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The alternative kids’ guide to London

By: Virgin Atlantic

October 23, 2018

London is positively brimming with year-round and temporary attractions for children and there are many must-dos during any visit. But if you’ve already been to Hamley’s, seen a show and visited the Tower of London, what next? We’ve rounded up the best of the current, the overlooked and the completely free…

New and Current

Opened this past weekend, the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green presents a major new exhibition created in collaboration with children. A Pirate’s Life for Me explores the past 300 years of fictional pirates in popular culture, with toys, games and a supersized pirate ship helping to bring your kids’ swashbuckling sense of adventure to life.

For one week only, Gruesome Nature Live! returns to London Zoo. Running until 28 October, this interactive musical extravaganza features sing-along songs and macabre facts about the toughest, most terrifying creatures on earth, like blood-squirting lizards, tongue-eating parasites and a species that can survive in outer space. And if that’s not enough, you can even stay overnight at the Gir Lion Lodge and enjoy not one, not two, but three exclusive after-hours tours of the zoo – at sunset, after dark and in the morning.

If you can tear them away from their screen, the V&A’s raved-about Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is an essential stop for gamers. The exhibition dives into the culture of gaming since the mid-2000s, when a leap forward in technology caused a major shift in the way games were designed, played and talked about. Eight major games from the last 15 years have been chosen to demonstrate the art of video game design, with large-scale installations bringing their evolution to life.

Speed thrills

For something you’ll enjoy as much as the kids the Thames RIB Experience is a perennial thriller. Cover all the major sites on speedboat down one of the world’s most famous rivers, with wittily presented history thrown in and all within an hour.

Free and inexpensive attractions

Luckily, many of the best places and activities for children in London are the cheapest, and often they’re completely free. The classic must-sees are the no-cost and ultra-interactive Science Museum and the adjacent Natural History Museum, but a little trip away from the central sites can be just as rewarding.

A walk in the park

A good place to start (on a nice day) is southeast London’s Crystal Palace Park. Head straight to the dinosaur area, where lifesize – albeit slightly anatomically incorrect – replicas of prehistoric reptiles have dominated the landscape since the 1850s. A neat trick is to tell the kids it’s just a walk in the park and wait for them to spot the iguanadon crossing their path, or the plesiosaur swimming in the lake.

Hands on history

From Crystal Palace station, it’s just a five-minute ride to Forest Hill, home of the highly recommended Horniman Museum. Start with the gorgeous award-winning gardens before proceeding inside to be met by the huge, comically overstuffed walrus who ‘guards’ the old-school, Victorian-style Natural History collection. When they’ve had their fill of the stuffed and skeletal, check out the aquarium, the music gallery (hundreds of instruments) and the awesome African Worlds collection.

The Horniman’s Hands On Base, where kids can touch and play with an array of masks, nature specimens, musical instruments and other artefacts, is the real find here. Most weekends have ticketed (but free) timed sessions for a more in-depth, guided experience. For more hands on exploration a visit to the Nature Base, which features a handful of live animals including the UK’s smallest rodent, the harvest mouse, rounds things off nicely.

Grisly fun

So, you’ve seen the Horniman’s famous walrus, want to see what he looks like inside? The Grant Museum of Zoologyis another Victorian institution we love and a treat for kids with a passion for the curious. Crammed to breaking point with specimens of the living and extinct, it offers an up-close and highly educational tour of the natural world. A dodo, a kangaroo stomach and rows and rows of weird and wonderful creatures preserved in glass jars, what’s not to like? While it may seem a little creepy to mum and dad, in our experience most young ones get wide-eyed at the site of bones and bisected heads.

If your kids are old enough, tough enough and fans of all things gory, the Surgery Talks at the Old Operating Theatre will have them transfixed. Pre-anaesthetic, pre-antiseptic operation demonstrations are given every Saturday at 2:00pm and Sundays at noon.

Animal Magic

A goat at Hackney City Farm © Shutterstock

There’s no substitute for the real, living thing of course, so a trip to the farm is highly recommended, especially for younger children. Yes, there are farms in London, 15 in fact. Our favourite is East London’s Hackney City Farm, which aside from housing a number of regular farmyard friends has some cute and cuddlies in the form of chinchillas, rabbits, degus and guinea pigs. The farm’s Frizzante Cafe offers award winning Mediterranean-style eats, all fresh, seasonal and locally sourced. Yum.

If you make a day of it on a Sunday check out the Columbia Road Flower Market & Shops. Just a stone’s throw from the farm, the market offers a cornucopia of eclectic and quirky gift stops.

Alternatively, if you’re visiting one of the aforementioned attractions and want to stay south of the river, don’t miss out on Battersea Park Children’s Zoo. A lot smaller, but (at £7.50 for kids) also a lot cheaper than London Zoo, this is the ‘up close and personal’ version, with lemurs, Shetland ponies, meerkats, monkeys and much more. Absolutely perfect for smaller children, just make sure you’re there for feeding time.

Visiting the capital soon? Find more insider tips and advice in our London destination guide.

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