It’s no secret that London is home to a few of the world’s leading museums. You can easily spend hours admiring the Rosetta stone, visiting the Elgin marbles, and comparing centuries-old portraits of Tudors and Windsors at the National Portrait Gallery . WITHOUT KIDS.
But museums in London for kids? That’s a whole other matter. I firmly believe that kids and museums aren’t mutually exclusive, but you do need to research beforehand to make sure that they cater for the age group and interests of your children. When you’re a visitor to London with time limitations and kids who might be tired, overwhelmed or simply not interested in being contained in a huge building filled with exhibits, you need to be selective about the museums you go to.
While we were in London last year, we were staying in South Kensington (“SouthKen” to the locals, say with your best posh accent) within walking distance of a trifecta of famous museums: the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria & Albert. I was impressed that we managed a day – one whole day! – of museums, plus we popped into others in different areas. Here are my top picks, all of which, I might add, are completely free for kids:
Recently the star of the film version of Paddington, the Natural History museum is well known for its striking Romanesque façade and the 32-metre long diplodocus skeleton that graces the central hall. Ride up the giant escalator through a gleaming planet into the ‘Red Zone’ – big kids will love the interactive exhibits about volcanos, earthquakes and minerals. The stars of the museum are the dinosaurs, and my kids were particularly enthralled by the skeletons and the animatronic models complete with terrifying roars. If time allows, check out the enormous blue whale skeleton in the New Whale Hall. In the insects and butterflies section, toddlers will love peering through telescopes, pulling levers and hearing sounds (watch out for the spiders). Best of all, entry is free.
Don’t miss: The life-sized robotic T-rex. There’s an excellent café and the gift shop is great for books and souvenirs, too.
Best for: All ages, but if the kids are little the dinosaurs are your best bet.
Cromwell Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD
Located next to the Natural History Museum, London’s Science Museum is one of the best family-friendly museums I have ever visited. Where to start? First up, entry to the museum is free (it’s amazing to think that you can visit this museum and the Natural History Museum without buying a ticket. Who said London was expensive?). It’s a cliché but there really is something for everyone here. From budding Einsteins to toddlers who just want to push buttons or play with water, the Science Museum is exceptional. Stroll past full-size steam engines, rockets and satellites, or head down to the Launchpad exhibit where older kids can get their hands dirty (literally) while exploring physics. Enormous ceilings and halls add to the sense of wonder. Needless to say, the family rooms and cafes are all top notch.
Don’t miss: The Garden and the Pattern Pod are perfect for littlies – just be prepared that they’ll never want to leave.
Best for: Kids of all ages, but children under six are especially well catered for here.
Exhibition Rd, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD
The highlight of my two-and-a-half-year-old son’s visit to London was undoubtedly the transportation: sitting in the jump seat of black cabs, riding the Tube, going upstairs on a double-decker bus and watching the Tower Bridge open up all gave him paroxysms of delight. Where better to indulge him then, at the London Transport Museum, where 200 years worth of trains, trams, cars and buses are displayed. Even the café gets in on the transport theme, with transport-shaped pasta and Tube-themed milkshakes. Your little boys will be in heaven! Entry if free for children under 17.
Don’t miss: The new family play zone, where kids can drive tube train simulators, dress up as conductors and play on real buses and trains.
Best for: Boys who really love their trains.
Covent Garden Piazza, London, WC2E 7BB
The grand old dame of London Museums, the British Museum is an awe-inspiring place for families to visit. Given the museum’s size, be strategic about which exhibits are most of interest to your children and make a plan before you come. While there are free trails to follow for the under-five crew, I think the British Museum is more for school-aged children who can read and participate in the themed trails (hunt for dragons, anyone?) and activities on offer. The museum certainly goes out of its way to be family friendly, with picnic areas, free children’s meals in the Gallery Café and complimentary art materials at the dedicated Families Desk. Entry is free.
Don’t miss: the mummy masks in the Egyptian exhibit; visit ancient Greece or become an archaeologist with the free themed backpacks containing games and activities.
Best for: School-aged kids with a sense of history.
Great Russell St, London, WC1B 3DG
If you’d like your kids to grasp the historical significance of the English capital, don’t miss the Museum of London. From prehistoric and Roman times to the modern day, the family-friendly exhibits will engage most age groups. Many of the galleries are interactive: play with toys from the 1950s, relax in a recreated Georgian garden, or listen to the sounds of a Saxon household. There are also activity sheets, online games and sensory bags if you want to enhance the experience, although my kids were simply happy to just lap it all up. And eat the packed lunch I brought at the provided picnic areas. There are also a number of cafes – the London Wall Bar & Kitchen next door is my pick. Entry is free.
Don’t miss: the weird and wonderful items on display, including a Roman bikini and the 250-year-old mayor’s coach.
Best for: All ages.
150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN