London in December with a child
November 19, 2017 8:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to London between Christmas and New Year's, to meet another of my children, and hopefully catch some sights. I have maybe 6 days max in the city and some logistics questions. Both of us are decent travelers in Asia.

1. Which neighbourhood in London should we target for an air bnb? We just need a warm child-friendly room in a house with a kitchen for breakfasts.

2. Raincoat/parka enough or do I need an umbrella as well? I always lose the damn things.

3. What kind of footwear is needed? Will sneakers with thick wool socks suffice, or do I need proper winter boots?

4. From London, how difficult and long is it to get to Hampshire and/or Bath for a day trip to see the Jane Austen sights? Would this be a time consuming nightmare, or an easy side trip?

5. We will be doing a lot of the British Museum and the Christmas Fair, meh on Harry Potter (child is ambivalent), and hopefully outdoor ice skating, Kew and Harrods toy store. Is there anything else that would make this amazing for a curious morbid nerdy 6 year old?
posted by dorothyisunderwood to Travel & Transportation around London, England (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. Depends on your budget, but tourist London is generally quiet that week, so you shouldn't have a problem finding somewhere fairly central, perhaps even zone 1 (e.g. Clerkenwell, Whitechapel, Holborn, near St Pancras/Kings Cross, Bloomsbury or even The City). No need to go further out than Islington (zone 2) or south of the river (e.g. Vauxhall, Stockwell, Clapham), unless you particularly want to be in a house (rather than a flat) or have a tight budget. In that case, bring up Airbnb in map mode and follow the tube lines out. Stay near a station.

But unless you're set on Airbnb, don't forget hotels. They are always especially cheap that week (no business travelers and basically no domestic tourism). Last year after Christmas I stayed in a $500 boutique hotel in Clerkenwell for $150 and ate breakfast in the cafe over the street for a fiver.

2. If it rains while you're there, buy an umbrella for ~£10. Leave it behind when you leave.

3. Sneakers and thick socks sounds good to me, assuming you find them comfortable to walk in. You might bring waterproof walking boots if you have them and you're an overpacker, but it's extremely unlikely you'll need footwear suitable for snow or intense cold.

4. Depends where in Hampshire. It's straightforward to get to one town (which?), but getting between them would turn it into a more complicated day out. Each of these locations could easily be an hour apart with reduced train service that week. Bath is a straight shot from Paddington Station in 90 mins. There's enough to do there within walking distance to last a day, and be well worth the trip. Highly recommended.

5. The Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons is certainly morbid (and may be shut that week, so check before making the trip). If you've been the the AMNH, the NHM is not as good, but is next to the Science Museum and the V&A, which makes it a good day out for a six year old. I cannot recommend a guided walking tour from these folks highly enough (I've recommended them before!), if any of them sound age appropriate.
posted by caek at 9:28 PM on November 19, 2017

Science museum trumps the British museum every time. It's a must-see.

If you are targetting Kew/Hampshire/Bath then you'll want to be near the right station to make the journey easy -- but Paddington isn't the best area. Try to get fairly near there but not right by the station. Bath will be a very full day for a 6-year-old, and isn't really geared up for them anyway.

The toy store (top floor at Harrods) is pretty good, but Hamleys beats it every time.

I wouldn't take an umbrella ever, and I lived there for many years. Your choice of footwear will be fine. It's unlikely given what you're doing that you'll be in anything worse than a bit of rain, and even then you'll be able to be under cover a lot of the time.
posted by tillsbury at 9:31 PM on November 19, 2017

"2. Raincoat/parka enough or do I need an umbrella as well? I always lose the damn things.
3. What kind of footwear is needed? Will sneakers with thick wool socks suffice, or do I need proper winter boots?"

Sneakers and socks should be fine. I usually take a second pair of shoes so if the first gets soaking wet I can swap the next day, but I certainly wouldn't bother with boots. Waterproof coat, and I like a hat that sheds rain in the winter (keeps my head warm, and dry); I've never bothered with an umbrella in the British Isles. You're either inside or going from inside to transit and can dash without an umbrella; or you're outside for the whole day trekking through the countryside and so won't want to bother with an umbrella.

