All Articles London with kids: 5 unexpected, fuss-free ways to explore the city

London with kids: 5 unexpected, fuss-free ways to explore the city

Zoos, pirate-ship playgrounds, and tot-approved high tea.

Hannah Howard
By Hannah Howard28 Jun 2023 5 minutes read
Mother and son in London looking at Big Ben
London's Great Bell of the Great Clock of Westminster, also known as Big Ben
Image: Stephen Lux/Getty Images

My husband and I have family in the UK and I work remotely, so when the opportunity arose for us to pack up our two little ones—18 months and 3 years old—and stay in West London’s Fulham neighborhood for a month, we jumped at the chance. London is one of my all-time favorite cities: the endless snacking at Borough Market, the excellent curry, and can’t-miss West End productions. But when you have a young family, different things keep London in that top spot: quality playgrounds, green spaces like Hampstead Heath and St. James’s Park in the middle of the city, and a culture that sells pints at “soft play centers.”

Sure, we had to put any leisurely afternoons at the British Museum on hold until the kids’ attention spans are longer. But we didn’t miss out on visiting plenty of gorgeous parks and historic spots on our month-long visit. Below, ways to get off the tourist track and properly wear out your kids, whether you’re in London for a long weekend or, like us, a long-term stay.

At the zoo in Battersea, it’s about more than the animals

Animal-obsessed kids will get a kick out of the Battersea Park Children’s Zoo’s wallabies, meerkats, and my daughter's favorite, emus (tickets from around $11). This spot is a much smaller (read: manageable), way-more-low-key spot than the London Zoo. Even the animals are smaller—no lions or tigers here, which may actually be a good thing for fearful little kids. If you catch them at the right time, the kind zookeepers may let your kid feed a monkey or an armadillo; you can also book a private interactive keeper experience.

The animals are great, sure, but for my kids, the real highlights were the fire truck and helicopter (which they got to climb inside) and the plethora of swings (in all shapes and sizes). Two hours should be plenty of time here—case in point, my son fell asleep in the taxi after.

Tip: The café here is closed for renovations indefinitely, so be sure to stock up on snacks or pack a picnic. There’s a Little Waitrose & Partners (a mini version of the posh British grocer) right outside the park for provisions.

Travelers say: “[The] zookeeper experience is a must, being worth every penny. It is a personalized, intensive one-hour experience, where you prep food, feed, and interact with various animals. Special thank you to Lizzy who made it so great, my 5-year-old daughter even hugged her at the end and kept playing zookeeper with her toys when we returned home. And, frankly, I enjoyed it no less than my daughter!”—@mihfinkel

Let the kids run wild at Kensington Palace—yes, that palace

Children playing at the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, London
The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground
Image: @francesca_sparaco/Tripadvisor

Smack on the edge of Hyde Park, Kensington Palace (from around $16 a person) is the London residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales—and their very famous kids. So it makes sense that the area has plenty of public kid-friendly things to explore, including formal gardens where kids can search for roaming chickens.

For young kids, the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground has plenty of toddler-friendly equipment. It's such a hit, in fact, that you'll probably have a hard time pulling your kids away from it; my son was thoroughly unhappy to be yanked from the pirate-ship-inspired playscape. Perhaps just as importantly, the playground offers something that not all of them do: clean public restrooms.

More to explore

On hot days, you can venture into Hyde Park and let your tots splash around the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. Walk about 10 minutes along the Serpentine Boating Lake to the Serpentine Stephen Waterfall, where you can rent a boat for around $6.

Tip: Be sure to check out Kensington Palace's public events calendar, which often has events and exhibitions that are perfect for older kids and/or grandparents.

Travelers say: “We decided to take the kids boating on the Serpentine and went for the hour-long slot as it wasn’t much of a difference in price to half an hour. It comfortably fit five of us, and was great fun! ...We were there before lunch which seems to be better as there were fewer people on the water so collisions are less likely.”—@Kspeller

Experience the kid version of London's famous theater scene

Some adults have a hard time sitting through a whole West End play—never mind kids under 5. For a much smaller hit of culture, head to Islington to the Little Angel Theatre (from around $15 a person), the self-described “Home of British Puppetry.”

At the 100-seat theater, you’ll find kid-friendly puppetry, storytelling, and music—and it's all lovely. You can also sign up babies as young as 6 months old for the weekly Little Explorers playtime, which focuses on sensory play.

After a show, head to Saponara, a charming pizzeria two blocks away: One Tripadvisor reviewer called it “the best pizza I have had outside of Italy.”

Afternoon tea, but make it a kids' activity

High tea with cakes in London
High tea with cakes in London
Image: Michael Blann/Getty Images

There's nothing as quintessentially English as afternoon tea. But for kids who don't want to miss out on the fun—or parents who can't find babysitters—there are plenty of tot-friendly options that bring a fun, whimsical vibe to the typically grown-up experience.

At The Orangery Restaurant, set in a Kensington garden pavilion built for Queen Anne in 1704, a children’s menu offers scones with strawberry preserve and Cornish clotted cream (which my daughter wanted to eat with a spoon).

Other kid-approved options include The Rubens hotel, which serves a 'Little Prince and Princess' afternoon tea, complete with sandwiches that kids can customize. Fortnum & Mason—a veritable temple to fine food—is another of my favorites. Everything they do is exquisite—there's a kid’s menu with scones and finger sandwiches and heavenly tea cakes like chocolate dog paws and a raspberry jelly tart.

More to explore

Roam in fancy-shmancy parks, then refuel with coffee

We stayed in a friend of a friend’s flat right near Fulham Palace, and I quickly fell in love. Once the home of the Bishop of London, the property has 13 acres of grounds and a 13th-century house, both open to the public and free to explore. There's also a natural playground, made entirely of logs and wooden objects from the site, that my kids loved. And my daughter seemed to claim the walled garden her own secret oasis.

At Glasshouse Coffee, about a five-minute walk away, you’ll sit among flowering pots of all shapes and sizes: This is a charming garden store–cafe combo with a great kids' menu. (To boot: My daughter loved the "toastie," or grilled cheese.)

A note about transport

We had no trouble fitting two adults and a double stroller—or a "buggy"—in London’s roomie black cabs. And we used the Gett app to hail cabs.

Note that not all London Tube stations have elevators. But we did have luck with the bus, where drivers can lower the entrance to allow passengers to roll in strollers. (If it’s super busy, though, you may be asked to wait for the next one.)

Where to stay

London has tons of kid-friendly hotels—you’ll find a few favorites below. But if you’re looking for a budget option (and you're okay with a little more bare-bones living), consider renting a few dorm rooms at University College London, which makes them available when school isn't in session.

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Hannah Howard
Hannah Howard is the author of the Amazon bestselling memoirs Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen and Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family, and the Editor-in-Chief at Parent.com. She writes and speaks about parenting, food, body image, and beyond.Her writing has been featured in New York Magazine, Bon Appetit, Saveur, VICE, SELF, Wine Enthusiast, Thrillist, Time Out New York, Salon, and the Chicago Review of Books. She teaches writing classes and lives in Frenchtown, NJ with her family. She loves stinky cheese.