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21 Ways to Have a Surprisingly Cheap Day Out in London with the Whole Family

· Ruth Hargreaves · Culture

A trip to the capital with the kids needn’t be pricey.

Natural History Museum, Leeds

Fancy a trip to London? LNER has a mighty fine offer for you – book a Standard Advance ticket at least 1 week before you travel and you’ll never pay more than £29 each way on direct trains from 10am-3pm, Mon-Fri. Book now...

Full of history, culture and sightseeing, London is an ideal choice for a family day trip. Here’s how to do it on the cheap…

London has endless options to keep the family happy, but is it possible to enjoy the city on a budget? Absolutely! In fact, London has a surprising number of free and budget-friendly attractions for families wanting to soak up some culture, have an adventure or treat London as their playground. From outdoors escapades to historic expeditions and animal magic, you can have a great day out without breaking the bank.

1. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Credit: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park/David Poultney

London’s former Olympic Park has undergone a marvellous transformation. Completely free to visit and totally family friendly, it now has over 560 acres of gardens, meadows and wetlands, with 6 kilometres of winding waterways. And that’s not all – there are adventure playgrounds, nature trails, interactive music rooms, comfy cafes and even water fountains to keep the kids well occupied. Sporting activities in their famous stadiums cost extra, but the surrounding park itself is at your disposal and a superb way to spend a day exploring.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London, E20 2ST. Closest station: Stratford.

2. Natural History Museum, Kensington

Natural History Museum

Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

The moment you step into London’s Natural History Museum, you’ll be surrounded by millions of years’ worth of world history. It’s a chance for the young and eternally curious to get up close and personal with dinosaurs, animals, insects, fossils and plants – all without paying a penny. As an added bonus, a special drop-in science centre is available for children to get hands-on with real museum exhibits. Don’t miss the animatronic T-Rex and earthquake simulator either – both are sure to get heartbeats racing.

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 5BD. Closest station: South Kensington.

3. Greenwich Park and the National Maritime Museum

National Maritime Museum

Credit: National Maritime Museum London

Situated right on the River Thames, Greenwich feels a million miles away from the rest of the busy city (although it’s just eight minutes from central London by train). The expansive Greenwich Park has amazing views over the capital and it borders the free-to-visit National Maritime Museum, which is full of nautical, pirate-themed fun for the kids. Pay a visit on a weekend, and in between exploring the museum’s special children’s galleries, you can hop on board a free guided tour led by a costumed character. And if that’s not enough, the Royal Observatory next door screens planetarium shows for £5.50 per child. Perfect for space-loving kids.

National Maritime Museum, Park Row, Greenwich, London, SE10 9NF. Closest station: Greenwich.

4. Battersea Park Zoo

Battersea Park Zoo

Credit: Battersea Park Zoo

The lesser-known Battersea Park Zoo is home to a wonderful variety of animals including otters, monkeys, donkeys, wildcats, wallabies, meerkats, snakes and turtles. At a fraction of the size of the main London Zoo, it’s well-suited for younger children and families who prefer to avoid the big crowds. It’s also a fraction of the price at just £7.50 for children. This includes entry, feeding times, animal talks and enough play zones to keep even the cheekiest of monkeys occupied.

Battersea Park Zoo, Battersea Park, Chelsea Bridge Gate, Battersea, London, SW11 4NJ. Closest station: Battersea Park.

5. Science Museum, Kensington

The Science Museum

Credit: The Science Museum

Another big player on London’s museum scene, the Science Museum is an interactive wonderland and any mini scientist’s dream. From space to technology, the human body to the natural world, the museum is filled with hands-on activities. Young children will especially love the Basement Garden with its inventive introductions to water, building, balancing, shadows, colours and sound. For older members, the Who Am I? gallery invites you to explore the science of identity through a range of fun, interactive exhibits. These are just two highlights though, there is much more to explore, and other than the IMAX cinema and flight simulator, it’s all free.

Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD. Closest station: South Kensington.

6. Diana Memorial Playground, Kensington

Diana Memorial Park, London

Credit: The Royal Parks/Anne Marie Briscombe

Set on the west side of Hyde Park, this popular children’s playground is inspired by Peter Pan. It’s a place to let young imaginations soar with a giant, wooden pirate ship slap bang in the middle. You can let the little ones go wild on the beach, with teepees, a sensory trail and hands-on play sculptures to investigate too. This fantastic outdoor attraction is ideal for people who never want to grow up. Its location makes it very handy for letting off some steam after a visit to Kensington Palace, although it can get rather busy during school holidays.

Diana Memorial Playground, Hyde Park, Broad Walk, Kensington, London, W2 4RU. Closest station: Queensway

7. Pelican feeding at St James’s Park, Westminster

St James’s Park

Credit: The Royal Parks/Paula Redmond

Fancy meeting the royal inhabitants of St James’s Park, located next to Buckingham Palace? Louis, Vaclav and Gargi are the three pelicans currently in residence, continuing a tradition that began way back in 1664 when pelicans were first introduced as a royal gift from a Russian Ambassador. The trio can often be seen roaming around the lake, but if you’d like to pay these esteemed feathery friends a closer visit, head to Duck Island Cottage in the park between 2.30 and 3pm. A wildlife officer will soon turn up to feed them their daily dose of fish (mackerel and herring are their favourites).

