Every parent knows that queues, crowds and gift shops are to be avoided at all costs, but I wanted to show my three children something of the capital city we live in. Over several weeks, we saw lions at London Zoo, walked through the tree tops on the suspended walkway at Kew Gardens, and stroked star fish at Sea Life.
It’s been fun (or at least as much fun as you can have with three children under four years old) but now I’m officially broke. These day trips cost a fortune – nearly £100 a go once you’ve got yourself there, paid for tickets, and bought lunch and drinks – and been herded through the gift shop.
I did wonder, as I sat on the Tube home from London Zoo with two exhausted toddlers drenched in ice cream, if we might have had more fun – or just as much – running about on Clapham Common, a few minutes’ walk from our front door.
So I decided to explore what London has to offer in the way of free children’s activities. Two weeks in, I’ve discovered, to my great relief, that the possibilities are almost endless.
The following list features 20 London outings that won’t cost more than £5 a head in tickets for kids and which we’ve found to be more fun than quite a few tourist traps. It’s up to you to rein in what you spend on lunch, ice creams and souvenirs.
1. Ride the Routemaster
Cost: £1.50 for adults; children under 11 are free
The top deck of a proper double decker bus is more fun for kids than a tourist bus (and a lot cheaper). A good route is the No11, which runs from Fulham Town Hall to Liverpool Street, past the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column, Westminster Abbey, Horse Guards Parade and St Paul’s Cathedral in about an hour.
2. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
You’ll want to explore the sites of the London 2012 Olympics, but your kids will be more interested in Tumbling Bay, a playground in the north of the park with rock pools, sand pits, tree houses, and wobbly bridges built into the natural landscape. There’s good cafe and, if it’s hot, you can cool off in a fountain with 195 computer controlled jets of water.
3. Hackney City Farm
If you’re on a day trip from the country, this quaint urban farm isn’t for you, but city kids like mine enjoy meeting the goats, sheep, chickens and rabbits. There’s also a farm shop selling eggs, organic vegetables and other locally produced food.
4. Diana, Princess of Wales' Memorial Playground
Maybe not one for the height of summer, as it gets fiercely crowded, but playgrounds don’t get much better than this. Most of the action takes place around the enormous Peter Pan-inspired pirate ship and surrounding beach but there’s also a sensory trail, teepees and plenty of seating for shattered parents.
5. Coram's Fields
This is a great pit stop if you’re in central London with your kids: seven acres dedicated entirely to children. There’s an adventure playground with an aerial slide plus sand pits, paddling pool and a small farm.
6. Horniman Museum
Cost: Free museum entry (aquarium - £4 for adults, £2 for children; other charges apply for specific events and exhibitions)
Collections for all ages (anthropology, natural history, musical instruments) and an aquarium downstairs, which isn’t quite Sea Life, but costs just a couple of quid to get in. There’s a good cafe, large gardens and plenty of space for picnics and letting off steam.
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7. Regent’s Canal Path
Begin in Little Venice and walk along the Regent’s Canal Path to Hackney, admiring the canal boats (and shopping trolleys) along the way. Duck off the towpath at Victoria Park, which has an excellent playground and the renowned Pavilion Café.
Cost: from £5
Older children will be intrigued to visit the home of Greenwich Meantime. For £5 (under-5s free), they can browse the Royal Observatory, the Astronomer Royal's house and stand on the Meridian Line.
There are lots of other free and paid things for children to see and do in Greenwich: the Cutty Sark (£13.50 for adults; £7 for children ages 5-15), the Queen’s House and Greenwich Park, with red deer and several playgrounds. You could go by boat from Westminster Pier and make a whole day of it (£8.25 child return; £16.50 adult return; thamesriverservices.co.uk).
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9. Changing of the Guard
Get to Buckingham Palace a bit before the 11:30am kickoff to see the Changing of the Guard, then wander through St James’s Park (if your kids are of duck-feeding age, there is a good pond here). If you’ve got the willpower, bypass the Hard Rock Cafe, which is tantalisingly close, and picnic in Green Park instead.
