London's best museums for families
This anthropological museum has to be one of the most child-friendly venues in all London. Set in 16 acres of landscaped gardens, the Horniman provides extensive facilities for families, including a nature trail, weekend workshops and a Hands On Base where children can touch museum objects. There's an aquarium, and the Nature Base explores the natural world with exhibits including the Horniman Museum beehive.
A lot of thought has gone into making this museum child-friendly; after all, it's a tease to see so many toys and not be able to play with them. To compensate, there are activity stations in each area with Lego, stickle bricks, a sandpit, board games, rocking horses, a book corner and many other treats. In addition, the museum hosts plenty of kids events at weekends and during school holidays.
No one's too young (or old) to get a kick out of a visit here. Icons of science (Stephenson's Rocket locomotive, Crick and Watson's DNA model) are treated with due respect, but this place couldn't be less stuffy with its games, simulators and interactive exhibits. The jewel in its crown is Launchpad, where 50 hands-on exhibits and experiments keep kids agog; here, they can make a rainbow or take a dizzying turn on the rotation station.
This much-loved museum does a sterling job of presenting a fascinating and entertaining history of transport in the capital, with many vehicles to explore along the way. For children, the London Transport Museum has an under-fives play area decorated with Steven Appleby illustrations and the chance to sit in the driver's cab of a red bus and guide a Northern Line simulator through tunnels and up to platforms – (truth be told, it's fun for adults, too).
Rooms 62 and 63 of the Roxie Walker galleries are top of most children's agendas; it's here that the Egyptian mummies reside, exerting an eerie spell over visitors. Inventive and free family events run on Saturdays. Handling sessions take place daily in various galleries and there are some fantastic trail booklets available in the Paul Hamlyn Library that help kids of different ages get the best out of the museum.
The museum splits its exhibits into four colour-coded zones, each with its own marvels. In Blue Zone, a life-size model of a blue whale quietens all but the loudest of kids. Geology takes centre stage in the Red Zone. It's a dramatic escalator ascent through the centre of the earth. At the top you'll find the ground-shaking earthquake simulator – a reliable source of giggles and a few shrieks of alarm.
Housed in a set of 18th-century almshouses, the Geffrye Museum offers a vivid physical history of the English interior. It's like time-travelling without the Tardis. On the first Saturday of the month there are free quizzes and craft activities for 5-16 year-olds, while half-term brings hands-on workshops for all ages. In summer, there's an eclectic array of family days; events often spill into the glorious gardens, so bring a picnic to eat on the grass.
Lending weight to the idea that the best things come in small packages, this bijou gallery – the first to be purpose-built in the UK – is also a community hub of arty activity. Tuesday's Evening Art School gives 15-18 year-olds the change to develop their portfolios. Wednesday's quirkily-themed after-school sessions are aimed at 7-10 year-olds, while there are six-week art courses on Thursday evenings for 11-14 year-olds. Holidays bring yet more activities, often involving making things along a seasonal theme.
This museum is a real one-off. Each step up the narrow, rickety, wooden spiral staircase leads you further from present-day London and towards the quiet ghosts of the past. Ghoulish exhibits are packed under its dark eaves. Go through a narrow antechamber to find Europe's oldest operating theatre, where sanitised reenactments are sometimes held. Children's workshops take place on Saturdays – see the website for details.
There are guns, planes and tanks in the main galleries, but there's far more to the museum. The family exhibition 'A Family in Wartime' tells the story of how ordinary people braved the challenges of life at home during WWII through the eyes of the Allpress family, who lived in Stockwell. The unflinching Holocaust Exhibition, which traces the history of anti-semitism and its shameful nadir in the death camps, is not recommended for under-14s.