Whether you’ve got a restless toddler, a curious five-year-old, a noisy ten-year-old or a bored teenager to amuse, you’ll find plenty of great things to do in London. Many of London’s museums and galleries have special drop-in sessions where children can get creative or try hands-on activities, there’s a wealth of outdoor options when they want a runaround, too.
Even better, many of the greatest places for families are free to visit, making your budget go further for those must-do attractions that aren’t. Read on to find the best things to entertain or amaze your family.
Things to do in London with kids
This family-friendly disco crew references the rave culture of the early ’90s, but happily their events around London and at festivals are thoroughly wholesome affairs. Suitable for babies and children of all ages, Big Fish Little Fish daytime gigs give parents a chance to enjoy good music in a setting that the whole family can enjoy, complete with activities like synthesizer workshops and hulahoop demonstrations. Check their website for upcoming dates.
Located next to Kensington Palace, this play area has a Peter Pan theme and a fabulous wooden pirate ship as its centerpiece. Specially designed to suit children of all physical abilities, the playground includes a beach, sculptures, teepees for make-believe games, and a sensory trail. It’s free to enjoy, but at busy times there might be a queue to get in.
The NMM’s new gallery especially for babies and young children is all about fun. Ahoy! features many different play zones including a beach and a ship deck, plus a game firing cannons and another that is a bit like air hockey. The fish shop is ace –rows of pretend fish, cash tills and shopping baskets. There’s also the All Hands exploration gallery for ages 6-12.
Long before children can muse on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and remark how the impasto helps to express the texture of the seed heads, they can relate to centuries-old paintings that sing with colour and drama. That’s why the National Gallery’s ‘magic carpet’ storytelling sessions are brilliant. Every Sunday morning parents and sprouts are invited to sit in front of one of the paintings and hear stories inspired by what they see.
Ages two to five
Free, book on arrival
Stag Lodge Stables operates lessons and hacks in the relatively car-free settings of Richmond Park and nearby Wimbledon Common, suitable for all ages and abilities. For little ones (ages 3-6) the Shetland pony sessions are particularly popular, and include a four-day holiday course. Birthday party bookings are also available.
Ages three and above
Tired of the usual bright and tacky indoor playgrounds near you? Then head over to Abbey Leisure Centre in Barking and set the kids free to jump and roll and slide around a work of art. Turner Prize-nominated, multimedia artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has created an incredible black-and-white play complex inspired by Greek mythology and science fiction. Brilliantly bonkers.
For small children, it’s the doing not the looking that amuses and inspires. As a result, this busy museum’s hands-on galleries win the day. The Garden is a free play zone where young’uns can don aprons and play with waterways and boats, jump around exploring light and shadows and discover the science of sound through all kinds of fun activities.
Ages three to six
There’s a lot of natural wonder to be enjoyed at Kew, from the treetop walk with a bird’s-eye view over the park, to the incredibly stinky, rare flowering titan arum plant, but for younger visitors the specially created Climbers and Creepers play zone is a treat. Kids get to feel like tiny insects crawling over huge wooden models of plants and play with interactive features – including the chance to discover the perils of carnivorous plants.
Ages three to nine
The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green has been a dedicated temple to the history of growing up in Britain for over 150 years, but it’s not all antique dolls in glass cases. There are hands-on exhibits and games everywhere you look. Children can join organised activity sessions and dress up in Victorian costume or theatrical attire. On the first floor, there’s even a Punch and Judy puppet show booth you can work yourself and a sandpit for toddlers who want to kick off their shoes and have a little romp.
Not all children’s entertainment has to be corny and colourful, as Bach to Baby proves. Trained musicians perform child-friendly classical concerts in spaces all over London. Toddlers are free to get and up move about and babies are contented to sit on laps as the classical music floats around them. There are shows every week and sessions include a pre-concert Monmouth Coffee Mingle.
Various London locations
Things to do in London with kids
The entrance to Sea Life Aquarium London, a couple of doors along from the London Eye, doesn’t look like much, but venture inside and you’ll find a vast underwater world. Along with huge tanks of sharks and colourful fish, special zones include Ocean Invaders. New for 2017, it’s an interactive gallery dedicated to jellyfish, where you can get up close to a swarm of these curious no-heart, no-brain creatures. You can also visit Penguin Point, watch the Gentoo penguins chilling out in their icy waters and catch their feeding sessions at noon and 3pm (Wednesdays, 3pm only).
Through the year, the Royal Academy runs a series of free creative activities inviting children (including those with special educational needs) to explore visual art, while Art Detectives trails gives them a chance to explore the galleries and see great works of art form their own perspective. Once a month there’s a free, drop-in Family Studios session on a Sunday (11am-3pm) which explores a theme in more depth, with hands-on crafts and other activities like music making and dressing up. Check the website for the next date and theme.
The Grant Museum of Zoology could be a movie set for a mad professor’s home: jars of specimens, skeletons and mounted animals include examples of creatures that are now endangered and in some cases even extinct. Take a self-guided tour or join one of the free, drop-in hands-on family sessions – see how sharp a shark’s tooth really is, and what a python’s skin feels like.
Ages three and above
The Star Wars gallery at Madame Tussauds is one of the last things you see on an extensive tour through history and popular culture and what a finale. Working with Lucas Films, Tussauds have recreated scenes from them in key scenes from various Star Wars films and populated them with wax models of the heroes and villains. Meet Yoda in a musty-smelling swamp, take a selfie sitting alongside Han Solo in the canteen, and get up close to Darth Vader and Luke as they go to battle. Star Wars obsession will be delighted to know the attention to detail is spot on.
Give your furniture a break and take the kids to a proper climbing centre. Clip ’n Climb in Chelsea is a colourful landscape of specially designed climbing walls suitable for various ages and levels of ability. Completely safe for beginners, with challenges including ‘The Skyscraper’, ‘Jungle Gym’ and ‘Vertical Drop Slide’, this is a brilliant place for restless little monkeys to gain confidence clambering, climbing and dropping.
Ages four and above
Learn to play the gamelan at the South Bank
In 1987 the Southbank Centre was donated a Javanese percussion orchestra of instruments (a gamelan). Ever since, the centre has run sessions where children and adults can learn how to play the instruments. These include Dragon Babies sessions suitable for preschoolers. Family Taster workshops are also hosted at regular times through the year.
Ages three and above
Here children can stretch, bound and challenge themselves in a safe setting. This supervised adventure playground in Islington includes football and basketball pitches, an amphitheatre and the chance to join arts and crafts sessions, and in the main park there’s a water play feature for clean, wet fun on warmer days. There’s a lunch club during school holidays for a small charge, but open access to the playground is free.
Ages six to 13
This skate park under the Westway is a brilliant mix of street cool and great organisation (reassuring for parents who don’t want to spend hours in A&E). Friendly and encouraging, they offer regular beginner sessions but also plenty of challenging thrills for experienced skaters, BMX bikers and professional scooters at an excellent purpose-built skatescape. Perfect for kids who want to mix it with older riders who’ve acquired serious smarts.
Carefully positioned in the landscape at the Thicket Road end of Crystal Palace Park, vast models of extinct animals and dinosaurs stand just as they did when they were first unveiled in 1854. The Victorians were obsessed with palaeontology, and the ‘Dinosaur Court’ was a huge hit. Fully restored in 2002, the models still fascinate young children (no climbing!) even though any modern-day, dino-obsessed preschooler can tell you that their quaint shapes are anatomically inaccurate.
Visit the (deliberately) stinky streets and dark alleyways of Sailortown at the Museum of London Docklands
This free museum has a dedicated gallery (Mudlarks) for small children, but it’s worth visiting the main galleries, for the huge model of the old London Bridge and a walk-through recreation of the docklands in Victorian times. Hear the noises, smell the scents and peer into the shadowy alleyways. Gaze through the window of the chandler’s shop and see inside an old East End boozer.
Things to do in London with kids
This amazing watersports centre scores high for city thrills, not least because it’s an Olympic-standard resource built for London 2012 that was actually open to the public before the Games got started. Cool or what? Sessions include one-off rafting and kayaking courses, but a favourite for teenagers is the six-weeks of level two hour-long classes that prepare you to take on the centre’s most tricky challenges.
Age 12 and above
At this circus-training centre there are courses and facilities for professional artists but also special bookable workshops for beginners of all ages. These include monthly Youth Experience Days where older children can develop key circus skills. Booking in advance is essential, but it’s worth it – a chance to take on the trapeze, the tightwire and the diabolo with expert supervision and tutoring.
Ages eight to 16
ZSL London Zoo in Regent’s Park has lots of daily activities that enable families to get close to the wildlife. There are also additional experiences to make a visit even more memorable, including the Zoo Academy two-day course, with games, challenges, trails and zoo-keeping duties. One of our favourite highlights is featured as part of the impressive Land of the Lions zone – a chance to sleep overnight in a Gir Lion Lodge in the enclosure with these incredible beasts.
Ages 14 and above
Many live-action adventures like this are located further out of London but Bunker 51 is in Docklands and decked out like an underground nuclear shelter. The lighting and props (discarded canisters of toxic waste, abandoned 4x4s and signposts to the missile bay) help to crank up the fear factor and remind you that this is war! Though happily, only in paintball (or lasertag) form.
Ages 12 and above
Let your kids turn a passion into a potential profession with the Roundhouse creative sessions for ages 11 to 25. For free (in some cases a very small fee), the workshops and courses offer expert advice and hands-on experience for all abilities. Sessions include drop-in street-circus skills, learning how to DJ, radio and music producing workshops and more in-depth courses using the excellent studio facilities.
Venue says: “Our secret coordinates are 51°32'10.5"N 0°07'00.8"W. Or you can sniff out our address in the details section.”
Great for parents who remember ‘The Crystal Maze’ and kids who love online challenge games, ClueQuest is one of a growing number of experiences offering adventurers a similar challenge in real life. In teams of three to five players, you get locked in a room and have 60 minutes to solve a series of puzzles and mysteries in order to escape. Perfect for parties.