10. Brockwell Park
One of South London’s best parks, with a great playground (zip wires, climbing frames, tunnels) and a separate sandpit and paddling pool with water jets positioned to ensure every mother returns home with wet knickers.
11. The Ritzy Cinema, Brixton
Cost: £3 per child (adults free)
This beautiful cinema in the heart of Brixton is perfect for a rainy day movie (or combined with a trip to Brockwell Park). There’s Toddler Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am for screenings of favourites such as Tractor Ted and Peppa Pig. Older children – ages three to 12 – can see proper films at Kid’s Club at 10:30am on Saturdays (£1.50 for children and adults).
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12. Royal Academy of Art
The Royal Academy runs free family studios and activity workshops once a month based around the exhibitions on display in the galleries. Afterwards, younger children will enjoy playing in the fountains outside, or you could stroll along Piccadilly to the Circus to admire the big screens. If you’re a sucker like me, take them to Hamleys, and destroy your money-saving goal.
13. Crystal Palace dinosaurs
For Natural History Museum dinosaur veterans like my children, Crystal Palace is a revelation. Wooden carved dinosaurs peep over the tree tops and can be climbed on in the play area. There’s also a maze and lakes.
14. Geffrye Museum, Shoreditch
Ideally you’d spend a morning browsing this fascinating museum of the home in Shoreditch without kids. The next best thing, however, is to take them with you and make the most of the free art, design, craft, and baking workshops they offer for children aged two to 16 every day during the October, February and summer half terms, and on selected days during the Easter and summer holidays.
15. Peckham Rye Common
The hipsters won’t want to hear this… but Peckham is a great place for a day out with the kids. You can lose at least two hours in the newly restored common, with its ornamental gardens, streams, woodland, lakes and fantastic adventure playground (supervised). There’s a skate park for older kids, and numerous trendy restaurants nearby for a Karma Cola fizzy drink in the sun.
16. Centre for Wildlife Gardening
Also in Peckham, this council depot-turned-wildlife garden in a quiet residential street (near East Dulwich station) is a favourite spot for local families. There’s an award-winning visitor centre and a demonstration garden with mini habitats, wild flower nursery, nature trail and hives. Given it’s free to get in, you’ll happily get stung for a jar of Peckham honey.
17. Clapham Common
Here is an abundance of level green space to kick a football or fly a kite. There are three ponds: Eagle Pond for fishing, Mount Pond for duck-feeding and Long Pond for model boating (do NOT touch the boats – the model boaters are very protective). The bandstand cafe serves enormous bowls of pasta for not very much money and there are two playgrounds and an enormous paddling pool by Clapham Old Town.
18. Golders Hill Park Zoo
This small zoo, with rare species of birds and animals, is a perfect excuse to visit Hampstead Heath. See the animals, and then explore Hampstead Heath, with its swimming ponds and lido.
19. Duke’s Meadows
This Thames-side park in Chiswick is London’s equivalent of Paris Plage, with sandy ‘beach’, seaside-type promenade, bandstand and adventure playground. Every Sunday, 10am-2pm the Food Market is held in the farmyard of adjacent Grove Park Farm House farmyard.
20. Wimbledon Common
Wimbledon Common offers more than 460 hectares - ideal for den building and letting off steam. If you have older children, visit the Wimbledon Windmill, which hosts its launch event on April 17 following its restoration but also contains an interesting museum. For a treat, enjoy an ice cream in the beautiful Italianate gardens of Hotel du Vin in Cannizzaro Park in the corner the common.
21. British Museum
The scavenger hunts at the British Museum are a wonderful way to get children to really examine the art in front of them. The animal masks in the African galleries are particularly popular with young children; youngsters keen on counting will enjoy comparing Buddhas in the Indian galleries. The museum regularly runs excellent craft projects at half-term.
Cost: free, if you're disciplined
Strange, but true: Harrods features on many children's lists of must-see attractions in London. If you can resist the temptation to buy your toddler a fur coat, or a £6,000 photograph of a member of the Saudi royal family, a trip to Harrods is an excellent exercise in gawping at commercialism.
23. The Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A is filled with nooks perfect for children to set up sketching equipment. Whether a kimono pattern, a Buddha or one of the plaster casts, there is much to inspire.