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 the city's museums and galleries have special drop-in sessions where children can get creative or try hands-on activities and 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, stretching your budget further for those must-do attractions that aren’t. Read on to find the best things to entertain or amaze your family.
Get your little’uns raving early with the help of Big Fish Little Fish. This teeny-bopper disco crew host parties all over London, as well as festivals, especially for children. That’s not to say parents can’t enjoy themselves, too. The music is pleasantly un-annoying (think 90s dance, rather than that Bob the Builder single) and when you want a break from dancing there are workshops on offer, too, like synth playing, hula hooping and more. Phew.
Just next to the regal Kensington Palace, this play area has a Peter Pan theme and a fabulous wooden pirate ship as its centrepiece. It's specially designed to suit children of all physical abilities and the playground includes a beach, sculptures, teepees for make-believe games, and even a sensory trail. It’s free to enjoy, but be aware that 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
View the lush beauty of Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common from horseback. Situated in the former, Stag Lodge Stables provide horse rides for visitors of all ages and abilities. And if your willing rider is too frightened or small for the big horses, they can ride a more manageable (and adorable) Shetland pony (ages 3-6 only).
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.
Let's be honest, small children don't really get that amused or inspired looking at exhibits like their parent counterparts. But no worries - the Science Museum's hands-on galleries are ready to save 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 many a natural wonder to be enjoyed at Kew, from the magnificent treetop walk with a bird’s-eye view over the park to the not-so-sweet, rare flowering titan arum plant (no seriously, hold your nose). But if you have younger visitors in tow, head to the Climbers and Creepers play zone for a real 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
As well as being a somewhat nostalgic shrine to all things innovative and fun during our youth, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood also provides new ways for youngsters to have fun. There are loads of things to peer at, prod and play with in the museum’s interactive displays. Kids are also invited to dress up in themed costumes, get digging in the sandpit or kick back in front of a Punch and Judy puppet show. That's the way to do it (sorry).
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. Plus, there are shows every week and sessions include a pre-concert Monmouth Coffee Mingle.
Various London locations
Although the shark tank is one of the main draws at the Sea Life Aquarium London (you can walk through a tunnel beneath the incredible creatures), Penguin Point deserves just as much recognition. Delve into the icy Antarctic and you'll discover adorable Gentoo penguins, frolicking on land and water. Desperate for bird info? Expert guides do talks about these beautiful creatures regularly throughout the day and, if you’re there around noon or 3pm, you’ll get to see them being fed too. Pretty cool.
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.
This zoological museum – the only one of its kind in London – seems like it's been here for a century or more. Such is the transporting effect of seeing avenues of display cases stuffed to the gunnels with animal skeletons, taxidermy specimens and creatures preserved in fluid, like a true Victorian wunderkammer. From a jar of tiny moles to a huge elephant skull, there is plenty here to draw gasps of amazement. Don't turn up too early, though; the museum opens its doors from 1pm to 5pm, Monday through Saturday.
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
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
This purpose-built adventure playground for kids in Islington provides hours of fun. There’s a huge, fort-like structure that can be climbed, hidden in and run around. There’s a water feature for warmer days, a fire pit for chillier ones, as well as football and basketball pitches. Plus, arts and crafts classes are held regularly. See their website before heading down to find out what’s on.
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.
Not far from Crystal Palace Overground station is the famous park. Once upon a time this lush green space down south was a cultural haven for Victorians. Sports, music and art all took happened here, and when people weren’t attending one of those events, they were most likely marvelling a the full-scale model dinosaurs, which have been there since 1854. Thanks to a restoration project in 2002, the dinos are still going strong, even if a little out of date scientifically. Elsewhere in the park you’ll find a farm and a maze.
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.
This London 2012 Olympic Games venue is open to the public for adrenalin-fuelled white-water rafting, canoeing and kayaking sessions – riding the rapids that challenged the world's best makes for an action-packed experience. On the centre's raft adventure, you'll be high-siding, spinning and nose dunking on the Olympic Standard Competition course before you know it.
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
Get stuck in at London Zoo and stay the night. After you've nosed around the exhibits, spend the night in Land of the Lions. We're not having you on, you really can sleep there. Hire a lodge and enjoy private guided tours around different animal enclosures after hours. A two-course dinner and breakfast are included, so you won't have to worry about your rumbling stomach waking up the neighbours. Plus, tickets come with free parking, which is unheard of in Camden.
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.
Get those cogs turning by locking your family in a room and trying to escape. It sounds borderline terrifying, but these escape rooms are hugely popular and have popped up all over London. ClueQuest is in King’s Cross and gives teams of three to five players 60 minutes to solve puzzles, riddles and find hidden clues in order to regain your freedom. Plus, since there are several missions to choose from, you can go back again and again to perfect your puzzle skills. Mission, accepted.
Ages nine and above
London 2012 left us with a great legacy in the form of several cutting-edge stadia and sports facilities. Seriously, we’re spoilt for choice. You can go swimming in the Aquatics Centre, white-water rafting on the Olympic course in Lee Valley, slide down the ArcelorMittal Orbit and cycle in the VeloPark. Book in advance to avoid any disappointment, but then you'll be able to take full advantage of the track and BMX options. There are three graded mountain bike runs (red, blue and black, like ski runs) and you can even hire a bike if you don’t have your own wheels.
Ages five and above
There are few places in London where you can go really fast. A good thing too, in general, given the levels of traffic everywhere. But when it comes to seeing London from the river, you can swap a genteel cruise for a speedy romp in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). From the London Eye Millennium Pier the tour starts as a fairly regular river tour, but once you’re past Tower Bridge things speed up, scooting all the way down to Docklands. Basically, this is the whitest your knuckles will ever get while travelling down old Father Thames. It's perfect for sightseeing with a slightly breakneck, James Bond vibe.
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
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.
Venue says Check out our new Challenge Xpress option for when you want to experience the classic Tree Top Challenge course on a time limit, from £25pp
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’.
God's Own Junkyard showcases neon artist Chris Bracey's personal collection of work in a salvage yard in Walthamstow. It contains everything from his signage for Soho sex clubs in the '60s to his work for the movie industry, including pieces that were used in 'Captain America', 'Eyes Wide Shut', 'Byzantium' and more. Once you're done being dazzled, you can grab drinks and snacks at the yard's own Rolling Scones Cafe (lolz).
Rarely does the weather warm up enough to jump into London’s outdoor lidos without flinching, but when it does everyone wants a piece of the action. Thankfully, there are plenty of lidos scattered all over the capital, including right in the centre. The easily-reached Serpentine Lido has a dedicated children’s play area with a paddling pool, and a sun terrace.
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.
Get hands-on with some sweet treats at this Clapham café. Not only can you enjoy a bicky with your tea, you can decorate it too. At the Buscuiteers Boutique they specialise in biscuit art and host classes for all ages, as well as a Little Buscuiteers School of Icing. At the latter you can leave your youngsters to it in an hour-long lesson (£36), or simply drop-in and leave them to play with icing decoration (£15) while you relax with a cuppa and a nibble.
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.