Stuck for things to do with the kids? As much as we love London’s museums and attractions, sometimes an excursion is what’s called for, which is why we’ve rounded up fab family days out near the capital. With theme parks, palaces, animal attractions, easy trips to the seaside and great outdoor adventures, we’ve got the best ideas for things to do with the whole family. Think we’ve missed a great family day trip outside London? Let us know in the comments box below.
Play, watch, build and ride at this adventure theme park within the rolling Berkshire countryside. With Duplo Valley (playgrounds, gentle rides and puppet shows), Miniland model village -for the smallest visitors- Adventure Land aquarium, Imagination centre and Lego City boats, cars and ‘Fire Academy’ for juniors plus rollercoasters for the older kids, there’s something for everyone. New highlights for 2017 include Lego Ninjago The Ride – a 4D interactive ride plus a ‘training camp’ with Zane’s Temple Build and Cole’s Rock Climb.
Bottom line: Rides and play things high and low, for kids big and small.
London to Legoland 1 hour 5 mins by car.
For generations Chessington boasted a charming zoo and a few slides, but anyone visiting from the 1970s wouldn’t recognise the place now – rollercoasters swoop around the theme park, the updated and expanded zoo is complemented by a Sea Life Centre and there are several accommodation options for those making an overnight stay of it. New for 2017 is The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure taking you through the deep dark wood to come nose to snout with the mouse and his fellow furry creatures. You can stay in Gruffalo themed rooms, too.
Bottom line: Lions, tigers, rollercoasters and the Gruffalo.
London Waterloo to Chessington South 35 mins by train then 10 mins walk.
Whereas Legoland and Chessington best suit ages from toddlers to 11-year-olds, many of the rides here are designed for teens and older children, with height restrictions and thrills to match. That said, parents with young (or short) children will find plenty to do and a handful of more laidback rides. Teenagers will love the white-knuckle rides like The Swarm and Stealth, and franchises offer some brilliant branded adventures including Angry Birds Land, a ride themed to ‘I’m a Celebrity’ with a restaurant to match (crickets, locusts, and mealworms at Bush BBQ restaurant anyone?) and the park’s newest addition Derren Brown’s Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon – mwah haha…
Bottom line: Rollercoaster thrills and ‘Celebrity’ jungle spills.
London to Thorpe Park 1 hour 10 mins by car.
This former farm park has been transformed into a mystical themed adventure land. There are still animals to meet and play areas for running about (including an indoor area for rainy days), but there is also a landscape of quaint huts and abodes belonging to the curious medieval-looking Hobbledown folk who care for the animals and ‘work’ in the crystalline mine. An interactive treat with seasonal special events for children of all ages.
Bottom line: Farmyard fun for your little elves.
London to Horton 1 hour by car.
For any child who has ever dreamed of driving a vehicle or controlling a digger, this is a real treat. In this earthy barrow in Kent, there are giant machines, dirt diggers and a sky shuttle. Many of the attractions have height restrictions, so do check before you set out, but there are lots of attractions aimed at young children including mini Landrovers, mini dumper trucks, mini tractors and dodgems.
Bottom line: A busy day out with builder Bobs and Bettys.
London to Diggerland 1 hour 15 mins by car.
Henry VIII had many homes, but this one positively oozes historical drama. Even before you step inside, there’s the legendary maze to test your navigation skills and the wonderfully colourful Magic Garden adventure playground with tall walkways, climbing, sandpits, slides and even a huge red dragon to clamber on. In the palace itself there’s a dressing-up box so you can all don Tudor get-up before exploring. There are trails for kids, plus special activities at weekends and in the holidays.
Bottom line: Dragons, royal legends and an amazing maze.
London Waterloo to Hampton Court 35 mins by train.
Two palaces for the price of one. The remains of the Tudor palace include a bridge over the moat, as well as the impressive Great Hall. The biggest draw now, though, is the art deco property built adjoining the Great Hall in 1936 by textiles heir Stephen Courtauld. The furniture and fittings look like a film set. Upstairs there’s a chance to enjoy a home movie of Stephen and Virginia with their pet lemur, Mahjong (who had his own specially designed quarters).
Bottom line: Palace splendour with added slides.
