London Museums, Parks and Playgrounds to Visit with Kids, a family vacation in UK
What to see and where to go for a walk with children in London? Royal treasures and black ravens at the Tower, the prime meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the Bat Cave and a collection of double-deckers, the home of Sherlock Holmes and the Queen’s golden carriage, playgrounds which look like pirates’ ships and gigantic plants – read all about them in our review of London’s kids-friendly museums and parks.
London family and children's museums
At the Welcome Center of one of the oldest English fortresses - the Tower of London, visitors are presented with fun castle guides for kids. Children are likely to enjoy the collections of old arms and royal treasures (crown, scepter and crowning jewels, the Cullinan and Koh-i-Noor large cut diamonds). A flock of black ravens resides in the castle; according to the legend if they leave, the British Empire will fall, so the birds’ wings are clipped from time to time. A special person called the Ravenmaster takes care of the flock. Around Christmas time, there is an outdoor skating rink at the Tower.
Inside the Tower Bridge there is a museum devoted to its history. In the Northern Tower the story of the bridge founding is told, and in the Southern Tower – a video, describing the construction process is shown. Between the towers, there are pedestrian galleries with a panoramic view of London and glass panels embedded in the floor. Through these panels one can see how the bridge is opened above the Thames from the height of 42-meters. For visitors over 14 years of age there are excursions available, describing the bridge design – the Engineering Tours. For visitors with younger children, it is worth having a look at the Engine Rooms with the lifting mechanisms, which are dated back to the Victorian age.
On-board the HMS Belfast memorial ship, which is berthed on the Thames near the Tower, it is possible learn about the everyday life of sailors during World War II and after. Visitors can walk through all the nine decks and peek into every corner. In the companion cabin, the officer’s cabin, the laundry, the operating room, the cookroom, and on the command bridge - there are wax figures set in the environment, illustrating the life of Navy personnel on board of the ship. A cat in a hammock and other interesting details will become more evident with the use of an audio guide.
At the entrance to the Westminster Abbey it would be a good idea to ask for an audio guide with the stories about the building of the church and famous Englishmen whose remnants rest on the territory of this complex. At the times of service, it is possible to listen to the boys’ choir or organ music.
It is possible to enter the building of the Houses of Parliament in the Westminster Palace with a group, but there is also the possibility to book an audio guide in one of 8 languages online: visit.parliament.uk/HouseofParliament/shop/ViewItems.aspx. A walk around the Westminster Hall, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Queen’s Attire Room, the Royal Gallery and other staterooms with an audio guide takes a little longer than one hour; it is recommended to ask for a children's audio guide for kids from 7 to 12 years old (available only in English).
A collection of porcelain and paintings, clocks and furniture is presented in the residence of British monarchs – the Buckingham Palace. For kids, the most interesting place to visit would be The Royal Mews with horses, carriages and automobiles for state rides of the royal family. For instance, it is possible to see the golden carriage used for the crowning ceremony, and the transparent carriage used for weddings.
The only London planetarium is located at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. In a spherical hall, films about space and stars are played for schoolchildren and adults. Kids under 7 years old can go on a Space Safari. The historical collection exhibits old microscopes, telescopes, clocks and navigation instruments, and out in the open, visitors can go up to the observation deck and take a picture standing on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich. More on the Interactive Astronomy Center in our review of the free London museums for kids.
In the Firepower Royal Artillery Museum it is possible to see a cannon dated back to the Thirty Years' War, an Indian mortar in the form of a lion, self-propelled howitzers, a Gatling machine gun, shells, munitions and ammunition of the British army. On the interactive “battlefield” with smoke and sound effects both kids and adults can try being a cannoneer. In the Camo Zone play zone kids pass an obstacle course and shoot in the dash. Kids can also spend a Night at the Museum: join a boot camp with excursions and master-classes, and right before going to bed - sing songs around a camp fire with a cup of hot chocolate.
