You might think that London is not a very child-friendly city but you'd be wrong. You may also think of London as an expensive city. Wrong again! There is always something going on for children and families and there are plenty of free things to do for children in London too. There's Free Tube Travel for Children to prove we want families to have to fun here and the 100+ Free Things to Do in London has more ideas if you ever exhaust all of these.
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I love going to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace with my daughter. We take a picnic and get there early so we can get a good spot. We've watched from many locations - right outside Buckingham Palace, waited at one of the gates, stood outside Green Park, from the Victoria Memorial in the middle of the roundabout in front of the palace - but I think I like watching on The Mall best as you see the Guards marching for much longer.
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This large, safe, outdoor play area is truly outstanding. The Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens, next to Kensington Palace, the former home of Diana Princess of Wales, is a fabulous children's playground for kids up to 12 years. It's dominated by a large pirate ship which children can climb all over then come down and play in the sand. There's also a sensory trail, areas for climbing and exploring as well as swings and slides. A staff is on site at all times and no adults can enter without children (just as at Coram's Fields). There are a cafe and clean toilets meaning many stay all day so on busy days there is a limit and you may have to wait to enter. But outside of the height of summer you'll be in and playing immediately.
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This museum gives you a reason to visit the London Docklands and see the contrast between the old and new architecture. The museum is housed in a 200-year-old warehouse and tells the story of the London's history as a port. There are free activity packs from Reception and the Mudlarks play area for under 12s is free and fantastic. Everything is themed around life in the London docks so the big kids can weigh cargo or load a tea clipper while the small kids get to crawl around with large foam bananas and a London bus, plus they can pretend to drive a DLR train.
Talking of trains, to get to the Museum of London Docklands you need to take the DLR (Docklands Light Railway). Get a seat at the front as these trains don't have a driver and you, or your little one, can pretend to drive the train.
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Coram's Fields is a unique seven-acre playground and park for children in central London. It is free to use and provides a safe and stimulating environment where children can play freely. Adults are only permitted with a child and there is always staff available to ensure all is well.
The nearby Foundling Museum is always free for children and free for adults accompanying children during all Family Fun activities. Family Fun takes place in the Foundling Museum Education Center on the first Saturday of every month and is suitable for children aged 3-12 unless otherwise stated.
If you're looking for a healthy lunch nearby, Alara is a fine health food shop and you should look out for the metal objects embedded in the pavement of Marchmont Street too.Continue to 5 of 34 below.
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The best news is children under 17 go free to Kew Gardens and you can easily spend a day there so this is a great outdoors, cost-effective destination. Kids love to run around outdoors and there are great expanses here, as well as the Treetop High Walkway which offers wonderful views as do the high walkways inside the enormous greenhouses.
Climbers and Creepers is Kew's indoor interactive play area for 3-9 year-olds and Treehouse Towers is for 3-11 year-olds. Both are positioned next to a cafe and family shop. Explore the Gardens first as once the kids get here they won't want to leave!
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This South Kensington Museum may not have dinosaurs like the nearby Natural History Museum or lots of buttons to press like the nearby Science Museum but the V&A has an awful lot of free fun to offer families. The Gallery Backpacks give you the chance to explore a gallery together with activities and fun ideas that encourage the adults to look at the exhibits with fresh eyes too. There are weekend and school holiday children's workshops and for many booking is not essential. Family Fun Trails are on offer every day and the weekend Gallery Plays are enthralling.
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This bronze statue of Peter Pan is in Kensington Gardens, next to Hyde Park. The exact location was chosen by Peter Pan's author, J.M. Barrie. Barrie lived close to Kensington Gardens and published his first Peter Pan story in 1902, using the park for inspiration. In his Peter Pan tale, The Little White Bird, Peter flies out of his nursery and lands beside the Long Water lake, on the spot where the statue now stands.
The lower section of the statue has Peter Pan standing on a tree trunk covered with climbing squirrels, rabbits, and mice which can be fun to admire with shorter friends. A visit to Kensington Gardens has many other treats for young visitors such as the Diana Memorial Playground, the Diana Memorial Fountain, and Kensington Palace.
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The dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum are eternally popular but there's a lot more to see. Head over to the Darwin Centre where you can see real scientists working and down to the Investigate Science Centre in the basement, where adults and children alike will enjoy handling the animal, plant and geological treasures stored here.Continue to 9 of 34 below.
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The Science Museum is one of the big three museums in South Kensington (the other two are the Natural History Museum and the V&A). The Science Museum was founded with objects that were on display at the 1851 Great Exhibition but now has the latest technology to help visitors of all ages learn about science. 3-6 year-olds will squeal with delight in the 'Garden' in the basement with water fun, construction, and sensory exploration. 5-8 year-olds will enjoy the 'Pattern Pod' where they can create patterns in many different ways, and the 'Launchpad' gallery has hands-on activities every day. Bigger kids will love the IMAX cinema and the shop is outstanding.
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The Horniman Museum is a real find. Tucked away in the depths of south London, it has exhibitions of the natural and cultural worlds. And it even has an aquarium (small fee). Really, this place is worth the trip - it's actually only 13 minutes by train from London Bridge train station.
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Mediatheque within BFI Southbank is an area for all ages to watch films and shows from the BFI's extensive collection. It's a single room within BFI Southbank (follow the signs inside) and each TV screen can have two sets of headphones. Go to the desk and they'll give you free access for a set amount of time (only limited in case there are others waiting) then choose your show on the screen and enjoy! There are plenty of family viewing options but do keep children seated and quiet as other users are watching their chosen films too.
The South Bank, in general, is a great area for kids to run free but children do get tired and this can be a good choice to have some quiet time together.
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London has many city farms; most are free to visit, but welcome donations.
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- Hackney City Farm has an award-winning cafe, as well as pigs, goats, sheep, and more.
- Mudchute Park and Farm is the largest urban farm in the London area with 34 acres of open parkland. It also has horse riding, a tea shop, educational facilities, farm animals, and a shop.
- Kentish Town City Farm has a wide range of livestock, poultry, and horses, and offers pony rides.
- Vauxhall City Farm has donkey rides, pony-care classes, and milking demonstrations, all available on request, as well as a range of talks on the farm and lots of hands-on work with the animals.
- Stepney City Farm is an East End is a working farm, rural crafts centre, and community hub.
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The National Gallery, while not a contemporary art gallery, is appealing to young children if presented right. As with most large museums and galleries in London, there is no admission charge so stop by just to see one painting or make-up stories to connect the artworks in one room. The Katie books by James Mayhew (Buy Direct) include many artworks in the National Gallery and give a good reason to visit.
The ArtStart system is great for creating your own tour and there are themes, such as animals or monsters, to search. You can print your tour for free too.
On Sundays, there are regular storytelling and art workshops so check the schedule online. Places are limited. There are also activities in the holidays to inspire your child and instill a love of art and galleries early in life.
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A London palace that's free to visit is not what you'd expect but Fulham Palace was never a royal palace – it was a Bishop's palace but, quite frankly, they were treated as well as royalty for many years.
Inside the palace is a simple museum but we've enjoyed dressing up and coloring pictures before reaching the very family-friendly gardens. Take a picnic or grab something from the rather fancy cafe and lounge on the lawn. Head into the planned gardens with rows of herbs and orchards at the far end and use your lunch box to collect fallen 'nature'. Also, by the entrance to the palace is the playground in Bishop's Park.
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Somerset House Saturdays
Somerset House is a wonderful venue on a sunny day, especially when the fountains are working in the courtyard as children love to run in and out of them (bring a towel and spare clothes). Knowing the appeal for families, Somerset House runs free family workshops each Saturday afternoon for 6-12 year-olds and some sessions for under 5s too. No pre-booking available so you just need to check the online schedule, arrive early and collect a ticket on the day.
For older children, you might want to consider the Somerset House Free Guided Tour or a visit to the Courtauld Gallery which is free to visit on Monday mornings.
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Said to be London's equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Kensington Roof Gardens are a hidden treasure that you can gain free access to with a little planning. Where else will you find flamingos in central London (apart from at London Zoo)? Call ahead as it's not open to the public all the time but you can check availability in advance. You can't picnic here – it's used for private events – and the Babylon restaurant is not aimed at families so after admiring the gardens and views, head to nearby Whole Foods Market and either eat in or get a picnic to take to Kensington Gardens to let the kids run wild.Continue to 17 of 34 below.
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Diana Memorial Fountain
It's not a gushing fountain like in Trafalgar Square, but a trickling line in Kensington Gardens. It's still popular and children like to paddle in it although it's not encouraged as we don't want accidents. But sitting on the side and tickling your toes is fine while hopefully enjoying some sunshine in the park.
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The Wallace Collection is a hidden treat just off the busy shopping area of Oxford Street that has stunning artworks and a collection of armory to thrill children in their knights and dragons phase. The gallery is free to visit and has a drop-in art workshop on the first Sunday of the month as well as holiday activities. There are also audio guides and interactive tours for both adults and children, as well as fun family trails to collect.
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Just off the King's Road in Chelsea, the National Army Museum has a popular indoor play area called Kid's Zone. When you arrive, book a play session for a small charge (still free for under 1s.) The earlier times are always popular so after lunch is a good time to visit. This indoor play space is for under 10s and includes a climbing upper level, spiral slide, rocking horses, a play kitchen and soft play for under 2s.
The museum itself has lots of interactive ideas to help young visitors learn while exploring.
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Pelican feeding in St James's Park
At 2.30pm every day, the pelicans in St James's Park get fed fish. The park is quite big so you need to head for the opposite end to Buckingham Palace and they are fed from behind Duck Island Cottage, near Horse Guards Parade. The pelicans know when it's time as they wait there and keep watch for the man with the fish. Throwing the fish out takes 5-10 minutes but it's fun to watch and you're in a park so can have some outdoor 'run around' time too. After playing tag, we like to act out the Billy Goat Gruff story at the bridge.Continue to 21 of 34 below.
