London is an amazing city. It had been almost two decades since my last visit when my wife and I designed a four day London itinerary as part of our trip to London and Amsterdam for Spring Break earlier this year. I remembered enjoying my previous visit to London, however, many of the detailed memories had started to fade.
I was excited to get back, reacquaint myself with the city, and give my kids a chance to experience it. That excitement was tempered by some conversations we had with friends and family prior to the trip, which went something like this:
Us: We’re going to take the kids to London and Amsterdam.
Them: That’s fantastic! London is a great city as long as you avoid busy times of the year. Like Spring Break. We went during Spring Break and it was wall-to-wall people. It took us an hour to ride a double decker bus a couple miles through the city and the lines for the attractions took forever. When are you going?!
Us: Um…Spring Break.
Them: Oh. Well, I’m sure it will be fine. It was probably just a busy year when we were there…
By that point we had already purchased our non refundable airline tickets so there was no going back. Besides, we weren’t going to let others damper our mood. We were taking our first international trip with the kids and we were not going to be thwarted by some traffic and a few people standing in line!
Using the techniques I discussed in my post on 3 International Travel Tips When Traveling With Kids we optimized the flight, lodging, and activities for our trip. By the end of our time in London, we had spent four days touring the city as a family of four, had a wonderful time, and spent less than £60 a day total on attractions and activities. Below are the details of our trip that will help you plan your own enjoyable and economical London vacation.
Here are the details of our 4 day London itinerary:
Time of year: March
Number of Days: 4
Number of People: 4
Number/Ages of Children: 2 Children – Ages 8 and 5
Arrival and Transportation To London
Our adventure started on a red-eye flight out of Philadelphia (PHL) arriving into London Heathrow (LHR) Terminal 5 at 7AM. Travelling in British Airways World Traveller Plus premium economy allowed us to arrive more well rested than economy seats. For anyone not familiar with Heathrow and especially Terminal 5 (T5) it is enormous. After strolling through the airport for about 10 minutes we arrived at customs only to find 200 other people already in line. Best of all, there was 1, yes 1, person working at the time. Talk about an immediate downer after getting off a red-eye flight and being excited to finally be there only to find out that you’re not really there yet. The good news is that hopefully this won’t be as much of an issue for US passengers arriving into the UK in the near future. [Update: As of May 2019, passport holders from seven non-EU countries, including the US, can now use the automated e-gates when arriving into the UK!]
We waited for approximately 90 minutes in the customs line during which time a couple more people started working and the line started moving a little faster. Once we made it through customs we hopped on the Heathrow Express and were on our way to Paddington Station.
FI Road Tip: There are two train options from Heathrow into London: Heathrow Express and TfL Rail (formerly Heathrow Connect). Heathrow Express gets you from T5 to Paddington in 21 minutes. TfL Rail only operates from terminals 2, 3, and 4 and takes 35 minutes from Terminal 4 to Paddington. If you are traveling on a weekend or a holiday and you book 90 days or more in advance, you can score cheap Heathrow Express fares that are almost 50% less than TfL Rail fares (£5.50 one-way on Heathrow Express vs. £10.10 one-way on TfL Rail). Plus kids under 15 ride free on Heathrow Express when accompanied by a paying adult. That means a family of four can ride from Heathrow to Paddington on a weekend day or holiday on Heathrow Express for only £11.00 one-way!
Settling Into Our Flat
Once we made it to Paddington Station it was time to 1) figure out where to get our Oyster cards and 2) figure out how to get to our Airbnb flat. Paddington is expansive and has both rail lines and Tube lines that traverse through it and under it. It would have taken us a while to locate the Tube entry except for the strips of tape on the ground that lead people directly to the Tube line of their choice. Ingenious! As someone who has spent a fair amount of time in Suburban Station in Philadelphia I can tell you that something simple like that would make a world of difference when trying to navigate from the Regional Rail lines to the Broad Street Subway Line (are you listening, SEPTA?).
