London is a fabulous city for entertaining children for free. Yes, really. There’s a huge array of free-to-enter museums, galleries, child-centric attractions and famous locations to explore. And then, of course, there are the acres of parks with water features and playgrounds galore.
Kids never tire of splashing in and out of choreographed jet fountains, like the ones in Granary Square, King’s Cross and Somerset House’s grand courtyard. Or you can try to dodge the soaking water jets by racing from room to room in The Appearing Rooms Fountain at London’s Southbank Centre, an interactive water jet sculpture created by Danish artist Jeppe Hein.
Older kids (aged eight and up) and teens will love swimming in Hampstead Ponds. It’s £2 for adults for a day ticket and free for kids. Children aged eight to 15 must be with an adult and you’re only allowed two children per adult. The ladies’ pond is beautifully secluded and serene, while the mixed pond is more boisterous.
Mum Mandy Francis also recommends paying a visit to the Victoria and Albert museum, which is free entry, as “the water feature in the central courtyard is huge, shallow and perfect for younger children to paddle in. Lots take swimsuits or strip off to their undies and you can take a picnic too, though there’s a cafe right next to it if you prefer”.
Escape the traffic and relax in a glorious park. The drought may have turned the grass to pale dust, but London boasts some of the best spaces for kids to run free, from the semi-wilderness of Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park to the more manicured St James’s Park and Hyde Park. For views of London’s skyline, head to Primrose Hill or Greenwich Park.
The Diana Memorial Playground, created near Kensington Palace in memory of Princess Diana, remains one of the best and busiest central playgrounds with its huge wooden pirate ship marooned on a beach. Take suncream and a picnic and prepare to spend the day there, while your kids make new friends.
Mum Jayne Savva recommends Coram’s Fields: “There’s a water park, an adventure playground - with a witch’s hat (remember those!) - and a city farm,” she says. “It’s right in the middle of London, near the British Museum, but so leafy and lovely.”
While for those out east, Charotte Kewley casts a vote for Walthamstow Wetlands. “Kids can run, scoot and cycle around in this new nature reserve and they have free kids’ activities on certain days,” she says. “We also love the Olympic park village with its space and fountains.”
Before you had kids, you may have dashed past the street performers in Covent Garden or wondered what sort of person would want to stand motionless covered in silver paint. That all changes once you have children in need of free entertainment (bar a few coins in the hat) who will be entranced by unicyclists juggling chainsaws, escapologists wriggling out of locks and not-so creepy clowns. As Emma Howarth discovered: “My kids go crazy for a Covent Garden Street show or levitating Yoda; anything that would have made my London dwelling self cringe to the max.”
Older kids and teenagers will love the buzz of Camden Market (though you may find they “neeeeed” a T-shirt/pair of sunglasses/dangly bracelet). The street food is delicious but pricey, so pack sandwiches and relax by the canal.
The last weekend in August is Notting Hill Carnival, the largest street festival in Europe and a must-see. Sunday is Family Day, with a more relaxed vibe and hundreds of elaborate floats, dancing to reggae, rumba and calypso as well as proud young performers in elaborate costumes.
If you find yourself more central, the Southbank is the perfect place to take a wander, with no worries about traffic and (hopefully) a bit of a breeze from the Thames. Walk over the Millenium Bridge then wind your way to Westminster, Big Ben and the Houses of Commons. Potential pause points include the free-to-enter Tate Modern, trying to pop giant bubbles, making sand mermaids on the Southbank beach and the playground under the London Eye. Free Tours by Foot give guided family tours, with themes from Harry Potter to Street Art and Graffiti in the East End.
A Bit Of Culture
London is home to some world famous museums and art galleries which are free to enter, including the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Science Museum and Natural History Museum and the National Gallery.
Rather than dragging smaller children round room after room, make your visit quick and fun with a single mission. ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm’ by Rousseau at the National is a great introduction to paintings and stories for young children, followed by a climb on the Trafalgar Square lions and a picnic dangling your feet in the fountains.
For school age children the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum are always a hit, especially the ghoulishly intriguing mummies exhibition. and Sarah Pearmain highly recommends The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. “It is lovely,” she says. “They have an aquarium, a butterfly house and a stuffed walrus, plus grounds and views of London are beautiful.”
Eve Hester-Wyne, on the other hand, loves visiting The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. “It’s fantastic with interactive exhibits, dressing up and antique toys. We’ve been going for years.”