London has so many brilliant museums to choose from, but how do you make it a great day out with the kids? As a London family passionate about museums, we have listed our best tips!
We have all experienced how things can go wrong in museums; unengaged children running around screaming of boredom and frustration with parents stressed out panicking about their kids knocking museum objects over. So how can you avoid a lovely family day at the museum turning into your worst nightmare? Let’s start with how to get there.
Table of Contents
How to travel to the museum
We use public transportation all the time. Not only is it the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way of travelling, but the kids actually enjoy it as well. If they would get the choice between being strapped into a car and going by train or bus, public transportation would win hands down.
At the same time, many parents are terrified of getting on London’s public transport system with their kids. And rightly so if you attempt to take the Tube during rush hour on a weekday with young children, you will have a very stressful start to your day. We put together some of our best advice to make sure you get an excellent start on your way to the museum!
Avoid the rush hour
This is perhaps a no-brainer, but still worth mentioning. We would never consider dragging our children through Central London during rush-hour unless it’s an emergency. This is how Transport for London (TfL) define their peak hours Monday to Friday:
- Mornings between 06:30 and 09:30
- Afternoons between 16:00 and 19:00
Considerations taking the Tube with kids
The Tube is both the worst and the best way of getting around London. On the positive side, it’s often the quickest way of getting from A to B, although not necessarily when travelling with young kids. Here are a few aspects to consider:
- Always try to avoid peak travel hours when taking the Tube with young kids
- Before heading to the station, check for Status updates. London’s Tube network is more than 150 years old and line closures because of maintenance is completely normal, especially during weekends.
- Carefully plan your journey in advance with the TfL Journey Planner or Google Maps.
- Note that a lot of Tube stations are NOT step-free meaning that you might experience having to carry your child/pushchair through multiple stairs
- If you are lucky enough for the station to be step-free, you will usually need several lifts to get to the surface.
- As a rule of thumb, we calculate three times (3x!) the estimated time using the TfL Journey Planner when travelling with the kids.
How to use the TfL Journey Planner
Travelling by bus
Even if travelling by bus might seem a lot slower than the Tube based on the Journey Planner, taking the bus can often be a faster and more convenient alternative. By taking the bus you avoid the stairs and/or lifts of the Tube-system and kids can enjoy London’s famous landmarks as you slowly make your way through London’s traffic.
Essentially, if you are family travelling through London with small children think twice before trusting the recommended route from the TfL Journey Planner or Google Maps.
Consider your options
Before deciding on how to get to the museum, keep in mind that:
- The recommended route from Google Maps or TfL Journey Planner will almost always show the Tube as the quickest route, but be careful trusting this if you’re travelling with small children and/or a pushchair.
- It can take A LOT more time on the Tube than shown through the Journey Planner if having to wait for lifts or if having to wait for a train with enough space.
- To see more realistic routes, update the preferences for the search function rather than going with the default settings.
- If you’re travelling alone with a child in a pushchair on the Tube, check that the stations you are travelling to have step-free access.
We have focused on the Tube and buses in this post, but there are of course other alternatives such as the Thames Clippers (the riverboat) which can be really convenient if travelling with a pushchair. The only problem is that there are not that many museums along the river (except for the Museum of Docklands) :-)
How to beat the crowds at London’s museums
The National History Museum and the British Museum are the only two museums in London where we have experienced long queues. The other big museums in Central London will also get crowded during peak times, but at least you don’t need to queue up.
When visiting museums with our young kids that need constant supervision and guidance, its good to not have the added stress of big crowds. We have looked at some strategies to avoid ending up in the middle of the biggest flocks of tourists
Pick a museum with less visitors
Like you can see from the chart below, there are four museums in London that attract the most visitors by far:
If you want to beat the crowds, simply pick one of the museums outside of hotspots that all the tourists flock to. Especially with young kids, you are unlikely to cover more than just a small part of the museum in any case. Museum of London, Docklands, Horniman and Museum of Childhood are among our absolute favourite child-friendly museums in London with.
When are peak times?
These are the times you are most likely to expect the biggest crowds and queues:
- During UK school holidays
- Worst months: April and August
Arrive early or late?
There are two schools of thoughts when it comes to the best timings avoiding crowds at the museum:
Arrive at 10 AM when opening: This is the most common advice, but you need to balance this up against the stress of getting the kids up early. We have never been able to be at the museum 10 AM sharp but often arrive around 11. In this way, we have time for a good breakfast as well as preparing packed lunch. Arriving at 11, we enjoy 1-2 hours at the museum, then we have lunch before another session in the afternoon (if the kids are up to it).
Arrive late afternoon around 4 PM: By arriving between 3 PM-4 PM you will avoid the biggest queues, although it can still be crowded on the inside. Another advantage of going this late is that you avoid the big groups of school classes.
For most families with young kids going in the morning is a far better alternative, especially taking into account travelling back with kids getting tired and grumpy.
Check Google Maps popular times
Take advantage of this Google Maps feature which you can access by clicking through to the museum map listing. This information is based on aggregate data from Google tracking people’s location on their smartphones. If you see the spike in visitors usually happening at noon, it means you can get a good head start on the big crowds if arriving at 11 (and still enjoy your breakfast) :-)
Check queue times on twitter
The Natural History Museum is the busiest museum in London, and it can make sense to check the latest status on twitter by following @NHM_Visiting:
Pick a museum based on what your kids like
Just like for adults, museums can be dreadfully boring for a child if there’s no interest in the subject. Especially if your kids are new to museums, you want to pick a subject they are really interested in. For us, the most popular areas at the moment are Vikings and Tudors for big sister and Dinosaurs and Cars for little brother. Whenever we go to a museum, we make sure to check out these areas to get everyone in a good mood :-)
Planning your museum route
Don’t underestimate the complexity of the biggest museum buildings in London. Many of the museums originate from the Victorian age with hundreds of corridors and halls looking the same. Being confused and stressed with directions in combination with huge crowds and difficult children is something you want to avoid.