Within 30 minutes of leaving Paddington we were at the Airbnb flat that we had rented in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood. One of the great (albeit sometimes risky) parts of Airbnb is that you’re dealing with regular people, not a large corporation. In this case, we had let our flat owner know that we were flying over from the States and that we would likely get to the flat quite early in the day. Since the owner didn’t have anyone else staying there the night before our arrival, she was nice enough to let us check in right away…at 10 o’clock in the morning! We grabbed the keys from the lock box and moved into our London flat. Then, approximately two and a half minutes after we dropped our bags this happened…
FI Road Tip: There are a couple ticketing options for getting around London on the Tube. The pay as you go route is typically not the most cost-effective way unless you plan on riding the Tube only once or twice a day (unlikely if you’re touring the city). Enter the Oyster card. There is the regular Oyster card and the visitor Oyster card. The fares are the same on each but what differs is the cost of the card. The regular Oyster card requires a £5 deposit, however, you can either keep the card for future trips to London or return the card and get your deposit back. The visitor Oyster card costs £5, however, it is not a deposit and you cannot get it back. They’ll also ship the Visitor Oyster card(s) to your house, however, that costs another £8 for standard shipping. We waited to get to London, purchased regular Oyster cards, and now we have them for when we go back the next time. Note: If you’re staying for more than 5 days in London you may want to check out a 7 day Travelcard depending on how much you’ll be traveling around each day.
Another FI Road Tip: Children under 11 ride free with a paying adult on the Tube as well as other modes of transportation. Check out the Transportation for London (TfL) site for great information about rules and deals for all of the various modes of transportation when traveling with children through London.
After we all caught a two hour nap to recharge and found a bite to eat at a restaurant near the flat we visited our first attraction: the British Museum. It turns out that having an empire that spanned a large portion of the globe over several centuries can help a country acquire a large amount of ancient, antique, and historical artifacts in foreign lands and bring them home.
The best part about the British Museum? It’s free. That’s right. Free. Given the different items you can see on display there it’s hard to make an argument not to visit during your time in London. We saw mummies from ancient Egypt, 20 ft. sculptures from Mesopotamia, Greek sculptures, and even the actual Rosetta Stone. We spent about 2 hours wandering through the museum and the kids really enjoyed it. I think the diversity of items from different cultures and time periods kept things interesting for them. The British Museum is one of those places that you could visit multiple times and see new, amazing items every time you are there. And did I mention that it’s free?!
St. James’s Park and Buckingham Palace
Following our time at the British Museum we set out on foot to see more of London. First up, Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar Square is a large public space in the middle of London known for its fountains, statues, and up until the early 2000s, pigeons. Today, the pigeons are for the most part gone but the statues and fountains remain. The boys had fun climbing up and taking a picture next to one of the large lion statues that are in the square. We also took a few moments to stop in a cafe located within the square, grab some snacks and drinks, and enjoyed them outside while watching people and double decker buses go by. Given its location within London it’s likely that you’ll end up in Trafalgar Square once if not multiple times during your trip.
Just a couple minutes walk from Trafalgar Square is St. James’s Park so we walked there next. Entering the park through the Admiralty Arch you are able to look down to the far side of the park and see Buckingham Palace in the distance. We strolled through the park letting the boys run around through the fields of dandelions that were in bloom.
Eventually we made our way down to Buckingham Palace. We couldn’t get past the gates, of course, but the boys enjoyed standing outside watching the guards in their tiny guard towers.
After a couple hours in the British Museum, a tour of Trafalgar Square, a walk through St. James’s Park, and some guard watching at Buckingham Palace we considered our first day a success. Not to mention that we managed to find a way to entertain ourselves for an entire afternoon in London without spending a dime on attractions! So we hopped the Tube back to our flat, put the kids to bed, grabbed some take away fish and chips for the two of us from a shop a couple doors down, and called it a night.
Day two of our London adventure found us well-rested and ready to tackle the city after a full night’s sleep in comfortable beds in our Notting Hill flat. One of the other benefits of renting a flat through Airbnb vs. a standard hotel room was the separate bedrooms for us and the kids. We put them to sleep in their room and were able to hang out in the living area of the flat for a while. Then, when we decided to go to bed we were able to get ready without having to tiptoe around afraid we would wake the kids as is often the case in a hotel room.
Since we purposefully booked only a limited number of attractions in advance, the day found us with only one activity booked for 2PM. This gave us the entire morning to explore London. Breakfast consisted of cereal and milk that the host provided plus some simple provisions we picked up at the store. Another financial win over a hotel where we very well may have had to pay for breakfast each morning.