London Bridge to Mottingham 35 mins by train.
Hever Castle is quite small, but what stories its walls can tell. Most famously, the castle was the family home of Anne Boleyn. Children are always riveted by the violent life and times of Henry, and this is a great place to introduce the subject. There's also a brilliantly designed water maze. Visitors must choose a path across the pond using stone slabs and trying to avoid the surprise jets of water that surge into the air if they stand on a forbidden path.
Bottom line: Frolic like Tudor princes and princesses.
London to Hever Castle 1 hour 30 mins by car.
Children love random facts, and Hatfield House has many juicy ones to its name. It was here that Queen Elizabeth I spent her childhood and learned of her accession to the throne while reading under an oak tree in the park. A children's quiz encourages youngsters and adults to discover and study fascinating individual items within the house. There are tantalising views of the private maze and family gardens from the windows, and recently Hatfield Park Farm and Bloody Hollow Adventure Playground have been added to the attractions.
Bottom line: Country house history plus wild woodland play.
London King’s Cross to Hatfield 20 mins by train.
If your kids love wild animals but you don’t have a car, many wildlife reserves are tricky to get to, but not Shepreth near Royston, in Hertfordshire. In fact, it’s cheaper entry if you show your train tickets. Once inside, seek out animals exotic and domestic – tigers, lemurs, macaques and wallabies, ponies, owls and hedgehogs. There is an adventure playground with dinosaurs, and there are daily keeper talks, feeding times and special events all year round, especially during school breaks.
Bottom line: Coming face to face with nature.
London King’s Cross to Shepreth 1 hour 15 mins by train.
Run by the team behind London Zoo and set in 600 acres of Bedfordshire parkland with views across the Chilterns, Whipsnade offers a huge variety of animals including all the favourites – chimps, lions, elephants, camels, zebras, hippos and giraffes. The emphasis is on learning about how the animals live in near-as-possble natural habitats, with viewing huts providing exceptional views through glass walls.
Bottom line: The wilds of Africa just north of London.
London to Whipsnade 1 hour 15 mins by car.
Families can watch animals in their enclosures, including pigs, sheep, cows and more exotic animals like wallabies and reindeer. But the animals are also here to entertain, in the form of sheep races, geese obstacle races, goat climbing displays, falconry displays and ferret fun runs. Enticing activities include frisbee golf, adventure playgrounds and a giant sandpit with working ride-on diggers.
Bottom Line: A busy day out for pintsized Old McDonalds.
London to London Colney (satnav AL4 0PF) 1 hour.
Woburn Safari Park is a chance for children to see exotic animals in wilder and larger outdoor habitats than you’ll see at the zoos in the capital. Take a drive through the plains and see tigers, elephants, giraffe, bears and wolves stalking across their acres. Families can also take a foot safari to get up close to the lemurs, monkeys and penguins. As well as the animals, There are also lots of activity areas dotted around the park, including a Go Ape treetop climbing and zipwire course, ‘Giraffe Trail high ropes’, a miniature railway and indoor soft play.
Bottom Line: Fierce, furry fun on a big scale.
London to Woburn Park 1 hour by car.
The Lodge is a sprawling nature reserve containing woodland, heath and grasslands, presenting ample opportunities for birdwatching and exploration along five miles of walking trails, picnic spots and landscaped gardens. Explorer Backpacks are available for children, which include binoculars, bug viewers, wildlife guides and activity booklets.
Bottom line: Be green warriors among the flora and fauna.
London to Sandy 1 hour 30 mins by car.
Tiny, sweet and quintessentially English, Leigh-on-Sea is a quiet seaside resort 30 miles east of London and a lovely family day trip. The main street of Old Leigh is lined with cheerful cafés, and on the seafront are cockle sheds and working boats. At the west end, a tiny sandy beach gives way to a muddy gulch when the tide goes out - kids love it, but parents might want to take some spare clothes and a plastic bag for the journey home.
Bottom line: A bucketful of old-school seaside fun.
London Fenchurch Street to Leigh-on-Sea 1 hour.