Many of the museums have side entrances that are worth checking out if the main entrance queue is very long. If you visit the Natural History Museum, the queue on Exhibition Road is usually much smaller. And the same the British Museum – the back entrance on Montague Place at the rear of the museum is usually a lot quieter.
To avoid getting lost in the labyrinth we recommend going to the museum website in advance having a look at their floor plan so you know the direction of where to go. Then when you get to the museum you should be able to follow the signs and get to your first stop pretty quickly without wasting precious time and energy.
Go for the interactive exhibitions
A museum full of interactive elements can really help inspire a child to develop their knowledge and interest. Wonderlab at the Science Museum is a good example of a highly interactive exhibition that engage kids in subjects such as chemistry, computing, communication and astronomy. Done in the right way, museums provide learning experiences that inspire kids while spending quality time with their families.
Here are some examples of hands-on type of galleries that are great for younger children:
- Wonderlab at the Science Museum
- All Hands children’s gallery at the National Maritime Museum
- Mudlarks children’s gallery at the Museum of London Docklands
- All Aboard Playzone at the London Transport Museum
- The Garden at the Science Museum
Plan your meals carefully
Nobody enjoys museums on an empty stomach. If we have breakfast at 8 and get to the museum around 10, our kids will get hungry between 11-12 so we usually plan for an early lunch with packed sandwiches. Most museums in London serve decent food, but the choices are often limited, prices are high and queues can be long during peak hours.
Beyond sandwiches, healthy snacks and fruits are also good to have in reserve to use as small bribes. They usually don’t get any sweets or crisps except for in the afternoon if they need an extra energy boost on our way home.
When we go to the museums in Kensington we usually go to the Picnic Area on Level 3 just outside of Wonderlab, enjoying our packed lunch. Alternatively, The Energy Cafe has a nice selection of kid-friendly food. Going to the museums in Greenwich, we find the lunch options to be better with kids; we usually either go for a quick bite at the Great Map Cafe, have a picnic in the park or get food from one of the stalls in Greenwich Market.
London Museum Lunch places we enjoy:
- The Energy Cafe, Science Museum: Good selection of warm and cold child-friendly dishes and plenty of space.
- Picnic Area, Science Museum: This is a great place to have your packed lunch after enjoying Wonderlab.
- The Garden Cafe, V&A Museum: Not a huge selection of food to choose from, but we love sitting next to the fountain in summer.
- The Great Map Cafe, National Maritime Museum: We really like the open space, watching the kids play while enjoying our coffee!
- T.rex Grill, National History Museum: Perfect theme and great for carnivores. Gets very crowded during peak times.
Parents are the best motivators
Kids usually get engaged in the topics that they see their parents care about and are interested in. We try to combine our museum visits doing some up-front exploration of a topic together as a family. That could be watching a documentary together, reading a book or just simply having a conversation about the subject. That gives them a basic foundation and makes it easier to relate to the exhibitions when getting to the museum. If everything is new and needs to be explained from scratch, it can get quite overwhelming for both parents and children.
Check for events
Many of the museums in London organise scheduled events, demonstrations and lessons that are free for kids to join. You can plan for these by checking the museum websites upfront and booking in advance if needed. Note that many museums like the V&A don’t have a lot of interactive exhibitions for kids, so joining an event like this can add a lot of value to your visit.
We normally don’t plan for specific sessions but ask instead when we arrive at the museum about scheduled kids activities and then decide on the spot. A good resource to use for planning your specific museum events is the wonderful blogger Museum Mum who regularly publishes recommendations in terms of museum exhibitions and events in London.
Plan an “escape route“
If things turn sour with the kids not enjoying anything at the museum it’s probably better to throw in the towel rather than trying to drag them through even more exhibitions. Sometimes it’s just better to call it a day before things turn to the worse. By mapping out the nearest park and/or playground you can plan for a quick escape for the kids to have a place to play and the parents to relax before hitting the tube back.
Check our list of the best playgrounds in London and use our interactive map to see where to go. Our picnic blanket is part of our standard equipment for a day out in London; luckily with all the green spaces in London, parks and playgrounds are usually very close. Diana Memorial Playground and St James Playground are examples of popular playgrounds among visitors to the main attractions in Central London:
Five of the most kids-friendly museums in London
The Science Museum is just packed with family friendly activities and exhibitions from toddlers to teens. More than anything else we enjoyed the Wonderlab exhibition. Read our full review.
London Transport Museum in Covent Garden is a dream come true for any child fascinated by buses, trains and taxis. In addition to the big collection of vehicles, there are plenty of interactive play areas for kids. Read our full review.
The Horniman Museum in South East London is a great mix of indoors and outdoors activities. Inside you can meet a gigantic century-old walrus, while outside you can enjoy fussy small animals like alpacas and bunnies. Read our full review.
The Museum of London makes the city’s rich history come alive. From Romans to Victorians you get a glimpse into everyday life for Londoners through the centuries. Read our full review.
Photos from our London museum visits
Popular questions about Museums for kids in London
What are the best Dinosaur Exhibitions in London?
The “Blue Zone” at the Natural History Museum
The dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park
What are the best Space Exhibitions in London?
What are the best Tudor sites in London?
Tower of London