Whether by luck or deft maneuvering, I’ve avoided a Disney vacation thus far. I have not had the same luck with the princess phase, which commandeered my daughter’s imagination somewhere around age two and hasn’t let up since. Recently, I decided to give in to the royal impulses and take a trip to the magic kingdom — the British one, that is.
Turns out that real queens are far more interesting than fake ones, and this is one mother-daughter trip neither of us will soon forget.
Off With Her Head
Interest in the Windsors has hit fever pitch this year with the arrival of baby George, but London has long been a city of royal intrigue, and one that’s particularly interesting to kids. I started our trip with a morning tour of the Tower of London, where our Beefeater guide regaled the crowd with gory stories of queenly imprisonment, torture, and, of course, decapitation. I worried my six-year-old might find this all a little scary, but she was fascinated. After almost three hours spent climbing the Bloody Tower and traipsing through columns of armor and cannons, I finally dragged us out. My kid would have happily stayed all day.
Tip: Pre-purchase your Tower of London tickets through your hotel concierge to skip the line, and hit the popular Crown Jewels exhibit right as the site opens. We started with the Yeoman Warder tour (turns out they don’t like to be called Beefeaters!), and by the time we had finished, the jewels line was an hour long — a surefire deal-breaker with young children.
With an endless parade of royal residences to tour in London, we picked the crown jewel, Kensington Palace. Originally built as a country house for William III and Mary II, Kensington has everything a kid needs: gardens to explore and a host of gossipy tales about the powerful royals who ruled from there. We played with toys that kept Queen Victoria’s children amused, saw the fascinating new exhibit on regal fashion, and learned how a sheltered young girl named Victoria became queen at age 18.
Tip: A great guide is worth her weight in gold. Clare from Context Travel had my daughter hanging on every word with her juicy stories about royal life at Kensington. The palace itself is fascinating, but touring it is a different experience with someone who can bring its history to life.
The Horsey Set
My favorite attraction in London is also one of the least visited (even though it’s right next to Buckingham Palace): the Royal Mews. Otherwise known as the royal stables, this relatively undiscovered gem is also at the top of my list for anyone with kids in tow.
Even young children may remember watching Kate and Will’s wedding. Here, they can see the carriage that transported the soon-to-be duchess on her big day. It’s rare for the public to access areas still so closely tied to palace functions (the carriages are used around 50 times a year), and the gorgeous horses bring delight to people of all ages.
Tip: The guided audio tour has a kids’ version, narrated by a fictional stable-boy-in-training, that is well executed and worth using.
London can seem unmanageable without the proper planning. Chief among my concerns, always, is where to stay: somewhere central but quiet, and somewhere that has staff skilled at handling younger guests.
I fell in love with the Athenaeum, an elegant hotel located on Green Park and within walking distance of many attractions and restaurants. The rooms are stylish enough for my taste but also come equipped with everything my daughter wants: coloring books of local attractions, bedtime stories about London, kid-friendly maps, and milk and cookies delivered at tea time. Kids also eat free in the hotel restaurant, a real saving grace for any parent who’s forked over 30 pounds for a breakfast her children barely touch.
For touring, I always group sites together with restaurants where I know we can get a meal both of us will enjoy after doing some heavy learning.
Here are some pairings that were hits:
Tower of London
Walk across the Tower Bridge, an attraction in its own right, and stroll up the pretty riverfront esplanade of South Bank to the Shard, now the tallest building in Western Europe. Oblix on the 32nd floor offers great views of the London Eye, fabulous food, and a fun, buzzy scene. Don’t let naysayers tell you it’s not for kids. The food ranges from simple pastas to more sophisticated fare, and the staff couldn’t have treated us more nicely.
After a morning tour, walk through the gardens to the Orangery, a recently refurbished tea room that serves a lovely lunch (with a great kids menu) on a pretty outdoor terrace — if the weather cooperates. The Princess Diana Memorial Playground, with its amazing pirate ship, is conveniently located nearby — the perfect place for running off a post-dessert sugar high.
Victoria & Albert Museum
This museum of many colors in South Kensington is a great follow-up to a morning spent exploring Hyde Park and Kensington Palace. After working up a good appetite here and at the adjacent Natural History Museum, take a stroll down the area’s pretty residential streets to Tom’s Kitchen for a casual dinner. The open kitchen, hip Chelsea crowd, and superstar chef Tom Aikens will please adults. The kids’ cuisine, casual brasserie atmosphere, and crayons at every table are enough to keep even the crankiest of young diners happy.
New York-based travel writer Henley Vazquez has lived on three continents, but she’s happiest when she’s hitting the road with her husband and two kids. Follow her story on Twitter @HenleyVQ.