We visited recently and I had a great time researching what was on offer, and what I thought my family – 9, 10, and 12-year-old girls and a very picky husband – would enjoy.
We arrived Saturday after lunch so the girls could still participate in their Saturday morning sports and stayed in London through dinner on Sunday. We parked the car at a very affordable and secure car park (£12.50/day) and walked everywhere.
Here are our suggestions of what to do:
Walk across Westminster Bridge
This wasn’t actually on my list when I researched the weekend, but I added it to the top of my list 1) because it’s free and 2) it has fabulous views and reminded me a bit of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s not as long as the Golden Gate, and it’s unassuming, but from either direction there are fabulous views of London landmarks and when you walk across the bridge you have time to enjoy them and take pictures – rather than whizzing by on a car or bus. You can see the London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, red double-decker busses passing over and boats going under. It’s quite a sight, and no doubt you’ll be stopped by a fellow tourist and asked to take their picture with Big Ben in the background.
Tour Parliament at the Palaces of Westminster
On Saturdays and select days when parliament is not in session, you can take a tour. If you are a UK resident and are flexible with dates you can arrange a free one via your MP, or book online. We booked an audio tour which had 20 points of interest covering Westminster Hall, Central Lobby, House of Lords, and House of Commons. We opted for the family audio version, so we could all listen to the same commentary (there’s a child and adult version too). It’s a sneaky history lesson and I find it amazing that in this day and age you are still allowed to walk around the House of Commons – and stand where David Cameron does during Question Time. The girls (and picky husband) loved it.
Cruise the Thames
There’s something about being on a boat that makes you feel like you are on holiday. City Cruise’s River Red Rover allows you to get on an off at four key Thames locations: Westminster, London Eye, Tower of London and Greenwich. They provide commentary as you go, and on busy days it’s via a knowledgable tour guide with a sense of humour (did you know Parliament is also known as the London gas works – for all the hot air!). You also learn some lesser known facts (Big Ben is a nick name for the 13 and 1/2 ton bell – you only hear him – not see him!)
It was a sunny day and we were enjoying ourselves and ended up riding it all the way to Greenwich. There are snacks on the boat. If I did it again, I’d schedule in time to get out there and go for lunch and come back – perhaps we’ll do that when my brother and his wife visit from California. The whole thing took 2 and 1/2 hours. We really enjoyed it.
Explore the Churchill War Rooms
The last time I visited these were just called the Cabinet War Rooms, but they have recently added a Churchill Museum, hence the name change. You get to go underground and tour the original Cabinet War Rooms, the bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government during the Blitz. All the girls have studied World War II in school, and this was a great way to bring it to life. Amazingly, this was my husband’s first visit there and he was fascinated walking around the same corridors and Churchill and his government, and seeing the secret transatlantic telephone room where there was a direct line to President Roosevelt and where some of Churchill’s most famous wartime speeches were broadcast.
In the tour you have a choice half way through of visiting the Churchill Museum (a separate area). I’d skip that and just continue with the Cabinet War Rooms tour.
Ride the London Eye
You can’t stay in South Bank and not ride the London Eye! Also known as the Millennium Wheel (because it was built for the Year 2000 celebrations) it’s one of the world’s tallest ferris wheels and has 32 pods for the 32 London borough. Each enclosed pod carries up to 25 people and you can walk around the capsules, or sit in the middle, which is what I did, about 14 years ago when it opened. I’m a little leery of heights, and though the views are spectacular, I found the 30 minutes at 443 ft above ground a bit challenging. The girls, however, are dying to go. In January the London Eye will be sponsored by Coca-Cola.
Where we ate: L’Italiano Restaurant
Eating in London with families can be hit and miss. How many times have you gone for the family option, where the kids love it but mum and dad are a bit disappointed? I’s hard to get the balance right, but L’Italiano does a great job of keeping kids happy plus making it interesting for the adults too.
Located on the Mezzanine level of the hotel, L’Italiano is an award-winning Italian restaurant that offers home-made pastas, thin and crispy pizzas, risotto dishes and mains. Pricing is similar to Strada/Pizza Express, but in addition to the usual margarita pizza and spaghetti Bolognese, there are some unusual pastas (such as mezzemaniche – a shorter version of penne). There’s also an extensive Italian wine list. Read my full review of L’Italiano.
Where we stayed: Park Plaza County Hall London
Snuggled in the heart of South Bank is Park Plaza County Hall. It’s a modern family friendly 14-story 4-star hotel located just across from Westminster and overlooking the river Thames. The higher rooms have spectacular views over London, think the London Eye staring you right in the face when you open the curtains. You are in walking distance of Big Ben, Palace of Westminster/Parliament, Westminster Abbey, London Eye. Many rooms have kitchenettes, separate living areas, baths and free Wifi.
This hotel really caters for families and considering London prices, the rooms are reasonable priced. The hotel restaurant, L’Italiano, is also child friendly and affordable. Think Strada and Pizza Express pricing, but with homemade pasta, pizza (with Chef Steffano’s secret recipe for the base) and other authentic Italian dishes. On Saturdays, kids of registered guests can take the complimentary pizza making class. For more information, read my full review of Park Plaza County Hall.
Don’t miss: Pizza making class!
On Saturdays at 3 pm the L’Italiano chefs run a pizza making class for kids. It’s free for registered guests. Just show up and put on your apron and chefs hat and discover how to shape the fluffy pizza dough into a nice base (it’s Steffano’s own recipe, and he won’t share it, I asked) then lightly cover it with a tomato base (Steffano kindly shared this: tomato, basil, olive oil and salt). The girls then made a four seasons pizza (a separate ingredient in each corner). Red peppers, ham, a spicy salami and onions. Steffano then transferred it into the VERY HOT clay pizza oven, where they only takes 3 minutes to cook! The girls loved their pizza so much they came back and ordered it for dinner.
IF YOU GO:
Park Plaza County Hall London 1 Addington Street, London SE1 7RY +44 0844 415 6760 parkplazacountyhall.com Family friendly hotel in South Bank.
L’Italiano Restaurant, inside Park Plaza County Hall London, 1 Addington Street, London SE1 7RY +44 0844 415 6760 parkplaza.co.uk Real Italian food at affordable prices.
Parliament/Palace of Westminster Westminster, London SW1A 0AA parliament.uk Guided tours on Saturdays and summer.
City Cruises citycruises.com The River Red Rover all-day travel pass offers unlimited access to the river. You can hop on and hop off at any one of four piers. A real bargain at £32.40 for a family if you purchase online.
Churchill War Rooms Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AQ +44 020 7930 6961 iwm.org.uk The original Cabinet War Rooms, the bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government during the Blitz. Open daily 9.30 – 6.
London Eye Riverside Bldg, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Rd, London SE1 7PB londoneye.com I don’t need to tell you what this is! London’s most famous landmark/ferris wheel.
AjiZen Japanese Canteen Riverside Building, County Hall, London SE1 7PB, England. Casual Japanese food.
- Florence Nightingale Museum 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7EW +44 020 7620 0374 florence-nightingale.co.uk
- Sea Life London Aquarium County Hall, Westminster Bridge Rd, London SE1 7PB
+44 0871 663 1678 visitsealife.com
- London Dungeon Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Rd, City of London, Greater London SE1 7PB +44 0871 423 2240 thedungeons.com
- BFI South Bank/IMAX Theatre Belvedere Road South Bank, London +44 020 7928 3232 bfi.org.uk
Our accommodation and dinner were compliments of Park Plaza County Hall. All opinions are my own and my family’s.