Following breakfast, we decided to go for a stroll through the famous Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. Portobello Market bills itself as “the world’s largest antiques market with over 1,000 dealers selling every kind of antique and collectible.” It certainly was quite a stretch of merchants although we hit it a little early in the morning on a Monday so it was not in full swing.
Diana Memorial Playground
Just a half mile past the end of the market we stumbled across Diana Memorial Playground in the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens, named of course for the late Princess Diana. After the red-eye flight, jet lag, and the long tour of the British Museum, the kids were super excited to be in their element. And the playground did not disappoint. From the pirate ship to the beach to the walking paths we spent an hour exploring and playing.
FI Road Tip: London is packed with parks and many of them have playgrounds for kids. While Central Park in New York is amazingly large, the great part about London is that parks are placed all around the city so that you’re never too far away from one. We visited at least one park each of the four days that we were in London as a way to give the kids a break from sightseeing and just play for a while.
Adjacent to the playground is Kensington Palace, which is not just a really cool looking palace but also the official home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate. While you can purchase tickets to tour the public part of the palace we chose to skip the inside tour and tour the grounds for free. The Sunken Garden was particularly beautiful and a great place for taking some photos.
(Note that if you’re keeping score at home you’ll see that by this point we had spent about 24 hours in London, visited multiple attractions, everyone was having a great time, and the grand total of money spent on attractions was £0!)
After lunch it was time for our one pre-booked attraction of the day, the London Eye. Kids + huge ferris wheel = big excitement! Sure, it’s a tourist trap but when you’re traveling with two kids under 10 you get tickets for the London Eye. We followed advice from others and booked our tickets online well in advance and selected our time slot. The line was enormous considering it was 2PM on a Monday. However, I must commend the group that runs the London Eye. They checked every person’s ticket multiple times through the line and made sure that only the people who were supposed to enter the line at the current time were allowed.
Interesting fact about the London Eye: it never stops spinning (unless of course there is a problem). It spins slow enough (0.6 mph) that they have plenty of time to unload and load passengers from each car as it is moving. That makes it much more efficient than your run-of-the-mill ferris wheel at the amusement park that always seems to take way longer to load and unload than the ultimate ride itself.
The London Eye ended up being a quality attraction even after waiting in line for an hour. We had great weather that day providing phenomenal views. You spend almost 30 minutes going around a single revolution giving you plenty of time to enjoy the views and take photos. As you reach heights of 440ft over London you get a bird’s eye view of sights that you typically only view from the ground. You might even get to meet some of the people riding with you since each car can hold up to 28 people! Those capsules are way bigger up close than you ever realize from pictures and videos.
FI Road Tip: If you don’t want to wait in the full line you can purchase a Fast Track ticket for an extra £10.00 per person that allows you to skip the majority of the line. In our case we were not in a hurry and had plenty of other ideas about how we could spend £40. Either way, though, you should book your tickets in advance since that allows you to pick your time to enter the line and saves you some money over buying in person.
River Thames, Millennium Bridge, and A Double Decker Bus
After making it back down to ground level and finding a convenient ice cream just a few steps away from the London Eye we decided to stroll along the River Thames. There was a paved path that led us north and east until we finally found ourselves at the intersection of the Tate Modern art museum, Shakespeare’s Globe theater, and the Millennium Bridge. We decided to cross the Millennium Bridge (fortunately they fixed the sway problem years ago), which dropped us off at the footsteps of St. Paul’s Cathedral and some of the largest wooden doors you’ll ever see.
We just missed the hours to tour St. Paul’s, although we might have passed on that anyway. Instead, we came up with an even better idea: riding a double decker bus! It just so happened that there was a bus route that started about two blocks from St. Paul’s and took us all the way across London, through areas such as Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Oxford St., and dropped us off a couple blocks from our flat. Plus, our Oyster cards allowed us to ride for free! The boys of course wanted to sit on the top deck in the very front, which I had never done. It definitely gives you a new perspective on London traffic. Since we did not have any other plans for the day we didn’t mind that it was rush hour and it took us over an hour to get across town. The boys even had time to catch a quick nap on the way.
After making it back to the flat we went out for dinner, returned back to flat to relax a bit, and called it a night.
