit Britain / Mollie Bylett; Afternoon Tea: Courtesy of The Goring; Cadogan Hotel: Courtesy of Cadogan Hotel; Shakespeare's Globe: Courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN PHOTOS

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