Planning an itinerary for London that equally engages two teens, a tween, and two kids-at-heart meant tempering some of the more traditional sightseeing options (“seriously Mom, another church?”) with visits to more manga shops than you could have ever imagined existed. It also meant bookshops, candy shops, and some unexpectedly engaging adventures.
In general, they loved to play “spot the cultural differences” and were somewhere between engaged and patient with the grown-ups’ interest in history and art. Lucas, at age 10, did comment at one point in Paris that maybe a little bit too much of our vacation had been about dead people. We used a LOT of pop culture and literary references to engage the boys in various activities, giving them meaningful context beyond the history books and top tourist attractions. Harry Potter, Les Miserables, the Beatles, Monty Python, Neil Gaiman, and Victor Hugo were but a few of the sources of our inspiration.
Here are five things my boys loved about London. (Stay tuned for the Paris edition!)
1. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich
This was my geek-out, and high on my list of things to see in London. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, a UNESCO world heritage site, sits high on a hill (with a 60 degree incline for part of the climb!) a little bit east of the core. Not only did we learn the origins of Greenwich Mean Time, and admire some truly spectacular views out over London, but the boys were amused by the arbitrariness of standing with one foot in each hemisphere and the unresolved dispute over where exactly the Prime Meridian lies. If you’re at all interested in space or time, this is a very cool place to visit. There was an interesting looking retro market in Greenwich that I deeply regret we did not have time to explore — next time!
2. A “cruise” on the Thames Clipper
There are plenty of boat tours and cruises on the River Thames from which to choose. Because they are more for commuting than for tourists, the Thames Clippers are a simple and inexpensive way to see London from the Thames. There’s no commentary or tour guides, but we still loved our trip from Vauxall Bridge to Greenwich, with a change at London Bridge. If you use Google Maps, you can more or less figure out what you’re looking at as you go along. There is no better way to see the Tower Bridge than going under it, in our opinion! And, we could pay using our Oyster cards, buying a paper ticket for Lucas because he’s young enough to ride the Tube, buses and trams without fare and therefore did not have an Oyster card. I think we paid about Â£7 for the grownups for our one-way fare, and half that for the kids under 15. The ride on the Clipper came in second to the Harry Potter studio tour on my boys’ list of favourite London adventures!
3. Chasing Harry Potter
I’d started out incorporating all my Harry Potter thoughts here, but then they grew and expanded like someone had cast an engorgio spell on them, and they spilled out into not one but TWO separate blog posts, one on finding Harry Potter locations in London and the other on the Making of Harry Potter studio tour.
Needless to say, I know few teens (nor Gen Xers!) who wouldn’t love chasing down at least a little bit of Harry Potter while visiting London.
4. Camden Market
This was the unexpected gem of our visit. We had time to kill on the morning of our visit to the Harry Potter studio tour, and hit the Camden Lock Market on a whim. I only wish we’d left ourselves much more time to explore this delightful warren of indie shops, crafters, vintage sales and commercial outlets with an alternative vibe. We had fantastic street food for lunch, and I got my very first (and long-coveted) pair of Doc Martens – authentic Made in England brand with gorgeous embroidered flowers to boot, erm, shoe. We approached the Market from the much more subdued Chalk Farm station side, and on the way out enjoyed the funky vibe of the main strip on the way back to the Camden Town Station. Even earlyish on a weekday morning, the place was alive with edgy energy – I can only imagine what it’s like on a Friday night!
5. The Tower of London
I was surprised by how much we enjoyed the Tower of London. From the resident ravens to the Beefeater tours, and from the medieval torture devices to the ancient history of the place, we found the Tower a fascinating place to explore. We’d been told to avoid the crush of people wanting to see the Crown Jewels by arriving as early as possible and going straight to the Crown Jewels, so we did, and had them practically to ourselves. Although they were interesting, we were a little underwhelmed by them and had more fun making jokes about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and the Cloak of Visibility. (Touring London with kids who make Monty Python quips is an adventure in itself and ample reward for many long years of parenting.)
Bonus recommendation: our favourite wander
Wandering is hands-down my favourite way to explore, and there’s no shortage of amazing places to wander in London. We found ourselves drawn to the area around Covent Gardens, SoHo, the Strand and Trafalgar Square again and again during our visit. The pop culture megastore Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue was a hit – I bought a paper copy of Good Omens to augment my ecopy, but we decided against hauling home the heavy tome that contained all the Monty Python scripts. Hardy’s Candy Store has sherbet lemons and lots of other sweets, along with the eclectic shops on Neal Street, and if you’ve got Â£299 to blow on a life-sized Firebolt of your very own, The Nobel Collection had lots of interesting toys for big kids!
We were also sad that we couldn’t make the timing work on a Mudlarking adventure on the Thames foreshore or a graffiti street art tour and workshop in Shoreditch, both of which were on my kids’ want-to-do list and will simply have to wait until NEXT time.
Care to add to the list? What places or adventures have your teens and tweens loved in London?