Special thanks goes to Rachel Lamborne for guest-authoring, researching, and photographing this post (all but the top and bottom bits). If you are anything like me, you'll find her thoughtful, witty, prescient and refreshingly honest. And those kids...
Things to Do
1. Natural History Museum - free
Come for the dinosaurs, stay for the rest.
First thing to know, there will be a queue [Lorianne here: which is why you use the side entrance by the Science Museum, then wend your way back to the dinosaurs.] I've been perhaps twice when it has not felt like half of London has the same idea to visit the museum at the same time. There are two entrances: the main one on Cromwell Road with the iconic steps and the Exhibition Road entrance. Especially with a pram (or wheeled vehicle of any name) take the Exhibition Road entrance. It's designed to be step-free and the line is sometimes shorter. While waiting in the queue, enjoy the street performers--often bubbles!--and play eye spy with the sculptures on the exterior of ht remarkable edifice.
Once inside, especially at opening (and I recommend this of any museum to be in at the 10:00 opening on a weekend, or afternoons on weekdays) make that proverbial beeline for the dinosaurs. Don't get distracted! You can admire all the rest of the sights after. To see most of the dins you'll need to go up stairs to a walkway. Buggies are not allowed up there and will be removed to security if left below (yes, I speak from experience). If you have push chair/stroller you'll want to check the stroller into the cloakroom. You can always pick it up for the rest of the museum if you need it. Be prepared for the "real" T-Rex at the end of the line. It is scary in a perfect way. My kids--at various ages--have never cried in fright but have always--at all ages --stared in rapt fascination. I have to tear them away.
My girl and I love sparkly pretty rocks (ha!) so we enjoy a visit to the mineral gallery. The room and the specimen are gorgeous and we play "find the rainbow rocks" or match patterns in our clothes to patterns in the rocks (stripes, polka dots, etc.) My older boys beg to go to the volcano and earthquake galleries, up the "spooky" (dramatic, thematic) escalator.
2. V&A Museum - free
Like London in general, I have a hard time picking a favorite museum. The V&A is way, way up there. I love this place deep in my soul.
My girl loves spotting the belly buttons and "nakey bums" of statues, my boys are fascinated by the samurai weapons, I adore the dresses from bygone eras.
Art museums sometimes seem intimidating for a casual visit with very young children. The V&A is a grown-up museum that can be enjoyed by the whole family. If you like to have a little help making the museum more approachable and fun for the little ones (or my go-to spontaneous museum games have been exhausted) visit the Learning Centre to check out backpacks. These packs are incredible resources to make an adventure in the museum meaningful and memorable.
3) Science Museum - free
[for this section of the post, please visit the *wandering but not lost* Lambornes and check out the toddlers play area in the basement - Gideon can spend hours there alone!]
4) Hyde Park: Princess Diana Memorial Fountain - free
Hyde Park is so huge, you just can't do it all in one day. Or you could, but you'd be walked off your feet! I agree with Lorianne that Regent's Park rivals-even-to-surpass Hyde Park for sheer loveliness. The fact that we can walk to Regent's Park from our flat tips it over the top, but Hyde Park is still a major draw. I'd say it's equivalent to visiting NYC, you must go to Central Park.
In summer the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain is the place for wading children to be. It's a gorgeous memorial and I believe the original intent was for it to be a serene, solemn thinking place. I personally think Princess Di would have fully approved of its design now, as a joyously noisy area for children to be children.
The water flows around and down hill in a large ring. Grass and trees surround the water wreath and if you get in early and get lucky you'll be able to claim some shade. The floor of the water falls have been carved for traction but there are a few areas that are patrolled by guards who remind children to walk and even not climb on a certain spot. They are not lifeguards--you supervise your own children. But Health and Safety do have a presence. There are very shallow and quite deep areas, often with very little warning between. Older children will navigate with ease very happily. Younger, even sitting or crawling babies will still find a place to splash.
5) Hyde Park: Peter Pan Statue - free
I love this statue. It is iconic but somewhat easy to miss if you're not looking for it. It's in the center of the park, near the Long Water portion of the Serpentine waterway. My lost boys have climbed the statue and (never yet) been told off for doing so. You can listen to a recorded narration with a scan app on your phone.
Just a few steps away are the formal Italian Gardens, not to be missed.
6) Hyde Park: Kensington Palace - 16.90 GBP (online rate), children free
Besides the hope that you may actually see Kate or the royal babies, this palace is a fun one to visit. It seems surprisingly approachable, as far as the palaces and grand estates I've visited. You can pay a one time fee to go in the palace, or with a membership also enter the Tower of London and Hampton Court. I've found this membership to be well worth it. The children loved the children's room/nursery in the Queen Victoria exhibit. In addition to seeing how royal children lived with incredible artifacts of clothing and toys, there is a chest of classic toys for the visiting children to enjoy. I loved the fashion exhibit but my kids were bored beyond tears at that section. I recommend leaving the children with another adult (dad) and enjoying the dresses alone. Ha! The palace is surprisingly stroller-friendly. We were escorted specially by guards to access areas via a different route but were able to see everything we wanted to with ease.
The grounds immediately surrounding the palace are free to enjoy and feel kind of like a hidden secret. My kids love making a menace of themselves through the long vine-covered archways.