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The British Museum is free to visit so never feel your visit has to be an endurance test as it's in a central location and you can pop back as often as you like. Many just want to see the Egyptian mummies or the Rosetta Stone but there are daily free handling sessions and the Children's Multimedia Guide could give you longer to explore on a rainy day. Weekends and school holidays mean lots of free workshops too.
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This free trail takes you all over the Barbican Centre to explore the building inside and out. You solve puzzles and play games along the way, plus there's a reward for all who finish.
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This is the place to discover the history of London from prehistoric times right up to today. It's a chronological journey through this great city's history with displays you can interact with along the way. Sit in the Saxon building, try on a fireman's helmet from the Great Fire of London, and head downstairs to the Modern Galleries which include a recreated Georgian Pleasure Garden and the popular Victorian Walk. My daughter's favorite exhibit is a dead cat under a glass floor (by the printing press) in a collection of objects found when excavating for the museum's extension in 2010.
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Beachcombing is popular at the seaside and as London has the river Thames running through you can still enjoy some foreshore foraging. It's a tidal river so check the tide tables and safety advice then head off with a plastic bag for your collection. You're most likely to find broken clay pipes which are hundreds of years old which while abundant, are still a great piece of London history to take home for free. Find out all you need to go with this guide to Mudlarking in London.Continue to 25 of 34 below.
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Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs are unexpected in a south London park but this was where the Great Exhibition of 1851 (that took place in Hyde Park) moved its huge glass building to, hence the name 'Crystal Palace'. During the park's renovations, Professor Richard Owen created these giant dinosaur sculptures in 1852 based on the best scientific information available but many now giggle at the 'anatomically incorrect' dinosaurs. I wasn't around at the time so can't comment. There's a free dinosaur audio trail to enhance your visit and the park has lots more to see including a playground, cafe, go-karts, a farm, a museum, a boating lake and a sphinx, plus you can see the remains/site of the crystal palace.
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The Bank of England Museum is way more cool that you might expect. It's housed within the actual Bank of England and tells the story of the Bank and the UK monetary system. I love working the inflation hot air balloon and trying to lift up a gold bar. Where else can you do that? (Note: Nowhere else!)
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The Imperial War Museum gives families the opportunity to see planes, missiles, tanks and other large-scale military exhibits in one building. You can learn about spies and climb through a bomber plane fuselage, experiences the trenches of WWI and see the Children's War exhibition which shows how youngsters were affected by war. The cafe has kid's meals and the shop has something for everyone.
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Tate Modern is the national gallery of contemporary art and is housed in a former power station so the 'Turbine Hall' is a large indoor space and many small people love the slope. All of the Tate galleries are very family friendly and it's not a quiet place so children can be themselves.
The Under 5s Zone is great for little ones to explore and every weekend families are welcome in the Clore Learning Centre to create artworks in the 'Open Studio'. The Interactive Zone in Level 5 will entertain and challenge all age groups with games and multimedia ideas. And don't forget to go out on the balcony at Level 4 to look across the river Thames to St. Paul's Cathedral. While visiting the permanent exhibitions is free, if you choose to buy a ticket for a special exhibition under 12s can visit for free if they are with an adult.Continue to 29 of 34 below.
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While possibly not as kid-friendly as Tate Modern, Tate Britain is still a brilliant place to take the family. This is the national gallery of British art from 1500 to today and it's always free to visit. It has a really diverse collection from classical paintings to crazy contemporary sculpture so come and be inspired. Sketching in the galleries is encouraged so bring a pencil and pad and see what you can create. The shops here are fantastic too.
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This is a peaceful walk as you're away from the traffic and see a different side of London. It takes 1-2 hours and I've been with under five year olds who have managed the walk with minimal complaints as there's plenty to see along the way. Little Venice is a lovely area full of houseboats and even has a Puppet Barge so you could see a show before or after the walk. On the way to Camden, you'll pass London Zoo and can see a few animals and the Snowdon aviary. We always visit Chin Chin Laboratorists for liquid nitrogen ice-cream when we reach Camden which seems to be a good enough incentive for us to complete the walk!
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Watch Street Performers
Covent Garden is well known for the street performers who entertain the public every afternoon in the West Piazza. All performers are licensed and have passed an audition to perform here. There can be big crowds and audience participation is often part of the show. These entertainers make their living from these performances so when they collect money at the end do give generously if you've enjoyed watching.Continue to 33 of 34 below.
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Tower Bridge lifts to allow larger vessels to travel along The Thames and you can check the lift times before visiting. When the bridge is back down, traffic and pedestrians can go across and it's fun to take children to stand on the join of the two sides. You can just about see the river below and kids like the rumble you can feel as traffic goes over the bridge. Don't forget to look up at the high walkways which, of course, can be visited. Under fives go free and all get a card to collect stickers.
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This outdoor wooden wonderland opened in summer 2013 in the north of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. There are high treetop walkways to climb, plus sand and water fun on ground level making this large playground suitable for a wide age range. There's a cafe here too so you really could stay all day.
There's a bus from Westfield Stratford City to connect to the Park.