One day in London with kids… who love history
Walk down any street in London and the echoes of the city’s past are all around. With a settlement along the Thames for well over 2,000 years, the Roman settlement of Londinium has left its traces in the old walls and the newly opened Mithraeum temple, whose first worshippers set foot here in the third century AD.
Around 900 years later, the Normans set their stamp on the city with the White Tower, the first part of the Tower of London, Tudors and Georgians following in their wake, a long line of kings, queens, traditions and ceremonies which make the city a perfect place to visit with kids who love history.
London is home to some of the world’s greatest museums as well, with collections from civilisations around the world as well as exhibits on the city itself. In my second itinerary for one day in London with kids – check out my suggestions for animal-lovers here – I’ve picked some of the child-friendly highlights to step back into the past.
With activities, challenges and games, as well as tours, this is as far from a dry, dusty classroom history lesson as you can imagine, with ideas for preschoolers as well as older kids.
Frankly, this turned into something of a mammoth post… and the realisation that there was no way I could fit every option in for history-loving kids, so I’ve picked some of the best and my favourites. As ever, I’m including tips on how much time to spend, to work out how much you can reasonably fit into one day in a city the size of London, and suggestions for various budgets.
One day in London with kids who love history
Don’t miss: The Tower of London
Perhaps my own favourite, the Tower has been royal residence and feared prison, it has seen rebellion and the execution of queens, it houses the crown jewels and was once home to a menagerie of exotic animals. Today, the ravens hopping around the green come with their own legend while the Beefeaters in their glorious uniforms are the guides to introduce you to hundreds of years of history.
How long: Around half a day – the free Beefeater tours take an hour, and you may well need to queue to see the Crown Jewels, with an hour recommended for those too. Younger kids’ attention spans might wane before you’ve run out of things to see.
Do: Turn up early and head straight to the Crown Jewels before the queues get too long. And make sure you download the Time Travellers app with digital missions for kids, or the family trails which you can print out at home from the website. And plan ahead for one special extra – it’s still possible to observe the Ceremony of the Keys before the Tower is locked at 10pm every night, which is said to be the oldest military ceremony in the world, instituted by Edward III. While tickets are free, you’ll need to reserve them as much as a year in advance.
How much? Tickets cost from £22.70 for adults if you buy online, from £10.75 for kids. They’re valid for that day only, and you’ll need to print them before you arrive – there’s no fast track entry, so do be ready to queue. If you get Historic Royal Palaces membership – from £74 for one adult and up to six children – you also get entry to five other palaces, including Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace.
Discover the city: Museum of London
Where better to discover London’s history than a museum dedicated to it? Not least the fact that once upon a time, hippos lived in Trafalgar Square. Going back to 450,000 BC, the permanent galleries trace London’s history right from prehistory to those Romans, medieval times, through plague and fire, to head of an Empire and multicultural present. There are also special exhibitions – 2018 has one on the suffragettes, as well as Roman cemeteries and a gruesomely fascinating chunk of the Whitechapel fatberg, a 130 tonne sewer blockage. Bleurgh.
How long: There’s a lot to cover so you’re likely to get museum fatigue before you explore every bit of the collection – as there’s no entry charge, you could stop in for several short visits if you’re in the Barbican area, but allow a couple of hours otherwise.
Do: Save it for the weekend – often quieter than London’s other museums, especially thanks to its City location, Sundays can be a good day for a visit. And watch out for the museum’s planned move to Smithfield, where it’s set to double its size when the new building opens in 2022.
How much? Absolutely free
Rainy day: The British Museum
The mummies are probably the most famous exhibits for families, among the extensive Egpytology collection, but you’ll find pieces from lost civilisations galore, including Ancient Greece, Saxon England, Easter Island and African empires. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the 12 highlights for kids is a good start.
How long: You could spend all day in the museum and still barely scratch the surface – but as it’s free, it’s also easy to pop in for an hour. Something in between is ideal, a couple of hours to explore the areas which particularly tempt your kids, without resulting in museum fatigue. Take a look online before you go… there are 4 million items in the online collection alone which gives you an idea of just how much you could discover.
Do: Check out the activity options for kids. There are simpler ideas for trails for under-fives based on colour and number as well as options for older kids to explore, backpacks to borrow, art supplies plus a new app with Baron Ferdinand’s challenge. Skip the queues by going in the back door – check out my other tips here – and plan some time outdoors afterwards, Families-only Coram’s Fields, with its play areas, is not far away for some fresh air afterwards. And you can skip the queues to the toilets in the basement too: there are also facilities near the Asian galleries as well.
Day trip: Hampton Court Palace
From the recreated medieval kitchens to the famous maze, this Tudor palace is a fascinating glimpse into royal life – Henry VIII famously acquired it from Cardinal Wolsey, and the ghost of Catherine Howard, his fifth Queen, is said to haunt one gallery after a failed attempt to reach the king from here.
Inside, the palace rooms are still decorated as they would have been at different stages of history, there are treasure hunts for kids and you can even pick up miniature velvet robes to explore in style. As well as the formal gardens, there’s the old ‘real’ tennis court and a new magic garden based on mythical beasts.
How long? Whichever way you travel, the palace is a little way outside west London so you need to factor in time to get there – there’s plenty to occupy once you get there, so it’s worth making a day of it. At busy times, the Magic Garden may be limited to 90 minutes.
