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With kids in tow, you'll have to make compromises ( London without Kew Gardens!) but you can find a small slice of the real London in a scaled-back, kid-friendly itinerary.
Instead of walking tours, get out and board a double-decker tourist bus -- the Original London Sightseeing Tour is just one of the many hop-on, hop-off tour companies. You'll see all the major sites in no time.
Get off at Trafalgar Square. Unencumbered adults head for the National Gallery, but you'll opt for the 18th-century St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. Have lunch at Café-in-the-Crypt, a self-service cafeteria in the church's ancient stone vaults. The food has a French flair, but there is plain fare for the kids. The kids can do a medieval brass rubbing here. If they can sit for 45 minutes, take in a free lunchtime concert upstairs. It's a fine stand-in for a night at the London Symphony Orchestra.
After lunch, it's just a short walk to Somerset House. Other tourists browse the art collections, but you'll enter the courtyard and settle at a café table. The courtyard feels Old World and a square of fountains provides a huge water playground for your kids. Sip a coffee or sample a light snack while the kids frolic. Remember to bring dry clothes for them! (A waterproof raincoat is a good idea -- the water is cold even in summer.)
The West End beckons here, but while the hordes head for their theaters, make your way to Hamburger Union on Garrick Street -- use your London A to Z to find it. Burgers are upscale here, yet the service is fast-food fast. You can even order a glass of wine.
Instead of a cab, take a double-decker bus home. Grab the front seats up top. The No. 15 wheels around the major sites. And, kids love how perilously close the bus pulls up to vehicles in front of it!
In Kensington Gardens, most tourists ogle Kensington Palace, but you're heading for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, an impressive assortment of play equipment grouped around an imposing pirate ship. Flora lovers are strolling Kew Gardens (sigh!), but you can at least take in the Italian Garden next to the playground. For lunch, have a bite at the playground's outdoor café.
Guidebooks often steer families to Madame Tussauds and the Victoria and Albert's Early Childhood Museum, but young children can be too young for the one and too antsy for the other. So, head to the London Science Museum. If you didn't eat at the playground, lunch here. Kids' meals come with a toy and fun food like Jello topped with gummy worms. In addition to the exhibits, simulator rides and an IMAX theatre also delight here.
It's late afternoon and lucky souls are enjoying high tea at redoubtable institutions like Brown's Hotel and the Ritz. Instead, scan your Time Out London Guide and choose a family-friendly emporium like the Golden Hind, a lovely fish-and-chip place in Marylebone.
Okay, you have to do this. Grit your teeth and consider the day a goner. Your kids will remember this day for the next hundred years, so it's worth every frustrating moment.
Take the train to Windsor from Paddington. Without your kids, you'd stay in Windsor and tour the castle, walk the narrow, cobblestoned streets and dine in a quaint, 16th-century building, maybe cross the bridge to Eton. Get on the Legoland shuttle bus. Now! Start early -- it took us three hours door-to-door. (The bus stop is across the street from the Windsor Guildhall, where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles were married.)
On a busy day, the lines for rides are long, so expect some disappointment. But Miniland, with its Lego cityscapes, is amazing. And give the Driving School a try -- the line moves quickly as 15 or so kids at a time steer electric cars on an authentic road complete with traffic lights and roundabouts. It was our son's favorite five minutes of the day.
With our lunch at Pizza to Go, near the Duplo water-play area, our son got a small Lego kit -- a better toy than any from a fast-food joint. In fact, when we stopped at the Burger King at Paddington on the way home, they were out of kids toys. But our son was too tired to even notice.
Head for the Embankment for your close-up view of Big Ben. Cross Westminster Bridge and stroll along the Thames, where you can gawk at the street acts and ride the London Eye. Those who don't care for heights or (like my son) think the ride is too slow, can play on the playground.
Your next stop is Tower Bridge. Eat riverside at the Tower Wharf Café and enjoy the view of London's most picturesque bridge. If your kids have some patience, the Tower of London tour will be fun for all. Kids-on-the-go might enjoy the smaller Tower Bridge exhibit, if only for the views from the walkways.
For dinner, make your way across the bridge to The Apprentice, a restaurant run by the Conran-sponsored Butler's Wharf Chef School. Without kids, other tourists spent the day touring Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Houses of Parliament and are enjoying Conran's Le Pont de la Tour or Butler's Wharf Chop House, but you're having fine food in a more relaxed setting and spending less.
Let your kids stay up late and go back to the Tower for the Ceremony of the Keys, a 900-year-old ritual-laden locking up of the Tower. I dislike standing around with kids waiting for things to happen, like the Changing of the Guard, so this brief spectacle is a great alternative. Entrance is free, but you'll need to write away for tickets at least two months before your trip.
