How to get the most out of London as a family in just 24 hours? Last spring, my family had just a little over 24 hours to take on the sights and give our children a taste of the iconic city. They had created a wish list, and we had a few of our own ideas. Together we were able to accomplish it all with minor alterations. We would see Buckingham Palace but timing the changing of the guards would be impossible. Through compromise and extra coffee, we made it through our itinerary.
First stop was Hamley’s Toys on Regent Street, which lucky for us opens at 9:30am on Saturdays. We were there as the door opens. This is the oldest and largest toy store in the world at 54000 square feet. In addition to selling toys that could be bought elsewhere Hamley’s makes it’s own line of toys and has many British themed gifts, which make great souvenirs. Just going there can be experience enough, there are lots of opportunities to play and test toys. We spent about an hour there which was more than enough for our children and for us and early in the morning it was not too crowded either.
After dropping our purchases at the hotel, we started our hop on hop off bus tour; on which, we spent the majority of our day. We bought tickets for the Original Tour online and were able to hop on at almost any underground station. Once on the bus, ear buds were given to passengers, and multi-lingual commentary was provided through them, as well as a special kids tour in English. My younger son had some trouble getting the ear buds to fit, but it wasn’t clear whether it was a size issue or if he was just playing with them too much. No worries, he still had a great time listening with one ear to the tour in each of the different languages. There is definitely a need to hop off at points as the quick drive by does not let you look carefully at each sight, but, for an overview, it works perfectly.
We jumped off the bus at the London Bridge stop and walked along the Thames to Hay’s Galleria where there are a tremendous number of food vendor choices depending on budget, time and availability. We then continued on past the HMS Belfast to the Tower Bridge and walked across to the Tower of London Pier. This is where visitors can join the river cruise, our favourite part of the sightseeing tour.
The river cruise, included in ticket price, was lovely, avoiding traffic and taking us from the tower of London to Big Ben. As you cruise up the River Thames, there is live commentary which is both snarky, amusing and historical. This was my favorite part of the tour as there was a real difference between the live commentary on the boat and the audio commentary on the bus. I prefer the humorous, live narrative. Although I will admit our speaker warned so many times about leaving objects or children behind, that my 7 year old was glued to my knees for most of the trip for fear of being left behind.
There are many different bus tour operators in London and we only did this one so I cannot compare. I do know it was the first of it’s kind and originally English owned. Recently the company has merged with other operators in Europe but it has maintained a distinctively British feel. I can only say we could never have seen as much of London if we did any other way. We went back on the bus after the boat tour and off again at Buckingham Palace, finally we ended our tour at Piccadilly Circus just in time for dinner and theater.
Our dinner choice was Social Eating House, a Michelin starred chef’s bistro. Casual enough for kids and still a treat for my husband and I who after all had been to a toy store first thing that morning. The food was delicious; the staff was lovely to the kids splitting dishes between them and we left revived for our final activity in London. Don not miss the Mac N Cheese! Also make sure to save room for their fantastic desserts.
Jet lagged children and theater until 10pm seemed like a bad idea; but after hearing such fantastic reviews of Matilda, I decided to take a gamble. Wow, was it worth it! There was no way my kids were falling asleep. In 2011, this production won 7 Olivier awards, the most awards won at that time. Amazingly, this is a play where the 10 child actors, all under the age of twelve, are the stars and they shine brightly! There are few things more exciting to children than watching other children perform. Add in that these actors are pulling pranks on adults who deserve it and you have an audience that remains engaged throughout the production. Honestly, the acting and singing these children do is phenomenal!
My six year old was still singing the songs week later, which is always the sign of a good musical. The sets are made of letters, which makes intermission fly by, as kids try to find all of the words hidden in them. But in the end, it is one of those rare plays that appeal to both adults and children, without snide jokes aimed towards adults while leaving the children out. There is something really nice about the whole family laughing together. The theater itself is even appealing, small and intimate and incredibly appropriate for the production. I would highly recommend getting yourself there, ASAP!
Finally we went back to the hotel to sleep and trust me we needed it. We stayed at the Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes. The location was fantastic. We had stayed there twenty years before and it had some very cute Sherlock Holmes touches. Also our older son was interested in seeing the Sherlock Holmes House. Unfortunately most of the Sherlock Holmes touches we remembered were gone, the movies in the room and the cozy, library bar but they set up for four people to be in an executive room and it was well within our price range. There was a bar downstairs we ate dinner at when we arrived late and I have no complaints with the service what so ever. Hotels in London are generally about location, budget and hopefully comfort; Park Plaza fit this for us.
Details: Hamley’s Toys, 188-196 Regent Street, Hours: Monday-Friday 10am-9pm, Saturday 9:30am -9pm, Sunday 12pm-6pm. The Original Tour London Sightseeing, For Tickets: www.theoriginaltour.com, discounted tickets advance purchase online, or The Original London Visitor Center, 17-19 Cockspur Street, Trafalgar Square, London, SW1Y 5BL Hays Galleria, Tooley Street, Southwark, London. Social Eating House, 58 Poland Street, Soho, London, 020 7993 3251. Matilda, The Musical. Cambridge Theater, Seven Dials, 32-34 Earlham Street, London. Performances, evening productions on Tuesday – Saturdays, with Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Check uk.matildathemusical.com for current ticket agents and updated performance information. Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes, 108 Baker Street, London, parkplaza.com/Sherlock.