By day 3 we were starting to feel at home in London. With it being a Tuesday in the middle of March there was the typical weekday hustle and bustle on the streets in Notting Hill. We enjoyed feeling like a part of the neighborhood as we strolled down the street. Watching merchants open their shops, children being dropped off at the local school by moms and dads, and men and women hopping into their cars, onto a bus, or onto the Tube to begin their work commute.
Tower of London
Once again, we had one activity booked in advance for the day: the Tower of London. We hopped on the Tube using our Oyster card and navigated our way all the way across London to what is in actuality much more than just a tower.
Our initial plan was to try and catch the first free Yeoman Warder tour of the day. While we made it with time to spare, once the tour started we quickly lost interest in wandering around with a group of 150+ people trying to hear everything being said. So we grabbed our map and toured the tower on our own. For less than £15.00 per person the Tower provided us with two hours worth of activities. No visit to the Tower is complete without seeing the Crown Jewels, which one of us in our group was particularly excited to see. There are various instruments of medieval torture on display in one exhibit, which makes you very happy to live when we do. The kids got a kick out of the area describing the various exotic animals kept at the tower over the years including elephants, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my). They even have the actual pieces of armor worn by some of the kings including the (in)famous Henry VIII. And, of course, the famous ravens.
By lunch, we had finished our scheduled portion of our day and had the rest of the day to plan on our own. The Tower of London is located very close to Tower Bridge. Even though everyone grows up singing “London Bridge Is Falling Down” it’s actually Tower Bridge, not London Bridge, that is the real attraction in London when it comes to bridges.
Once we found out that you can go up to the top level of the Tower Bridge and walk across a glass floor we had to check it out. Even though we did not book tickets in advance it still only cost us £22.00 total for the four of us at the ticket window. There are two options for getting to the top level of the bridge: elevator and stairs. Based on our limited experience about 95% of people take the elevator. We, on the other hand, went with the stairs and I highly recommend it. You travel up 206 steps on a really impressive Victorian-era staircase and make your Fitbit happy as you complete a quick step workout.
At the top you are surrounded by windows that look out upon the River Thames and the city. Then you glance down and notice that you’ve started walking on glass floor tiles and can suddenly see the traffic crossing the bridge not to mention the river below. (Don’t worry if you’re scared of heights. You can walk through the top level while avoiding stepping on the glass tiles.) As you can see, the kids did not have any issue with being able to see straight through the floor.
While the staircase and the glass floor are not to be missed, there is also the engine room at the far end of the bridge that is definitely worth a visit. There, you can see the original steam engines that were used to raise and lower the bridge 20-30 times a day when it was first built. Forty years ago, the bridge switched from steam power to electricity so now you can tour the engine rooms and learn about how over 80 people worked at the bridge to operate and maintain it 100 years ago.
After our Tower Bridge excursion it was time for…you guessed it, another park! This time we chose Regent’s Park in northwest London. I could claim that we saw most of the park but that would be far from the truth. The park is huge. Regent’s University, the London Zoo, and Queen Mary’s Gardens are in the park and there is plenty of open space to spare. The park has not one, not two, but four playgrounds! Since we hopped off the Tube at the Baker Street stop we ended up going to the nearest playground, which the kids loved. We also took a bit of time to stroll through Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens, which were not in bloom in March but still provided a peaceful area in which to stroll. It’s amazing how it only takes a few steps inside a park to put all of the hustle and bustle of a city like London behind you.
After the park we made our way back to the flat and commenced with our now nightly ritual of dinner, a bit of relaxation afterward, and off to bed as we put day 3 to a close.
Our last day in London was the only day when we had more than one activity pre-booked, which I will cover shortly. The day started out like our other days in London. Have some breakfast in the flat and head out to enjoy the sounds of the morning around our Notting Hill Neighborhood. One unfamiliar sound we heard that morning was the sound of raindrops as this was the first real rain that we had since we arrived in the city. Pretty good luck for the middle of March in England!
Our first activity of the day led us on the Tube toward Parliament and Big Ben, the latter of which was covered in scaffolding and was not ringing, which was one of the only disappointments of our trip. We were on our way to tour Westminster Abbey. As they say, if these walls could talk… The amount of history captured within that one building is astounding. Not to mention that even though there are hundreds of tourists wandering through each day it is still a fully functioning church. Westminster Abbey has been the coronation location for England’s kings and queens for almost a millennium and there are over 3,000 people buried there. This includes not only seventeen monarchs but also many famous names including Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and even the ashes of Stephen Hawking, who was interred at the Abbey just a couple months after we visited.