When you hear Covent Garden, you think Royal Opera House. But you're going to the London Transport Museum. The museum is chock full of buses, trams and Underground trains, many that you can board. Our son liked the Thomas the Tank Engine play area and the Tube-driving simulator. And I, who abhor gift shops, love this one for its Underground posters and souvenirs.
Neal's Yard Salad Bar is the place to be for lunch, but the crowds are daunting. Stroll through Covent Garden Market and stop at The Crusting Pipe Wine Bar. You may be drawn in, as we were, by the lovely voice of a soprano, whose classical selections graced our lunch in the open-air courtyard. You'll have your opera experience after all.
After lunch, head to Little Venice and catch a canal boat. You'll be on the water without queuing up for a Thames River tour. The ride starts in Little Venice, a colorful area where London's canal systems meet, and ends at Camden Lock, site of the famous Camden Market stalls. But you get off mid-way at the London Zoo. (A walk through Regents Park to the zoo, though, rewards you with beautiful gardens along the way.) Many animals were sleeping during our visit, but a bird demonstration was impressive and our son liked the bats in the pitch-black nocturnal animal den. Oh, and the bouncy castle, of course.
Next, head for Fleet Street and poke your nose into the Knights Templar Church. Consecrated in 1185, the Norman church is known for its gargoyles and stone effigies of Crusades-era knights. It will make you feel better about passing up Westminster Abbey.
While gastropubs are all the rage with savvy and sophisticated tourists, we like the real item -- history-rich, burnished-wood, slightly tatty affairs. Alas, few London pubs are licensed to accept children. So, farther down Fleet Street enter Ye Olde Chesire Cheese pub. A tourist stop maybe, but it welcomes children and is oh-so atmospheric, with its ties to Johnson, Dickens, Boswell and others in the literary pantheon. Pop around the corner into Gough Square where Samuel Johnson's house stands -- the cobblestone street with its gaslights and hitching posts is a breath of London's past life. (For other child-friendly pubs, go to www.pubs.com, click on Pub Finder, then Child Friendly.)
Kids and cathedrals don't mix. So just poke your nose into St. Paul's. The attraction here is the Whispering Gallery, which encircles the interior of the dome: a whisper against the walls on one side is audible from the opposite side. It's a climb, though, so think that through. Have lunch below in the Crypt Café and sneak a peak at the tombs of Admiral Nelson, Christopher Wren and the Duke of Wellington.
After lunch, wend your way through Ironmonger, Poultry, Milk, and Old Jewelry streets -- reflections of London's trade history -- to the Guildhall Art Gallery. In the basement are the excavated remains of a Roman amphitheater. An audio system adds cheering and crowd noises when you step on one spot in the center, a feature that fascinated our son. Afterward, take a whirl through the gallery of lovely Victorian artworks while your children scroll through the same paintings on a computer.
The gallery will have to do for art, culture and history, unless your kids are up for the British Museum, the British Library, the Tate or the Museum of London. These tradeoffs can hurt, it's true. You're having dinner near the British Museum, though --so print out the Top 10 Treasures list from its website and give it a spin if you're brave.
Otherwise, another play break might be in order. Coram's Fields near Russell Square has play equipment, a paddling pond and an animal pen. It's on the site of an orphanage built in the 1700s by philanthropist Thomas Coram and charmingly chides: "No Adults, Unless Accompanied by a Child."
For dinner, pass up London institutions like Simpson's in the Strand or The Connaught and climb the narrow steps of the Queen's Larder pub off Russell Square to the tiny, second-floor Queen Charlotte's Restaurant. On this site, Queen Charlotte stored goodies for George III ("Mad King George") while he received medical care nearby. You'll get a simple but good meal here. As you reflect on your six days in London, you'll go home happy. We did!
While you're packing, I'd suggest throwing in: a London A to Z street and Underground guide; a Time Out London guide; London Visitor Travelcards (purchased online before leaving); an umbrella stroller; activity books or hand-held video games (if you want dinner to last more than 15 minutes); and a soft football or inflatable soccer ball, for down times outside. (For instance, Green Park is just down the street from Fortnum & Mason's. One parent can play while the other shops.) In addition, I'd rent a flat rather than a hotel room, unless you're a particularly close family.
Phone numbers are listed as you would call them in London. Prices are computed at £1.95 to $1 U.S. Nearby Tube stops are in parentheses.
London Original Sightseeing Tour, www. theoriginaltour.com. Adults, $29.25; Children, $17.55; family, $97.50.
