Two years ago, we managed to have the most unexpectedly perfect time on a two-night trip to London with the kids. Unexpected, because the kids were five, eight, and nine at the time, and I didn’t think a city break would work. But we were visiting my sister and her family, so the way I saw it, if we fitted in even a tiny bit of sightseeing too, bonus.
The full story of our trip is here, but in a nutshell, on day one, we went to Skygarden (a viewing point that makes a good free alternative to London Eye) and Tower of London (a really fantastic attraction with lots of airy, open space for wandering). On day two, we took a cable car over the Thames, then a boat along the river, past London Bridge, as far as Big Ben. From there, it was an easy walk to St James’ Park and Buckingham Palace. That’s all we did, but we felt like we’d seen some of London’s top sights without great effort and without any exhaustion at all.
So how would we match that this time, we wondered?
The kids are two years older, but they’re still not the type of kids who’d enjoy eight hours of walking and sightseeing. Keeping it simple worked well last time, so that’s what we aimed to do again. And this time, we were also going to the Harry Potter Studio Tour – so even if they saw no other sights, we knew they’d be going home happy.
If you’re specifically interested in finding out about the Studio Tour, skip past the next bit – Harry Potter is a few paragraphs down. But if you’re travelling to London with kids and looking for things to do, then this bit’s for you.
On day one, Sunday, we took a tube to South Kensington to visit the Natural History Museum. Everyone told me it’s fantastic, and it really is – it’s absolutely huge, with incredible exhibits, and lots of fascinating facts.
What didn’t work quite so well was the heat – it was 26 degrees outside, and felt about ten degrees hotter than that inside. There’s no air conditioning in the museum, and after an hour, we all needed a breather. There’s an outdoor area for doing just that, and while we were there we decided we’d do one more exhibit (earthquakes and volcanoes) and leave it at that. I’d love to go again, but we’ll go when it’s cooler. It was also Sunday, and very crowded – I imagine it’s less busy on a weekday.
We took the tube to meet my sister for lunch in Russell Square (a decent Italian cafe called Caffé Tropea in the middle of the park) and then – because we are insane, and because the kids desperately wanted to see real mummies – we walked over to the British Museum. Because if you’ve already left one busy, crowded, suffocatingly hot museum on a Sunday in London in August, why wouldn’t you go to another one an hour and a half later?
Not surprisingly, we lasted even less time there – we found our way to the mummies, then found our way back out for a sit down on the cool foyer floor.
I’d love to go back in colder weather. Like the Natural History Museum, it’s free, you just give a donation on the way in, and you could spend hours roaming around in there in more ambient temperatures. Next time.
After that, we took the tube back to our hotel and ate ice-cream with the cousins, a much easier way to pass the time.
Day two was the big one: Harry Potter Studio Tour. We set aside the whole day for it – we would go to see the “real” Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station first, then take the train to Watford for our allotted time on the tour.
When we arrived in King’s Cross however, it turned out lots of other people had the same idea – we were told the queue to get a photo with the trolley was about ninety minutes long. Because we are (still) insane, we told the kids we’d queue, but they (thanks be to whichever deity takes care of such things) said No Thank You to that suggestion. Instead we took a photo over the top of the crowd, and took a tube to Covent Garden.
For me, this was one of the highlights of both London trips – flowers, benches, pretty pubs and shops, and the famous market where you can browse stalls of antique china side by side with skincare and jewellery stores. There’s food, coffee, street performers, and when we were there, the gorgeous sunshine lifted everything another notch higher. The kids watched a street show, and made my husband take part, which of course made their day before we got anywhere near Hogwarts.
We walked from Covent Garden to Leicester Square (an eight minute walk) and then after a bite to eat, we walked another five minutes via Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square.
This is far and away my favourite way to see a city – just wandering around without doing anything or going in anywhere, though of course, the gorgeous sunshine helped.