It’s only at high tide that Mersea Island is actually separate from the rest of Essex, when a stretch of the B1025 is submerged beneath the waves and becomes the ‘Strood’ causeway. Once there, the island is a flat five miles across with plenty of simple pleasures to enjoy. Try the daily catch at Richard Haward’s Company Shed on the Coast Road, where you take your own bread and drinks along. The local farmed flat oysters and Colchester Natives are legendary and the seafood platters are excellent too. Next to the oyster farms are boatyards, working fishing boats and yachts in the summer season, as well as sand and shingle beaches. There’s also a small museum. Over at the tiny East Mersea, the Cudmore Country Park is great for bird-watching and you might be lucky enough to see seals in the estuary. The Mersea Regatta takes place every August, when a week of sailing events culminates in a round-the-island race (boats are carried across the Strood by hand).
Bottom line: A quiet coastal escape, more oysters than ice cream.
London to Mersea Island 2 hours 10 mins by car.
Now that you can get high speed trains from St Pancras, a day beside the seaside doesn’t have to involve hours spent in traffic. Folkestone has a few sandy beaches where castle-building is in order (and a very nice harbour for eats if you haven’t packed a picnic), but for little monkeys who love to swing about in an adventure playground, Lower Leas Coastal Park with its free zipwires is a must.
Bottom line: Swing out by the seaside.
London St Pancras International to Folkestone Central 1 hour by train.
The charm of the steam era lives on in Sussex, where the Bluebell railway line chuffs and puffs through the countryside for 14 kilometres and 11 miles between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead. So charming, in fact, that it’s been used for many a film and TV shoot, so get your Downton Abbey on and hop onboard. Packages include Afternoon Tea and Silver Service dining, Supper Specials, Murder Mystery evenings and Rail Ale with Jazz sessions. During some school breaks there are ‘Kid for a Quid’ offers, too.
Bottom line: Travel back to the age of steam.
London Victoria to East Grinstead 55mins by train.
Ashdown Forest is the former medieval hunting forest where AA Milne got the inspiration for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. There are two Winnie-the-Pooh walks of different lengths (which can be downloaded from Ashdown Forest's website) that take in points of interest from the famous bear stories. Set out on an 'expotition' and find the place where Pooh and his friends found the North Pole, the Heffalump Trap and Lone Pine, Roo's Sandy Pit, and more.
Bottom line: Room to roam like heffalumps.
London to Ashdown Forest 2 hours by car.
Londoners come here to take their pick of the seasonal produce. Soft fruits are favourites in the summer months and there are plenty of vegetable fields and orchards too. Staff at sheds at each individual field issue pickers with suitable containers, and then weigh produce in at the end. Make a day of it by stopping at the farm shop to stock up for a picnic on the designated field by the river.
Bottom line: Fruit farm fun.
London Waterloo to Esher 40 mins by train then taxi.
The woodlands of Chislehurst hold a secret beneath their roots. Thirty metres below ground is a complex of manmade caves carved out of the chalk by Druids, Saxons and Romans. Since then the caves have been turned to all sorts of purposes: during World War II, they acted as Britain's largest bomb shelter. The 45-minute lamplit tour covers a mile of the tunnels; children will enjoy locating the Druid Altar, the Caves Church and the Haunted Pool.
Bottom line: Subterranean explorations in the dark.
London Bridge to Chislehurst 30mins by train.
Bekonscot Model Village is a haven of miniatures - children are just the right height to appreciate its Lilliputian charms. Spread across one and a half acres, its 200 small buildings, 1,000 animals, 3,000 inhabitants and hundreds of tiny vehicles are a delight, with lots of visual jokes to enjoy. A model railway runs through the site over bridges and through stations, and there's also a ride on train that takes you around the site.
Bottom line: Stand like giants over pretty old England.
London Marylebone to Beaconsfield 20mins by train.
Bletchley was the British centre for codebreaking and military intelligence during World War II. Older children will be fascinated by talk of secret missions and the race to decode complex passwords and secret languages. There’s also a code trail that lets them have a go. Small children will enjoy the Thomas the Tank Engine model train layout and the display cases of period toys, as well as the playground and open spaces of the 29-acre site. There are lots of activities and seasonal events for families, too.
Bottom line: Inspire your budding boffins and crack the codes!
London to Bletchley 1 hour 40 mins by car.