As I am getting back into the blogging thing right now, I thought I would finish up a few blog posts I started from this summer about different things we did. We don’t just camp in the summer, although we do a lot of that. We also take trips to places where we are not camping! We like adventure and exploring, and sometimes it is hard to put that teardrop in the overhead bin!
My husband is originally from England and every couple of years we try to get “across the pond” to visit family. Each trip we try to incorporate English culture and heritage, as well as fun, into our visits to give our son a taste of what his daddy grew up with and also to learn about his English heritage.
We spent 2 weeks in Europe last summer (2014): 10 days in England and a week in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I wanted to share some of the great family friendly things we did on this trip. Starting with England!
Our last trip to England was 2 years ago, and you can see those activities written up here (there are reviews of the RAF Museum in London, Warwick Castle, Legoland Windsor, Sea Life Aquarium and The Science Museum of London). Our guy was 4 turning 5 on that trip, so younger kids will appreciate those things. This time he was 6 turning 7, but we were also spending time with his cousins who are up to age 12. These are things that are great for that age bracket (and above, but the adults had a great time too!).
My husband’s family lives just outside London, making it a short 30-minute train to get to the heart of things. We have our choices of museums, shops, castles, historic sites, and all of our special sight-seeing adventures. Public transport is amazing and we never take a car into London for a couple of reasons. 1) Parking is a nightmare. 2) There is a tax charged to each car that goes into the city, making the day that much more expensive. 3) There is a certain amount of relaxing that happens as the train tick-tick-ticks along the tracks, and we have been caught catching cat naps. Lets get to the activies!
The Natural History Museum of London
This trip our guy had a chance to go to the Natural History Museum with his Nan and Grand-dad, while dad and I checked out another museum (see the next paragraph). This is an amazing Museum for so many different reasons. First, as an American walking up, I was struck not just by the size of the building but by the architecture, which is absolutely stunning. When when you walk in and see the many exhibits available, you realize you could spend a week here and not see everything. There is something for everyone here, including the littlest people!
One thing our son really loved on previous trips was a walk through the hall with the animals that had been stuffed. As a little person, getting to be so near big animals and not have them move allows you to get a good look. Things were right at his level, which was awesome!
The museum had a butterfly house set up as a special exhibit, where you could walk through and observe various varieties of butterfly flit-fluttering around. Grandparents, parents and kids alike enjoyed their time with the butterflies.
There is always a dinosaur exhibit on display featuring a T-Rex and other large creatures as well as their fossils. Queues were long and there was a wait (it is always this way, no matter where you go in England when the school children are out). Our son enjoyed this, but the grandparents were less than thrilled. The museum boasts many more exhibits, but time didn’t allow for too much more on this trip. This is one of our favorite museums in London and we try to get back when we visit. While the museum admission is free, there is a small fee to enter the special exhibits. We highly recommend this museum for kids of all ages.
The Churchill War Rooms and Museum
While our son and grandparents were at the Natural History Museum, my husband and I checked out the Churchill War Rooms and the Winston Churchill Museum. This was one sight I really wanted to see on this trip and we thought we would wait to take our son for when he was a bit older and knew a bit more about the wars. The War Rooms were where the big decisions were made during WWII and where Churchill, his family and his staff were kept safe during the blitzes on London. The day the war ended, they turned out the lights, closed the door, and walked away. The doors were only reopened to the public in 1984, after being off-limits and restricted for nearly 40 years. One of Churchill’s cigars is still in the ashtray and the pins representing troop positions are still on the maps, standing at attention as they did on the last day of the war.
As a life long student of history, it was pretty amazing to see. Within the War Rooms Museum is the Churchill Museum which pays tribute to the great leader. My husband was particularly impressed with the exhibits and said he learned so much more about the man. We really recommend this museum if WWII is of interest or you are a Churchill fan. Adult tickets run £17.50, and kids under 16 are free. There are handheld self guided tour devices that each person gets upon entry to explain what you are seeing. Kids over the age of 9 will get more out of the exhibit than the younger ones as they will be better able to understand the concepts.
Hamley’s Toy Store
Hamley’s Toy Store is a legend in London. I had never been before and my husband remembered it from his youth, so we took our guy over to check it out. It will not disappoint. It is a 6-floor toy store with every toy imaginable. The best part is the live presentations of how various toys work and kids getting to try them before buying. Staff is lively and friendly, and make the whole experience really fun. We found the toys to be higher priced than other stores (noticed this especially with the Lego product), but going in and having a bit of fun costs nothing but time. They also have candy and ice cream in case you have spent a long day walking the streets of London and need to refuel with a lot of sugar!
The Tower of London
The Tower of London was something we held off on until this trip. Last time we did Warwick Castle, which gave the Lad a taste of castle life set in a fun way (and not too heavy). The Tower is different. Used as a jail and a place of torture, as well as where Ann Boleyn and other royals were beheaded, we thought he should be slightly older to see it. This trip we went and he thought it was quite interesting. He especially loved seeing the armor knights wore, the great halls, and the Royal Jewels, as well as prisoner’s graffiti. Get there early and go straight to the Crown Jewels. As the day goes on the crowd gets bigger and it makes it harder for smaller people to see the treasures.
