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.
Most activities in London are aimed at ages 3+, but at Chickenshed’s lively ‘Tales from the Shed’ shows, being wee is a bonus. Parents, babies and toddlers sit on the floor or on chairs to watch gentle adventures unfold in song and storytelling. Cuddly puppets and colourfully costumed actors are frequently joined by toddlers wandering into the action from the audience. In fact it’s encouraged!
Covent Garden’s LTM is a joyful place and it’s brand new All Aboard play area for babies and under-8s takes the hands-on experience even further. Wannabe bus drivers can get behind the wheel of a real bus, ‘repair’ a mini tube train, or ‘sail’ on the Thames Nipper, a recreation of the Thames Clipper riverboat service. There’s even a make-believe buskers spot, making for some pretty cute videos that you can play back to your kid's friends in years to come.
London’s dedicated Children’s Story Centre is a colourful gallery inspired by children’s books, with special exhibitions and events linked to favourite authors and illustrators. Children can play inside and outside, with places to hide, treasure to seek out and the chance to fire young imaginations to create their own stories. The Centre has just undergone a massive refurbishment and now features a lively exhibition dedicated to ‘The Fantastic World of Dr Seuss’ (until September 17).
Sure, there are plenty of family-friendly restaurants around London, but the best ones go far beyond booster seats and colouring-in pads. Take Bear + Wolf in Tufnell Park, for instance. In this stylish cafe children can play to their heart’s content in the well-equipped play area and go wild in the garden when the sun’s shining. Little Highness in Arsenal is also a lovely option, with a fun soft play pit.
Sure, you may be able to uncover music classes scattered throughout London, but the Frogprince Baby Music London’s weekly tour of regular venues is something special. Colourful and playful, with a rocking musical attitude like few others, this is a much more lively session than the average, gentle nursery rhyme groups. Little ones get to interact with the musical instruments and there is a creative, developmental approach to all the activities. From Herne Hill to Hackney, Surrey Docks to Stoke Newington, you’ll find morning and afternoon sessions to drop into all year round.
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
Venue says Aid your group’s skill development in an assessed escape mission with CAP. “Innovative, different and refreshing” - IAG, cluequest.com/cap
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 Book early and save on Tree Top Challenge, see https://goape.co.uk/go-ape-discounts-offers/advanced-price-discount for more details.
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.
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