Keep London cool for your teens or pre-teens on your family vacation.
Take your pre-teens and teens to one of the most historical cities in the world and … well, you might get more yawns than ‘yays!’ Want to avoid the apathy? Here are five places to add to your itinerary to keep kids engaged.
1) Put them in the stocks. The London Dungeon is far and away the favorite destination of every double-digit aged child I know in London . While you may not want to go (nor would I advise it for kids under 8), the long queues outside are a testament to the eternal appeal of blood and guts. You can buy fast track tickets on the Web site to join priority queues.
A local pre-teen says: “The best thing about it is that it’s really gory and gross! I like everything about it, but especially the Boat Ride to Hell. I like the way that the actors interact with you, too—they jump out of dark corners or jump out of the sets and make you scream, and they take you off to be hanged or put you in the stocks and stuff.”
London Dungeon: Central London—Tooley Street, London SE1. Open daily, times vary throughout the year from 9:30-10:30 a.m. to 5-7 p.m. Tickets are for a tour lasting 1-1.5 hours. Prices:£19.95 (about $40) for adults 18 years and older, £14.95 (about $30) for students 15-17 years, £13.95 (about $28) for children 5-14 years. Transport: London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee tube lines); London Bridge (train). www.thedungeons.com
2) See how the other half (or the royal family) lives. For those who would like a glimpse into the more exclusive elements of British society, combine a tour of the famous Eton College (both Prince William and Prince Harry went here, along with 19 prime ministers) and Windsor Castle. You don’t need to arrange a city tour of Windsor or Eton, as the attractions are close together and easy to get to.
Eton College (for ages 13-18) is one of the most exclusive schools in the world, and among the oldest in England—it was set up by King Henry VI in 1440. Take a guided tour to see young men in the traditional uniform of black tailcoats and pinstriped trousers. It’s a lovely place to wander, and just over the bridge across the River Thames is Windsor.
Windsor has an attractive town center just steps from the train station, and the castle is England’s oldest royal residence still in use today. Should Queen Elizabeth II be at Windsor (as she often is on weekends and for Easter Court every year), there will be a Royal Standard (flag) flying, rather than the Union Jack. Among the usual swank, you’ll find Queen Mary’s Doll House, a seven-foot miniature of an Edwardian home including electric lights, running water and a grandfather clock that chimes on the hour. The detailing is incredible.
Other things to do around Windsor include Legoland (see page 4 of 6 Family Friendly Day Trips from London) and horse racing; you can take a boat from the train station to the racecourse every Monday night in the summer.
One-hour guided tours of Eton College (daily, Mar.-early Oct.) start at the main entrance to the College (on Brewhouse Yard). Prices: £5.50 (about $11) adults; £4.50 (about $9) children 8 and up; free for kids under 8. Windsor Castle is open 9:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Nov.-Dec., when it closes at 3 p.m. daily. Prices: £38.10 (about $75) family, £14.80 (about $29) adult, £8.50 (about $17) child. Both are 30 minutes by train from Paddington (west London) or 55 minutes from Waterloo station (central London). Walking distance between Windsor and Eton is about 10 minutes. www.etoncollege.com and www.windsor.gov.uk/.
3) Stand on the spot where time begins. Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time (the basis of every world time zone) are measured from the Greenwich Meridian Line at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Greenwich is a bustling neighborhood on the weekends, as people come to enjoy its many riverside pubs and market (arts and crafts, food, antiques).
Greenwich is 20 minutes from central London by public transport, and the most atmospheric way to arrive is by boat. Naval history features large in Greenwich as it served as the headquarters for the Royal Navy. The Royal Observatory is in the middle of the vast Greenwich Park, so it’s a bit of a hike (one mile from public transport) but it’s a popular spot for a picnic and kicking around a football. The observatory is part of a complex that includes the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s Observatory; all are free.
