You may have heard the old expression “children should be seen and not heard.”
Well, this dates back to 15th-century England, and unsurprisingly, some things have changed since then. Yes, of course there are still the occasional grumps who will turn up their noses at the sight of a child in a pub, or roll their eyes when a stroller laden with a babbling toddler is being pushed onto their train car, but for the most part, attitudes to kids in England are open and friendly.
Is England a good destination for kids?
One of the best things about traveling with children in England is that the bulk of the best museums have permanent collections that are completely free to visit and almost always have some kind of child-centric activity in progress, whether it's a table for coloring with markers and paper or something more elaborate, like a treasure hunt.
Many mid-range pubs and restaurants have a children’s menu. Staples include nuggets, pizzas, burgers – all served with chips, aka fries – and pasta. It’s unusual to find much in the way of gourmet or healthy kids’ dishes, but if you have a more discerning little foodie on your hands, it’s worth asking about half-portions from the adult menu.
A relatively new development in many recently opened or refurbished places is that baby changing areas are not just found in a cubicle in the ladies’ toilets any longer, which means that carers of all genders can take their turn dealing with the dirty diapers.
On the transport systems around England you’ll find plenty of family-unfriendly foibles, such as steps or bus gangways that aren’t quite wide enough to fit a stroller down, but there are wide accessible ticket barriers at each train station and a dedicated storage area for strollers on long-distance trains. Old cities also often have cobbled streets, which can make you wish you had a baby carrier to transport your infant instead of a fancy set of wheels.
Where are the best places to travel in England with kids?
If you should be blessed to have decent weather (which locals will remark upon frequently), then you’ll be delighted by the 10 national parks and many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England, all with vast landscapes that are free for you and your little people to explore.
Outdoor-loving kids will also appreciate time at any of the glorious beaches, with cliffs to gaze up at, sand or pebbles to dig in and rock pools to explore. If the natural coastal wonders don’t appeal, the flashing lights of the amusement arcades that line many seafronts or the old-fashioned piers that stretch out into the sea usually do.
Families looking less for landscapes and more for learning should head to the major cities. Places such as London, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham have got museums, theater and art galleries galore, perfect for those looking to load up their families with a culture fix. And given that England isn’t all that big, you can easily combine a city visit with the coast or the countryside.
The best things to do in England with kids
We’ve split these activities by age to help you plan the best things to suit your young adventurers, but in reality, whether you head out on a boat ride or to a theme park or a castle, each venue is likely to have something to appeal to all age groups. So let the children be loud and run free. Let them run, splash, dig, climb and explore as they learn.
From babies and toddlers to young children, tweens and teens, here are the best experiences for family travelers in England.
The best things to do with babies and toddlers: beaches, museums and raves
Babies, what do they know? They certainly didn’t get the memo about being seen and not heard. But luckily they’ll go where you take them, whether it's to the soft sandy shores of a shallow cove in Kent or a dedicated baby morning in the Museum of Liverpool’s Little Liverpool gallery. To stimulate them with light and sound, check out the joyful family-friendly raves run by Big Fish Little Fish at venues across England.
The best things to do with young children (ages 4 to 11): theme parks, wildlife and museums
There are major theme parks across the country, among the most popular being Legoland near Windsor, Alton Towers in Staffordshire and Paultons Park (home to Peppa Pig World) near Southampton. But look at those not-yet-redundant tourist brochures on display in the lobby of the reception wherever you’re staying and seek out the local gems.
Small-scale enterprises don’t have the big roller coasters, but they do have some curiosities that you won’t forget. Diggerland is a particular favorite – with four sites across England – where anyone over 110cm tall (43in) can be the solo driver of a JCB Skid Steer Loader through water and overland or the operator of a 5280kg (5.2-ton) giant digger, lifting dirt from one pile to another in a strangely hypnotic way.
Animal-loving kids will merrily pass a day at one of England’s best wildlife parks or zoos, such as London and Chester, or go out on a boat to birdwatch and look for marine wildlife at any of the coastal colonies. You can see puffins on Lundy Island off the North Devon coast or look out for minke, sei and fin whales off the north coast on a trip from Whitby with Whitby Coastal Cruises.
What if it’s raining? Don’t worry, it happens a lot, and this is when England’s many hands-on museums can be relied upon to capture imaginations. Nature-lovers will be wowed by London's Natural History Museum and dazzled by the Eden Project in Cornwall, where they will learn about environmental matters in spectacular space-age greenhouses.
Other science and tech highlights include London's Science Museum (go to Wonderlab on the top floor for experiments or the Garden in the basement for water play, perfect for younger kids); Bristol's We the Curious (closed currently due to restoration work following a fire, expected to reopen by January 2024); the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester or the National Space Centre in Leicester.
The best things to do with tweens and teens: historic sites and stadium tours
Notoriously hard-to-please teens and – to a lesser extent – tweens might not seem particularly engaged with literally anything you offer them, but guide them to the juicier details and some of England’s historic sites might just win them over.
Think the Tower of London is boring? Task them with finding out all about what happened to two princes in the Bloody Tower. Heading to Hampton Court Palace? Well, the royal squabbling and backstabbing that went on there rivals popular soap-opera plotlines (and is even more scandalous than tabloid headlines about the current royals).
With thousands of castles each with their own gruesome or fascinating stories, there’s plenty to uncover. Failing that, they might recognize Alnwick Castle or Durham Cathedral as locations used in the Harry Potter films, or be captivated by Arthurian legends at Tintagel.
If there's a soccer (football) fan in your family, consider a visit to one of the many Premier League stadiums for a tour. They usually cover the history and achievements of the club and offer behind-the-scenes access to changing rooms, the press room, the commentary box and the tunnel to the pitch (field). Wembley in London is the home of the England national football team and hosts various competitions and finals.
Other big hitters include Liverpool's Anfield, Manchester United's Old Trafford and Manchester City's Etihad, plus in London, Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, Chelsea's Stamford Bridge and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Sorry, kids: if it’s Ryan Reynolds' and Rob McElhenney’s Wrexham you’re after, you’re in the wrong country – Wrexham is in Wales, a few miles from the Wales–England border.
Planning tips for traveling in England with kids
Children between ages 0 and 4 travel for free on rail throughout the UK, providing they are traveling with a fare-paying adult. Once your little one turns 5, train tickets tend to cost half that of an adult ticket, although some train companies run a Kids for a Quid deal. Travel costs for children within cities varies depending on the network, so check locally. For long-distance train journeys, book three months in advance to get the most affordable tickets.
While many pubs are very welcoming of families during the day, not everywhere is kid-friendly – and certainly not later into the evening. If you’re keen to keep your little one out with you late, check with the bar staff before settling into your seat. Licensing laws vary, and it’s not always immediately obvious where and when children are allowed.
Glossary: Diapers are called nappies. Pacifiers are called dummies. Strollers can be known as prams, pushchairs or buggies.