Summer Fun in London

Over the summer we took our three kids, ages 8, 12, and 15, on a thirteen day adventure to London and Paris. Our first international travel with our family of five!  We had some set goals in mind, mainly Budget-friendly sightseeing (not always easy in London) and to live like the locals when possible. From previous travel experience, we knew that the latter was made easiest by staying in the neighborhoods, so we searched Airbnb and found accommodations that made our trip the most comfortable home(s) away from home! (If you want to check out the flats we rented, I’ve listed them here London Dreams Come True.) We also knew that we had two kids who were all about the adventure and one whose walking shoes were on a limited time frame, the plans had to be accommodating across the ages.

To help the budget we opted to stick with public transportation and made good use of the underground and buses, and LOTS of walking. Some advice I had gotten from a friend (and many of the blogs I found while researching our trip) was to pre-purchase the London Pass with Oyster Cards.  Oyster Cards are cards you use for transportation at the underground stations, bus stations and some train stations. We landed on Saturday morning and had our Oyster Cards in hand and ready to jump on the Underground to find our Airbnb.  Super convenient!

The London Pass was a great way to keep us focused on the highlights. Our first 5 days were in London, and so we decided that would be our London Pass days.. we bought the 3 Day package for all 5 of us. This cost us $725 USD, and included 25 (pounds) Oyster Cards for 2 adults and 2 older kids, thus giving us funds for using the underground (subway) and buses. Charges vary for children ages, so it pays to be younger in this case! Our plan was to start our London Pass adventure Sunday since the Pass began with the first engagement..meaning once we started using it we had 3 consecutive days to explore with it, after which it was void. We used Saturday to get acclimated in our flat, grabbed lunch at a nearby restaurant and took the underground into Central London to visit the Borough Market. It was a great start to our vacay.

Making the most of our London Passes over the next 3 days:

I had worked out a great itinerary to cover a lot of ground using our London Pass. It didn’t take long for us to realize we wouldn’t be able to get it all in, so a quick shuffle of priorities and we made the most of it! Places we visited using our London Pass:

  • The Tower of London – The Queen’s Jewels, checking out the torture chamber + Royal zoo exhibit and the Beef Eater tour made this one of the kid’s faves!
  • The Tower Bridge(Fast Pass with the London lines!)
  • The Shard – great views during the daytime, we Wenjoyed sitting at the windows and pointing out the areas we had been to.
  • The London Bridge Experience -(older kids, and they didn’t want to do it all..pretty creepy)
  • The HMS Belfast – (I took our youngest to tour this massive naval ship while the others were being scared *see above)
  • Westminster Abbey -(includes audio tour) Wow do the Brits know how to bury and honor their noble (whether through national reverence or monetary donations…the ‘noble’ are well remembered here!). Not quite the kids favorite stop, but a must-see if you’re in the area of course.
  • Windsor Castle – The Queen was HOME!  We were thrilled to see the flag flying high, a sign that the Queen was in residence.  Travel to the Castle is included with the pass, and after days spent with hours of walking we all enjoyed a nice train ride.  Also, you don’t have to wait in the VERY LONG LINE with the London Pass, and includes the audio guide! It is rumored that the Windsor Castle is the Queen’s favorite… it’s easy to see why!
  • Curzon Cinema in SOHO– We ended one of the days watching a new release (Isle of Dogs) in a dark, air conditioned vintage theater with the most plush seats.. the kids were super happy!

We missed doing these adventures (due to timing really):

  • Hop On/Off Bus- we waited for over 30 minutes in front of Buckingham Palace for a bus and it never showed. We decided to walk the area, and just gave up on the bus altogether.
  • Thames River Cruise Hop on/off-  this would have been a lovely way to see the river bank, but the cruises ended earlier than expected and we ran out of time.
  • Britt Movie Tours- this was the biggest disappointment for my kids. We were planning to split between the Harry Potter tour and the Sherlock Holmes tour, only to find out they run certain tours only on certain days, neither on the Tuesday I had planned for. Bummer. Next time!
  • Jason’s Canal Boat trip- the original plan was to walk from the train station after our Windsor Castle tour,  to the canal that Jason’ boat is located (called Little Venice… looks magical!) and take a ride over to Camden Market for lunch and shopping. However, the castle was so impressive and we all enjoyed the tour so much that we lingered in the town of Windsor and had lunch there…thus missing the ride altogether. It was worth it though…we really embraced a slower pace and truly soaked up all the Royal bliss!

Along the way things we saw that were free and made for good memories!

  • Millennium Bridge– Make sure to pay close attend to the surface of the bridge and you’ll find some pretty spectacular art painted right there on the bridge on top of discarded chewing gum. The gum art was started by a local artist, Ben Wilson and he has literally made trash into treasure. Lots of fun for the kids.
  • Tate Modern– located right by the Millenium Bridge, we didn’t go in but instead enjoyed the entertainers out front of the museum, much more my kids speed. However, if you get to go in make sure to check out the view from the top, catch a glimpse at Walhol and Picasso pieces. They do have a kid’s area for doodling and creating.
  • South Bank (River Walk)– I searched Google, Pinterest, blogs and anything I could get my hands on to understand the river bank. Mainly.. would there be good restaurants? Fun places for my kids to visit? Places to rest?  YES to all of those…but I didn’t have any idea until I was there how very populated and pedestrian friendly this area is. Carousels, benches, beautiful plazas, street food, restaurants, bars, museums…it’s all there!
  • The London Eye– We opted to not go up in one of the pods, and after seeing it in person we regretted that decision just a little. (We did enjoy the view from the Shard… it was amazing!!) We walked around the area, made use of the very clean facilities and all agree that next visit we’ll do the London Eye.
  • Buckingham Palace– located right behind Westminster….it’s a massive palace!  We walked the length of it, admired it and took several selfies street side. We didn’t go in… didn’t even inquire on how one would do that. We had already seen Windsor, so we felt our Royalty cup was overflowing.
  • Wagamama– If I left this out my family would disown me. We visited Wagamama atleast 3 times.. I’m sure it was more. Kids, vegan dad, tired mom…we all loved it!
  • Trafalgar Square– We wandered aimlessly in the SOHO area, and found our way through Little China, and landed at Trafalgar Square. Pics on the famous fountains and we even located Britain’s smallest police station (inside a light post..not even kidding).
  • Shakespeare’s Globe – we actually could have taken a tour and even seen a production here with our London Passes, but we settled for the walk-by. We did stop and read the plaque as well as peek over the gates to the moss covered circular rooftop. Definitely another very interesting spot we would like to revisit!
  • Paddington Station– our first trip on a train was from the Paddington Station. The kids, youngest especially, had a great time recognizing the station from the Paddington Bear movies.

Countless photo opportunities were around every corner! We actually saw a wedding party step out of a church on the river bank and my oldest asked ‘does everyone look like models here?!’.  The scene was very movie worthy.  Unfortunately, Big Ben was under construction with lots of scaffolding blocking the view. We were near the Houses of Parliament on several occasions.. no takers on venturing inside.  I had hoped to catch a ride in one of the iconic black taxis, but with 5 people we would need 2 taxis and that meant we were split up. No one else seemed worried over it, so we didn’t hail a taxi. But we did use the underground for every destination for our first 5 days in London (other than to Windsor, where we took the train from the Paddington Station). We felt safe, and the maps were very easy to navigate.

Some of our favorite memories using the London Pass: