1. The British Museum--free!
Yes, you must crane your neck over the mob to see the Rosetta Stone, and yes, fight your way through the mobs to peek at the mummies (though very very very first thing in the morning at opening if you head directly there you'll beat the school crowds and "open late" Friday evenings you may have better luck to linger), and yes, pick a side on the Elgin Marble controversy. But please, stay a while in some quieter corners.
For beyond the casual wandering, check out the hands-on desks where you can actually hold items from the collection. I can't tell you what a nerdy thrill I get touching something made thousands of years ago, or by unnamed craftsmen, in countries and cultures seemingly so far removed from our own. It's a link that connects all creators and lovers of beauty, transcending time and difference. (free, daily, from 11-4--see website for more details, or ask at information desk at visit)
At the Families Desk (across from the Information desk) you can choose a family trail guide book/pamphlet (one per family, though one time the person staffing was generous enough to allow one per child) to help link a topic of interest together highlighting items from the collection in a manageable way. My boys have loved the dragon one--hunting for the right cases and displays through China. (Meanwhile Eliza entertained herself out of boredom under a handy bench. I'd like to do one again now her attention span is a teensy bit longer!)
A block away from the museum is Bloomsbury Square Gardens. Just a small little green bit but it has a playground! I always make sure to include time in our outing for a brief visit to the play area. It is a great reward for good behavior in the museum. Most of the equipment is geared toward younger children but even my 7 and 5 year old boys enjoy getting their wiggles out on the merry-go-round and balancing beams.
(Lorianne's note: although it's not necessarily for children, check out James Smith & Sons umbrella shop, in its original Victorian location, London's most amazing antique, vintage, and handmade umbrella shop!)
Food by Lorianne: There are a few cafes at the Museum, with a more child-friend restaurant downstairs, with actual high chairs. Food is pricey, however, so you may just want to pack a lunch and share it with the pigeons in the great court or taste the street vendor food there. Or check out Beck's Cafe, a cheap, wonderful, family-owned restaurant at 28 Red Lion Street nearby. Great for a quick bite with the kids or to grab a sandwich before letting them run in Bloomsbury Square Gardens.
2. Covent Garden--free! (except: you'll want to spend money on food and pretty things)
The Royal Opera House has affordable family days. (5 quid adults, 3 children--tickets available on the day, first come first serve basis) Unfortunately we haven't been but they look fantastic. We went to something similar in Boston and have only fond memories of the experience. If you can make it happen do it!
Food by Lorianne: For a taste of home or all over the world and good kid-bribery material, check out Cybercandy (Timtams from Australia, anyone?). For the best of Covent Garden food, try double chocolate ice cream (or any other flavor - they also have divine gelato sorbets) at Scoops (which I never miss when in this part of London!), cheese from the original Neal's Yard Dairy, the best vegan food you've ever had--and they won't look cross-eyed at children in their midst at the communal bar-kitchen at World Food Cafe just inside Neal's Yard (the pizza place is also quick and easy and stroller-friendly), or tea at The Tea House on Neal's street - one of the best, and certainly the cheapest handmade tea in London - note the tea house is not stroller friendly. Although it doesn't involve food, while you are in the area, you might as well get your hair cut and colored at the very child-friendly and ridiculously cheap salon Hair by Fairy, where no appointments are necessary, and the stylists are always extremely fashion-forward and quite good!
3. London Transport Museum--Cost is 17 quid for an adult entry, children free.
Though you pay for it, the ticket does grant admittance for one whole year and believe me, you'll find yourself back. If only for the punch cards. My kids could not wait for their next punch card next visit. At the start of the museum you get a card with a map and trail on it, continuing through the history of transport in London and finding cutout stamps along the way. The vintage omnibus and double deckers are just cool. The play area has been recently redone and is fab. The kids just disappear into their play mode in no time. I repeat myself, but get to any museum at opening for at least 20 minutes of minimized crowd time!
(Lorianne's note: I concur here entirely with Rachel. We hosted Gideon's second birthday party here and returned and returned, if only for the very cool train tables. It is little boy heaven, with things to do for walking babies on up. Even a story time. Also check out the cool gift shop and get yourself The London Game, which will teach your growing kiddos all about London and navigating its Tube system.)
4. Somerset House
I'm going to embarrass my museum-fanatic self here and say that I haven't been in Somerset House. Any museum that you have to pay for in this city of free museums goes low on my priority, unfortunately (the notable exception above). I've seen images of the architecture and collection inside and it looks lovely. Maybe for a sans child excursion. With kids let's concentrate on the courtyard. In the winter you ice skate. In the summer you play in the fountains. It's as simple as that.
