Give them a preview: Provide some context before your trip, not necessarily with history books but with novels (Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter), music (Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks), and movies (Shakespeare in Love, The Queen, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and of course, the James Bond flicks).
Make yourself at home: Consider booking an apartment with kitchenette rather than a hotel. No need to pay restaurant rates for ravenous teen appetites. Agencies such as Central London Apartments cater to travelers.
Some hotels, such as the Athenaeum in Mayfair, also have townhouse apartments that combine hotel service with apartment convenience.
Get active: Teens typically like to go fast and court danger. We got a little of both on a Central London bike tour (there are several companies, including the one we went with, the London Bicycle Tour Company). Weaving in and out of traffic, crossing bridges, and avoiding double-decker buses driving on the “wrong” side of the road made for ecstatic teens and a nervous mom. Another bonus: We saw the obligatory sights, including Trafalgar Square, Buckingham palace, and Westminster Abbey, in under three hours.
Go easy on the museums: My younger son recoils at anything with the word “museum” at the end of its name, so I chose places that were more experiential, such as the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. A walk through the concrete-fortified underground warren of bunkers used by the British during World War II put us right in wartime London under threat of a blitzkreig. If only all history lessons could be as compelling. I didn’t have enough time to take the kids to another of my favorite non-museumlike museums–Shakespeare’s recreated Globe Theatre.
Turn it into a game: Really. Teens are not too old for a scavenger hunt (though you may need to provide an incentive). It’s a stealthy way to turn them into cultured people. On the list: Quote a line of Shakespeare, Find an Elgin Marble, Read the Rosetta Stone. Cross the Thames. Have a spot of tea. Stand on the Prime Meridian line. Ride the London Eye. Try to make a Palace Guard smile.
Connect with their interests: My older son likes music, so I put a Beatles-themed walking tour with London Walks on our itinerary (7 pounds for adults and free for children under 15). We also visited the vault at the Hard Rock Café (free) with such artifacts as Jimi Hendrix’s Flying V guitar and John Lennon’s eyeglasses.
Go for the gory: Or the glitter. Either way, the Tower of London delivers with crown jewels, prisoner princesses, armored knights, and head-bashing weapons galore. Don’t miss the free tours offered by the Yeomen Warders, as well as the catapult demonstrations. Check the daily schedule on the website
before you go.
Eat authentic: Save the night out at the newest Gordon Ramsey restaurant for another trip. With teens you want to go for cheap and authentic: Indian curry in Brick Lane, fish and chips at a hundred-year-old pub.
The only splurge worth indulging might be afternoon tea at a fancy hotel such as the Ritz. One of my sons took ill and we missed tea time, but I imagine it would have been worth the hefty price to have them dress up and practice proper table manners.
Parks are good for any age: London’s are among the world’s best. And they’re free. Many hotels can loan kids a soccer ball to kick around while Mom reads a book on a bench.
Let them test their wings: There’s nothing like doing something by oneself in a foreign land to boost self-esteem and promote self-reliance. My 15-year-old went for a run in Hyde Park. My 13-year-old was in charge of figuring out our daily Tube commute.
Temper your expectations: Teens can be as capricious and short-tempered as toddlers. I planned three or four activities per day; we barely got through two. And be flexible. When my younger son caught a stomach bug, we had to scrap some plans, including a visit to Greenwich.
Phone a friend. It’s London. You must know someone who lives there. You’ll be glad for the personal connection and the local insight.
We had dinner at the flat of an old college pal who lived in the northern suburb of Golders Green. It made the city real for us, plus we got a home-cooked dinner.
Photos by Norie Quintos