London. I mean it’s London. It’s hard to capture it in a sentence or a blog post or a photo or even a weekend. And when we were planning our recent trip, that was my only stipulation – let’s not try to capture everything. Small legs can’t handle hours and hours of walking and sightseeing, and I wanted it to be a holiday for the kids – I didn’t want it to feel like hard work. Also, my sister lives in London, so it was about visiting family more than anything. And about getting on a plane and staying in a hotel and going to John Lewis – more about which below.
The really, really good thing about this trip was that not only do I have a sister in London, but my husband travels there for work a few times a month and has done for years. So finally, all that solo parenting generated a silver lining – we had our own personal travel agent and tour guide for our trip to London. And apart from saying “Don’t try to cram in too much” on repeat, I sat back and let him do the planning.
After dropping our bags at the hotel and grabbing some pancakes for breakfast, we took the tube into Bank. Coming up to the street felt like walking on to the set of Mary Poppins – beautiful old buildings, narrow sun speckled streets, and relative quiet for an early Friday morning. We made our way to the Walkie Talkie building on Fenchurch Street and queued for the Sky Garden on the 35th floor. This is free (free!) but you do need to book when slots open up, about ten days in advance.
The views from the Sky Garden are spectacular and we spent about an hour wandering around and taking four million photos. There’s a café-bar there too (though we didn’t try it) and lots of space to sit down and relax, always good when small legs are involved.
Tower of London
Everyone who’s been to London with kids told us we should go to the Tower of London, plus I’d read this really good, detailed post by Bumbles of Rice, so that was next on our list for Friday. We bought tickets online while we were in Sky Garden as they’re about £10 cheaper than paying at the gate (we paid £53 for a family of five). We spent three hours there in total – we queued to see the Crown Jewels, we went in to the Tower and watched a short film about the fate of young princes Richard and Edward, we took photos of poker-faced soldiers, marvelled (from a safe distance) at giant ravens, visited a museum, and watched a really good re-enactment that moved throughout the grounds and kept the kids riveted.
Apart from the history, what’s really lovely about the Tower of London is the space. For children who are tired walking up and down busy streets and getting on and off crowded tubes, it’s a wide open oasis of calm and fresh air.
Essential coffee and cake
When he works in London, my husband sometimes brings home cake from Bea’s of Bloomsbury, a gorgeous tea room that’s not too far from the Tower. By 4pm, we’d all been on the go for eleven hours and needed a rescue – this came in the form of chocolate Guinness cake, baked cheesecake and the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. I need to go back just to try the chocolate and pistachio cupcakes.
That night, we ate with my sister, then walked back for a midnight feast in the hotel, because after pancakes for breakfast and cake for lunch, more sugar is exactly what we all needed.
Cable Car over the river
On Saturday morning, we met my sister and her family and took the tube to Greenwich, from where we took a cable car across the Thames. The views are fantastic, and even scaredy-cats like me can handle it because it’s only six minutes long.
Clipper on the river
The cable car dropped us on the other side of the Thames, and there we boarded a clipper – a boat to take us up the river. It’s a brilliant way to see London docks and on up past Tower Bridge – we got a great sense of the city without doing any walking, and when we disembarked, we were in Westminster.
Big Ben and Westminster
When we came off the clipper and up the nearby steps, the first thing we saw was Big Ben, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for the kids. It’s probably the only landmark they really recognised from books and pictures, so it was a true “wow” moment.
We took some photos, then walked through Westminster, enjoying the old buildings and the red phone boxes but holding very tightly to small hands as it was incredibly busy.
St James’s Park and Buckingham Palace
We followed our local guide (my sister) through Westminster and on to St James’s Park where we had lunch in a restaurant called Inn The Park. Loads of space, lots of choice, and a waiter with the strongest London accent I’ve ever heard who told me he was from Mallow in Cork – it was perfect after a morning sightseeing. Outside in the park, the kids did some obligatory handstands and cartwheels for half an hour, then we walked on to the Palace.
They didn’t say so, but I suspect the kids were underwhelmed by Buckingham Palace – we had explained that we wouldn’t be going in and that we wouldn’t see the Queen, but nevertheless peering through railings at a grand house and not a Disney-esque castle probably wasn’t the highlight of the trip for them. (The po-faced soldier roaring “Get off the fence!”at some tourists might have been a highlight for me.)
Our lovely, lovely tour guides were happy to take us exploring further, but it was 4 o’clock and the kids were tired, so we decided to go back to Stratford for playground time. And ice-cream. And drinks for the grown-ups in the bar beside the playground. I think I could get quite attached to this London life.
On Saturday night, we ate in Jamie’s in Stratford (I know, I know, to go all the way to London only to eat in a restaurant we have here…) and then walked the twenty seconds back to our hotel with tired but very happy kids, already planning their next trip to London.
On Sunday, we stayed local, with a trip to the shops in Westfield, brunch in East Village, and a playground trip with extended family. Then two hours before our flight took off, we collected our bags from the hotel and got back on the train to the airport – the simplest and easiest transfer we’ve ever done holidaying with kids. If you can find cheap flights with CityJet, I highly recommend using London City airport. (And they give free snacks!)
Where we stayed
We stayed in the Holiday Inn Stratford, which is just a few stops by train from City Airport. It’s also in the grounds of Westfield – one of Europe’s biggest shopping centres. Imagine Dundrum, and multiply by five. My credit card had a quiet little cry when it realised where we were staying, then bravely puffed out its little chest and got to work.
The trip was everything we hoped it would be and more – I had put off going for years thinking the kids were too small, and maybe they were, but overall it was much easier to get around than I expected. And because we didn’t do too much this time round, it’s a perfect excuse to go back – if only for the chocolate and pistachio cupcakes.