They offer special work books (called Trails) for kids to work on while visiting the castle to learn a little more. They are free with your entrance and available at the visitor’s center. The line for walking the ramparts and for the torture exhibit were things we missed (they were very long and the day was getting late). One special thing we saw while we were there was the commemoration of the start of WWI. An artist was commisioned with creating a ceramic poppy that memorialized each soldier from the Commonwealth lost during the war. The poppies were placed in the moat and spilling out of windows and around the draw bridge engulfing the Tower of London in a sea of red. The display was removed on 11 November. It was absolutely stunning and very moving.
Entrance to the Tower is £22 per adult and £11 for kids older than 4.
While we were at the Tower, we took a short walk across the one of London’s most iconic landmarks, the Tower Bridge. We didn’t have time this trip, but learned they have tours of the steam rooms, and will show you how the bridge, a former marvel of technology, raises and lowers. You can also go to the top of the towers and have a look at the city and the Thames from above.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral is another of London’s most famous landmarks. Many Americans who are old enough to remember the 80s will recognize this as the church where Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married. The original St. Paul’s Cathedral was built in 604AD, however there were constant fires and rebuilds and the current St. Paul’s was designed by Christopher Wren and was finally completed in 1711. It took 35 years to construct the cathedral we see today. Since then the church has survived many tragedies – and has been seen as a symbol of wartime resistance and strength, a place of great celebration in weddings and Jubilees, and serves as the final resting place of some of Britain’s most famous people.
Prepare to spend a couple of hours exploring here. Entry for adults is £17.00, children 6-17 are £7.50, and there are discounted tickets for students and seniors. The entry gives you a hand-held self-guided tour. The Cathedral is absolutely stunning, and if you are brave enough to tackle the rickety stairs to the very top of the dome, you will get some of the best panoramic views of the city of London.
Chessington World of Adventure
We thoroughly enjoyed a day at Chessington World of Adventure with the cousins. We had kids ages 6 through 12, and there was something for everyone. Chessington is an amusement park with various rides, a zoo, and resort all set on a former estate. This is the next step up from Legoland Windsor, but a step below Alton Towers from a ride stand-point (great for kids 5-12). There is 1 upside down ride (Ramses Revenge, which was having mechanical issues while we were there), several really fun rollercoasters, giant swings that spin, play spaces for kids, shows featuring animals, and lots of ice cream and treats. We found it very busy, and decided to buy fast-track tickets for a few rides, which made the day slightly better by not having to wait in line for everything. It was loads of fun and I have a feeling we will be going back on future visits.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
We took the train to Portsmouth for a fun day out at the Historic Dockyard. The dockyards will take you through 800 years of British Naval History. This might sound like something you might take a miss on, but don’t. It is really quite good! A family Pass (online you save 25%) is £58.80 and is good for a full year and for all main attractions. Here are some of the things we did at the Dockyard.
Your ticket will gain you access to the entire Dockyard and nearly all of the activities (special activities will cost a small fee). We started off at Action Stations. This was a building which housed dozens of interactive adventures. Britain’s tallest indoor climbing tower was an absolute favorite of ours. They also had a neat moving climbing wall which allowed the kids to do continuous climbing (until their little arms were too tired to go on. The routes have varying degrees of difficulty allowing each person to test their abilities! It was a great intro into what the Royal Forces have to do with some of their training.
Outside of the climbing there were several more activities to do. There were simulators for shooting down enemy aircraft, and for being in a plane or helicopter doing search and rescue. They had obstacle courses for kids up to a certain hight and also a hand to hand combat tutorial. They also taught a bit of science in their displays as well.
Then we then walked down to the HMS Victory, which is the world’s oldest commissioned warship. HMS Victory still has a full-time Royal Navy crew and hosts special meetings and dinners. Amazingly this entire ship is built of wood and has been in dry dock and lovingly restored to its full glory. This is the ship where Nelson died during her last battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. Walking her decks you’ll get a sense of the life the men endured and what their accommodations looked like. You might be surprised at what they were up against and how they overcame it. The ship itself is gorgeous and the history inside is amazing.
From her upper decks, you get a nice view of the Dockyards and which ships are in port. Many are still in use by the Royal Armed Forces, and there are places that are restricted, but several of the ships are available to view from the dock. While we were there the HMS Illustrious was in port and for sale. We couldn’t go inside but marveled at her from the dock.
Time was tight for us, so we decided not to tour the HMS Warrior or explore the Mary Rose Museum. Both are amazing exhibits from what we were told and we will make sure to go in on another trip. Our guy might have enjoyed the HMS Warrior, but it was suggested we wait until he was a little older for the Mary Rose museum (his Nan said his older cousin wasn’t as interested when he was our guy’s age).
We did enjoy the guided harbour tour. The guide made the tour a lot of fun and had a wicked sense of humor. The boat takes you around the harbor showing you different ships in port, they tell you the history of the area, and point out other points of interest. We all really enjoyed it.
In Portsmouth there is a nice shopping area. We headed to a great pub there for lunch, and while we were eating noticed an interesting thing happening on the river. There were these strange balls, with people inside. They looked like giant hamsters! Of course we had to check it out and Nanny made sure the lad had a go. He said it was awesome and a ton of fun. He highly recommends it and mom and dad thought it was a great way to burn off some energy too!
The trip was fantastic and it was so much fun trying out so many new things.
Have you been to England and done any of these things? Are there things you have done that we should check out? Let us know in the comments!