St James’s Park, Westminster, London, SW1A 2BJ. Closest station: St James’s Park.

8. London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London Transport Museum

Credit: London Transport Museum

Let’s be honest, you’re never too old to pretend to drive a bus or train, are you? The life-size replicas of London’s transport through the ages are the main draw at London Transport Museum, set in the heart of Covent Garden. As well as captaining your own vehicle, there are also uniforms for young visitors to dress up in and friendly costumed actors to chat with. There’s a lot of history here too. Discover what it was like digging London’s subterranean tunnels and see how transport was used in a big way during the World Wars. Adult tickets are £17.50, but these give you unlimited access for a whole year, and under 18s get in for free.

London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza (south east corner), London, WC2E 7BB. Closest station: Covent Garden.

9. V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green

V&A Museum of Childhood

Credit: © Madeleine Waller

Not to be confused with the main V&A Museum in Kensington, this East London offshoot focuses on the history of childhood. It’s a charming collection that’s as nostalgic for adults as it is fun for children. Together you’ll encounter collections of old toys, games, costumes and puppets, as well as visiting their temporary exhibitions, which currently look at sibling relationships and an exploration of dreams. There are daily free drop-in activities for young visitors, which range from storytelling to arts and crafts, as well as frequent talks and object handling sessions.

V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9PA. Closest station: Bethnal Green.

10. Discover Children’s Story Centre, Stratford

Discover Children's Story Centre

Credit: Discover Children’s Story Centre

A dedicated storytelling centre for children, Discover is all about imagination and adventure. It’s not free, but for £6.50 your little ones can enter a vibrant indoor Story World complete with two floors of imaginative play, puzzles, arts, crafts and exciting characters. Their outdoor Story Garden is perfect for a breath of fresh air with an adventure playground, climbing stations and even some musical instruments to try out. Until September 2018 there’s also a special Julia Donaldson exhibition (author of The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man) which is well worth the extra £1.50 each.

Discover Children’s Story Centre, 383-387 High Street, Stratford, London, E15 4QZ. Closest station: Stratford High Street.

11. Royal Academy, Piccadilly

Royal Academy of Art

Credit: Roy Matthews

For all budding Van Goghs who jump at the chance to get stuck in with pencils and paintbrushes, London’s Royal Academy is the place to go. Children under 16 get to enjoy all art exhibitions for free, but the works within might be a little high brow for those still on the finger-painting stages of their art. Instead, opt for the Royal Academy’s excellent Art Detective trails – you’ll get a fun and creative worksheet that guides you around the best of what’s on offer. Keep your eyes peeled for the free family studio events that take place on a monthly basis too – they’re designed to help families with an interest in art explore different materials and creative techniques together.

Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD. Closest station: Piccadilly Circus.

12. Grant Museum of Zoology, Fitzrovia

Grant Museum of Zoology

Credit: Matt Clayton

This slightly old-fashioned museum has more than a hint of the macabre about it, making it perhaps a bit intimidating for very young visitors, but endlessly fascinating for older children. Curious ‘specimens’ float in jars and taxidermy animals adorn the walls in this free, university-led museum. It may be easy to dismiss as ‘eccentric’ but Grant Museum is actually one of the oldest natural history collections in the UK and it’s home to over 68,000 specimens. There are free workshops for families during the school holidays, and older children who are glued to their phones can seek out the jar of preserved moles who famously have their own Twitter account.

Grant Museum of Zoology, Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London, WC1E 6DE. Closest station: Euston Square.

13. Museum of London, City of London

Museum of London

Credit: Museum of London

Impressively comprehensive, the free Museum of London is all about the history of our capital city with exhibits stretching from ancient history all the way through to modern culture. Inside it’s bright and bold with loads of visual displays to keep the kids engaged. Discover prehistoric animals, learn about the Great Fire of London and take a break in the Georgian Pleasure Garden. Two must-sees are the Playtime gallery, which is decked out like a 1950s living room and plays tv shows from the era, and the wonderful recreation of a Victorian street, complete with its very own toy shop. Activity packs for younger children and iPads for the older members can be borrowed from reception to accompany your trip around.

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, City of London, EC2Y 5HN. Closest station: Liverpool Street.

14. Unicorn Theatre, London Bridge

Unicorn Theatre, London

Credit: Velveteen Rabbit/Manual Harlan

Around the back of London Bridge station is Unicorn Theatre – a purpose-built space especially for theatre-loving families. They have a whole host of productions on at any one time, all targeting a range of different ages, with tickets sitting at the £10-£12 mark. The shows are charming and rest assured, there’s no shushing or haughty side eyes here. It’s all about giving children the best theatre experience possible. Even if you don’t fancy a show the theatre hosts free arts and crafts events most weekends.

Unicorn Theatre, 147 Tooley Street, London Bridge, London, SE1 2HZ. Closest station: London Bridge.

