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London with my 9-year-old grandson

As soon as school finished for the year, I headed to London with my 9.5 yo grandson and my 30 something daughter, his aunt. I first visited London in the eighties as a thirty something myself, when a reasonable day started after breakfast, tubing into central London from our B&B way out in Parson’s Green, sightseeing ALL day, going to a play, then returning home before midnight. I understand it CAN be done that way, but after years of holiday trips, business trips, and weekend trips when we lived in Germany, I don’t visit London (or anywhere!) that way anymore. I have ALMOST as much energy but not the need to cover so much, so fast. The checklist is done. I enjoy London selectively now, always assuming I’ll be back. (Three visits in the last 13 months, and next up in October.)

The point of this trip report is to lay out what worked for a nine-year-old’s first trip to London that got this response: “On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 15!”

You know your kiddo’s interest and stamina level, but when I read some of the planned itineraries on this forum, and see days crammed with museums and heavy historical sites, I can’t help thinking “I don’t think this is going to work.” I’m opinionated, but I’ve done this trip with kids several times — took my 10 yo grandson last summer, and took each of my daughters when they were slightly older. Trying to share what worked for us that might be useful when you’re about to shed a lot of pounds taking your child to London.

Without question, what both my grandsons, and both my daughters a generation ago, loved most in London was the theatre. The musical both boys loved most was Hamilton. Grandson #1’s next faves were Les Mis, Lion King, and Peter Pan at Regent’s Park. This year the 9yo liked School of Rock next best, then a tie between Aladdin and Matilda. The two more complex plays took some advance prep, but the kids’ book “Who Was Alexander Hamilton?” made that one easily understandable. If I’m taking them to a show, it’s worth is to me to put them in good seats where they can see. This often takes planning far ahead, i.e., right after the plane tickets are bought. Good seats only get scarcer, not cheaper.

The down side of all that theatre (beside the cost!) is that it makes for late nights that aren’t easily followed by early morning starts. If they were up til midnight, I let them sleep in til nine, and didn’t even try to get out the door before late morning.

Fitting in dinner before a 7:30 showtime is also problematic if you tend toward late lunches, and don’t want a 5:30 dinner. We stay in apartments, so it’s easier to stock good snacks and drinks. I also take advantage of quick food from Pret, and when traveling with kids, never leave home without an emergency jar of peanut butter and jelly.

After theatre, my grandsons’ next favorite activity involved food. Neither are picky eaters, and the 9yo is an absolute foodie, so they’re easy to please. Wagamama and fish and chips (especialy Poppie’s) are their faves; Borough Market and food stalls on Portobello Road were big hits; and afternoon tea at the National Portrait Gallery was memorable for both. (If you book Monday - Thursday, there’s always an online 20% off coupon, and it’s a reasonable early dinner option on a theatre night.) And everybody loves a good Soho noodle house, classic Italian, and Sunday Roast Lunch. Took the younger one on a food tour this trip, and he even liked Bangladeshi curry! We try to do one nice sit down meal every day and fill in the rest from Pret and the grocery store.

Both boys loved the Harry Potter Studio Tour, which needs to be booked several months ahead.

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I’m now at line item #four, and this is where museums, historical sites, taxi rides, street entertainers, and souvenir shopping all fit in. Westminster Abbey with the audioguide and the Tower of London with London Walks were both good experiences.

London museums are huge, fabulous, free, and often crowded. Art museums are my happy place, but this trip was not for me. Tried to keep our museum visits focused and short enough that we left the party while we were still enjoying it. Skipped some good ones entirely, but will put them high on the list for the next trip

If you’re still reading, I’ll lay out a brief, day-by-day of our trip to describe what worked for MY travelers.

Direct 9:50 PM Delta flight from Atlanta to Heathrow, hoping we’ll all sleep. From past experience: no caffeine; no movies. Please, go to sleep.

11 AM arrival. Very little sleep. Zipped through immigration and baggage claim. [I pack slightly larger than carry-on, and check it, leaving more overhead space for you.] Pre-arranged driver waiting. Costs only a little more than 3 Heathrow Express tickets, and requires nothing from my sleep-deprived brain.

