From Madame Tussauds to Legoland, London is one magical city for families, writes Caroline Delaney.
Okay, looking over at the crumpled night-clubber swaying next to my kids, one shoe off and her gold wings crushed against the seat, I conceded that getting the Tube at 4 am on a Sunday morning might not have been my greatest idea.
But, aside from temporarily forgetting that ‘young folk’ often go out on a Saturday night and have to get home afterwards, a recent trip to London was fabulous — thanks to a fair bit of pre-planning and pre-booking.
A January seat-sale meant return flights for our ‘party of five’ came in at just under €200, including assigned seating.
Sure, it would be rude not to go and see the Queen — or Legoland.
Next up was accommodation. We wanted something central, safe and clean. It didn’t have to be fancy as we planned on being out and about each day. But, family hotels seem to have united to decide that two children is the only option.
Some suggested two family rooms but couldn’t even guarantee they would be adjoining or even on the same floor.
I do love hotel breakfasts but gave them up for a family studio apartment. Bijou, but immaculate, and with super-fast wifi, power shower and a bus stop outside the front door and the Thames behind, we were back on track.
Children under 10 are free on buses, tubes and trains if they are travelling with an adult with an Oyster card. You can pre-book your card online and have it posted to you. This isn’t valid for getting from Stansted Airport to central London though so pre-booking your Stansted Express ticket is also handy.
If you want to minimise queues then definitely pre-book as much as you can, I was advised. Madame Tussauds is a circular building with seven entrances. The queue for general entry seemed to wrap right around the whole street. But pre-paying got us in within five minutes. A shout-out here too to Kellogg’s adult-goes-free coupons.
Yes, the models are wax and the place is packed, but everyone seemed giddy and excited as if they really were meeting Adele or Robert Downey Junior. I laughed at a family shrieking with delight to ‘meet’ some Bollywood stars and then stepped back and apologised for bumping into Patrick Stewart.
Often online we only see the ones that haven’t quite worked out shared as a meme. But these are amazingly real looking and you are free to lean in for selfies or high-fives. You could easily spend a day each at the Science and Natural History Museums. You’ve got genuine dinosaur bones, replica dino eggs, precious stones, stuffed animals and way more. These museums are free to enter — but there are sometimes paid-for extra exhibitions on.
If you’re in London and have a few ‘brick heads’ in your posse then a trip to Legoland is definitely worth fitting in.
There is a regular double-decker bus that goes directly from Victoria Station right to the gates of Legoland.
Feverish excitement from my kids meant my suggestions of a nice cup of tea in an olde teashop in Windsor were shouted down – but the village looked very attractive as we passed through.
Legoland is pretty cool alright.
It is laid out in a series of different zones — ranging from Ninjago to Lego Friends and Lego City. A handy tip we got is to dash straight through to the back end of the theme park where it’s quiet and work your way forward. There are queues and there are Q-bots. Queues can be long but do have noticeboards announcing estimated times. Q-bots are pricey little yokes that allow you jump the queue — handy if you’re under time pressure.
We loved the Lego submarine which actually goes underwater through a tropical fish and shark tank. And my kids really enjoyed the driving school, the fire engine challenge and the roller coasters.
Back in real London we took in a walking trip from London Bridge to the Tower of London. I was delighted that Leadenhall Market can be included in this stroll. This ornate covered market was established in the 14th century and was used to represent the area of London near the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001).
Just around the corner is the Sky Garden. This is a fab tropical garden and series of restaurants and a bar on the 35th floor of a building overlooking the whole city. Admission is free but you have to book in advance. I absolutely loved sipping on a peachy cocktail and picking out all the sights we had visited throughout our trip.
As we were passing through Kings Cross Station we had to check out Platform 9 and 3/4. This features a replica luggage trolley, complete with owl cage, which is right in the middle of magically passing through the wall. Queues can be long enough as everyone wants to don a Hogwarts scarf and pose with the trolley. Fans are diverted out of the queue through the Harry Potter shop where you have the option to buy a professional photo of yourself with the trolley - as well as any number of Harry Potter inspired gifts.
A five-day trip was declared the best break my kids ever had — and when I recovered from exhaustion I had to agree. I would definitely advise a bit of prep-work though — book as much as you can in advance and just keep moving.