London has all the culture and buzz of global hubs like New York and Paris, but a cozier feel to it, making it ideal for family travel.
Think of its iconic symbols; they’re comforting and nostalgic. Old-fashioned, beetle-black cabs. Red buses, mailboxes, and phone booths. Vast parks with rose gardens. Afternoon tea and cake. Roasts and ale at snug pubs. Peter Pan. Paddington Bear. Good kids’ fiction and bookshops in general. Big folk, small folk, and even teddy bears, in rain coats, wellies and brollies.
Not only did the parents behind this travel site fall in love in London, which undoubtedly makes us biased, we think London is wonderful for family travel because so many attractions are free. The royal parks, The London Natural History Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood, Princess Diana Memorial Playground, The British Museum, Regent’s Canal towpath, and Hackney City Farm are all free, to name a few.
The challenge is how to handle such an overstimulating capital within a limited amount of time. You’ll find yourself tugged in two directions. Most classic London experiences take place in West London, while the cool creatives, many of which are now parents, have set up in East London.
This guide shows you where to stay in order to experience the best of both worlds- classic west London and hipster east London – with your small folk. You can have your afternoon tea cakes, and eat them too.
When to go:
We love London all year round. Having lived there for many years, we can honestly say there’s something special about London in each season. It’s a mild climate, so winters are relatively gentle and Christmas there can be lovely.
Check out the flight deals on Expedia.com to see when it’s cheapest to fly. We happily offer our family travel wisdom for free. You enable us to keep this website going when you book flights through our links to our affiliates like Expedia.
Family base camp: Islington
Our goal is to live like a local while traveling. Islington is our pick for best borough for families in London.
Why Islington: Islington is central and north of the Thames. It’s well-placed for you to explore classic west London and hipster east London. It’s lovely and rich with history. It has a tight community of families with young children. It’s also got too many charming local pubs, good playgrounds, destination restaurants, quirky cafes, outdoor markets, and a strong independent retail scene.
Best of all, Islington has Regent’s Canal (built 1816) running through its heart. The pretty canal path is an off-the-beaten track opportunity to explore London. Follow it on foot with a stroller, by bicycle, or boat.
Brief history of the hood: Before 1000 A.D, Islington was called Giseldone, meaning “Gisla’s hill.” It was a wild, forested area. By the 17th century, Islington was a proper village, spreading along Upper Street and Lower Road, which later became Essex Road. By the 18th century, the area’s dairy herds kept Londoners supplied with butter, cream and milk. As London grew rapidly in the 19th century, Georgian brick terraced houses replaced the agricultural land. In the 20th century, it lost its prosperous residents and went through a downturn. Post-WWII rebuilding and gentrification gave it a refurb. These days it’s packed with independent shops, theatres, it-restaurants, and galleries.
Accommodation: We partner with travel companies that we use for our family trips. Rent one of the neighbourhood’s signature Georgian terrace homes via Airbnb, and get a travel credit through our family account. Check out Booking.com’s London hotels and apartment rentals.
Field trip 1: Exploring Islington
Ottolenghi cafe & restaurant
Ottolenghi is everything you would expect a world-class restaurant to be in terms of flavor, creativity, and presentation, without the snobbery. Chef-owner Yotam Ottolenghi is as skilled with cake as he is with salads and meats. He creates bold flavours (fig frangipane tart, butternut squash, tahini and red onion salad, English beef with coriander mustard) and lets them take centre stage in his minimalist restaurant. The bright, white space is open for three meals a day everyday of the week.
Ottolenghi has been on the London scene since 2002, and is one of the London greats. He pens a weekly column for The Guardian. His signature flavour profile is a heady combination of Middle Eastern influences (Syrian, Turkish, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli) on a Western canvas. He was brought up in Jerusalem and trained as a chef in London, although he had originally come to town to get a Phd. He’s authored four best-selling cookbooks. We recommend all of them.
With kids in tow, the most fun thing to do at Ottolenghi is to order coffee and cakes to go. Take your treats out front and people watch from the red bench, or stroll to a park for a picnic.
