Eight Great Places for Families to Visit in London

This past summer my family spent part of our "holiday" in London. From the time we stepped foot back in Chicago, we were asked the same question time and time again - What did you like best about London? While we loved so many things about the city, the question made us all pause and really think about our very favorite places. Based on our collective answers, I put together my family's list of eight great places for families to visit in London.

As you review our list and perhaps use it to guide your own travels to London, I'll preface it with a few key facts:

  1. We have two young boys ages 8 and 5;
  2. Our two young boys are very into soccer (or English football) and Harry Potter;
  3. And, we tend to shy away from some of the very popular, often touristy and typically expensive urban sites (like the London Eye, Madame Tussaud's and HMS Belfast).

With that out of the way, let's get right to our list of eight great places for families to visit in London (in no particular order):

1. Soccer (English Football) Stadiums:

Community Shield Game

The scene after the crowd left the Community Shield Game

When we were in London, the soccer stars were completely aligned for my sons. During our visit, which fell during the soccer off season, Manchester United faced Wigan Athletic in the 2013 FA Community Shield at Wembley Stadium. Since my sons are huge "Man U" fans, we knew we had to see the boys in red take the field at the legendary stadium.

But, we realize that's not always going to be the case. So, no matter when you head to London, you can get your soccer kicks by visiting one or more of the sport's shrines located across the city.

We ended up going to Stamford Bridge and Emirates stadiums, but we could

Emirates Stadium

Arsenal greats adorn Emirates Stadium

have gone to more. A lot more to be exact. London is home to 13 professional soccer teams (or football clubs).

At most stadiums, you can buy tickets to get a formal tour of the dressing rooms, players tunnel, field, press room, and more. We passed on the tours, opting instead to stroll the stadium grounds and, of course, browse the stores for Chelsea and Arsenal (and maybe buy a jersey or two...).

 2. Somerset House:
The former royal palace is now a major arts and culture center. Located in the heart of London, along the Thames,Somerset House offers enticing activities and events for arts and culture enthusiasts, foodies, fashionistas and families all year long.

Somerset House Fountains

Somerset House fountains

When were there this summer, Somerset House won over my children with its 55 fountains that spray water at anyone daring (or hot enough) to run through them. As lunchtime drew near, the fountains attracted more and more people eager to cool off from the warm summer temperatures or grab a scenic picnic in the palace's majestic courtyard.

While my husband and I enjoyed the chance to sit and relax and watch our sons dart and dance through the water, we also were intrigued by two of the art exhibitions taking place at Somerset House: elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food and Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me.

During the summer, Somerset House also tempts film lovers with outdoor showings in its courtyard. Come winter, its fountains are replaced by an ice rink where young and old can seemingly skate across and through time.

3. National Portrait Gallery:
Before we left for London, a colleague of mine said I had to go to the National Portrait Gallery - and now I know why. It's an exquisite museum that showcases the people behind Britain's storied history - from past to present.

Gazing at George...

Gazing at George...

My focus was more on modern history, and I couldn't wait to see portraits of the reigning royal family and the beloved Princess Diana. It was amazing to look on these famous portraits that have graced magazine covers, postcards and more - in real life from the heart of London. I also was eager to be able to gaze upon other British "royalty" - David Beckham and the Spice Girls. But, for my visit, I was only able to find their images online in the National Portrait Gallery's archives - of which you can order and take home prints of your very own.

A short trip through the museum served as a walk through time, and captivated my sons. They both liked seeing the many kings and queens. But, not too surprisingly, my American sons were most enamored with the leader most familiar to them - George Washington - whose portrait also can be found hanging there.

As with many other London museums, admission is free, making it easy to pop in for a short, kid-optimal time.

4. Trafalgar Square:

Before...

Before...

Trafalgar Square is a public space in the center of London that quickly became one of my sons' favorites places to run, climb and relax - less than two miles from the queen's residence.

The stately space is bordered by the National Gallery, St Martin-in-the-Fields church, South Africa House and Canada House. At its heart is the iconic Nelson's Column surrounded by four lion statues. The lions are just too hard for two young boys to resist, and my sons climbed them again and again. The steps at the base of the column also proved a worthy challenge and were an ideal spot for my sons to climb up and take in the other locals and tourists packed into the square.

Many quick lunch options can be found around the perimeter of the square, making it easy for you to grab a lunch or snack and then picnic in the scenic square. It was there that my sons finally got to eat at a Pret A Manger.

Trafalgar Square's convenient location made it an easy place to stop and let our young boys be boys before

After...

After...

venturing off to yet another London tourist site. The square proved to be even more memorable the day of the England vs. Scotland national team soccer game when the "Tartan Army" seemingly took over the square, filling it and its fountains with an enormous amount of beer and discarded cans, bottles and soccer balls.

5. Borough Market:
Borough Market is London’s most revered food market - and for very good reason. It's seemingly hidden in a quaint area along the Thames River near the London Bridge, nestled underneath Victorian railway arches.

Searching for samples...

Searching for samples...

