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There are tons of free family activities in London. If you are not in the mood for a museum, or want to combine a visit to a museum with something else, here are some ideas for walking tours that allow you to see some of the major sights & enjoy street theatre, people watching and all manner of city hubbub. You can adjust them or mix and match as you choose.
We have found that even very small children can enjoy a sight seeing expedition, especially if you can contextualize some of what you are looking at. They particularly like to see places they have heard about or seen on TV. All routes assume a start from Kings Cross.
Catch the Piccadilly Line to Covent Garden. There is always plenty going on here with street theatre, the market and the shops. You can abandon older children for a while in the massive Apple store & there are tons of places to eat & drink. From Covent garden you have a couple of good options….
a) walk down towards Trafalgar Square, enjoy the fountains & the Lions & maybe visit the National Gallery. Walk past Charing Cross Station and cross the river on the Hungerford bridge. It is worth making sure you cross using the bridge on the right hand side – upstream towards the Houses of Parliament. This is because then you will get a great view of the London Eye as you cross. The other side has a nice view of the city, but smaller people seem to prefer the Eye view. You will arrive on the Southbank adjacent to the Southbank Centre. There is usually plenty going on around here with lots of events on inside, markets, artificial beaches and pop up bars outside in the summer, street theatre & all round plenty to stand & gawp at. From here, you can either catch the Northern Line at Waterloo to Green Park & pick up the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross, or continue to walk along the Southbank – see walk 3 for more info.
b) walk towards Leicester Square & from there up to Piccadilly Circus. This is a particularly fun amble if it is getting dark, as the neon of theatre land and the bill boards stands out so much more. There are often film premiers in Leicester Square, so if you enjoy star spotting it is worth seeing if there is anything going on. From Piccadilly Circus, you can either jump back on the Piccadilly Line & head back to Kings Cross, or wander up Regent Street or into Soho.
Catch the Piccadilly Line to Green Park and from here head to Buckingham Palace. See if you can catch the Changing of the Guard & when you have taken enough pictures, take a slow walk along The Mall or Birdcage Walk or cut through St James’s Park. Make sure you walk along Whitehall to check out Horse Guards Parade & Downing Street, and then head towards the river & the Palace of Westminster. You actually get a better view of the Houses of Parliament & Big Ben from the Westminster Bridge & the other side of the river.
If you are all still raring to go, you can either stay on the north side of the river and walk along the Embankment towards Charing Cross Station and head along to Trafalgar Square & join up with walk 1, or you can stay on the south side of the river & walk along to the London Eye & the Southbank Centre to join up with walk 1 a.
Catch the Victoria Line to Green park & change to the Jubilee Line to Waterloo. Walk down to meet the river at the Southbank Centre. From here it is a lovely walk all the way along the river to Tower bridge. There is tons to see and do and up to you how far you want to walk before you call it quits.
The main highlights along the way are
– the London Eye & the Southbank Centre
– the Tate Modern
– the Globe Theatre
– the Millennium bridge & St Paul’s (on the north side of the river)
– Borough Market
– the Shard
– the Golden Hinde
– Southwark cathedral
– HMS Belfast
– City Hall, aka the Beehive
– Tower bridge & the Tower of London
– St Katherine’s Dock.
The easiest way back to King’s Cross from any point along the walk is to cross over to the north side of the river at the nearest bridge and catch the Circle Line.
Walking around the City during the weekend is fabulous as there are so few people around, so this is a great choice if you don’t want too much hustle & bustle. You can check out London’s newer skyscrapers dropped in alongside the older architecture. Catch any of the Hammersmith & City, Circle or Metropolitan lines to Moorgate. This is a good stop for the Museum of London. If you are not doing the Museum, head down Moorgate towards Bank and the Bank of England. If you are there on a weekday, the free museum is quite interesting, it is closed weekends & bank holidays.
From Bank, walk along Lombard Street & then on to Fenchurch Street to number 20, aka the Walkie Talkie. This is a great building to stand at the bottom of as it curves overhead. There is a Sky Garden at the top with incredible views. It is open to the public & free to visit. You do have to book in advance though on their website.
Once you have finished at the Walkie Talkie, cross over the road & walk down Lime Street, you will be able to see the distinctive shape of 122 Leadenhall Street, the Cheesegrater, in the background. Stop off at Leadenhall Market. Keen Harry Potter fans will be able to spot Diagon Alley from the films. When you have finished exploring Leadenhall Market, walk out onto Leadenhall Place & you will be able to see the Lloyds Building to your right. I still think this building looks like something out of a sci fi film and who would guess that it houses an insurance market! Follow the building round and you will be able to see the beautiful curves of Norman Foster’s Gherkin, otherwise know as 30 St Mary Axe.