"4. From London, how difficult and long is it to get to Hampshire and/or Bath for a day trip to see the Jane Austen sights? Would this be a time consuming nightmare, or an easy side trip?"

There are a TON of tour companies that organize day trips from London, and for a multi-site day trip I think you're usually best off with a tour company; otherwise you lose too much of the day to transit. If you just want to do Bath -- totally worth it! Austen and Georgian architecture and the Roman Baths! -- I'd do it yourself, but if you want to see sites in a couple places in one day, I'd see if you can find a tour that will bus you out and back. Prices vary WILDLY but luckily the internet has many opinions on day tours from London so you can read about lots.

"5. We will be doing a lot of the British Museum and the Christmas Fair, meh on Harry Potter (child is ambivalent), and hopefully outdoor ice skating, Kew and Harrods toy store. Is there anything else that would make this amazing for a curious morbid nerdy 6 year old?"

The Tower is always a fun place to visit even with younger children -- Beefeaters, ravens, crown jewels, dungeons, the works.

One of my absolute favorite London museums, that I think is totally underappreciated and under-visited is the Museum of London. It's a little more modern in its exhibit design than, say, the British Museum, so it's nice for kids with more interactivity, and it's really interesting. You learn a lot! They have really great artifacts! There's a bit of Roman wall!

The London Transport Museum is always a big hit with kids. Very kid-friendly and if your child is AT ALL into trains, it is the place to go.

If you told us a bit more what your kiddo was interested in, we could suggest more -- is war an interest? The Churchill War Rooms are great. There are not one but TWO toy museums in London. There are crazy house museums devoted to single guys who collected insane stuff. Etc. There's doubtless something that hits his particular interests!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:26 PM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

We will be going to the Imperial War museum and the surgery museum if it's open, she's keen on war, death and surgery in general. She's big on pirates, animals (is the London zoo as good or different to the Singapore zoo?) Toy museums and climbing underground to the sewers have both been greeted with excitement. This is a kid who is easily entranced by a pile of rocks, so it's more what's high quality for the long-suffering parent who must accompany her.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:40 PM on November 19, 2017

Seconding the Churchill War Rooms, Science Museum (more of a hit with 7+ yos in my experience), London Museum, and British Museum. The Churchill War Rooms are actually the underground rooms and bunkers where Churchill spent much of WWII. They're now filled with artifacts and mannequins and the whole thing is designed so that you can see exactly how it was set up when Churchill was there, which is fun. They're near the horse parade, which kids always like. The Hunterian museum is closed for renovation for a couple more years. The Wellcome Collection also has neat sciencey stuff. If you're near Hamley's, the Wallace Collection has a a massive collection of armour and weapons from the olden days--pretty much every kid (and adult) we've taken has been very impressed. Another place to visit if your daughter is keen on death is the Abney Park Cemetery--not a lot of flash and bang but a beautiful place to stroll around if you want some time away from the crowds.

For footwear, I'd say get some good-quality Gore-Tex sneakers/walking shoes. They will help keep your feet dry and warm, which is nice if you're standing around all day in museums.

Not sure exactly when you will arrive, but be aware that most of London completely shuts down on Christmas Day--there will be no public transport (at all), no trains, and most services/shops are closed, including grocery stores, and closures start around 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. There may be limited black cabs but overall the city is sort of surreally quiet, which is nice. (Pubs offering Christmas dinner will be open, but usually they are pre-booked). Some things are back up on Boxing day (26/12) but others remain shut.
posted by stillmoving at 11:09 PM on November 19, 2017

I echo the suggestions of the Transport Museum, the Tower of London, and the Science Museum. Some parts of the science museum are more grown-up oriented but the Wonderlab is a huge hit with my 6-year-old.

