The summer holidays are looming. Parents are starting to panic about how to fill them. Fortunately, despite London’s justified reputation is a fiendishly expensive city, there’s lots to do here for free.
I’m a massive Scrooge when it comes to outings for the children, and take a Number 12 bus past the Houses of Parliament over a West End show most days. Here is my Top 10 Free Outings for Kids in London – feel free to add your own, I’d love to try them.
1 Visit a Museum
Most of central London’s museums are free, with the exception of special exhibitions. One of my family’s favourites is the National Gallery. Ignore ‘smug mum’ overtones because I take a hit and run approach by focusing on a couple of paintings each visit – any more and my children run amok in manner most unhelpful to gallery goers enjoying quiet contemplation of national treasures. Anything with blood and gore goes down well with my boys: Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet’s The Battle of Montmirail a recent hit. What’s fascinating is seeing paintings through their eyes. Mine weren’t too excited by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, my five-year-old commenting that his ‘teacher did something similar at school that was much better’. While they were fascinated by a boy’s haircut in a painting I’d never noticed by Jacometto.
You can print out a Visiting with Children Trail tour in advance, which takes visitors around five important paintings from the collection.
2 Splash in Trafalgar Square
Not sure if you’re allowed to physically cool off in Trafalgar Square’s fountains, but they’re certainly popular with visiting yoof from the Continent. Mine chucked in a couple of pennies, climbed on the lions, and enjoyed guessing the height of Nelson’s Column. Throw in a picnic and that’s at least a couple of hours of fun without having to stray too far.
3 Ride on a Red Double Decker Bus
Few free thrills (a fast escalator, perhaps) equal the excitement a child gets from riding on the front seat of the top deck of a London bus. The views, the swerving round corners, the peeking into the window of flats. You get a sense of London’s geography that simply isn’t possible when you pop out of Underground stations, and the best bit is that children aged 10 and under accompanied by an adult ride for free. In fact, all children ride for free, but unaccompanied children, or children who look older than 10, need a 5-10 Zip Oystercard. For details, click here.
You can’t hop on and off a London Bus in the same way that you can a sightseeing tour. However, if you only want to see the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and Oxford Street, get on a number 12 bus. For Waterloo Bridge and the South Bank (where you can get off and marvel at the London Eye) take the 211, 24 or 11.
4 Make Sandcastles at Princess Diana Memorial Playground
Love, love, love this playground. It’s fenced, and adults unaccompanied by children aged 12 or younger aren’t allowed in. There’s masses to do inside, from jumping off a giant wooden pirate ship, wobbling on a smaller one held up by chains, building sandcastles to the usual slides and swings. The ‘Queen of Hearts’ would most definitely have approved. When you’re played out, there’s still Kensington Gardens to charge around. Mainly a car-free zone, take bikes and scooters and wear the children out.
5 Practice Marching at the Changing of the Guards
This couldn’t-be-more-London spectacle features the Household Cavalry . From April to July this happens daily at 11.30am. From August to March on alternate days at the same time. During the summer it’s worth getting there at least an hour early to get a prime spot. For the lowdown, visit Changing the Guard website.
6 Fantasy Shop in Harrods
Pester power to buy them toys and treats aside, London’s department stores are enormous fun. The glass-walled The Pet Spa at Harrod’s is where you can see the world’s most pampered pooches being preened. We were there recently and spent at least 20 minutes watching an Old English Sheepdog being blowdried, a tiny Pekinese being shampooed, and a terrier of pedigree unknown curled up waiting its turn on a padded bench. My boys were entranced, and shrieked with joy in the adjoining pet store when they discovered Pepper & Tanky Vanilla Woof Perfume, £52.95 (I know!!), doggy cupcakes, diamante-studded pet bowls and the most designer selection of feline and canine accessories in the world. Be warned – the toy department is right next to the pet department!
7 Laugh Along with an Audience of a CBBC Show
CBBC films many of its shows around the UK, so you don’t necessarily need to be in London for this one. You can also apply to take part in a show – click here for details. But if you’re in town see what’s on offer because you could be in the audience for Who Let the Dogs Out and About, or trying out some sports during the live filming of Blue Peter’s Big Olympic Tour 2012.
8 Romp in Richmond Park
If you live in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales or Dartmoor, you might not get as excited as I do about Richmond Park. For Londoners this is as close to living on the wild side as it gets. Herds of Red and Fallow Dear roam free, there are trees to climb, cycle paths to negotiate and stag beetles to hunt down. This designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve is free to visit, and you don’t even have to pay for parking.
9 A Dry Day Out at the O2
The enormous O2 Arena is a surprisingly good rainy day bolthole. There’s masses of space inside to run around, and you can while away a few minutes driving a car simulator in the Nissan Innovation Station. There are always art installations to look at, and plenty of places to treat yourself to a low-cost snack or cup of coffee.
10 Join the Navy with a tour of HMS Belfast
The 15 and under brigade can visit HMS Belfast, a Second World War battleship, for free. Its nine decks include fortified Shell Rooms, an interactive Operations Room and a trip really helps children understand what wartime life was like at sea for brave sailors.
Keep checking the What’s On section of the angels & urchins website for more ideas – there’s never a dull moment in our family-friendly capital!