A LONG weekend in London – sure, the family holiday fund is a bit tight this year but, as I assured my husband, it’s perfectly possible to do London on a budget.
All the museums and galleries are free and we could keep accommodation costs down by staying in a Travelodge.
You don’t get any unnecessary, price-hiking frills with Travelodge. No mini bottles of shampoo, no biscuits on the tea tray. But you do get clean, comfortable rooms in some great locations.
We chose Covent Garden, right in the centre of things with fantastic views from our 12th floor room. If you book early enough, rooms cost from just £19 a night.
So there we were, in the heart of London, ready to show the children the sights. World-class museums, galleries and culture all around us. And where did we go first? Hamley’s.
Maybe it’s the playground grapevine, but somehow our two children knew all about this seven-floor toy shop. There are definitely cheaper places to buy toys, but few where you can have so much fun doing so. Fun if you’re under 10, that is. My husband took one look at the prices and had to go and sit down for a bit. The children loved it, from the Narnia-inspired staircases to the sales assistant’s magic tricks.
Pocket money spent, the children were ready to get back on track with my plans.
First stop was the British Museum – the incredible collection of Egyptian mummies is the big draw for kids here – they’ve even got mummified cats.
We arrived mid-afternoon in time for the kids to take part in a free art workshop, then wandered through the galleries. We left the mummies until last, when the crowds had thinned out.
We had a delicious and inexpensive supper at Wagamama – Japanese noodles served canteen style. Then we wandered round Covent Garden and were entertained by buskers and street magicians who perform each evening.
We spent the whole of the next day at the Tower of London. A family ticket costs from £44 – but there’s lots included in the price. Our children loved the Knight School where they got to play the part of medieval knights in training. And they were suitably dazzled by the opulent display of the crown jewels.
After another good family-friendly meal at the Spaghetti House, we strolled round China Town through streets strung with coloured lanterns, admiring the exotic produce in the grocery stores and the bronzed crispy ducks hanging in restaurant windows.
On our last day, we went straight to the Natural History Museum. We got there just after it opened and were able to walk straight into the dinosaur exhibition. This is full of fossils, models and interactive displays, with the best bit at the end: a moving, roaring, life-sized T-rex model.
By lunchtime the crowds had built up and we were glad to escape across the road to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A isn’t such an obvious museum for families, but it’s quieter and runs good kids’ craft sessions. It also has one of the most beautiful cafes in town. Try to get a seat in the main rooms, under the glittering chandeliers. And try the meringues – they’re delicious.
Rested and refreshed, we went on to Fortnum and Mason. Its food hall is world famous, but not so many people know about the demonstration kitchen. For £2.50 each, the children had a master class in decorating gingerbread.
I explored the shop’s upper floors – a sort of very refined department store, full of beautiful things. It’s all very seductive, to the point where I was beginning to think that £15 was a perfectly reasonable price for a bar of soap.
Luckily at that point my husband texted to say the workshop was over and did I want an ice cream. Fortnum’s ice cream parlour prices are a bit steep (£12 for adults, £8 kids) but it was worth it to see the look on the children’s faces when the knickerbocker glories arrived.
Full to bursting, we staggered back to catch our train home. We’d packed a lot into our trip to the big city – without blowing the budget.
Rooms at Travelodge Covent Garden – travelodge.co.uk, 0871 984 6245.
Prices are from £19 to £105 a night.
Visit www.visitlondon.com for tourist information.
Visit www.nhm.ac.uk for details on the Natural History Museum.