You’re right between two lovely green spaces: St. Mary’s (12th c.) church gardens and Islington Green. If you love what you’re tasting for breakfast, come back for lunch or dinner. They do take out boxes with superb salads, or you can eat in, but for that you’ll need a reservation.
287 Upper Street, Ottolenghi.co.uk
Just a few storefronts down the road from Ottolenghi on Upper Street, Islington’s shopping and dining drag, you’ll find Igloo. Igloo consistently ranks among the best independent kids’ boutiques in London. This friendly little store is a one-stop shop for clothes, books, toys, accessories, and decor for design conscious parents.
Their stock covers ages 0-12. Big folk make pilgrimages here for children’s Hunter wellington boots, handmade Angulus leather footwear, classic British children’s lit, They leave with impulse purchases such as toadstool night lights and Brit-motif lunchboxes.
Graham Street Park Playground
The place to meet local mums and find friends for your small folk is the recently spruced-up Graham Street Park. The playground is on the City Basin section of Regent’s Canal, and has areas for tots and older kids. Start by feeding the canal water fowl, ranging from statuesque swans to pushy Canadian geese. Then check out the playground setup. You’ll find a petite slide tucked into a hill so little ones can climb up the grass, a clubhouse on stilts, a roomy sandbox, running water, swings for all ages, and a massive slide/rope climbing complex for the 6+ crew.
Don’t forget to take a look at the park signage sharing historic photos of the canal. This waterfront area used to belong to pharmaceutical manufacturing warehouses. The factories here turned out massive amounts of kids’ vitamins and penicillin for the British population through WWII. By 1980 the industry was gone. The Islington council built the park.
Duke of Cambridge Pub
Islington has many tempting pubs, too many to visit in just one week unless you hire a sitter. The Duke of Cambridge is a good bet if you want to try organic British ale and organic gastropub fare with kids. In fact, they’re Britain’s first certified organic gastropub. They have close relationships with the best organic British brewers including Stroud, Pitfield, Altantic, St. Peter’s and Liverpool. The food is sourced from Riverford Farms. The digs are pretty and sparse, leaning toward more classic London pub than on-trend urban boozer.
Wenlock Arms Pub
The Wenlock, tucked away just off the Wenlock Basin, is the age-old story of a plucky, independent pub trying to survive the onslaught of development and gentrification. Good news for you: it has. The Wenlock, which poured its first pint in 1836, embodies all that is good about pubs – it’s a taproom with minimal decor, a dartboard, and brilliant beer.
This locals-only spot is the place to grab a 4-5pm drink with the kiddos and watch the scene – a combination of blue collar workers and white collar design folks – before heading home for supper. Order a packet of hand-cut British crisps in fun flavors like ham and mustard. Get the kids a ginger beer. And start sipping some excellent British craft beer. Must-try British craft breweries on tap include Dark Star and Mighty Oak.
Exmouth Market is a charming brick and cobble-stoned hodge podge of sidewalk cafes and independent shops, which date back to 1890. It’s the kind of place you want to enjoy a lazy breakfast, browse until lunch and then sit down again at one of the tempting restaurants with all your new goodies, letting that slow midday meal roll gently into pub o’clock.
Must-visit shops: Book Ends independent children’s bookstore, Space (a quirky gift store that also carries great kids’ books), Family Tree (an enclave of independent London design including footwear, handmade kids’ clothing and jewelry), In With The Old (more awesome British homeware and accessory design + vintage), and The Content Store for dapper threads for Dad.
Must-visit cafes and restaurants: Caravan for house-roasted coffee, brunch, and tempting small plates, Gail’s for good bread, Brill for salt beef bagels, Moro for London’s best Moroccan, Bonnie Gull for fish and chips, and Blackfoot for an ode to the British pig menu, with takeaway porchetta bar and super cool butcher-shop decor.
On many days, a bustling outdoor food market accompanies the usual selection of good retail/restaurants, so decision making is even more difficult.
Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, EC1R 4Q, Exmouth.london
Field trip 2: Classic London – Afternoon tea, royal parks, & museums
Classic London calls to mind iconic London experiences including the rose gardens in Hyde Park, Big Ben, tea sipped with crooked pinkies, the Princess Di pirate ship playground, and palatial museums. It can get expensive and tiresome to take tea and go to the big attractions every day of your trip, but it’s a London experience that can be very special in moderation.
Hop on a bus heading west. Buses are much easier than the tube when traveling with a stroller. See our post on how to use London transport with babies and toddlers. Then follow our picks for best afternoon tea for kids, best playgrounds in royal parks, and best free London museum for toddlers.
Busy Bee Afternoon Tea at St. Ermin’s Hotel
After extensive cake-eating, we mean research, our favourite afternoon tea for children in London is St. Ermin’s. The fancy-pants art nouveau hotel sits adjacent Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. In addition to renting rooms to humans, it’s also a hotel for 10,000 honey bees who live on the fourth floor roof!
The busy bee afternoon tea for children is posh and the food is honey-themed. The setting is a chic tea room at the top of two curving staircases on a theatrical balcony. The servers are almost comically solicitous. The finger sandwiches, cakes, and cookies come in a sunshine yellow bookcase with foil-wrapped chocolate bumble bees. The delights are made with honey from the hotel’s rooftop bee hives.
Once your Pooh Bears are really, really sticky and totally jazzed, you can take them upstairs to the glass viewing corridor to watch the honey bees do their thing. It’s quite special and memorable. Our two-year-old has busy bee tea mentionitis. The one year old is still bzzzzzzzing.
Fun facts: St. Ermin’s was a monastery until the 10th century. In the 1880s E.T. Hall designed a horseshoe shaped mansion block which became a hotel shortly thereafter. It was headquarters to WWII covert operations.
2 Caxton St, Westminster, SW1H 0QW, Marriott.com/hotels/travel/lonse-st-ermins-hotel-autograph-collection
St. James’s Park
Just a stone’s throw from St. Ermin’s, St. James’s Park is the oldest of the Royal Parks. We love it for its red squirrels and pelicans. The red squirrels are everywhere. You’ll find the pelicans strutting awkwardly on Duck Island at the east end of the park. Pelicans were first introduced into St. James’s Park in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador. When you visit their nesting grounds, make sure check out the fairy tale birdkeeper cottage.
Other landmarks? The Blue Bridge in the center of the park is a hit for parents and their small folk. It’s a great place to feed the ducks. It has views across St James’s Park lake, to Buckingham Palace to the west, and the Horse Guards Parade, Big Ben, and the London Eye towards the east.
Many folks queue to watch the daily changing of the guards at nearby Buckingham Palace. But it’s crowded and a bit boring for tots. Instead, head over to Kensington Gardens for the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground.
Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground
It was a sad day when the world lost their princess. The Diana Memorial Playground is a lovely tribute to a woman who cherished the innocence of childhood. Located next to her Kensington Palace home, the playground/Neverland is popular with good reason. The free play space includes a sensory trail (a.k.a. cool stuff to poke), tepees, and a pirate ship with a beach, set against a backdrop of tropical palms.
It’s a top spot for locals and tourists. There’s a queue to enter. Waiting times can range between 15 minutes up to one hour. You’ll also find an onsite cafe and baby changing tables in the public loo.
London Natural History Museum
The London Natural History Museum is the best natural history museum in the world, and it’s free. Our kids were interested in dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and more dinosaurs. If yours are the same, and already roaring by the time you manage to say “di-“, then start with the Diplodicus skeleton in the central hall and head into the dino galleries.
Not only is there a Triceratops skull, and a full Baryonyx fossil, one of the largest meat-eaters ever unearthed in Europe, you’ll see uncannily life-like scale versions of T-Rex and some other small carnivores that move and roar.
The exhibition has an above-ground walkway that gives an aerial view of dino specimens, if you’re tall enough to see over the railing. For tots and other shorties, the ground floor displays after the moving T-Rex have the most thrills. There are interactive educational hubs on dino food, dino nests, extinction, and even dinosaurs in popular entertainment.
