“Mummy, does the Queen live in London, or in Windsor?”
It was my youngest. She’s 8 and was looking at a picture of the Queen. I tried to answer in my head, but TBH I was not really sure.
“I think she spends most of her time in Windsor, but also stays in Buckingham Palace.”
“Where’s that? Have we been there?”
Oh dear. I go into London a lot for work, but my girls, aged 8, 9 and 11 have only visited a handful of times. I know. A leading global city right on our doorstep. I’ve always wanted to take the family for a London weekend, and be proper tourists, perhaps it was time to actually do it.
I checked out gogobot’s “London Top Things to Do” list for some ideas of touristy things to do. Topping the list was London Eye (1), Tower Bridge (2) Big Ben (3), Trafalgar Square (4) and Buckingham Palace (5). I know you need to book London Eye in advance and Tower Bridge can be pricey. But the others were intriguing. Other than hotel and food, there was a host of touristy things we could do for free or little cost. So I started planning and this is what I discovered.
Here are my top 10 tips for visiting London with an 8, 9 and 11-year-old:
1. Pick a central location as a base. We stayed as guests of The Rubens at the Palace, a 4-star hotel which is literally on the doorstep of Buckingham Palace. Originally part of the Palace grounds, the hotel is seeped in history. Debutantes used to stay here while attending parties at Buckingham Palace. With Victoria Station just a four-minute walk, it’s a fabulous location to base yourself as a family and tour London. As part of the hotel’s “Get more for the family” package, the kids can get decked out in chefs whites, visit the main kitchen where they prep their famous Afternoon Tea, and decorate their own delicacies.
2. The Tube. Let’s not forget the Underground. After we settled in the hotel we were ready to explore London! Though we could have walked to our destination (Trafalgar Square), the girls had never been on the Underground. I explained to them that mummy often comes to this station during the week for work, but they were more enthralled people watching on the tube, and figuring out to get our next destination (District to Embankment then Bakerloo to Charing Cross). It’s easy mummy.
3. Trafalgar Square. Our first stop was Trafalgar Square, a large public space in Westminster. In the centre of the Square is Nelson’s Column, which is guarded by four lion statues. The girls had fun climbing the statues (the public safety officials told us we were allowed to climb them as long as they are not wet). I’m not sure when all the pigeons disappeared, but in their place are several impressive street performers.
4. National Gallery. At the top of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery art museum. Founded in 1824, it houses a collection of more than 2,300 paintings and pieces of art. I still find it amazing that you can walk in off a busy London road and within seconds be gazing at world-famous paintings, such as Van Gough’s Sunflowers and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks.
5. Piccadilly Circus. Next on the list was Piccadilly Circus (No. 8 according to gogobot), a short walk away. Connecting the West End theatre district with the shopping of Regent Street, it oozes London atmosphere, especially in the evening when the lights are shining. The girls LOVE Cinnabon cinnamon rolls. If I am in London during the week and pass through Piccadilly Circus I always bring home the 4-pack of cinnamon rolls for them, and they were ecstatic to visit the famous Cinnabon shop themselves.
6. Regent Street. This led us on to Regent Street, an area with all the trendy shops that pre-teens love. Hollister, whose 3 storefront windows are live cams of surfers in the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach, California, had a queue to get in. We skipped that and opted for reasonably priced Japanese fashion shop Uniqlo (I bought an Orla Kiely long-sleeved V-neck T-shirt for £12.95). And of course, all tweens LOVE browsing in Lush Handmade Cosmetics and smelling each and every item.
7. Rainforest Cafe. For dinner we headed over to the very popular Rainforest Cafe. This is an adventure, not just a meal, and a fun way to educate little ones about the Rainforest. You enter through a shop full of stuffed frogs, alligators and other endangered species and then descend into an Amazon Rainforest with life-sized gorillas, elephants, toucans. There are intermittent thunderstorms and chattering between animals. The menu is American-style fare, with burgers, ribs, Chinese noodles and more. The girls loved the kids adventure meal, which comes with a pack filled with goodies to keep them busy. It’s pricey, but in my 8-year-old’s words: “This place is the BEST, mummy! Can I come for my birthday meal? Pleaaaassse.”
8. Buckingham Palace. The next day we caught the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Make sure you check the official website for timings. We got there a 1/2 hour before it was due to start at 11.15, and there were already large crowds. After debating where to watch, we positioned ourselves in front of the main gates. If we did it again (we probably won’t) I’d opt to watch from the front of St James’s Park, where the view is just as good. The ceremony lasts about a 1/2 hour and includes a lot of formal marching around by guards in tall furry hats. The band was a bit quirky, and played ABBA’s Dancing Queen and James Bond music, which amused the girls to no end. Get it mummy, Dancing QUEEN.
9. Covent Garden. A short walk through St. James’s Park and soon we were in Covent Garden (No. 21 on gogobot) where we saw more street performers and walked through the covered market, eyeing many handmade goodies. We had a look at Carluccios (where mummy sometimes comes for work meetings) and we drooled at the new Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which had a queue wrapped around the building!
10. Souvenir shops. Yes, it wouldn’t be a tourist trip into London with the obligatory shopping for souvenirs! We had fun looking for mementos of our weekend to take home with us (a pencil, a handful of postcards and a wrist band!).
Have you taken the family to London and what are your favourites places to visit?
Note: Our accommodation was provided by The Rubens for the purposes of this review. All opinions are mine and my families’.