Ages nine and above
With the space to create graded mountain bike runs (the three trails are graded red, blue and black, like ski runs), this is one of the more easily accessible parts of the cycling experience available to the public, post-London 2012. It’s useful to sign up for free membership in advance, then you should be able to just turn up and pay for a session anytime, daily from 9am to sunset. Although booking ahead is recommended.
Ages five and above
Forget a sedate cruise down the river. Opt instead for the pacey pleasures of a high-speed trip down the Thames, bouncing over the water in a rigid inflatable boat (Rib). There are few other ways to go this fast in central London – and, fittingly, one of the special trip experiences on offer is the ‘Spy Charter’ – hire the whole boat and make like a special agent with a licence to thrill.
Minimum passenger weight 15k
Galleries are pretty savvy at cultivating the next generation of art lovers, with free drop-in activities, family-friendly tours and holiday workshops. Dulwich Picture Gallery is among the best, with Practical Art courses throughout the year. Sessions are planned by age range, so under-10s and teens get the right challenges for their abilities and interests. From sculpture to figure drawing, it’s a great south London resource for budding artists.
Ages six and above
Perfect for older kids who appreciate a serious challenge, Vertical Chill is ice climbing that doesn’t require a flight to the Alps – it’s in Covent Garden! This indoor real-ice climbing experience at the Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports store is designed to help beginners and experienced climbers put equipment and their capabilities to the test. It’s suitable for kids aged from 14 years but under-18s must be accompanied by an adult and you can book extra tuition or gear hire if you need it.
Ages 14 and above
Things to do in London with kids
There have been treetop adventure centres in forests around the country for a few years, but when Go Ape opened in Battersea in 2015, it brought the thrill and daring of zipwiring and high-level assault courses to Zone 1. The adventure starts on the ground with a safety briefing before you put your harness on. Then off you go, working your way through three layers of challenges heading up to the canopy, crossing tricky obstacle rope walls and wooden bridges to reach the zipwires. It’s hard work, but an exhilarating experience for kids and adults with a head for heights.
Having undergone a major update, the National Army Museum has reopened for spring 2017 as a free to visit, bright and airy space with dazzling gallery experiences and lots of activities and learning spaces for families. There’s also an immersive play session for toddlers and under-8s called Play Base. These one-hour sessions (£4.50 per child and accompanying adult) include challenges that reflect army life in a fun way – an assault course, a ‘command liaison vehicle’, the cook house, quartermaster store and a chance to build dens and hone survival skills ‘In the field’.
Artist Chris Bracey created incredible works for art projects and movie sets for nearly 40 years until his death late last year. His God’s Own Junk Yard space in Walthamstow is a studio where you can see his work – a combination of recycled urban debris and electric light in a gallery of wonderful colour. Still a working neon sign business, it’s open to the public Friday to Sunday, and its Rolling Scones Café is open all week.
Nothing feels quite so liberating as swimming in nature – and in the middle of Zone 1 in Hyde Park, you can do just that. A trip to Serpentine Lido includes a sun terrace and children’s play area, including a paddling pool, but there is also access to a safely marked-off area of the lake for open-water swimming. Wetsuits permitted.
All ages (two adults to each under-16 swimming in the lake)
The Polka’s busy programme is all about theatre created to amuse babies and toddlers, and live-action productions to make older children giggle. Other performances include book adaptations and there are workshops for young performers and kids who want to discover backstage crafts. With a café, playground, art space and garden, it’s a welcoming place to pop in even when you don’t have time to take in a show.
The chic Biscuiteers on Northcote Road takes adorning sweet treats with pretty toppings very seriously. Along with adult classes, they host a Little Biscuiteers School of Icing (£36 for an hour-long class, including soft drinks, biscuits and apron) and any time during opening hours little ones are welcome to indulge in a spot of decorating while the grown-ups chat and nibble (£15 including biscuits to take home).
Under the snapping jaws of a tyrranosaurus rex, this cleverly landscaped mini golf course, complete with rope bridges and waterfalls, offers 18 holes of pre-historic putting in south west London. Suitable for all ages (but with a few tricky holes, especially in the ‘cave’), Jurrassic Encounter Adventure Golf has a number of impressive dinosaur statues to admire as you take in a round.
This free museum in south-east London has plenty of fascinating exhibits to gaze at and (in some cases) grapple with, but there’s also a great little aquarium here you can explore for a small charge. It includes a Fijian Reef, a Tropical Rainforest, a Mangrove swamp and a UK rock pool display, stocked with aquatic creatures native to those environments. The moon jellyfish are particularly magical.
Time was that King’s Cross and St Pancras were surrounded by soot-covered warehouses, all gradually falling out of use and being turned into adhoc nightclubs. Now, though, the vast piazza spaces look positively Continental, with Granary Square’s rows of pop-up fountains and Lewis Cubitt Park offering great, architecturally designed spaces to run around. Even in winter, it’s worth taking a towel – kids can’t resist running through the spouting water jets that rise up from the ground. And while you’re here, seek out Handyside Gardens, a pocket park nearby with a charming play area especially for children.