Rule #1: Always check that your destination is actually open.
It was a dark and stormy night. Okay, it wasn’t but it was pissing it down in Covent Garden in the freezing cold and I found myself jammed in the Build-A-Bear workshop with two school trips because the London Transport Museum had closed for training that morning. I didn’t check before we left and so we were subject to the humiliation of the store staff trying to entertain 40-odd children and one toddler insistent on destroying any displays. I learned a tough lesson that day.
Rule #2: Always have a back-up plan.
In the event that your destination sight to see is closed or more realistically, your toddler has scoured the whole place in under 30 minutes (sure, I am being optimistic here), then you need a plan to follow or risk ignoring rule number 3. Picking a place where there is a cluster of museums and galleries is a good idea so if you have stomped through one and not yet reached a coffee break, you can cover two or three destinations in a day.
Rule #3: Time spent sight-seeing should be greater than time spent traveling to the sights.
London has a wonderful transport network and the lure of all the different types of trains and buses can fill part of the day with total joy for your toddler. You don’t, however, want to spend 3 hours of your day traveling on said transport for less than an hour of wandering around. You will be bored or at best, entertained by some of the more colourful Londoners who grace the transport system outside of rush hour. Another way to avoid breaking Rule number three is-,
Rule #4: Travel Light.
Nope, lighter than that. Lighter still. What are you doing putting your things in the pram? Never, ever take the pram. That is not traveling light; that is subjecting yourself to a day of the buggy-shuffle on the bus. If your child is old enough to walk, take the tube and wear them out. If your child will not manage this then take a sling. You will be thankful for this. There are many, many young families staying in London now and they are all on the bus network in the day. However ergo dynamic and designed for City living your pram may be, it is not designed to be dragged up and down the steps of London Underground. Or rather London Underground is not designed for your pram. Have you seen how few step-free access stickers there are on the tube map? Unless you want to go to Hammersmith, don’t bother.
Take a backpack, put in minimal nappies and fill the rest of the space with food. Lots and lots of food to entertain your child on the big-ass long journey you are about to undertake. Your phone will have a camera and anything else you might need, you will be able to buy when you are out.
Rule #5: Embrace the gift-shop.
When I was a child, we were never allowed to step foot into the gift-shop at the end of a museum visit for fear of our eyes lighting up at the plethora of tat. My mother made a grave mistake. The gift shop is often the best part of the visit; that or the place where they keep the headphones. We went on a cultural visit last week, spent 15 minutes charging around making loud echoes and 35 minutes sitting on the floor of the gift shop. The boy read the books, played with the beautifully designed toys and I checked the news on my phone. We were both happy. When he finally got bored, we upped and left in search of a place to eat our picnic.
Rule #6: Avoid the entry-fee unless you really have to.
There are some wonderful child-centred museums such as the London Transport Museum where I am willing to pay for the entry fee. Actually, that is the only one I can think of. There are many, many more museums, galleries, open houses, towers and the like that do not cost any money at all. In fact, these are probably of no interest to your child at all but they will still get something out of running around quiet, open corridors shouting at the tops of their voices. Smaller under-funded museums where you pay a nominal fee (I have a personal cap of £5), are also great because you get to visit something out of the normal tourist range and are usually very quiet. I’ve found staff in these smaller museums to be very welcoming and can go out of their way to make their specialist subject matter more engrossing for the toddler. When you want to go see the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy or other such event that genuinely interests you, go on your own. You will be wasting your money otherwise. I have been to some museums umpteen times and I cannot tell you the first thing about what is on display in there unless it has caught the eye of the boy.
Rule #7: Never go on a rainy bank holiday or a weekend.
We made the catastrophic mistake one bank holiday to take a family trip to Exhibition Road because some website recommended it for a family-friendly day out. How foolish we were. We have learnt from our mistakes. We even took the pram. We spent 25 minutes waiting by the lift in the Science Museum to be taken to the basement floor where the Children’s Play Area is housed. Wonderful play area, I am sure but I will never step foot in there again unless I win enough lottery money to hire it out. It could be the most educational and child-friendly space in the world but when hundreds of snot-nosed children are charging around and there is a queue to even park the pram you know you have made a big mistake. We lasted 5 minutes on the floor we thought we wanted to be on and then a further half an hour queuing to return to the ground floor and left without even glancing at the gift-shop. Arriving at 10am on a week day is blissfully calm and by the time you have finished, the place is just starting to get busy and you are enjoying a nice cup of coffee elsewhere.
Rule #8: Avoid the big museums.
Even on a good day you will need to queue to get into the Natural History Museum and then queue again to see the t-rex. By all means, go have a look if you have not done so before but prepare for this with a lot of food. Have an escape strategy at the ready as well, including the location of the nearest place to sit down. If it is raining, this may be a tube ride away. Elsewhere in London I have seen wonderful views of the skyline from the top of a very quiet Monument, done free crafts with my son in various small museums, spent an hour watching him play with a model underground railway in the Museum of London. All of these experiences have been vastly more enjoyable than going to see the big stuff. That is not to say that we will not do the tourist circuit but just chose our times wisely. Still on my list of upcoming attractions are Westminster Abbey, which I have shamefully not been inside yet and the V&A.
Rule #9: Chose a place that you will both enjoy or employ bribery.
I make a list of all the places I have yet to see in London and make my way through them once a week. Sometimes we return to a particular museum because the boy loves it so much and there is something new there for me, such as The Museum of Childhood being right next door to a vegan café that I want to try out. Sometimes we go to a museum relentless times because it fills my son with joy like the RAF museum in Colindale. We spend a vast amount of time on the Chinook Helicopter and in return I get to sit and drink a cuppa in peace in the picnic area. But really I try find things that we will both be happy with. I do get asked to not see any more picture museums (art galleries) but if we do, then I cut a deal that we can follow it up with a trip on the Clipper, or more realistically, a trip to visit his Dad at work. If we only went to places that he enjoyed then my patience would soon run out, this is a day out for both of us.
Rule #10: Do not travel during rush hour.
Obvious, right? The amount of times I have found myself rammed on a bus with the boy at 4.30pm where the school rush crashes straight into rush hour at 5pm because nowhere takes less than an hour to get to, is ridiculous. I should really know better. And still it happens. Making sure you are safely ensconced indoors when rush hour hits is the key to a happy end to a happy day.