FI Road Tip: Once we were inside Westminster Abbey we were approached by one of the vergers (tour guides), who mentioned that there were spots open on a guided tour that started in just a couple minutes. While we were not planning on doing a guided tour, it ended up being totally worth it. It cost us an extra £15.00 (our youngest was free) but that got us a full tour of the Abbey as well as entrance into a couple areas that you can only access on a guided tour. In a place like that where the amount of things to see can be overwhelming it definitely helped to have someone who knew the most interesting sights. Highly recommended, especially if you’re like us and can only drag your kids around a church for so long.
Churchill War Rooms
After we completed our tour of Westminster Abbey and grabbed lunch at a nearby restaurant since it was still raining, we split up and took each kid to a different place. My wife and our youngest went and explored the National Gallery at the north end of Trafalgar Square. Little did we know at the beginning of the trip that our 5 year old is a big fan of museums and galleries (score!). And just like the British Museum, the National Gallery has free admission (double score!).
While they were touring the Gallery, I had booked tickets for my older son and I to go to the Churchill War Rooms, which is located adjacent to St. James’s Park, 10 Downing Street, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. The Churchill War Rooms are an underground complex that was used by Churchill and his essential staff as their operational center during World War II. I had visited the War Rooms during my trip to London in 1999 and found them fascinating. They have done an outstanding job preserving much of the attraction just as it was when the war ended in 1945 down to the maps on the wall, the books on the table, and more. To see the amount of activity that was happening below street level and completely in secret while just a few feet above London was enduring regular bombings is incredible. To me, the Churchill War Rooms are a London attraction that doesn’t get as much attention as other well known places to visit in the city, but I highly recommend taking a couple hours to check it out if you can.
FI Road Tip: If you do want to visit the Churchill War Rooms you should try to book your tickets in advance. As of March 2018 they have started selling timed tickets “in an attempt to manage the increasingly long queues that we are getting.” I can vouch for the lines from our visit. We had purchased tickets in advance. When we showed up there were approximately 50 people standing outside in the rain waiting to get in. We pulled out our tickets, showed them to the attendant, and we went immediately inside leaving the people outside jealous and wet.
Strolling and Shopping
We met back up with each other as the rain cleared out of the area and we took the opportunity to do the one thing neither boy was particularly happy about: shopping. However, when they walked into Hamley’s toy store their mood immediately brightened. Hamley’s is what a toy store should be. It reminded me a lot of FAO Schwartz in the States in that the whole store is about engaging with children and letting the kids interact with the toys. The experience is infinitely better than the Toys R Us model where you walked into what was basically a toy warehouse and could wander shelves with nary an unboxed toy in sight. We let the boys each pick out one (small) toy since we still had the second part of our trip upcoming in Amsterdam and didn’t have a ton of room in our luggage to begin with. Even if we hadn’t purchased anything I think the boys got a kick out of being able to play for a while even if it was technically shopping.
Since we had fun on the double decker bus two days prior, we decided to make that our mode of transportation back to our flat after we finished the rest of our stroll around Oxford Street and Carnaby. And with that our four day London adventure came to a close.
Looking back on the trip I’m glad we chose to create our own London itinerary vs. going with something like the London Pass. It gave us the flexibility to see the attractions we wanted to see, travel at our own pace, and not feel rushed to see everything so that we could feel like we got our money’s worth.
Below is a quick comparison of our four day London adventure vs. a three day London Pass. As you can see, we saved almost £150.00 by planning on our own and still managed to see and do 15 different attractions and activities in the four days.
|3 Day Pass for 2 Adults||228.00|
|3 Day Pass for 2 Children||168.00|
|Attractions and Activities||Cost (GBP)|
|St. James's Park||FREE|
|Diana Memorial Playground||FREE|
|Kensington Palace Gardens||FREE|
|Double Decker Bus||FREE *|
|Tower of London||57.80|
|Churchill War Rooms||28.35|
* Double decker bus fare was covered as part of our Oyster card. We would have needed to purchase an Oyster card in either scenario above
Have you been to London with your family recently? What attractions did you and your family enjoy while you were there? Let me know in the comments below.