Greenwich: Southeast London, SE10. The Meridian Line at The Royal Observatory is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Free entry to all museums, including the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s Observatory (www.nmm.ac.uk). Greenwich Market is open Thur.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., in the covered area surrounded by four roads: College Approach, King William Walk, Greenwich Church Street and Nelson Road. www.greenwichmarket.net.Transport: CuttySark (Docklands Light Railway, part of the tube network) is the nearest for the market. Train: Greenwich and Maze Hill stations are closer to the Royal Observatory. Boat: Greenwich Pier from Tower of London, Charing Cross and Westminster.
4) Get a bird’s eye view. Tower Bridge was completed in 1894, when it was an engineering marvel for using steam-powered engines to lift the bridge so that tall boats could pass through. Today, its stone-clad towers and powder blue suspension struts make it one of the most picturesque sights in London.
However, not everyone knows you can go up to the 140-foot high walkways, which are glassed in (with openings to take photos). From the walkways, there are stunning views of nearby Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern and the striking glass egg-shaped City Hall. Anyone interested in history and engineering should head to the Victorian Engine Rooms, home of the original steam engines.
Tower Bridge: Central London—Tower Bridge, London, SE1.Open 9.30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily Nov.-Mar., 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily Apr.-Oct. Purchase tickets at the north end (the end by the Tower of London). Prices £10-£14 (about $20-$28) family (depending on numbers), £6 (about $12) adult, £3 (about $6) child. Transport: London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee tube lines, train), Tower Gateway (Docklands Light Railway), Fenchurch Street (train). www.towerbridge.org.uk
5) Be artistic. The Tate Modern has a vast Turbine Hall (it used to be a power station) with regularly changing installations supersized to work in the space. For example, from 2006-2007, CarstenHöller’s five slides spiraled their way down and around the hall (one of them five floors high, frighteningly fast around the corners). It also has quirkily named (Material Gestures and States of Flux) but interesting collections of modern art on different floors. Entry is free except for special exhibitions. The café/restaurant on the ground level is recommended; it’s a bit pricey but the food is very good, with fresh fish brought daily from Cornwall.
If you also have younger children in tow (ages 5-10), go to the Info booth on the ground floor or the Family Zone on Level 3 and pick up a little book of suggested routes (Tate Teaser), or ask about ‘Start’ activities on the weekend (for ages 5 and up) which use puzzles and games to explore modern art.
A local teen says: “It depends on what they have in the Turbine Hall. I loved the slides but the crack in the floor [Doris Salcedo’sShibboleth] was a bit whatever. They have videos sometimes in little rooms, so you can just sit and watch them. The gift shop has some cool stuff.”
Tate Modern: Central London—Bankside, London SE1. Open Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fri. and Sat. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Price: free entry to museum, various charges for special exhibitions (usually around £6/$12). Transport: Southwark (Jubilee tube line) and Blackfriars (District and Circle tube lines). www.tate.org.uk/modern
6) Pay tribute to the Bard. Should you have a budding actor in the family, a short walk from the Tate Modern along the river is Shakespeare’s Globe, where you can catch a performance, visit the interactive exhibition or take a backstage tour. For younger children who might not be as willing to sit still for more than two hours, the theatre’s Globe Education Practitioners group leads a ChildsPlay workshop for ages 8-11, that explores a matinee play through storytelling and art. Children also get to view part of the play as groundlings in the Globe.
Book ChildsPlay tickets in advance, and register at the Education Reception Desk at 1:30 p.m. on selected Saturdays; tickets cost £12.50. Regular performance prices range from £12-33 depending on seating location; there are also 700 £5 standing-only tickets available for every performance. www.shakespeares-globe.org
7) Go shopping. If you’ve had enough of sightseeing and your teen just wants to go shopping, malls aren’t really an option unless you go out of town. In London, you could head to Oxford Street and choose one of the larger stores with a café, agree a time to meet, and put your feet up for a while. Top Shop is THE store for teen girls and young 20-somethings in London. The flagship store at 216 Oxford Street store is cavernous—loud music from its own radio station, catwalk shows, henna tattooing, nail bar, hair salon, etc. For the boys there’s a TopMan, and the more athletically minded can head a few doors down the street to NikeTown(236 Oxford Street). If it’s December, you won’t want to miss the Christmas window displays at Selfridges (400 Oxford Street).
Article by Nichole Beauchamp, originally written for TravelMuse