I've never been, but I hear that tea at the Orangery is lovely. [Lorianne's note: I have, and it is! One of the best-priced afternoon teas in London.)
7) Hyde Park: Princess Diana Memorial Playground (aka Peter Pan's playground) - free
A playground right out of any Neverland fantasy. It truly is a magical place. A potentially extremely crowded magical place, but one nonetheless. The playground is quite large and sprawling, with different "lands" tucked away. There is the pirate ship and mermaid island--complete with rock croc--right off the bat. Venture in a bit further and you'll find the Lost Boys' tree house. When you hear chimes on the wind you'll want to explore more, wandering back through the Indian teepees and a mini-wilderness to find fairy land where the magical chime sounds originated.
The entire play area is fenced in and guarded by security personnel at the one entrance/exit. Older children can wander and find you again if you settle in one central place. The younger ones will be highly entertained with water and sand near the pirate ship for hours. The toilets are near and quite clean, considering! There is a food stand adjacent but I find it rather expensive. We bring a picnic. Once I did splurge for ice creams but that was a special one-time thing. :) A certain number of people are allowed at a time in the play area, so arrive early--especially during school breaks or an especially fine day. If you come later there will be a queue that moves only as quickly as other people decide to leave. The playground is worth it, but again, I recommend avoiding the crowds and simply getting out the door earlier than later. Or going dead of winter when Winter Wonderland is open on the other end of the park. Then you will have the place completely to yourselves!
8) Hyde Park: Holocaust Memorial Gardens - free
A truly beautiful little garden. The fountain in the center is lovely, as are the flower beds and vine-covered arches.
9) Apsley House and Wellington Arch - Adults 8.80 GBB, Children 5.50 GBP
Part of the English Heritage properties we visited on our membership. Of course you can pay a one-time entrance fee. My boys loved Apsley House, home of the Duke of Wellington and war hero, so much they begged to go back before our membership expired. Did they love the history, the china collection, the views from the windows, or the remarkable early-pedal piano? No. But they did adore the personal tour device apps. The app was impressive. I did the adult version one visit and the children's the second time around. I learned a lot with both, but the games and information on the children's tour were super.
The Arch is okay. I wouldn't say a must-do, but if you're in the area anyway you might as well. The view from the top is nothing extraordinary as far as London views go, but if you're lucky enough to have the royal horseguards march underneath when you're there you may just think you've won the prize.
Quick Bites for the Little Ones
Rocca for pizza--affordable and delish. Quite family friendly. Fills up quickly, make reservations.
Maitre Choux for exquisite eclairs--your jaw will drop at the price (5 quid a pop) but boy will your taste buds thank you. The taste and texture of these are ah-maz-ing.
Ben's Cookies for cookies (sorry, duh)--I like English biscuits fine. But boy, if you want a cookie and don't feel like making (and sacrificially-to-save-the-children-from-too-much-sugar eating (if you're like me)) a whole batch yourself then go for a cookie at Ben's. It's a nice small treat after a museum and before the tube, if you need a little something to carry a little one through.
The Kensington Creperie for sweet and savoury crepes--though I'd have to say the stand up in Hampstead may be better, the fun cafe atmosphere and yummy crepes make this a valid place to fill a tummy.
Creative Childcare: Maggie & Rose Family Club
I took Gideon (this is Lorianne writing now) to a family club in Chelsea once for a birthday party, and wanted to go back ever since. Shy of signing up for a full membership, it seems that of this writing, they have ad-hoc drop-in 2.5-6 year old classes where you can potentially leave your tot for three-hour classes at 30 GBP per pop (about average for three hours of childcare in London). Call the Chelsea club for more details and to check the current calendar. Sounds like a win-win for momma - I get to shop, they get to play!
Why go to Paris when you can shop for your child at the same stores (plus a few more) in London, right?? (No, please still go to Paris...) Chelsea is known for it's fab restaurants and shopping (as well as for the once-yearly incomparable flower show and pensioners at the Royal Chelsea Hospital), so if you are in the mood for high-end shopping for you little one, this is an it-place to shop.
There are a tempting assortment of baby coutre, boutique, and one thrift/consignment store (that I know of) in Kensington & Chelsea, many of them also frequented by the Duchess of Cambridge herself, including the following, clumped by location:
Amaia on Cale Street
Caramel Baby & Child (DARLING clothes) on Brompton Road and Blue Almonds (just off Brompton Road) for furniture - where Kate went for the royal cradle.
Marie Chantal, Bon Point, Ovale all on Sloane Street (try spotting resident "Sloany" mums here by their fitted jeans, blazers, and riding boots, including Kate Middleton)
Mary's Living and Giving, Ralph Lauren Kids on Fulham Rd (Mary's Living and Giving was started by a friend in Primrose Hill and is the only charity shop in Chelsea that I believe sells children's clothes, though I haven't checked it out myself, though you could also try the much-shopped Red Cross Foundation shop for kid's clothes where the well-heeled doff last season's treasures.)
Jacadi on the King's Road
Rachel Riley on Trot St (often worn by the royal cubs, and quintessentially English and quintessentially priced)
Trotters - very cute things (Liberty of London prints), more reasonably priced on Kensington High Street