St. Martins-in-the-Field, Trafalgar Square, 020 7766 1129, www. stmartin-in-the-fields. org. Lunchtime concerts at 1 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Café-in-the-Crypt open Mon-Wed., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., noon-8 p.m. (Charing Cross)
Somerset House, Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court, The Strand, 020 7845 4600, www. somerset-house.org.uk. (Temple)
Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground at Kensington Garden, www. royalparks.uk.gov. (Lancaster Gate or Queensway)
London Science Museum, Exhibition Road, 0870 870 4868, www. sciencemuseum.org.uk. Open seven days, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Dec. 24-26. Free; charges vary for IMAX, motion simulator and special exhibits. (South Kensington)
Legoland, Winkfield Road, Windsor, 0870 504 0404, www. lego.com/legoland. Seven days, 10 a.m.-5, 6, or 7 p.m., depending on season. (Closed some off-season Tuesdays and Wednesdays.) Adult, $44.85; child, $39; many other pricing options. Three combo tickets for the train and Legoland cost us about $150. (Paddington)
London Eye, south bank of the Thames, www.londoneye.com. Seven days, 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (8 or 9 p.m. off-season). Ticket office in county hall next door. Adult, $22.50; child $11.20; under 5 free. (Embankment)
Tower Bridge Exhibition and Monument, Tower Bridge, 44 (0) 207 403 3761, www. towerbridge.org.uk. Open April-Sept. 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.(6 p.m. off-season). Closed Dec. 24-25. Ticket office, northwest side of bridge. Adult, $12.70; children, $6.85; under 5 and disabled free. Family rates available. (Tower Hill)
Tower of London , 020 7709 0765, www.hrp.org.uk. Open March-October; Tues.-Sat, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun.-Mon., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closes 4 p.m. off-season. Closed Dec. 24-26 and Jan. 1. Adults, $26.35; children, $17.55; under 5 free. Advance and family rates available. Admittance at 9:30 p.m. to the Ceremony of the Keys. Tickets are free, but must be reserved two months in advance. Write to: The Ceremony of the Keys, HM Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB, England. Include desired and alternate date and two international reply coupons. (Tower Hill)
London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, 44 (0)20 7379 6344, www.ltmuseum.co.uk. Open seven days; Mon.-Thurs, Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Dec. 24-26. Adult, $11.60; children under 16 free. (Covent Garden)
London Waterbus Company, 020 7482 2660, www. londonwaterbus.com. Hourly tripson Regents Canal most days; half-hourly on busy days. Combined boat/zoo tickets: adult, $28.30; child, $20.90. (Warwick)
London Zoo, Outer Circle, Regents Park, (44) 020-7722 3333, www.londonzoo.co.uk. Open every day but Dec. 25, 10 a.m.-4, 4:30 or 5 p.m. (depending on season), 6 p.m. on holidays. Adult $25.35; children $19. Under 3 free. Family rates available.
Knights Templar Church. Middle Temple Lane, off Fleet Street. Open Wed.-Sun. Free. (Temple)
St. Paul's Cathedral, www.stpauls.co.uk. Mon.-Sat. 8:30-4 p.m. Adults, $13.65; children, $5.85. Family tickets available. Crypt Café open Mon.-Sat., 9-5 p.m.; Sunday, 10-5 p.m. Lunch served from 11:45 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (St. Paul's)
Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, www. cityoflondon.gov.uk. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m. Closed Dec. 24-25, Jan. 1. Adult, $4.90; children under 16 free. Free on Fridays and after 3:30 any day. (St. Paul's)
Coram's Fields Children's Playground, 93 Guildford Street. (Russell Square)
British Museum, Great Russell Street, 0207 323 8299, www. thebritishmuseum.ac.uk. Free; charges for some special exhibits. Closed Dec. 24-26, Jan.1 and Good Friday. (Russell Square)
Lodging and Dining
We rented a flat in Little Venice from Coach House London, www.chslondon.com. At almost £2 to the U.S. dollar, it was about $200 a night, but having your own apartment beats a hotel room at the same price and gives you a place for breakfast.
Keep in mind that cafes, restaurants and pubs may serve meals only at specified lunch and dinner hours. Get a phone card and call ahead.
Hamburger Union, 020 7379 0412, 4-6 Garrick St., www. hamburgerunion.com. Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun-Mon. 11:30-9:30 p.m. Inexpensive. (Temple)
Golden Hind, 73 Marylebone Lane, 020 7486 3644. Lunch, noon-3; dinner 6-10 p.m. Inexpensive. (Bond or Baker)
The Apprentice, Cardamom Building, 31 Shad Thames, 020 7234 0254.. Dinner, 6-8:30 p.m. Moderate. (Tower Hill)
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Wine Office Court at 145 Fleet Street, 020 7553 6170 Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., noon- 3 p.m. Moderate. (Chancery or Blackfriars)
The Crusting Pipe Wine Bar, 25 The Market, Covent Garden, 020 7836 1415. Mon.-Sat.,11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m. Inexpensive. (Covent Garden)
Queen Charlotte's Restaurant, 1 Queen Square, 020 7837 5627. Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., noon-3 p.m. and 7-10:30 p.m. Inexpensive. (Russell Square)