Gray, drippy, sleepy ride into London, where traffic slowed to a stall as we reached Buckingham Palace. We’re staying in a London Connections apartment on John Adam, a block from Trafalgar Square and half a block from both Embankment and Charring Cross stations. Ideal location! [This is my fourth rental from LC, and I highly recommend them.]

Apartment manager is there to let us in. In the few minutes it took her to show me how to work all the appliances, adult child had fallen over asleep on the sofa, and grandson’s eyes were drooping. I thought a 2 o’clock nap was a really bad idea, but where should I take two zombies sightseeing? Plan B. Made both promise they’d get up in two hours, set alarm, and we all collapsed. [I never do this when I arrive in the afternoon, but if I had forced them upward and onward, somebody would have probably melted down. Just accept that traveling with kids, even adult ones, involves a certain amount of rolling with the flow.]

We all got up, human beings again. Walked through Covent Garden; watched the buskers. Early dinner at our favorite Wagamama on Bedford St. A quick stop in the excellent St-Martins-in-the-Field gift shop on the way home. Asleep before dark.

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Up early, and first one dressed brought breakfast from nearby Pret a Manger. On Trafalgar Square before the pigeons, and walked down an almost deserted White Hall to Westminster Abbey. Only a short line, but our skip-the-line tickets got us inside immediately. An uncrowded visit with included audioguides. Up the hundred something steps (or the lift) to the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in the rafters, for an extra 5 pound ticket. A wonderful, uncrowded, light-filled space with windows all around. The best part may be the bird’s eye view of the entire church far below.

Taxied to the South Bank to Borough Market, which is fully open today. This great old open air market under the train trestles is packed with food stalls. Limited seating but excellent food choices in a festive atmosphere. The London Bridge tube stop is right here. Around the corner we caught a red bus back to Trafalgar Square and scored the coveted upstairs front seat.

To the National Gallery for my favorite Impressionist and Post-Impressionist rooms. Everybody’s energy level is high, so we went on a treasure hunt to find the Caravaggio, Vermeer, Van Eyck, and Michelangelo. [Choose your battles. My background is art history, and I knew what I wanted them not to miss.] Interspersed some gift shops. Souvenir shopping is much better in the museum shops and makes the usual tourist crappola look junky even to kids.

Tickets to Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre tonight. Almost impossible to fit in a sit down dinner before a 7PM play, so our compromise was an afternoon stop at Co-op, the close-by 24-hour grocery store for a smorgasbord of fruit, English cheddar, and snacks. Great to have an apartment stocked with drinks and snacks for days like this.

Matilda is a loud, slapstick kid-pleaser where all the adults are buffoons. We put kiddo on the aisle, and my daughter and I took turns leaning left and right to see over the very tall person seated in front of us. Maybe this theatre has less slope than most, but I never recall having this difficulty seeing the stage from a “good” seat in a London theatre. Introduced him to the intermission custom of queuing for Haagen Dazs, and he thought it a fine idea.

On our long walk home through Soho - seedy Soho, unintentional, Covent Garden had been the planned route - grandson announced his ear was hurting a little. Boot’s pharmacy at Piccadilly Circus is open far into the night, and their helpful young pharmacist prescribed a decongestant and something for ear pain. A very late night, but grandson slept fine. [FYI, this particular Boot’s is open much later than most, and European pharmacists have more leeway in prescribing than we’re accustomed to in the US.]

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We were out so late last night we made a later start today. Grandson and I tubed to Notting Hill Gate then walked to Portobello Market. The Saturday market gets so crowded that I wanted to give Friday a chance. All the shops and most of the street stalls are open, but not quite the usual vibe. [I’ve found treasures here, but now may be too far past the acquisitions stage, or I’ve been here too many times, but it’s looking like all the usual merchandise.]

Grandson enjoyed looking, studying all the possible gift choices, and we found an excellent lunch at a tiny outdoor Italian restaurant near the end of the street, the Portobello Garden Restaurant. On the walk back to the tube, he had made his decision and was ready to spend some money.

