The South Bank area, and neighbouring Westminster, is especially attractive. There are museums, theatres, a giant ferris wheel, the seat of government and a working river to explore and gorgeous views.
We visited recently and I had a great time researching the different things we could do as a family. I have 9, 10, and 12-year-old girls and a very picky husband. It didn’t take long to come up with a perfect list.
We arrived Saturday after lunch so the girls could still participate in their Saturday morning sports and stayed in London through dinner on Sunday. We parked the car at a very affordable and secure car park (£12.50/day) and walked everywhere.
Here are our suggestions of what to do:
1. Walk across Westminster Bridge
This wasn’t actually on my list when I researched the weekend, but I added it to the top of my list 1) because it’s free and 2) it has fabulous views and reminded me a bit of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s not as long as the Golden Gate, and it’s unassuming, but from either direction there are fabulous views of London landmarks and when you walk across the bridge you have time to enjoy them and take pictures – rather than whizzing by on a car or bus. You can see the London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, red double-decker busses passing over and boats going under. It’s quite a sight, and no doubt you’ll be stopped by a fellow tourist and asked to take their picture with Big Ben in the background.
2. Tour Parliament at the Palaces of Westminster
On Saturdays and select days when parliament is not in session, you can take a tour. If you are a UK resident and are flexible with dates you can arrange a free one via your MP, or book direct. We booked an audio tour which had 20 points of interest covering Westminster Hall, Central Lobby, House of Lords, and House of Commons. We opted for the family audio version, so we could all listen to the same commentary (there’s a child and adult version too). It’s a sneaky history lesson and I find it amazing that in this day and age you are still allowed to walk around the House of Commons – and stand where David Cameron does during Question Time. The girls (and picky husband) loved it.
3. Cruise the Thames
There’s something about being on a boat that makes you feel like you are on holiday. City Cruise’s River Red Rover allows you to get on an off at four key Thames locations: Westminster, London Eye, Tower of London and Greenwich. They provide commentary as you go, and on busy days it’s via a knowledgable tour guide with a sense of humour (did you know Parliament is also known as the London gas works – for all the hot air!). You also learn some lesser known facts (Big Ben is a nick name for the 13 and 1/2 ton bell – you only hear him – not see him!) It was a sunny day and we were enjoying ourselves and ended up riding it all the way to Greenwich. There are snacks on the boat. If I did it again, I’d schedule in time to get out there and go for lunch and come back – perhaps we’ll do that when my brother and his wife visit from California. The whole thing took 2 and 1/2 hours. We really enjoyed it.
4. Explore the Churchill War Rooms
The last time I visited these were just called the Cabinet War Rooms, but they have recently added a Churchill Museum, hence the name change. You get to go underground and tour the original Cabinet War Rooms, the bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government during the Blitz. All the girls have studied World War II in school, and this was a great way to bring it to life. Amazingly, this was my husband’s first visit there and he was fascinated walking around the same corridors and Churchill and his government, and seeing the secret transatlantic telephone room where there was a direct line to President Roosevelt and where some of Churchill’s most famous wartime speeches were broadcast. In the tour you have a choice half way through of visiting the Churchill Museum (a separate area). I’d skip that and just continue with the Cabinet War Rooms tour.
5. Ride the London Eye
You can’t stay in South Bank and not ride the London Eye! Also known as the Millennium Wheel (because it was built for the Year 2000 celebrations) it’s one of the world’s tallest ferris wheels and has 32 pods for the 32 London borough. Each enclosed pod carries up to 25 people and you can walk around the capsules, or sit in the middle, which is what I did, about 14 years ago when it opened. I’m a little leery of heights, and though the views are spectacular, I found the 30 minutes at 443 ft above ground a bit challenging. The girls, however, are dying to go. In January the London Eye will be sponsored by Coca-Cola.
6. Eat at L’Italiano Restaurant
Eating in London with families can be hit and miss. How many times have you gone for the family option, where the kids love it but mum and dad are a bit disappointed? I’s hard to get the balance right, but L’Italiano does a great job of keeping kids happy plus making it interesting for the adults too.
Located on the Mezzanine level of the hotel, L’Italiano is an award-winning Italian restaurant that offers home-made pastas, thin and crispy pizzas, risotto dishes and mains. Pricing is similar to Strada/Pizza Express, but in addition to the usual margarita pizza and spaghetti Bolognese, there are some unusual pastas (such as mezzemaniche – a shorter version of penne). There’s also an extensive Italian wine list. Read my full review of L’Italiano.
7. Stay at Park Plaza County Hall London
Snuggled in the heart of South Bank is Park Plaza County Hall. It’s a modern family friendly 14-story 4-star hotel located just across from Westminster and overlooking the river Thames. The higher rooms have spectacular views over London, think the London Eye staring you right in the face when you open the curtains. You are in walking distance of Big Ben, Palace of Westminster/Parliament, Westminster Abbey, London Eye. Many rooms have kitchenettes, separate living areas, baths and free Wifi. This hotel really caters for families and considering London prices, the rooms are reasonable priced. The hotel restaurant, L’Italiano, is also child friendly and affordable. Think Strada and Pizza Express pricing, but with homemade pasta, pizza (with Chef Steffano’s secret recipe for the base) and other authentic Italian dishes. On Saturdays, kids of registered guests can take the complimentary pizza making class. For more information, read my full review of Park Plaza County Hall.
Our accommodation and dinner were compliments of Park Plaza County Hall. All opinions are my own and my family’s.