15. Ragged School Museum, Mile End

Ragged School Museum, London

Credit: Ragged School Museum

This former school (originally set up by Dr Thomas Barnardo) is a fascinating glimpse into Victorian school life. Visitors can enjoy the bonafide experience of an old Victorian classroom, including sitting at authentic wooden desks, writing with slate boards and even trying on a dunce hat (if you get a question wrong, that is). The 19th century East End kitchen next door comes complete with artefacts to handle, and there’s a special treat on the first Sunday of every month when Victorian lessons are held by an actor in full costume. It’s all free, but donations are welcome.

Ragged School Museum, 46-50 Copperfield Road, Mile End, London, E3 4RR. Closest station: Mile End.

16. Royal Air Force Museum, Colindale

RAF Museum, London

Credit: RAF Museum

Although full of wartime memorabilia, RAF Museum in north London is very much aimed at children. It’s a wondrous place if you like aviation, with aircraft after aircraft suspended from the ceiling, plus the chance to sit in the cockpit of a real-life Spitfire. The 4D theatre is a true highlight, where a choice of films promise special effects and animations to make you feel like you’re flying in the skies right alongside the aircraft themselves. These shows cost £5 per person, but the rest of the museum is free.

RAF Museum London, Grahame Park Way, London, NW9 5LL. Closest station: Colindale.

17. Kids Eat Free at Bread St Kitchen and Bodean’s

Special kids’ menus aren’t hard to come by in London, but if it’s free grub you’re after head to Bread Street Kitchen near St Paul’s or one of the eight Bodean’s BBQ restaurants around the capital. The former is a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but it’s informal, with a lively atmosphere that welcomes children. For every adult main you order, one child under 12 can get two courses from their kids menu for free. Expect classics like meatballs and fish and chips. Bodean’s, meanwhile, is more for the meat-lovers. Every day from noon until 5pm, hungry youngsters can take their pick of BBQ ribs, chicken, burgers or macaroni cheese, finished off with ice cream.

Bread Street Kitchen, 10 Bread Street, City of London, London, EC4M 9AJ. Nearest station: St Paul’s. Bodean’s has numerous sites around London.

18. Platform 9 3/4, King’s Cross

Platform 9 3/4

Image copyright Portland Seminary, licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

The magic of London starts as soon as you get off the train at London King’s Cross station because this is where the train to Hogwarts departs. Harry Potter fans are well catered for at this major London station, with a picture-perfect opportunity to grab the handlebars of the luggage trolley magically disappearing into the wall and find the elusive platform 9 3/4 with all the other witches and wizards. It costs nothing to grab a picture but you can expect to queue during busy times. The themed shop next door is an added (albeit more expensive) bonus.

Harry Potter Shop at Platform 9 3/4, King’s Cross Station, King’s Cross, London, N1 9AP. Closest station: King’s Cross, obviously.

19. Tower Bridge, next to the Tower of London

Tower Bridge, London

Credit: Tower Bridge

If sightseeing is a must on your family trip, it’s hard to beat the world-famous Tower Bridge. Family tickets start from £15.30, which includes the opportunity to see the inner workings of the bridge, discover its history through a special exhibition, journey up high and look down on the people below through the glass floor walkway. Don’t forget to nip inside the old Victorian Engine Rooms either. There’s a free-to-download Family Trail app that contains loads of fun games unearthing the history of the bridge as you wander around. Check the website and time your visit to coincide with a bridge lift to make the experience extra special.

Tower Bridge, Tower Bridge Rd, London, SE1 2UP, Closest station: Tower Hill.

20. Horniman Museum and Gardens, Forest Hill

Horniman Museum, London

Credit: Horniman Museum

Once you’ve finished sniggering at the name, you’ll soon realise why Horniman Museum is often referred to as a hidden treasure. It’s slightly off the beaten tourist trail in south London, but Horniman houses a truly wonderful collection of natural history, anthropology and musical artefacts. Think of it as the cooler, younger cousin of the Natural History Museum, but with the added bonus of 16 acres of gardens surrounding it. This green space is a marvel, containing botanical displays, a wildlife garden, meadow fields, nature trails, animals walks, a pavilion and even a Grade II listed Victorian conservatory.

Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ. Closest station: Forest Hill.

21. Sky Garden, City of London

Sky Garden London

Book far enough in advance and your family trip could include a voyage up one of the highest skyscrapers in London, where you can marvel at some of the finest 360-degree views to be found the capital. The cost? Absolutely nothing. Sky Garden is located at the very top of the 38-storey Walkie Talkie building and although it’s free, spaces are very limited, so you need to book ahead. True to its name, it even offers a rainforest-style garden for you to explore, once you’ve fully memorised the London skyline visible out the window.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street, City of London, London, EC3M 8AF. Closest station: Monument.

Get a mighty fine deal on your train tickets – £29 each way

Virgin Trains Standard

Want to treat the kids to a surprisingly cheap day out in London? You can get a mighty fine deal on your train tickets. It won’t cost more than £29 each way when you book a Standard Advance ticket at least a week ahead. Available on all services between Leeds and London, from 10am-3pm, Monday to Friday.

Cover image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum.