What a year it’s been for our wonderful city – and it’s not over yet.
ll eyes have been on London with the phenomenally successful Olympics and the pomp and pageantry of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. With the Paralympics still to come, there is every reason for foreign tourists to keep flocking to our capital.
But what of us Londoners? For many of us, London is the place we live, work and socialise. But set in our routines and hectic lifestyles, how often do we actually explore the many attractions on offer?
As the summer winds down perhaps it’s time dig out the baby carrier, top-up your Oyster card and get to know this place you call Home.
Donna Nathan, a Blue Badge Tourist, says, “As a Londoner I never did these things before training as a guide. One day it dawned on me that I was so interested in the history of my city and that my city was so beautiful.”
Being a parent doesn’t have to mean restricting your outings to the Zoo and South Kensington. Ms Nathan says much of London is available to parents with a baby in tow.
She adds, “Queue up and do the tours that all the visitors to London do. You won’t believe the history or how beautiful our city is.”
Echoing this, Jo Darwin, editor of www.visitlondon.com said, “London is a great place to be a tourist in your own town as it’s home to hundreds of museums, theatres and fantastic hidden gems. As many Londoners know, the great thing about the capital is that it marries the traditional and contemporary so well. If you want to see some historical monuments or the latest street art, you’ll find it here.”
“There is always something new to do and this year there is an exceptional array of special events and interesting activities for the whole family.”
Top tips from visitlondon.com
- Plan your journey and activities ahead with www.tfl.gov.uk and www.visitlondon.com
- Don’t try and do too much. Concentrate on one area with a few activities per day.
- Be aware that there will be some road closures and limited access to certain attractions until after the Paralympic Games.
- Frequent pitstops keep little ones happy.
- Pack a picnic to keep costs down.
- Avoid peak times where possible.
- Walk, walk, walk. London’s great for exploring on foot – and it’s easier with a buggy.
- Don’t let the weather deter you – it rains more in Rome! Pack a brolly just in case.
- Check voucher websites for advance special offers.
Highlights of the season include:
The Bridge Illuminations
Enjoy a twilight stroll with your partner along the Thames, taking in the special illuminations for 2012. Among others, Millennium, London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge will be bathed in colour.
Festival of the World at the Southbank Centre
This fascinating festival at the Southbank Centre continues until September 9. The whole site around the Royal Festival Hall has been transformed, bringing you art, music, theatre, comedy, markets and more.
Up at the O2
This brand new attraction combines an exhilarating outdoor challenge with a 360 degree view of London from The O2 in Greenwich. If you go as a couple, one of you will need to stay behind to look after your baby while the other walks across the top of the Dome.
Now that the Olympics are over, public transport may be less crowded. But remember the Paralympics will also cause delays. Public transport is generally reliable, though not always great with pushchairs. Although some stations are equipped with lifts, you might decide to give the Tube a wide berth. Consider instead:
A walking tour
London Walks is the oldest urban walking tour company in the world offering dozens of itineraries. According to co-owner David Tucker, they aim to “make the new familiar and the familiar new”. He adds, “We take them to places they don’t know. Even if it’s something they have looked at, chances are they haven’t seen it because they don’t know the back story. We do.”
Tours cover everything from the British Museum and Westminster Abbey to the Olympics and Harry Potter. They generally last about two hours and cost £9/7 (concs), and accompanying children go free.
Travelling on two wheels is a great way to get about. Bring your own bike, complete with baby seat if necessary, or hire one. If you’ve left baby behind with a trusted sitter, ‘borrow’ a Boris Bike. For more information and a docking station map, visit: www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/ 14808.aspx
Otherwise, it’s also possible to hire a bike with an infant carrier from private companies like The London Bicycle Tour company.
London is divided by the River Thames and much of the action takes places on its banks. Yet the river bus services remain a relatively well kept secret. There are piers from St George Wharf in Vauxhall to Greenwich in the east. Boats are generally more spacious and better aerated than the Tubes and some also have refreshments and wi-fi.
Several companies operate along the Thames, but perhaps best known is the Thames Clipper. You can use your Oyster card and get 10% off for doing so. It’s worth investing in a River Roamer ticket so you can hop on and off.
If you start early enough, you can easily spend a day strolling from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, soaking up the atmosphere and taking in the sights.
The walkway is always busy, though obviously more so during weekends and school holidays. Beginning at Westminster, pop in to the Sealife London Aquarium or the London Film Museum.
There’s no beating the views from the London Eye, though it’s worth booking in advance. The nearby Royal Festival Hall often has free dance, music and poetry events in the foyer, and the Hayward Gallery is an intriguing place to explore. On Fridays and weekends why not grab a bite to eat from the Real Food Market on Belvedere Road?
Ahead are the National Film Theatre and National Theatre, both of which have atmospheric eateries. There is usually a book market outside, as well as human statues and other street entertainers.
Before Blackfriars Bridge lies the OXO Tower, whose famous restaurant also offers fab views of London. The Tate Modern is just ahead and free entrance means you can pop in for as little or as long as you like.
Catching a play at Shakespeare’s Globe may be tricky with a baby, so instead explore the exhibition or join a guided tour of this reconstructed Sixteenth Century theatre. Keeping with the history theme, you will pass the Golden Hinde – a replica of the small vessel which Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world.
