London is the perfect place to test the waters for your child's first international adventure. There are countless superb activities for kids, and many of them are free or very cheap. The language and food are easy to adjust to, and when all else fails, there are unique modes of transportation around every corner that will enamor even the toughest-to-please little traveler. Now is the time to make good use of the excellent exchange rate and break in your child's new passport across the pond.
It's usually a given that your itinerary will include a visit to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus. But after the well-known touristy sites, these are special extras that won't break the bank and get you off the well-trodden path. Summer is especially packed with events and festivals that are family friendly and oftentimes free. And, don't forget to apply for the Oyster Zip card before you arrive so your children under 16 can travel for free on the London Underground, known as the Tube, and buses throughout the city.
1. RAF Museum - Adults and kids love seeing aircraft up close at the Royal Air Force museum. While a bit outside the city center, is free and easily accessible by Tube. You can spend hours gazing at the historic aircraft and find reasonably priced, interesting souvenirs that beat any on the streets in the city center.
2. Ferry and Day Out in Greenwich - While it does boast the Prime Meridian, there's much more to see in the east-side village on the hill. Take a public ferry through London to get an excellent view from the Thames and then enjoy the Cutty Sark, free Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory. Free Tours By Foot offers an excellent walking tour that will orient you in two hours to all the best sites and delight your kids with fascinating stories and history. Most people don't give Greenwich the time it deserves, but your family will love it, even if you simply play in the expansive park and climb the hill for a spectacular city view.
It's worth taking a day to explore Greenwich and all it has to offer.
3. Speaking of Views - The newly-opened Sky Garden in the "Walkie Talkie" building offers an incomparable rooftop view of London from east to west. As these skyscrapers are built, the city requires them to provide free public space, and the Sky Garden doesn't disappoint. While you need to book at least two weeks in advance and make a reservation online, it's free to visit and will leave you breathless.
Don't pay sky-high prices to see the Shard views when Sky Garden is free!
4. Free Family Walking Tours - Even after taking excellent free walking tours all over the world, we were blown away by the unique offerings at Free Tours By Foot. While our family enjoyed the Greenwich and Soho food tours, you can also learn about the cluster of can't-miss museums and playgrounds on the West Kensington Family walking tour. They'll give you the highlights and history of the Natural History, Victoria and Albert and Science Museums for you to later explore on your own. Each is spectacular and also free of charge (although be prepared to tip what you think the tour is worth at the conclusion), so you can find what interests your kids and return later during your trip.
5. Playgrounds Abound - There are fantastic playgrounds hiding throughout London, and some are only known to locals. Our son also loves the unique playscapes different from the U.S., including climbing towers and ziplines. Your kids can run free and let off steam in Holland Park, the Jubilee Gardens log playground behind the London Eye and Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Park.
6. Imperial War Museum - Hidden behind the South Bank, the Imperial War Museum isn't atop everyone's must-see list in London, but it should be. After recently undergoing a makeover, this treasure is packed full of interesting exhibits and provides kids a free activity book to follow along as they go. After you fight the crowds at the British Museum, you'll breathe easy as you explore and enjoy the IWM.
7. Boris Bikes - Although technically only for kids over 14, this share bike scheme named after London's former mayor is great for families wanting to see the city on two wheels. We rode through the connecting Hyde, Green and St. James' parks and there are additional routes provided via map and app to save the hassle of seeking out cycle-friendly streets. To keep it cheap, turn in your bikes after every 30 minutes at a new kiosk for free rides after paying the initial £2 rental charge.
Share cycles are an easy, fun and budget-friendly way to cruise around the city.
8. Richmond Park - I'm a bit biased because we lived in Richmond for a few years, but the largest of London's Royal Parks is something everyone should see. The site of royal hunting grounds from the 13th century, Richmond Park still boasts herds of gorgeous deer (now to admire, instead of hunt) and wildlife. With cycle and walking paths, lakes and historic plantations, a visit to Richmond Park is a short escape from the city to a beautiful and tranquil setting. Take the train from Waterloo or the District line on the Tube. Richmond town center is also a delight with the Thames waterfront and excellent shopping and restaurants.
Richmond Park seems miles away from London, but it's a short ride to be in the vast park that feels like the countryside.
9. Be a Fan - London offers one-of-a-kind sporting events that don't have to break the bank. Football fans can enjoy a match at any of the several soccer clubs around the city, or if you have always dreamed of sitting courtside at Wimbledon, there are afternoon tickets available for only £20 that get you into most matches and the locals-favorite grassy hill to watch center court matches on the big screen. Embrace sport on the opposite side of the pond and introduce your family to a favorite English pastime.
Trying the famous strawberries and cream between matches at Wimbledon.
10. Local Festivals and Events - During the summer, London comes alive as they celebrate the sun and enjoy the outdoors. Event details for free family activities like Ride London, music festivals and movie nights in Hyde Park can be found on TimeOut London and will provide your family with a unique and memorable experience. Shoulder up to locals who are enjoying the best of what their city has to offer.
Suzanne, husband Mitch and son Luke took nine months off from their regular lives in Athens, Georgia, to travel around the globe. They plan to travel slow and visit friends, volunteer, home school their second grader and soak up what life is like in new and different places. You can follow their adventures at www.ruttotheledge.com.