While we were shopping and eating, my daughter went to the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum. We met afterward at the Natural History Museum. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit is here, and it is a good one. There was one small section exposing examples of animal abuse, and both she and I are now traumatized by a photo of a bear held captive in Asia to harvest his bile repeatedly for some ridiculous medicine.

The dinosaur exhibit steers everyone along the same narrow path and was swamped with tired kids, so we escaped to the mostly deserted rocks and gemstones hall. Multiple gift shops, but no purchases. Lots of kid junk. Kiddo’s developing a discerning eye for memorabilia.

It’s been a good weather day, and this is our only free night to fit in a London by Night bus tour. We planned a pub dinner at nearby Chandos but missed the fact that they only serve food at lunch, so dinner again at Wagamama while we’re waiting for it to get more “night.”

The tour starts at Green Park, and we waited for the 8:15 one so we could get first choice of seats up top. Chilly up here! Kiddo was asleep before we reached Hyde Park, and we were all freezing by the end. No problem sleeping tonight. Another very late night.

A slow start morning before heading to St. James Park hoping to catch the Colonel’s Review parade on its way back up the Mall from the Parade Grounds. Could hear and see a bit of parade in the distance, but the police blocked the bridge so we couldn’t walk the last 50 yards to the Mall. Walked another way through the park past the duck ponds to Buckingham Palace and watched the Bear Hats parading back to their barracks and some horses headed to their stalls in Hyde Park. Watched a group of excited tourists photographing…a squirrel! They clearly were not from Georgia.

Tubed to Liverpool Station and walked to Poppies, for possibly London’s best fish and chips. Some fun shopping at nearby Old Spitalfields Market.

Tonight was Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre, a colorful, high energy musical, with a rotund and magical Genie who stole the spotlight. This one is nearing the end of its run.

We had a late lunch and missed dinner, so stopped at Herman ze German around the corner from our apartment for very authentic take-out brats and frites for a crazy late dinner.

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Our Sunday Roast reservations at the Hawksmoor Sundial restaurant in Covent Garden were at noon, so we scored another relaxed morning, and after another late theatre night, we needed it.

Our Harry Potter Studio Tour reservations are for 3:30. A quick tube ride to Euston station, then the direct overland train to Watford Junction, where the unmissable, colorful Harry Potter bus transfers you to the studios. The train ticket can be paid for with an Oyster Card. The round trip train plus bus is about 20 pounds for an adult, and the traIn’s free for kids, making it a great deal compared to the price the private bus companies charge from central London if you don’t think you can figure out the train. (You can!)

We arrived 45 minutes before our ticket time, but there was no queue, so we walked straight in. We each had an audioguide so we could move at our own pace. I was surprised how few visitors who spent almost 50 GBP to get in, paid the additional 5 pounds for the exceptional audioguide filled with videos. It adds so much to the experience, I would say it’s essential.

Harry Potter Studios is a magical venue! All the props from all the movies were saved and stored here. The tour begins in the massive dining hall used in all the movies. Newly opened was Gringotts Wizarding Bank with its Goblin tellers. Even for someone who’s read and watched only one each of the books and movies, this is a fascinating tour. Well worth the price. Buy tickets months ahead.

I had done the East End of London Food Tour with Eating Europe a few years ago with friends and thought my foodie grandson might enjoy it. Our group of 12 with our fun guide Josie walked the narrow, graffitied back streets of East London and made seven or eight interesting food stops. My grandson’s review? “This is a perfect tour. You walk and get some food with some history in between!”

Back to Spitalfields Market for some shopping after the tour, then a little down time before tonight’s theatre. School of Rock at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in Soho is tonight’s musical. We were on the fourth row, and most of the kid cast looked about the same age as kiddo, so this was a hit. He was impressed with their playing. “As good as a dad band!”

Hampton Court Palace was our TBA for this morning, but we were out late again last night and got a slow start this morning. With tea reservations at 4:30, and the combination of tubes and trains it requires to get to this somewhat far-flung destination, HCP is not looking like the best idea. Instead, we decided grandson might enjoy the Science Museum more, and we all would have a more relaxed day before a big night.