Enjoy a picnic in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral or on Friday or Saturday visit the foodie heaven that is Borough Market. And if you still have energy, there’s the floating wing of the Imperial War Museum – HMS Belfast.
You see it on the news every day, but how much do you know about Britain’s political heartland?
Battle your way through the throngs of tourists to the front of the Houses of Parliament. Member’s tours are available to UK residents free of charge and must be sponsored by an MP. Alternatively, you can pay for a tour most Saturday mornings and during the summer, though it’s not recommended for young children. You can also climb Big Ben, though this must be arranged in advance and under-11s are not allowed.
According to Blue Badge guide Donna Nathan, “it’s hard to top Westminster Abbey” – and not just because of that wedding. Follow an audio guide or, better still, a verger-led group, for a fascinating walk through British history. The great and the good are buried here, including Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and many more. At the entrance you also see the grave of the Unknown Warrior which commemorates the thousands of unidentified soldiers killed in WW1.
From here take a leisurely stroll down Whitehall, passing the gates of Downing Street and the HouseholdCavalry. Then it’s on to Trafalgar Square. The pigeons are long-gone, but it’s still a great place for some touristy snaps. Also there are the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, both of which offer tours and activities for families.
From here it’s a pleasant stroll through St James Park to Buckingham Palace. Get there early enough and you will catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony (check in advance for timings). For a sneak preview behind the scenes, book for the palace Summer Opening. This season, which runs until October 7, includes a new exhibition entitled Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration.
Though still very much a part of the capital, Greenwich lies east of the centre and has a distinct identity. There is so much to do at this World Heritage Site that it’s worth making a day – or even a weekend of it.
Begin your visit at the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, a free attraction and the starting point for millions of visitors to the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) and Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. Learn about the area’s fascinating history in the permanent exhibition and make plans for where to go on from there, remembering not to forget the lively market and the many cafés.
Greenwich is where the Prime Meridian lies, from where every map reference point in the world is measured. It has important royal connections and strong maritime connections. A must is the newly-reopened Cutty Sark, restored at a cost of more than £50m. Visitors can learn about this famous tea-clipper from above and below, thanks to the extensive face-lift.
Within the wonderful Greenwich Park lies an impressive collection of historic buildings. Britain’s seafaring heritage is dramatically recreated at the National Maritime Museum. The Queen’s House was the first Palladian building in England and houses the museum’s extensive collection of naval portraits and seascapes.
The Old Royal Naval College, built on the site of the Tudor palace where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born, was designed principally by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. The beautiful Chapel and the magnificent Painted Hall, where Nelson’s body lay in state, are free to explore.
Be aware that the park is an Olympic site and so access there and to the museums is restricted until after the Paralympics. For more information, see www.visitgreenwich.org.uk.
Bloomsbury and Covent Garden
For a more laid back London, seek out the hidden gems of Bloomsbury. Blue plaques abound, as the area was famously the haunt of writers such as Victoria Woolf and Dorothy Sayers.
It is also Dickens’ London and therefore home to The Charles Dickens Museum, though this has been temporarily closed for renovations. And there are also plenty of curiosity-type shops too.
A visit to Bloomsbury is not complete without a trip to the awe-inspiring British Museum. Choose an area of interest, like the Egyptians, and focus on that. Tours are available, as are many families activities. Take a break from the ancient relics with a coffee in the wonderful Great Court.
Other nearby museums include the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, the Foundling Museum and The Cartoon Museum. If your little one needs fresh air, head for the marvellous playground at Coram’s Fields.
From Bloomsbury it’s a short walk to Covent Garden, a buzzing hub for Londoners and tourists alike. There are the cafés, shops, covered market and street entertainers, but for something different book a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House.
The City of London and Tower Bridge
The City of London may not be somewhere you immediately think of venturing to in your spare time. Admittedly, you will be dodging the frantic businessmen and women, but it still makes for an interesting outing which can be tagged on to a longer visit to the South Bank or Bloomsbury.
A good starting point is St Paul’s Cathedral, a must-see highlight for all visiting tourists. It might be hard with a baby, but it’s worth climbing up to the Whispering Gallery to try out its unique acoustics. Climb 271 more steps and reach the Golden Gallery, for panoramic views of London.
Whoever is left at the bottom with the baby could swap for an equally strenuous climb at the Monument. On your way you pass the imposing Bank of England. Inside lies the relatively unknown Museum of the Bank of England, which charts the early history of banking. Then head for historic Leadenhall Market for a break from the hustle and bustle.
Although not strictly speaking within the Square Mile, a visit to the Tower of London can easily be combined with the attractions of the City. There are dozens of things to see and do here, so check out the website in advance to plan your visit.
The Royal Parks
It may be one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, but London is blessed with fabulously peaceful green areas. Dip in and out for instant breathing space from the chaos of city life, though Blue Badge guide Donna Nathan suggests something more.
She says, “Why not get a group of NCT friends together and hire a private guide to take you and your babies on a guided walk through the Royal Parks?”
“You could meet at Kensington Palace and walk through Hyde Park, Green Park and St James. It takes about two-and-a-half hours with a stop for coffee and you can do it with a baby. If there are several of you it can be very reasonable and would be a different thing to do.”
“Most guides would be happy to work around you. And you’ll be surprised at what you might see and learn along the way.”