5. Do you know the Muffin Man on Drury Lane? And the best pizza slice.
Okay, it's no secret I'm a nerd. One nerdy thing I enjoy is recreating nursery rhymes. So get some muffins (or actually any old pastry will do!) from Balthazar's Boulangerie and eat them on Drury Lane.
Home Slice Pizza in Neal's Yard in Seven Dials is awesome. I've only gotten take away slices a couple times and savored every bite. Some of the pizzas on the menu make my mouth water, but you have to eat in to order those. Next date night! It's a bit tricky to find, and you get to wander down tempting alleys to get there. The neighborhood is colorful in the best way.
6. Trafalgar Square
I love, love, love the lions of Trafalgar Square more each time I'm in the plaza. So majestic. I hope my little girl has some memory of our weekly visits to these lions. I have some textile memories of a few things from when I was that age, so just maybe she'll have a lingering sense of the coolness and smooth feel of the giant lions paws when she's grown. The lions used to be climbed on but Health and Safety now patrols the monument and climbing on the lions is forbidden. You can still hop up on the plinth and revel in the view from the large steps.
The fountains are worth a penny wish. Also, a little friend of Eliza's pointed out the baby mermaid in the fountain and ever since we have simply had to go say hello each time we're in the area.
Trafalgar Square often has something extra going on--an art installation, a market, a concert, a convention, street artists, pigeons, and at Christmas the biggest tree as a gift from Norway.
7. National Gallery--free admittance
Then I learned that the museum education department offers such fabulous programs, especially for the under 5 crowd. Eliza and I asked if we could have a standing date at the Welcome Wednesday mornings for preschoolers and ever since we have fallen in love with the program and the museum at large. If you live locally with a toddler do yourself a favor and see if you can snag a space in the Wednesday morning play dates. They are perfectly delightful. From the first time we visited we were enchanted. Eliza made angel wings and the leader accompanied the children dancing on a violin. Sometimes we go to the main galleries, sometimes we are in a special "secret" gallery (open only Wednesday and Sunday). Sometimes the focus is on music in the galleries, dancing under the paintings; sometimes you get messy with finger paints or molding clay in relation to a particular work; sometimes a storyteller leads you through the journey of the painting while you sit on a magic carpet with some puppets. (You can't have our space--it's reserved until we move or Eliza ages out, which ever comes first!) It is our favorite time of the week.
Small strollers are allowed in the gallery space, though with all the stairs and difficult to find (for me) lifts it becomes rather a pain. I personally recommend carrying baby. Older kid scooters must be left in the cloakroom.
8. National Portrait Gallery--free entry
This museum is directly adjacent to the National Gallery but has a separate entrance on St Martin's Place, off to the side of the main National Gallery entrance. The Portrait Gallery is just that--paintings of notable British persons. The labels give tantalizing tidbits about the stories behind the faces and you'll want to check out all sorts of biographies after walking a bit in the galleries. The small portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra is a don't miss, as well as the oldest portrait of Shakespeare. The Stuart and Tudor kings and queens are overwhelming in their dim and mysterious halls. The contemporary portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in a moment of vulnerability, resting in between smiles, takes my breath away. I feel this museum is more worth the attending than often known or considered.
Food by Lorianne: Make sure that you can make it to the cafe at the top of the gallery, with its amazing views over Trafalgar Square (try getting a reservation for New Year's - one of the best seats in the city!). One of the best cream teas with amazing fresh mint tea.
9. St Martin-in-the-Fields
Tip: Extra seating available in the room beyond the main cafeteria. Quiet and cosy with lots of room for little people. Plus a tiny little hall full of treasures hidden just behind.
Also: I was initially drawn to the crypt by the promise of brass rubbings. You know, the kind you do on a headstone with a crayon used sideways rubbed across a paper to pull up the relief underneath. I thought it'd be a really fun activity to do with Davy or Eddy on a mommy date. I'm sure it would be, sometime somewhere. But the ones at St Martin-in-the-Field are not in situ but rather separate relief boards that you pay upwards of 5 quid per rubbing. I'm sure it would still be a great activity, however it wasn't quite what I had envisioned.
10. St James Picadilly Market--free! (except you'll want to have cash on hand if you find some little treasure)
A little market in a church yard. Always fun for browsing. Check the day for the sort of stalls you're wanting, or surprise yourself with looking just because. I bought one special thing for myself at the craftsman market and not regretted it for a moment (a mini handcrafted kaleidoscope). There is another wishing fountain here. I find that the best use for pennies is on wishes. (Lorianne's note: they have the coolest handcrafted dolls here, including a doll that takes on all the characters in Little Red Riding Hood!)