They say you never forget your “first” and for me my first experience of real travel was London. I was in my second year of university and while I had been to plenty of places with my parents and even a few small trips with friends, London was my first taste of travel on my own. It was in London that I was able to face both the challenge of planning and figuring out everything on my own as well as the thrill of going exactly where I wanted to go and doing whatever I wanted to do.
I remember London being huge, crowded, grubby and expensive and noticing how everything was just so much more interesting than at home. I saved my money by walking all over the capitol and staying in a big military tent in a temporary summer hostel set up in a disused recreation centre on the edge of the city. I read some books but didn’t really know what to expect so I ended up watching the tops of the hats of the soldiers behind huge crowds at the changing of the guard and getting lost more than once. It was the most fun I had ever had and I was hooked.
Fast forward 21 years and I found myself with a week in London with my husband and two kids. We had actually spent a day in London in transit on the way home from our Epic European Christmas trip in December so we had a sampler of London already, but this time we were determined to see as much as we could in the time we had. For accommodations we had upgraded slightly from my first London lodging and had booked a one bedroom apartment near the Tower of London. It came to about the same price as a budget hotel in summer and included a full kitchen, living room and bedroom. We loved having the space to spread out for the week and we saved a lot of money by cooking many of our own meals. Not quite as much as we would have saved by staying in a musty tent out on an old soccer field, but my standards have definitely gone up in the last two decades.
There is so much to do in London that one of the hardest tasks for a visitor is narrowing down the options. You could easily spend a month in London with kids and still have plenty of options left over. Since we didn’t have months to see everything we decided to stick to a theme: we went to the sights that were free. Many of the great museums and other attractions are completely free and we were easily able to fill our time with options that didn’t charge admission fees. Our first stop was the huge British Museum, where we had made a quick visit back in winter. The kids remembered the mummies and the Greek statues and we were able to revisit our favourites and check out some new areas as well.
We spent another day visiting the Kensington area museums, which turned out to be a great option for our only really rainy day of the trip. The Kensington underground stop is linked to the three biggest museums by tunnels and we were able to visit the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum without ever having to go out in the rain. The only downside to this plan was that everyone else in London seemed to have had the same idea. It was the last week of the school year in the city and the museums were crammed with school groups on outings as well as the usual tourists. It was a bit of a relief when the crowds began to ease a bit at 2pm as the packs of kids in every colour uniform imaginable headed back at the end of the school day. While the Natural History Museum had impressive dinosaurs and a “volcano escalator” and the Science Museum was crammed with planes, trains and shiny space stuff, we ended up having the most fun of the day in a theatre exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum on our last stop of the day. The kids watched clips of historic West End musicals, saw real costumes and set pieces and played with musical compositions. It just goes to show that you never quite know what will catch their interest.
We spent most of another day at the fantastic Museum of London, which was about a 30 minute walk from our apartment. It does a great job of recreating life in London over the past 3000 years or so with lots of hands on props and walk through exhibits. We were able to fill most of the day there and for some reason it was a lot less crowded than the others. Maybe it doesn’t quite get the same attention as the British Museum or the National Gallery on most tourist agendas, but if you’re visiting London with kids the Museum of London probably has more for that age group than many of the more traditional, “no touch” museums.
Since we were staying a stone’s throw from the Tower of London, we decided that we would bend our “free attractions” theme and include it in our itinerary. It wasn’t cheap at about 60 pounds for a family ticket but it was a lot of fun and filled up most of the day. We got there right at opening time and joined the first Beefeater tour of the day, which was entertaining enough to keep my seven year old interested but was a bit dry for my six year old. We got in early to see the crown jewels and were even able to double back and ride the conveyor belt a few times to get a good look. By the time we left the lines to see the jewels were out the door of the building so it was definitely worthwhile to come early. There was also some entertainment from a small group of actors who represented characters from different events in the tower’s history. The lead storyteller led a small group around from one part of the tower to another and while I don’t know if the kids picked up a lot of facts it was neat to see the scenes played out right in the very spot where history was made for over a thousand years.
Overall my latest trip to London was very different from my first one. I’m no longer a wide eyed, inexperienced backpacker, barely able to look after myself, let alone anyone else and while I’m still frugal I’m not quite as willing to sacrifice comfort for a cheap deal. London has a lot of shiny new buildings that weren’t there on my first visit and the city centre doesn’t feel quite as grubby or run down as it once did. But it still feels like one of the most interesting and exciting places on the planet and I know I’ll never get tired of it, no matter how many times I come.