Help me plan a whirlwind tour of London
August 30, 2016 6:19 AM   Subscribe

We're flying into Gatwick on a Friday morning in October and heading out Sunday to visit family in Cardiff. Looking for advice on everything in between. Where to stay? Where to eat? What to do? And how to get around?

Our party consists of Mum, Dad and two girls age 5 and 8. Also we're flying from Toronto (so we'll be a little tired on the Friday).
posted by samhyland to Travel & Transportation around London, England (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you driving or train-ing? The train is only about 4 hours.

Stonehenge is basically in between if you want to break it up.
posted by plep at 6:24 AM on August 30, 2016

Response by poster: Just realized I worded the question poorly. Looking for advice on our time in London.
Not worried about the trip to Cardiff (likely train although I've seen Stonehenge...)
posted by samhyland at 6:33 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's so much to do in London there it's hard to know where to start! The museums are great---I used to love the Science Museum growing up, but all of them are good and the majority are free. You can also get one of the many tours, on bus or boat or anything else.

London's public transport is excellent. If you have contactless cards they'll just work and give you good fares; otherwise, pick up a couple of Oyster cards when you arrive. Oyster cards work on buses, the Tube, and any other public transport you can find. Kids go free. The Gatwick Express train is super expensive; you can get a local train which isn't much slower for like half the price.

There are plenty of airbnbs to stay in; it should be easy enough to find something for the four of you. Of course there are plenty of hotels and so on as well.
posted by katrielalex at 6:42 AM on August 30, 2016

I don't want to sound dismissive, but this kind of general travel question is really best answered by a guidebook, which many professional researchers, writers, and designers work on for many months to answer exactly the questions you asked. You'll get a lot more from that than a few paragraphs here. Frommer's provides a good overview and is free online, but I'd strongly recommend a real paper book, such as Lonely Planet's pocket guide.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:43 AM on August 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Take the tube or a regular bus and skip the hop-on-hop-off tour buses. They are usually a good way to see lots of things in a day but the ones in London get stuck in traffic. There is an iOS app called Transit that will give you great directions including stops and which side of the street you need to be on. Google Maps does a fine job as well. Buses don't take cash, so get an oyster card for all who need them.

Pick something a bit easier for Friday when you are recovering from jet lag, like riding the London Eye and then taking the Thames Clippers as far east as you like. Then Saturday, pick one big thing for the morning and another for the afternoon. Maybe the Tower of London in the AM including the Tower Bridge and the British Museum in the PM. Check hours for everything beforehand. You have 1 and a half days, so don't think you will see it all, but you can see 3 of the bigger sights. We visited Greenwich in May and it was interesting, but that would take up most of one day for you. Save it for a longer visit.
posted by soelo at 8:10 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's a bit tricky to answer this question without knowing more about your specific interests. Try looking at previous AskMe questions about London for lots of good tips. For advice specific to entertaining children in London, see this very recent AskMe thread.

For what it's worth, my standard general advice on London tourism is: all the famous sites here are famous for good reason. If this is your first visit, you can just pick pretty much any of the famous stuff at random and you'll have a great time.

The one exception is Buckingham Palace, which isn't that exciting, whether you're there for the Changing of the Guard or not. My advice is to skip it, especially on such a short trip, unless you're really fascinated by the royal family.

Sorry to be so general. If there are specific interests or circumstances unique to your family, please let us know, and I bet you'll get more helpful advice!
posted by yankeefog at 9:03 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Having traveled transatlanticly with kids that sort of age, I suspect that Friday might well be a complete write off. By the time you get into London and check in to a hotel, the younger one at least is likely to be cranky and floppy and in no mood to enjoy anything much, even food. Saturday they will still be jet lagged, so the morning will seem like the middle of the night to their body clocks, though excitement might carry them through.

So, a hotel location as central as possible and a short list of fun things to do with kids (Changing of the Guard, London Eye, Natural History Museum…), but you know what interests your kids better than we do, then play it by ear. Planning too rigidly, or trying to fit too much in is likely to end in tears, literally.

The Tube is easier to navigate, but buses are more fun for kids, especially upstairs on a double-decker, as you can see so much more.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:12 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Touristy London basically consists of three main areas:

Westminster: Whitehall, Horseguards, Wesminster Abbey, Downing Street, Parliament, Imperial War Museum, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square. All within walking distance.

West Museums: Science Museum, V&A, Natural History Museum

South Bank: Tate Modern, BFI, Old Globe, London Eye.

The Tower of London is sort of out by itself in the East. The British Museum is by itself in Bloomsbury.

Anywhere in the centre works for lodging. It all depends on your budget. The London tube is really well-served by public transportation. Get an Oyster Card which allows you to just swipe on and off.
I don't know how you like to travel (apps? books?) but the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide for London is quite good and full of stuff I'd recommend myself.
posted by vacapinta at 9:46 AM on August 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Agree that the first day will probably be a wash. My family did a Boston-London red-eye when my brother and I were 7 and 11, respectively, and my main memory of that first day is all of us sleeping at the hotel until dinner time (and my dad discovering on the Tube that he'd taken the wrong suitcase and having to go back to Heathrow, but that's another story).

Anyway, you'll probably only have time for the big-ticket tourist stuff that others have mentioned, but if you want something a bit more off-beat, I really enjoyed the Dennis Severs house, which seems like it might be fun for kids depending on their attention spans. It's in a nice neighborhood for poking around and checking out markets, too.

As for where to stay - definitely something in Zone 1 with such a short amount of time. If you're planning to take public transit in from the airport, then check out your route and get something an easy walk from a tube stop on the way. (Last year I got extremely lost on the tube trying to get from the Heathrow Express terminus to the East End after a red-eye, with a big suitcase during morning rush hour - not fun as a solo adult, and would have been much less fun with two kids!)
posted by lunasol at 11:02 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Natural History Museum may be something the kids enjoy, especially the dinosaurs (good for adults too of course - I love it there). Get there early though as it gets busy. The Science Museum is next door. I agree with the Changing of the Guard a little bit later.
posted by plep at 12:39 PM on August 30, 2016

Any Harry Potter fans in the family? You can take a train from Gatwick directly to St Pancras - it's the Thameslink train to Bedford, takes just under an hour to reach St Pancras - and King's Cross, complete with Platform 9 3/4 photo op and Harry Potter shop, is just across the road.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:23 PM on August 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Re - Harry Potter. Leadenhall Market if that's the case. (However it's closed weekends so make it the Friday if you do visit).
posted by plep at 8:50 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

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