And then it was it was time to see Hogwarts…
Harry Potter Studio Tour
Where to get tickets
Go to Warner wbstudiotour.co.uk and choose your date, then your time. We booked three months in advance. The tour takes about three hours, though once you’re in, you can stay as long as you like (until it closes). So if you’d like more than three hours, ideally book well in advance so you can get a morning slot. You can’t pay on the day – the only way to go is to buy tickets from the website. You’ll get an email confirmation, and you bring that with you on the day.
Tickets are not cheap! £45 for adults and £37.50 for kids. Children aged four or under go free, and there are family tickets that make it a little cheaper.
How to get there
Warner Bros studio is in Watford, twenty miles north of London, and you can travel there by train from Euston Station. (Euston Station is in Central London easily accessible by Tube – it’s on the Victoria Line and the Northern Line).
If you get a direct train from Euston, it takes less than twenty minutes – your destination is Watford Junction, the final stop. (You could also make the mistake of getting the train that stops at eighteen stations along the way and takes almost an hour, but who would do that I hear you ask?)
Once you get off the train at Watford Junction, go outside the station and to your left, you’ll see a bus stop with a shuttle bus to take you to the studio. It’s £3 per person return and you need to bring cash – cards not accepted. The shuttle bus brings you right to Warner Bros studio.
What to do when you arrive
First stop is to bring your email confirmation to the kiosk to get your actual tickets, then a quick bag search for anyone with backpacks. We arrived about thirty minutes before our allocated time which was just about right for getting coffee, using the bathroom, exploring the foyer, and getting even more excited.
The tour starts with a walk past the cupboard under the stairs, and goes on to a cinema for a short film about the movies, then the screen goes up and the doors open to the Great Hall in Hogwarts. There’s a tour guide at this point, but once you leave the Great Hall, you do the rest of the studio tour at your own pace.
I won’t give away too much, but really, it’s spectacular. The level of detail that went into making the films is incredible, and you can spend as long as you like (or as long as your kids will allow) reading information as you go. There are lots of photo opportunities – we stuck with taking our own rather than the paid options. One thing we made clear to our kids (and you may need to tell yours) is that it’s a studio tour, not a theme park, so there are no rides. They do however get to go inside the Hogwarts Express, Ron’s dad’s car, Hagrid’s motorcycle, and the Dursleys’ house.
The tour takes place in two studios, and between them is the Backlot Café, where you can try Butter Beer for £3.95 a pop. The kids tried Butter Beer, I stuck with coffee. We didn’t eat in the café but the food looked quite nice – burgers, hot dogs, chips, and sandwiches.
The tour ends in the gift shop – of course! It is not cheap. We told our kids they could spend £10 each but it wasn’t easy to find souvenirs for less than a tenner (£22 notebook anyone?). After much browsing, and no success, I gave in and let them have sweets. So safe to say at this point, we have no actual souvenirs of our trip – just lots of photos and many happy memories.
Book well in advance, especially if you need a specific date or time
Plan your journey – allow plenty of time to get to Euston and on to Watford Junction. There’s a café in the tour foyer so arriving early is fine (or even good, depending on your feelings about coffee).
Bring cash for the shuttle bus – they’ll take notes but not debit cards
Bring a power bank to charge your phone, you might need it after using Google Maps to get there and taking 400 photos. (I tried to resist taking too many pics; I found I enjoyed it more once I obeyed my kids and put my phone away.)
Don’t arrive hungry – it takes about an hour and a half to get to the Backlot Café
Make sure your kids know it’s a tour, not a theme park
Bring plenty of money for the gift shop, or set your children’s expectations before you arrive!
A note on accommodation:
We stayed in Stratford because we wanted to be near my sister – it’s on the Tube and a good base, but I can’t say it’s any better than anywhere else, as we chose it for specific reasons!
We stayed in the Holiday Inn, and had two twin rooms – we had a camp bed in one so that I could stay there with the girls. It’s in a very handy location (in the grounds of Westfield Shopping Centre) and the staff are extremely friendly and welcoming, especially with kids. It’s fairly low on frills and looking a bit dated but they have a waffle machine in the breakfast bar and they gave colouring packs to the kids, so in our house, it’s a winner.