Walk towards the Gherkin and from here you can turn left into Undershaft, walk around the Aviva building until you come to 122 Leadenhall Street, the Cheesegrater. From here, head out onto Bishopsgate, which then turns into Gracechurch Street, and head south, towards the river and you will eventually come to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. You can climb the Monument and the views from the top are pretty cool, but there is a charge, currently £4 for adults & £2 for kids.
From Monument you have 2 good choices, you are very close to the Tower of London, or you can head in the opposite direction along the river to St Paul’s. Both options allow you to hook up with walk 3. Getting back to Kings Cross is easier from the Tower as you can catch a Circle line train from Tower Hill.
Catch the Piccadilly line to Leicester Square. have a wander around Leicester Square and then head north into Chinatown. Enjoy the sights and sounds and pop into a bakery for a sweet treat. Cross over Shaftsbury Avenue into Frith Street or Greek Street to have an amble around Soho. Soho Square & Golden Square are good places to stop for a snack and let fractious toddlers have a good run round.
Make your way over to Beak Street and turn right into Carnaby Street. If you are feeling mentally strong, you can join Regent Street at this point and pay a visit to Hamleys. We can lose hours here as there are tons of toys out to play with and staff demonstrating all manner of exciting things. If your family will tolerate it, we love our next stop to be Liberty. The building is beautiful and if you are with older children interested in art and design there are always lovely things to look at.
From here head up towards Oxford Street. Older children may wish to head for the hallowed halls of Topshop’s flagship store at Oxford Circus, but otherwise head west. This stretch of Oxford Street is home to John Lewis, House of Fraser, Selfridges and a giant Primark, along with pretty much every other high street store. If there is a division of opinion around how much time to spend in the shops, a great option is to send a non-shopping party off to the (free) Wallace Collection a couple of blocks behind Selfridges.
Once you have exhausted the delights of Oxford Street, head towards Hyde Park. Check out Speaker’s Corner, Marble Arch & the RAF Bomber Command Memorial. Depending on how much energy you have you can walk down to the Serpentine and all the way through to Knightsbridge or Green Park and Buckingham Palace. If you get as far as Hyde Park Corner, you can catch the Piccadilly line from there straight back to Kings Cross. If your legs start to tire near the Oxford Street end of the park, your best bet is to catch the central Lane at Marble Arch & change onto the Victoria line at Oxford Circus.
If you have seen a lot of the main central London sights & are looking for something a bit different, we really like Little Venice. Catch the Hammersmith & City or Circle lines to Paddington and from there head to Sheldon Square & the Paddington Basin. Follow the waterside walk as it heads northwest (ish), and you will end up at Little Venice Pier. From here you can either join a boat trip – there are several operators – through to Camden Lock, or keep walking.
The Canal & River Trust have a great description of a circular walk from Little Venice through Regent’s park and on to Camden Lock. We tend to do the walk one way which is around 2 miles and stop at Camden Lock. From here we like to explore Camden Market and eventually head down to Camden Town. You can pick up the bank branch of the Northern Line here and head back to Kings Cross.
Greenwich is a brilliant place for a family day out, especially in better weather. There is a nice mix of indoor and outdoor activity & lots of options to picnic. Catch the Northern line to Bank and from there get a DLR train to Greenwich.
We like to start with a look at the Cutty Sark and imagine her under sail heading down the river. From here pop in the tourist information centre which (along with some useful information) has some armour that you can play with. Head out to explore the Old Royal Naval College, making sure you take in the Painted Hall and the beautiful Chapel. From here, wander up towards the Maritime Museum and spend some time there.
If you are in need of sustenance at this point, it is well worth dealing with this before you head through the park and up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Our favourite option is to send a foraging party to acquire a picnic and have everyone meet up in the park. If the weather does not support this, Greenwich Market has plenty of food stalls & is perfect if you are with older kids. If your family is not of an age where it can cope with eating street food, try the Old Brewery which has a café & a restaurant, the Greenwich Tavern or Goddards for pie & mash. There is also an amazing ice cream shop, Black Vanilla, which should appear on your list.
Greenwich Park is a great place to run off some ice cream related sugar. It is absolutely massive so if you want to get away from the crowds, just start walking away from Greenwich and you will soon find a quieter spot. The Royal Observatory is at the top of the hill and very hard to miss. This is well worth a visit. Some of the galleries are free, but there is a charge for the planetarium and to get into the Meridian Courtyard. You can stand on the meridian for free – you can see it running out of the fenced area near the courtyard and you can follow it into public space.
Greenwich can easily be a day trip by itself, but if you want to continue into central London to do something else, the easiest (& most fun) way to get there is by boat. If you go down to the pier near the Cutty Sark you will be able to see times & prices. You get a discount on some boats if you have an Oyster card.
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