The market is packed with an amazing selection of stalls stocked with baked goods, olives, sausages, produce, fish and chips, and more. And, its colors, scents and samples are a delight to the senses.

While we heard the market is the busiest on Fridays and Saturdays, we went on a Thursday and found it to be rather packed as well. But, the crowds made for fun people watching, and the queues of foodies seemed to show us the way to the most coveted goods among the market stalls.

My sons loved seeing all of the foods that lined each stall, and quickly worked to seek out every single free sample. It made for an easy way to get them to try new and different foods.

After we made sure to stop by every single stall, we loaded up our arms with food for lunch, which we then enjoyed along the Thames just down the way from the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

6. Millennium Bridge:

The view from the Tate Modern

The view from the Tate Modern

The Millennium Bridge is the iconic steel-suspension, pedestrian-only bridge that spans the River Thames, linking Bankside with the City of London. It runs between two popular sites for visitors to the city - St. Paul's Cathedral to the north and the Tate Modern to the south. As you may infer from its name, the bridge opened in the middle of the new Millennium in June 2000.

During our stay in London, we cross the River Thames via the Millennium Bridge twice. Both times, we were equally enraptured by the incredible view. From the middle of the bridge, you can look out along the river and across at St. Paul's Cathedral, the London Eye and Big Ben.

For my sons, the bridge is forever infamous as one of the sites in London that the "Death Eaters" destroyed in the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Out on the bridge together, we all stood in silence looking out at the scene around us, with differing images of London past and present, real and fantasy in our minds.

7. Tower of London:

The White Tower

The White Tower

Billed as Europe's best-preserved medieval castle, walking into the Tower of London is like taking a walk back in time and through history. Over time, the Tower of London has served as a fortress, medieval palace, royal prison, mint and armory - and traces of its legacy are still readily apparent.

Today, you can visit the White Tower to see the armor and weapons used by kings, knights and others. When we were there, a crowd gathered in awe around the armor worn by King Henry VIII.

Across the way, you can queue in line to gain entrance to the Jewel House and glimpse the ornate crowns, rings and scepters and other "Crown Jewels" worn by English royalty throughout much of its history. Just be sure to head there as soon as you arrive at the Tower of London. We saw the line grow to kid whine-inducing proportions during our visit there.

My sons enjoyed taking in some of the theatrical reenactments put on by actors in period costumes throughout the grounds, but they did not have the patience to join the large crowd that amassed for a Yeoman Warder (or Beefeater) tour. Of course that didn't stop us from posing for photo with a Yeoman Warder who we conveniently spotted outside of the restrooms.

Thanks to our trusty guidebook, we also were able to share fascinating tales with our sons of the mysterious disappearance of the young Princes Edward V and his brother Richard of York in 1483, the legend that the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress' grounds, and the long path prisoners often took from the River Thames into the Traitor's Gate and then on into the prison.

8. Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter:
Okay, so to be completely honest, I saved my sons' favorite London site for last. If you ever ask them what they liked best about London, they'll quickly answer that it was The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studio just outside of the city in nearby Leavesden.

Diagon Alley

Diagon Alley

Visitors need to book timed tickets in advance to ensure your chance to tour the behind-the-scenes studio that helps bring to life all of your favorite characters, scenes and memories from each of the eight Harry Potter movies. We reserved an early entrance time to make sure we didn't feel like we had to rush through the studio before it closed - and we're so glad we did!

We had read that you should allow three to four hours for your tour of the studio. We were there five hours - and we could have stayed there even longer!

Your visit to the Warner Bros. Studio starts off with a brief movie on the making of Harry Potter. At its conclusion, you are welcomed into the one and only Great Hall at Hogwarts where you're then told even more fun and interesting facts about the making of the movies. You are then welcome to head out into the rest of the studio to explore it at your own pace.

My sons loved seeing the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore's study, Potions class and, of course, Diagon Alley. They also enjoyed being able to climb aboard the Knight Bus, pose for photos in front of 4 Privet Drive, pretend to fly on a broom, and learn how to duel with wands. A highlight was able to grab a mug of the famous Butter Beer only available at the London studio and at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Fla.

Platform 9 3/4

Platform 9 3/4

While we were afraid that our visit here might take away some of the magic and mystic of the Harry Potter movies, it only seemed to add to it and fuel their dream to one day leave us behind to attend wizardry classes at Hogwarts.

If you or your children need even more Harry Potter fun and fantasy in London, be sure to stop by Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station. There, you can queue to line up to take a photo pushing a trunk through the famous wall - and purchase it for an ever-lastly memento at the nearby Warner Bros. store.

What are some of your family's favorite places in London? Please share your recommendations in the comments below.

Interested in learning more about our recent trip to London? If so, you also should check out these Raising World Citizens posts:

- Fun and Functional London Souvenirs
Six ways it hit home we were in London this summer
Photos: Royal Baby Prince George souvenirs in London
A wish for a Wagamama restaurant to open in Chicago

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Filed under: London Tips and Tales, Travel

Tags: London, Travel

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