The London Museum of Water & Steam presents the history of urban water supply systems from the Roman terra-cotta aqueducts up to today. Moving mechanisms and interactive exhibits in the Waterworks area demonstrate how in the 19th century scientists managed to make water free of cholera and other deadly infections, how water is treated now and where it goes after being discharged. And in the outdoor Splash Zone, kids can play with water using buckets, watermills, levers, pumps, and pipes. In the garden adjacent to the museum visitors are invited to take a walk or arrange an outdoor picnic on the grass.
The London Transport Museum invites everybody to try sitting the the driver’s seat of buses, trams and subway trains, or to become their passengers. In the passenger compartments of retro buses wax figures of passengers “take a ride” together with the real visitors; the figures are dressed according to the applicable era. Aside from the old and new double-deckers, visitors are invited to check out ticket machines, signs, uniforms of drivers and conductors, maps of London and routes of municipal transport belonging from verious times. Each child receives a special card, which should be stamped at special stands "hidden” all over the exhibition. And preschoolers (aged under 7) are invited to visit the All Aboard playground, where they can become bus driver, repair a toy electrical train, run a lost and found office, and try various transport workers’ uniforms.
In the London Fire Brigade Museum visitors can learn about the history of fire fighting since 1666. It is not possible to climb on old fire engines, but all are welcome to try fire fighter’s uniforms, and, if lucky, to watch a fire drill performed by an active brigade. It is only possible to get into this museum with a group, but as of October 2015, the museum is closed for relocation to another building.
The exhibition of the London Postal Museum is dedicated to the 500-year history of the city's postal service. There are also Mail Rail rides on the underground train - in the past century, automatic wagons delivered letters between Paddington and Whitechapel through the tunnel system at the depth of 70 feet. On the Sorted! Postal Play Space with slides, trolleys and vintage postal van kids aged 8 and under can try on postman uniforms and deliver letters or parcels in a miniature neighborhood.
Dolls and plush teddy bears, soldiers and toy cars, houses, and mechanical railways, as well as board games and other old toys from all over the world are collected at the Pollock's Toy Museum. The puppeteer’s workshop is recreated at the museum, and visitors can see puppets and decorations for theater performances. Retro toys and cardboard puppet theaters are available for sale at the souvenir shop.
In the London Motor Museum there are several theme halls with two hundred cars. Comic Book lovers should visit The Bat Cave, movie lovers are likely to enjoy the Movie Cars hall. Moreover, there are many retro automobiles, high-speed hot rods, muscle cars with powerful engines, and tucked low riders on display here. The Museum’s cars are used in movie productions and various public events and can also be rented.
In the Madame Tussauds London museum visitors can take pictures with the wax figures of celebrities. All of the celebs are grouped: Hollywood stars are standing on a red carpet strip, movie characters – on stage sets, athletes – on sports grounds, workers of culture – in their offices. There are also some figures of Bollywood and Youtube stars, all of the James Bond version, and, of course, of the members of the royal family.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum is located at 221B Baker Street. There are no interactive programs or audio guides, but a collection of items based on the Sherlock Holmes stories is on display: a famous pipe and a derby hat, a violin and wax figures of Holmes and Watson. The atmosphere of Victorian England is reconstructed in all the premises, from Sherlock’s study to Mrs. Hudson’s room. At the entrance to the museum, visitors can take a picture with a policeman, and inside the museum – with female keepers dressed in costumes of maids.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum is opened under the bell tower of the St. Thomas Church. In a small hall shaped as an amphitheater, old medical tools are collected: scalpels, clamps, bandage rolling machines and anesthetic masks, military doctor’s handbag and a tool for bullets extraction. The story of how carbolic acid and snake venom were used to treat patients is also told here.
One of the best art collections from the 17th-18th centuries is displayed in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Visitors can see the works of Rubens, Rembrandt and other West European and British masters. Family events are arranged for families with kids. For instance, sensory lessons for children 6-18 months old - the Family Sundays - with master-classes in the shadow puppet theater, drawing, creation of paper art objects and interactive story-telling.
Where to go for a walk with kids in London? London parks and playgrounds
The largest collection of plants in the world is displayed in the Royal Kew Gardens. It is possible to walk along the alleys in the open air, see an Alpine house, a Japanese garden, the world’s largest pile of compost, and the 200-meter-long glassed-in Treetop Walkway, which lets visitors see trees from 15 meters above. Carnivorous plants, cacti, orchids and giant pond lilies are growing in the greenhouses. Kids are offered to visit the underground Badger Sett, walk along the tunnels and see where badgers sleep, store their supplies and bring up their youngsters. On the Climbers and Creepers botanical playground, kids (aged 3 to 9) can imagine themselves to be small insects, climbe on giant branches and berries, and even inside a Venus's flytrap.
One of the best kids’ play zones in London - the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground - is located in the Kensington Gardens. In a town, reminiscent of the Peter Pen fairy tale, kids can stand at the steering wheel and climb the mast of a pirate ship, build a castle on a large sand beach and sit in an Indian wigwam, chute downhill, ride a swing, and splash around in the water fountain. Adults are allowed here only if they are accompanied by children under 12 years old, there are baby changing facility nearby, and a cafeteria with a menu for kids.
In the neighboring Hyde Park at the Serpentine Lake visitors can go for a horseback ride, rent a boat or a catamaran, or take a ride on the Solarshuttle (an environment-friendly wooden vessel powered by solar batteries). Sports grounds and a kids’ play zones with slides and suspended crossings are also available at the park. During the summer season the Serpentine Lido leisure area is open, it contains a shallow swimming pool, sandboxes, and a sunbathing deck. Around Christmas time - the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland takes place here, with a skating ring, an ice castle, a Ferris wheel, a fair, and circus performances.
Roofed galleries and a waterfall, ponds with fish, peacocks walking along the alleys, Japanese and French gardens – all the above can be enjoyed at the landscape Holland Park. The park can be the site for a picnic, for feeding squirrels, playing a game of giant chess, there is also a rope park with suspended crossings, an obstacle course, climbing nets and swings.
A children’s playground with a red double-decker, a sandbox, a swing, and a climbing net can be found at the Kennington Park. The Charlie Chaplin Adventure Playground for disabled children is located nearby; kids can safely climb, and ride on slides and swings. In the roofed complex there is ball pool, a soft play area, table football and aero-hockey.
In the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park - located in North-Eastern London - it is possible to walk in the gardens with plants from all over the world, have a picnic on the lawn next to a pond, and go up to the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation deck. Two playgrounds are available for kids: the Tumbling Bay with sandboxes, water towers, tree houses, and chutes made of rocks, branches and other natural materials, and the Pleasure Gardens play areas with a giant red rock climbing site and a fountain with a water maze and night-time illumination.
There are playgrounds for kids and good picnic spots in the following parks: St. James Park, Chelsea Park, Clissold Park and Finsbury Park. Wooden playgrounds with bridges and slides are constructed in the Jubilee Gardens, the Regent’s Park, the Battersea Park, the Dulwich Park, the Toffee Park, the Brockwell Park, the Parliament Hill, the Wild Kingdom Playspace, and the Peckham Rye Common. In the Wimbledon Park there are two playgrounds for toddlers and youngsters, and a summer water play area with fountains.
In the Richmond Park, the Greenwich Park, the Clapham Common, and the Bushy Park visitors can closely watch some elk, foxes, and other animals in their natural environment. These parks also offer playgrounds for children. The Hampstead Heath & Golders Hill Park has a kid’s playground and a Mini Zoo.
Photo: facebook.com/nationalmaritimemuseum, wikipedia.org, facebook.com/ltmuseum, facebook.com/LMMFANS/, pan3sixty.co.uk, facebook.com/kewgardens, facebook.com/HydeParkUK, facebook.com/queenelizabetholympicpark