Tickets to the Transport Museum are good for an entire year. I'd advise going early in your trip, because then if you like it, you'll have time to go back again as often as you like.

By all means check out the toy stores, but don't neglect London's wonderful bookstores. Within a 10 minute walk of Hamley's, you can find the oldest bookstore in London as well as the largest bookstore in Europe. Both of them have excellent children's sections. And all around the city are a number independent bookstores, including some that specialize in children's books.

Normally when people ask where to stay in London, my advice is that it doesn't matter. The Tube network is very dense in central London, and the city is very walkable, so it doesn't really matter which Tube line you're on -- as long as you're near a tube station of some sort, you'll be able to get into town, and once you're in town, you'll be able to get anywhere you want. However, as stillmoving points out, everything shuts down on Christmas Day. So wherever you are staying, make sure it is walking distance to anything you want to want to do on Christmas. It may be overkill -- you may well end up finding you can get a taxi or a "minicab" (sometimes called a "private hire vehicle") -- but it will be less stressful if you have the option of walking.

Be warned that lately there has been a rise in phone snatching, so keep your phone inside a purse or pocket whenever possible, and don't hold it loosely when you take it out. Other than that, London is a very safe city, and it's safe in a fairly consistent way. That is, the difference between the safest and the least safe neighborhoods is much less than in many big cities. As long as you exercise reasonable big city precautions, you should be fine pretty much anywhere you end up in zones 1 and 2.
posted by yankeefog at 1:54 AM on November 20, 2017

Oh, also, the Diana Playground is one of the best playgrounds in the world, if you get lucky and have some playground weather while you're in town.

Entry is free, but on a beautiful summer day there can be a queue to get in. My guess is that will be less of a problem Christmas week. (Like most everything else, it will be closed Christmas day.)
posted by yankeefog at 1:57 AM on November 20, 2017

I was in London in the rain at the weekend and had to spend some amount of time avoiding having my eyes gouged out by umbrellas. Just take a decent waterproof coat with a hood (and enough insulating layers underneath). And gloves. Umbrellas are too much hassle IMO (it's often very crowded on the pavement, useless in the wind, etc).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:08 AM on November 20, 2017

Harrods doesn't allow backpacks. Nthing Hamleys.
posted by brujita at 3:44 AM on November 20, 2017

If animals are a hit the Natural History Museum is pretty neat as well. If the weather is good you can combine that with Kensington park and the abovementioned playground.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:09 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Museum for London for kids. It's really kid friendly, and when I was there, had special fun, "this is what it would have been like to be a kid in London at this time!" plaques.

This seems on-brand for your kid. There's a Victorian surgical demonstration on Saturdays!
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:39 AM on November 20, 2017

6 is probably too young to appreciate all the famous people buried in Westminster Abbey, but there are 18 British monarchs buried there, including some famous ones.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:17 AM on November 20, 2017

Yeah the kid might appreciate the new giant whale skeleton at the Natural History Museum more than the sarcophagi, etc. at the British Museum. The next door Science Museum has a brand new interactive gallery for kids called Wonderlab they might be into.
posted by johngoren at 8:53 AM on November 20, 2017

Nthing Museum of London, they'll have a Victorian Christmas grotto with Santa if that is of interest, as well as normal permanent exhibits.

Maybe the new Postal Museum and Mail Rail would be fun for both of you?
posted by lettezilla at 10:34 AM on November 20, 2017

The Huntarian Museum is closed until 2020. But the Museum of London is excellent, and I'd also recommend the Geffrye Museum, which is lovely at Christmas.
posted by essexjan at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2017

Oh, I'd also recommend a pantomime - a traditional English Christmas show, usually loosely based on a fairytale. Kids love 'em, usually. The Hackney Empire one is superb, and there's always a good one on at the Theatre Royal at Stratford East. Both theatres are 19th century music halls, so lend themselves really well to a traditional panto. Book early.
posted by essexjan at 12:35 PM on November 20, 2017

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