You could spend the whole day in the museum hopping from creepy crawlies to undersea mammals and volcanoes. Call it a day, when you think it’s time.
Also worth noting: the picnic/loo area is a great place to change diapers, make friends, and save money by eating a brought lunch. You’ll find families and field trips here playing on the bleachers. The museum also has catering options. The main restaurant is well above average as museum eateries go, with stroller parking, balloons for kids (WHY???!!!), and decent salads and pizza.
Cromwell Road, South Kensington, SW7 5BD, Nhm.ac.uk
Canal walk, intro to London’s East End and the V&A Museum of Childhood
Where Shakespeare’s first plays were performed. Birthplace of Idris Elba. Ground zero for the London hipster. There are lots of good reasons to head east and explore the creative cooldom in the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets.
Hackney is Islington’s neighbour to the east; just follow Regent’s Canal towpath east to get there. On your way, you’ll pass through the core districts of the London hipster: Shoreditch, Hoxton, Haggerston, and Dalston. Then the path dips south into Tower Hamlets borough, where it’s worth visiting the V&A Museum of Childhood, Columbia Road Flower Market, and strolling Brick Lane.
Built in 1812, Regen’ts Canal was once vital to London transport. These days, obsolescence is a bonus to active Londoners. The canal towpath is lovely place to walk, bike, or boat. The route is dotted with bridges, brightly-painted narrowboats, gracefully drooping willow trees, and cute cafes and pubs.
From Islington, you can get on the path (with bike or stroller) via ramps at Danbury Street, St Peter’s Street/Wharf Road, and Baldwin Terrace. If you fancy a snack on your walk, the biggest concentration of cafes and bars is at the Haggerston Riviera. There’s even a canal boat floating bookstore: Word on the Water.
Columbia Street Shops & Flower Market
Columbia Road is in the East End, off Hackney Road, with Shoreditch to the west and Brick Lane and Spitalfields in spitting distance. The area began life as a pathway along which sheep were driven to the slaughterhouses at Smithfield. It transformed into London’s prettiest outdoor market during the Victorian era, ca. 1869.
These days the market open on Sundays from 8am to 3pm(ish) rain or shine. The flower/plan hawkers and their blooms are worth a gander. Behind them are 60 independent shops, many of which are also only open on Sundays. Must-visits for parents: Bob and Blossom, a kids store with retro toys and an in-house kids clothing line. And Jones’ Dairy, for good, organic British fare. Cover your kids eyes: when you pass Suck and Chew candy shop.
Tower Hamlets, E2 7RG, www.columbiaroad.info
V&A Museum of Childhood
The V&A Museum of Childhood not officially on the parent or tourist radar, and it should be. The free attraction is striking Victorian building and holds treasures untold. Inside, interactive thematic galleries reveal the secrets of toy design, from moving toys to puppets. Kids learn about motors, springs, and optical illusions by playing. Short term exhibitions challenge parents and their small folk to think deeper about the cornerstones of childhood, from birthday parties to flying kites.
The gift store is overstocked with awesome kids’ fiction, creative gadgets, and collectible kids’ lit art prints. The cafe has hot food and lots of highchairs. There are daily drop-in activities including crafts and storytelling. This is a magical space. You and your kids won’t want to leave.
Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, E2 9PA, Vam.ac.uk/moc
One of the best family-friendly restaurants in East London also happens to be a hipster favorite. You can rock a beard and roll a double stroller and get away with it. This doesn’t happen that often, so enjoy it. Hoi Polloi is a Shoreditch canteen meets brasserie in Ace Hotel by London restaurateurs Pablo Flack and David Waddington. London reviewers reluctantly gave the food raves despite the cooler-than-though clientele.
The space is vast and well-designed. The playlist is fun. The food is seasonal, British and expertly executed. Sautéed wild mushrooms on sour dough with runny duck-egg. Beef-dripping chips. Buttery lemon sole and clams. Lamb rump with smoked onions. There’s also kids’ portions and the waitstaff will appear with a kids’ coloring book and tiny panda masks.
100 Shoreditch High Street, Hoi-polloi.co.uk
Lead image: Mic