We arrived late morning with all the school groups, and the hands on Wonderlab was already frenzied. We looked through the window before joining the queue, and he decided he could pass on this. Instead we went upstairs to the much calmer Engineering Your Future exhibit where he had a great time creating a video moon buggy and trying all the interactive games.

Afternoon tea at the Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery overlooks the rooftops surrounding Trafalgar Square. Both of my grandsons loved the experience. The servers are kind and the setting’s not too posh for boys. It’s also much less expensive that many of London’s upscale tearooms.

Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre is the one we’ve all been waiting for. It was intentional that this be the final of our four shows. Taking a taxi has become part of our theater-going experience. After our one stressful walk getting lost, we love being dropped off at the door, and then we can walk or tube home. No stress and more fun.

I loved it just as much on my third time seeing it. Grandson clapped furiously after every song. When I asked his opinion afterward: “It blew my mind!”

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Today is the Tower of London. I’ve always loved the Beefeater tours, but the groups have become enormous — a hundred plus. Even though the guides are entertaining and project their voices well, you are one in a herd. This time we tried the LondonWalks tour at 11 AM, and it was a good experience. We were a group of about a dozen, including several children. Our engaging guide was a historian who packed our two hours with info, but included enough gore to keep everyone entertained. We started outside the fortress on the hill where the beheadings took place, and ended inside at the entrance to the crown jewels.

On this June midweek day, the castle felt uncrowded; we zipped into the crown jewels at 1 PM; and at the end, spent a long time just watching the ravens.

We had planned to fit in some selective exhibits at the British Museum this afternoon, but both my traveling buddies wanted to go back to the Italian restaurant on Portobello Road. They’ve been great travelers, and there will be more trips when the British Museum can be enjoyed. So we’re off across town on the tube to Portobello Road (which is really sleepy midweek.) A great meal; a good decision.

Tonight at 8 PM is the Household Division Beating Retreat, one of the traditional performances during the Queen’s birthday week celebration. This is a good alternative to Trooping the Colour on Saturday if you have kids in tow, a shorter attention span for sitting in the sun, or you forgot to pack your fascinator. Twenty pound tickets are probably available almost up to the two nights of performances.

The parade grounds fill with marching Bear Hats, military bands, horses, a choir, bagpipers, and fireworks, and the stands fill with senior citizens. There’s a security gauntlet to go through, and you’re expected to be seated well before the start, but it all feels very British, and this year the rousing musical finale coordinated with fireworks and cannons. The performance honors soldiers of the Household Division around the globe, and the proceeds go to a worthy cause, something like the old Bear Hats retirement fund. A pleasant way to spend a summer evening, with some unexpected excitement when the cannons went off!

This was another day when a very late lunch precluded going to dinner before the performance, so another late night stop at Hermann ze German to celebrate our last night in London.

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Tomorrow we’re flying home. Our 10 AM flight from Heathrow would require a ridiculously early departure from central London. We packed fairly light, but in eight days, belongings disperse, and new ones accumulate. And I’m the one ultimately responsible for rounding up all my power cords and leaving the apartment neat.

A better plan seemed an overnight in Windsor, which we’ve never visited, with a shorter taxi to LHR at 7 AM. When I contemplated two tubes plus two trains plus another Windsor taxi with my two peeps, I envisioned a meltdown by somebody, possibly me. London Connections arranged a driver for us, door-to-door from our apartment to our Windsor hotel for 75 pounds. Great decision. Left London apartment at 10; in Windsor hotel at 11. A peaceful departure from a memorable week in London: priceless.

Our hotel in Windsor was the Harte and Garter, on the main street directly across from the castle. Making sure we ended on a high note, I upgraded to a castle view room — a big, newly-remodeled room with a king bed and a truly comfortable sofa bed. The helpful, friendly desk staff made this a pleasant overnight.

After a pub lunch at the nearby Duchess of Cambridge, we came back to the room and made the mistake of sitting down. No that’s not true; we lay down! We could see Windsor Castle through our windows. We just had difficulty motivating ourselves to go in it. We eventually did, because the tickets and commemorative guidebooks were already purchased.

St. George’s Chapel is elegant and much smaller than it looked during the wedding. The Long Walk is even longer. The State Rooms are endless. The gardens inside Windsor Castle are lovely, and I imagine the Queen wishes all the peasants would just leave.

I had a mixed reaction to the town of Windsor. It’s in a beautiful setting, but there are So. Many. Tourists. Including us. It regained some charm late afternoon, when the light on the river was gorgeous.
Eton connects to Windsor by the bridge over the river. The town is much smaller and calmer than Windsor, and the school grounds and buildings are extensive.

We walked over in late afternoon, missing seeing the students in their school gowns and uniforms, but passed a number of them walking to the grocery shop after their sport practices. I have never seen such tall, handsome young men. Think younger versions of William and Harry.

Our hotel arranged a driver to pick us up at 7 AM, and I was surprised the 20-30 min drive to Heathrow cost only 20 pounds. We were flying Virgin, a Delta codeshare, for the first time, and there was a lot of DIY involved, including sticking on our own baggage labels, but it all worked.

Once we boarded, we were stunned to find a half empty plane. Business was filled, but those of us in the way back had entire rows to ourselves! The flight attendants were all young, pleasant, friendly, and helpful. [Now that’s a change on an international flight.] I will be looking at more Virgin flights in the future.

Another good trip is in the scrapbooks. Both grandsons want to know where we’re going next!

I hope this helps somebody with their planning. We experienced a lot, but never felt rushed or stressed. I will add that on day 9 we hit the wall. That was also a pack up and travel day, making it even worse. This may just be a plea for sanity when planning a trip with kids. Even though London has wonderful transit options and no language barrier, there are still distances to cover and crowds to negotiate. If trying to pack too much into too short a time leaves somebody in a puddle on the ground, nobody will be having a great trip. Just be realistic…and carry on. Happy trails!

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Wow! What a fantastic trip and report. My first trip to London is coming this December and I appreciate the detail and insights in your post. Your enthusiasm is catching! Thanks for sharing - I will be bookmarking this post to refer to as I plan.

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Excellent travel report on my favorite city on the planet. Totally love the fact you enjoyed so much theatre! Well done.

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How VERY generous and thoughtful of you to share and elaborate upon your experiences with the grandchildren. Thank you and happy travels!

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Bj84, London in December is my favorite ! Days are short but nights are magical with all the lights and window decorations. And no crowds. Last year I went to a wonderful Christmas concert at St Martin’s in the Field. It will sell out early. Another trip we heard an Advent concert in Westminster Abbey. Somewhere in the archives I have a trip report from the December trip. Might give you some ideas. Envious!

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Ye Harte and Garter Hotel is my favorite hotel in Windsor, have stayed there several times. Sounds like you had a great trip.

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As always, thrilled to see Ruth from Atlanta has written another trip report! You always do Europe in a totally fun way. Thanks for continuing to travel and telling us about it.

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An amazing trip. We took now 19 year old grandson a few years ago. It was amazing and so much fun to see London through his eyes.

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Wow, what a wonderful trip report. London's my happy place, and I enjoyed reading about your experiences there on this trip. Thank you!

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Thanks, Ruth, for the ideas! I will look up your other trip report. And you've inspired me to look at options for additional theater performances. I have tickets to one show but think I will look to add one more. Nice to hear that you enjoy London in December, too!

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One of the most enjoyable trip reports I've read. It's right up there with... the previous trip report Ruth from Atlanta wrote about traveling with another grandson. Thanks for writing these and letting us see London through your grandsons' eyes. I'm looking forward to reading more about their travel adventures with their grandmother.

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Thanks for the fantastic trip report. I may be taking my nephew (much older than your grandson, but hasn't traveled much so he's probably like a 9 year old!) to London next spring, and this gives me some fantastic ideas. Appreciate your thoroughness and the details.