Cheerio! Exploring London with Kids

Our dear friends recently moved to England and my two daughters (ages 7 and 9) and I went to visit them last week. The trip was great in all aspects and if I learned nothing else, it’s that when sightseeing with kids, less is more.

While planning the trip, I shared some books on London with the girls (side note – my 7 year old picked up on the British use of “Cheerio” as a greeting and started to use it – incessantly) and was up front with them as far as what much of the trip would consist of – lots of walking, waiting in line to see castles and other tourist spots, looking at buildings, etc. – all activities with which on past trips my 9-year old daughter has been less than thrilled. Much complaining has ensued in that past – she is tired, bored, her feet hurt, etc. She agreed no complaints and both girls picked some things they were excited to see – Big Ben, London Bridge, and the Crown Jewels were at the top of the list. I bought one guidebook, a Frommers London with Kids which was definitely helpful. I did not subject the girls to any of the many art galleries or museums on this trip that I would have wanted to see, and instead focused on what they would be most excited to see.

After an overnight flight, we were all pretty wiped out and spent the first day visiting with our friends who live in a town outside London. Our official “touring” started on Day Two. Here are our “Must Sees:”

Hampton Court Palace: On Day Two, we took a side trip to Hampton Court Palace, a sprawling, magnificent palace dating back to 1236 and most famously developed by Henry VIII in the 1500’s (and inhabited at one point or another by all six of his wives). The palace is southwest of London (in East Molesly, Surrey) and accessible by train.  The kids had a ball here and especially enjoyed the palace kitchen where cooks dressed in costume prepared food from Henry VII’s time (think big pieces of meat and poultry and lots of potatoes). They also liked the ongoing costumed “performances” by Henry VIII and crew, exploring the huge grounds and gardens, tea in the very cute restaurant, and playing in the garden’s giant maze – a highlight. There are also kid-friendly Ghost Tours that sounded fun but we didn’t stick around for – next visit.

The London Eye: On Day Three we were ready to tackle London. We took the train to the Waterloo station and headed straight on foot to The London Eye, which was spectacular. It is the world’s tallest observation wheel and situated on the River Thames, providing 360 degree panoramic views of most of London’s top sites. You sit in a big glass gondola – each seats about 15-20 people – and take an approximately 30 minute ride enjoying the view. Talk about photo ops galore. For those leery of heights – this couldn’t feel safer and is no amusement park ferris wheel. No worries.

Next stop was a stroll over the Westminster Bridge where we got up close and personal with Big Ben (not that up close though, the clock tower is not open to the public), and headed to lunch at Giraffe, a kid- friendly yet hip restaurant chain with interesting food and a world vibe. We discovered that London is extremely family-friendly when it comes to restaurants and you are definitely not resigned to typical kid food when you are dining en famille.

Harrods: After lunch we jumped in a classic British taxi cab – which was a highlight for the kids in itself – they loved that the cab had two fold down seats that faced the back seat – and headed to the famous department store, Harrods. Along the way we took a gander at Buckingham Palace. Harrods is 7 or 8 floors of any beautiful item you would ever want. I completely skipped the women’s floors and stuck to what the girls were interested in – toys and food. The toys take up two floors and stack up with FAO Schwartz – we picked up some little souvenirs for friends back home and headed down to the bottom two levels which is full of gourmet food stalls – chocolates, ice cream, pastries, cheeses, wine, meats – anything your heart desires. We picked up some treats for our hosts, paid tribute to the Princess Di and Dodi Fayed memorial which sits on a landing between floors, and headed to our train back home.

Double Decker Bus Tour: The next day it was back on the train to London and we headed for a double decker bus tour. Again we got off at the Waterloo Station and took a short walk to Trafalgar Square (passing by the former home of Rudyard Kipling – very cool for my second grader whose class is rehearsing “The Jungle Book” for their class play next week) and hopped on a double decker bus tour. There are three major double decker tour buses in London that sell all-day tickets and basically follow the same routes and give the same tours. They all go by the major sites of the city and you can get on and off as you please.  Some have tour guides on the buses – we opted for one where all passengers get headphones and you listened to your own tour narrative. This tour was great because not only is there no better way to see the city – we covered St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, and the Tower of London, among other points of interest – but sitting on the top of the open-air double decker bus is quintessential London. Really fun.

Covent Garden: We hopped off the bus in the Covent Garden neighborhood which is a great little area with shops, cafes, and a big piazza in the middle with performers, and souvenir and other shopping stalls. We had lunch at a pizza cafe, picked up yet more souvenirs and explored a bit before hopping back on our double decker bus and heading to the Tower of London.

Tower of London/Crown Jewels: The Tower of London is a massive compound dating back to William the Conqueror in 1078. It is a palace, fortress, prison and where the Crown Jewels are kept and displayed – my girls’ main interest. Anne Boleyn and others were beheaded here and many prisoners were held here never to be seen again. Creepy. The Crown Jewels is a great exhibit consisting of a few rooms full of displays of jewels as well as running films of Queen Elizabeth wearing the jewels. After two hours exploring the tower we headed back on our bus back to the train station, not before some photo ops of the London Bridge which is right behind TOL.

Town of Winchester:On our final touring day we headed to the town of Winchester to check out the Winchester Cathedral, which is a massive, beautiful cathedral where Jane Austen is buried. Half of exploring the area outside London is the drive as much as the destination town itself. We loved the winding roads alongside sprawling farmland dotted with sheep and horses. The town of Winchester is a bustling town with great shopping and little restaurants – before exploring the Cathedral we stopped for a true British tea (note on British food – it’s good! I had low expectations but thoroughly enjoyed great meals and my girls adored the fish and chips). On the way home we stopped by Jane Austen’s house where she lived as an adult and wrote many of her famous novels (can you tell I am a fan?).

All in all, we had a successful trip where we got a taste of London and the surrounding area and look forward to going back to continue our adventures!

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Rachael Ray