***image1***(Editor’s note: First in a three-part series highlighting European travel for families.)
For spring break last year, my husband and I gave the kids — ages 12 and 9, affectionately known as Thing 1 and Thing 2 — their choice of travel. Hot off the influence of films like “What a Girl Wants,” and the James Bond films, we had a rare consensus: London.
All of us learned quite a bit, so I thought I’d share some tips for families with elementary and middle-school age children about visiting London.
We split up for our visit to The Tower of London. T1 was impatient in the jewel room, and T2 wanted to linger in the horse room of the armory. The gift shop here was very good, and no pricier than others. T1 chose a set of Scholastic’s “Horrible Histories” books (“History with the disgusting parts left in”), and T2 chose a Beefeater teddy bear to remember the famous Tower guards.
All the national museums are free. If you only have time for one – make it The British Museum. T1 and T2 were very into ancient Egypt and mummies. Plus, they have a special gift shop for kids.
Book tickets ahead of time online for the London Eye Ferris wheel (http://www.london eye.com). You save 5 percent and can purchase discount combination tickets to other attractions. Ours was combined with Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the London Planetarium. If you do the Eye early, the kids get a good view of places they will be seeing.
You can pose along side the wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s; they aren’t under glass. T2 loved being photographed with Britney and Buffy, and T1 got a kick out of his heroes Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. Visitors can fantasize with life-like figures from Hollywood and history. We all enjoyed this.
Planet Hollywood hamburgers and fries don’t taste any better than mine, just cost 10 times more. However, both T1 and T2 loved all the movie props.
***image2***“The Complete Works of Shakespeare: abridged,” by The Reduced Shakespeare Company, is a fabulous way for families to experience London theater. Much of the show is interactive and improvised, and the cast kept calling us “the Muppets” up in our private box. After a few off-color jokes, they started singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” for nine-year-old T2’s sake. I can’t remember all of us ever laughing so hard together. It costs much less than top-billed shows like, “The Lion King.”
Sadly, we must not be witches or wizards, as we just bumped into the Platform 93/4 entrance at King’s Cross Station, but we all tried.
Kids can learn all they are going to from St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in less than 30 minutes each. Don’t miss St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, where the acoustics take a whisper from one side of the dome to the other.
The Changing of the Guard at Bucking-ham Palace looks better in the movies.
Never, ever take a nine-going-on-15-year-old girl into Harrods department store. “This place makes you feel like a princess!” T2 said. And they expect you to pay like one. One pink denim mini-skirt was nearly $400.
Namco Station, billed as the UK’s largest video arcade, is a rip-off even according to T1 who set it as his top priority.
If you take the 0-dark-30, nearly-free Ryan Air flight from Hahn to London-Stansted, plan little for the first day. Everyone may be tired and grouchy.
***image3***Stay in a family-friendly youth hostel like Hampstead Heath or Lee Valley (http://www. yhalondon.org.uk/families.htm). Prices and the high exchange rate in the UK will break a family quickly. At the new Lee Valley Hostel, all four of us shared one room with four bunks, private bath and shower for about $110 per night, including a generous, cafeteria-style traditional English breakfast. Linens were provided, and our cabin had a kitchenette stocked with free tea, coffee and cocoa. Box lunches and a very economical cafeteria dinner were also available. It is about 45 minutes north of London by train, but directly on the tracks for easy foot access. T1 and T2 could run amok with the other kids, and the hostel has a great hands-on exhibit of the site’s Roman history. Be careful, though, as some hostels are back-packer dives and not good for kids.
The London Visitor Travelcard is good on all public transportation, and can only be purchased online before you go. They took us on unlimited “tube” subways, as well as all the double-decker busses we could ride. It is available at http://www. raileurope.com. We bought a separate weekly pass for trips to and from the hostel.