Do: Trains run from central London to Hampton Court station which is only a few minutes walk away. In summer, boats do run to Hampton as well, although it’s not the most practical option – it takes around two hours from Richmond, and four from Westminster, although it’s a fantastic way to arrive. Watch out for special events – there’s ice skating around Christmas but try to avoid visiting around the famous flower show as it’s even busier.
How much? Tickets cost from £19.20 for adults and £9.60 for children if you buy online in advance, excluding an optional donation. If you get Historic Royal Palaces membership – from £74 for one adult and up to six children – you also get entry to five other palaces, including Kensington Palace and the Tower of London. You can also buy separate tickets for the Magic Garden and maze only, for £7 and £5.20, excluding palace admission, on the day.
For older kids: The Houses of Parliament
Mixing the chance to walk in history and see where history is still being made, the tour of the Houses of Parliament – inside what’s still officially known as the Palace of Westminster – is fascinating. The options include an audio tour which lasts just over an hour, with a version aimed at children aged seven to 12, as well as slightly longer guided tours, also aimed at the same age group.
As well as visiting the Commons Chamber and the Lords Chamber, you can walk through the Central Lobby and explore Westminster Hall which is almost 1,000 years old – built by England’s second Norman king, and still housing a medieval table where 17 different monarchs would have eaten. Add afternoon tea on after your tour too if you fancy, in a room overlooking the Thames. There’s a children’s menu available as well.
How long? The guided tour lasts 90 minutes, while the audio guide takes 60-75 minutes.
Do: Check the dates and book in advance – you can visit with an audio guide on Saturdays and most weekdays when Parliament is not in session (most of August, and for a couple of weeks in September and October, for instance). The guided tours operate on similar dates but are slightly more limited. Make a note in your diary to come back in 2021 – that’s when the work on the Elizabeth Tower, home to Big Ben, is expected to be finished and tours start again.
How much? The audio guide costs £18.50 for adults, with one child aged five to 15 free with each paying adult (they do still need a booked ticket). Additional children cost from £7.50. A guided tour also costs £18.50 for adults, with children under 15 free – and it’s highly recommended to book in advance. Afternoon tea costs £29 for adults, £14.50 for children under 12.
Living history: The Changing of the Guard
History needn’t mean wandering around old buildings or looking at even older exhibits – especially when you can watch a traditional ceremony, as the Queen’s Guard changes. The Household Troops have guarded Buckingham Palace since Queen Victoria moved in in 1837, although they have guarded the monarch and royal palaces since 1660. Watching the guards march in their bright red uniforms and famous bearskin hats, all with a full military band playing is a very memorable sight.
If you’re visiting between July and September, you can pop into the State rooms at the palace afterwards too. There’s a multimedia tour for under 12s, although it’s worth knowing there are no buggies allowed, limited toilets and no eating inside (so I really wouldn’t advise it with toddlers!)
How long? The ceremony itself runs from around 10.45am for around 45 minutes – the handover from the Old Guard to the New Guard takes place at 11am, although you can see the guards starting to form up by the palace from 10.30am and the new guard arriving from Wellington Barracks. Doublecheck that it’s taking place as usual – although you can normally watch the ceremony on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, it is occasionally cancelled for major events in the capital. And if it’s pouring, don’t brave the rain to see them: it’s normally cancelled in bad weather.
If you want to see the State Rooms, allow around two to three hours for that, and you’ll need a timed ticket.
Do: Get there early to have a chance of seeing anything. Watched by millions every year, turning up at 10.45 (or even 10.30) will find crowds already lining the barriers – and even if you’re right by the palace, you might struggle to see much through the gates. With younger kids, get a taste by heading to Wellington Barracks, on Birdcage Walk at around 10.15, where they’ll be forming up and music will be playing while the troops are inspected. Or watch the Relief march up The Mall just after 11am to relieve the sentries who have been standing guard during the handover. You can also watch the Queen’s Life Guard change on Horse Guards Parade, which tends to be less busy – 11am every day, except Sunday when it takes place at 10am
How much? Free to watch.
Best of the rest – London with kids who love history
- Climb aboard the Golden Hinde II, a replica of the ship with Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world. There are family-friendly tours if you fancy pretending you’re an Elizabethan explorer (or pirate)
- Explore London’s history by the river, at the Museum of London Docklands – set in a 200-year-old warehouse, it follows trade and port life from Roman times to Canary Wharf. Thanks to Natalie on my Facebook page.
- Go back to school… at the Ragged School Museum, once the largest free school in London. It’s free to enter and sit in the authentic Victorian classroom, you can take part in a lesson on selected Sundays, or there are extra activities in holiday times.
- Discover toys through the ages, at the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London. Also free, you can spot toys, dolls, games and more, dating back to the 17th century (and play with a few more modern ones).
- Play at Lords and Ladies – both the National Trust and English Heritage have a string of properties within London, from Osterley and Ham House in the west to Eltham Palace in the south east.
- Take a bus tour – you can choose the open-top tourist buses to see some of the capital’s historic buildings, including Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, plus Buckingham Palace. Or choose your route carefully, and sit on top of a double-decker to spy them for less – buses 11 and 15 are a good start.
Sugar rush with a twist – London with kids who love history
If you want your history to extend to refuelling along the way, check out some of the vintage sweet shops dotted around the capital, with their retro wares. Hardys Original Sweet Shop is a small chain, but the shop in New Row, Covent Garden, feels like it has been around forever.
Disclosure: Contains some affiliate links – any purchases you make are unaffected but I may receive a few pennies.
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