Travel With Children
Britain is ideal for travelling with children because of its compact size, packing a lot of attractions into a small area. So when the kids in the back of the car say, 'Are we there yet?' your answer can often be 'Yes, we are'.
Best Regions for Kids
Children's attractions galore – some put a strain on parental purse strings, but many others are free.
- Southwest England
Some of the best beaches in England, and fairly reliable holiday weather – though crowded in summer.
- Peak District
Former railways that are now traffic-free cycle routes make the Peak District perfect for family outings by bike.
- Oxford & the Cotswolds
Oxford has kid-friendly museums plus Harry Potter connections; the Cotswold countryside is ideal for little-leg strolls.
The historic England–Wales borderland has many castles to explore, plus excellent museums for inquisitive minds.
- Lake District & Cumbria
This is Outdoor Activity Central: zip wires and mountain bikes for teenagers; boat rides and Beatrix Potter for the youngsters.
England for Kids
Many places of interest cater for kids as much as adults. At the country's historic castles, for example, mum and dad can admire the medieval architecture, while the kids will have great fun striding around the battlements or watching falconry demonstrations. In the same way, many national parks and holiday resorts organise specific activities and events for children. Everything ramps up in the school holidays.
Most visitor attractions offer family tickets − usually two adults plus two children − for less than the sum of the individual entrance charges. Most offer cheaper rates for solo parents and kids too. Be sure to ask, as these are not always clearly displayed.
On the Road
If you're going by public transport, trains are great for families: intercity services have plenty of room for luggage and extra stuff like ‘buggies’ (prams), and the kids can move about a bit if they get bored. Most regions offer family tickets and/or travel passes that provide savings on train and bus travel.
If you're hiring a car, most (but not all) rental firms can provide child seats − you'll need to check this in advance. Most will not actually fit the child seats; you must do that yourself, for insurance reasons.
Dining, not Whining
When it comes to refuelling, most cafes and teashops are child-friendly. Restaurants are mixed: some offer highchairs and kiddy portions; others firmly say, 'No children after 6pm'.
In some pubs, those aged under 18 are not allowed, but most pubs in tourist areas serve food, making them 'family-friendly'. If in doubt, simply ask the bar staff.
And finally, a word on another kind of refuelling: England is still slightly buttoned up about breastfeeding. Older folks may tut-tut a bit if you give junior a top-up in public, but if done modestly it’s usually considered OK.
Best Hands-on Action
'Please Do Not Touch'? No chance! Here are some places where grubby fingers and enquiring minds are positively welcomed.
- Science Museum, London Seven floors of educational exhibits at the mother of all science museums.
- Discovery Museum, Newcastle Tyneside's rich history on display; highlights include a buzzers-and-bells science maze.
- National Railway Museum, York Clambering into the driver's cab on a steam locomotive, exploring a Royal Mail train, taking part in engineering demonstrations…it's all here.
- Action Stations!, Portsmouth Toys with a military spin; your chance to fly a helicopter, control an aircraft carrier, or up-periscope in a submarine.
- Enginuity, Ironbridge Endless interactive displays at the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Best Fresh-Air Fun
If the kids tire of England's castles and museums, you're never far from a place for outdoor activities to blow away the cobwebs.
- Conkers, Leicestershire Play indoors, outdoors or among the trees in the heart of the National Forest.
- Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean A wonderful woodland playground with maze-like paths, weird rock formations and eerie passageways to offer a real sense of discovery.
- Whinlatter Forest Park, Cumbria Highlights include a 'Go Ape' adventure park, excellent mountain-bike trails, plus live video feeds from squirrel-cams.
- Bewilderwood, Norfolk Zip wires, jungle bridges, tree houses, marsh walks, boat trips, mazes and all sorts of old-fashioned outdoor adventure.
- North York Moors National Park, Yorkshire Easy, scenic bike trails at Sutton Bank, hard-core mountain biking at Dalby Forest.
- Lyme Regis & the Jurassic Coast, Dorset Guided tours show you how to find your very own prehistoric fossil.
- Tissington Trail, Derbyshire Cycling this former railway is fun and almost effortless. You can hire kids' bikes, tandems and trailers. Don't forget to hoot in the tunnels!
Best Rainy-Day Distractions
On those inevitable gloomy days, head for the indoor attractions, including the nation's great collection of museums. Alternatively, try outdoor stuff like coasteering in Cornwall or canyoning (check conditions) in the Lake District − always fun, wet or dry.
- Cadbury World, Birmingham Your dentist may cry, but kids love the story of chocolate. And yes, there are free samples.
- Eden Project, Cornwall It may be raining outside, but inside these gigantic semispherical greenhouses, it's forever tropical forest or Mediterranean climate.
- Cheddar Gorge Caves, Somerset Finally nail the difference between stalactites and stalagmites in the West Country's deep caverns.
- Underground Passages, Exeter Explore medieval catacombs − the only system of its kind open to the public in England.
- National Media Museum, Bradford Attractions include a TV studio where you can film yourself, a gallery of 1980s video games (yes, you can play them) and an IMAX cinema.
- Honister Slate Mine, Lake District Explore the dingy depths of a former Lakeland slate mine.
Best Stealth Learning
Secretly exercise their minds while the little darlings think they are 'just' having fun.
- We the Curious, Bristol One of the best interactive science museums in England, covering space, technology and the human brain.
- Jorvik Viking Centre, York An excellent smells-and-all Viking settlement reconstruction.
- Natural History Museum, London Animals everywhere! Highlights include the life-size blue whale and the animatronics dinosaurs.
- Thinktank, Birmingham Every display comes with a button or a lever at this edu-taining science museum.
- National Space Centre, Leicester Spacesuits, zero-gravity toilets and mini-astronaut training − all guaranteed to fire up little minds.
- Kielder Observatory, Northumberland National Park Attend a stargazing session at this Northumbrian astronomy centre.
- National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth Gaze into the shark tank at the UK's biggest aquarium.
Best Animal Experiences
England has some superb zoos (London, Bristol and Chester are the standouts) but there are more unusual wildlife experiences on offer, too.
- London Wetland Centre, London Break out the binoculars to spy bitterns, black swans, herons and kingfishers.
- Longleat, Wiltshire Pretend you're driving across the savannah at this Wiltshire country estate, surrounded by rhinos, giraffes, elephants and lions.
- Tamar Otter Wildlife Centre, Devon Watch semiwild otters frolic.
- Whitby Coastal Cruises, Yorkshire If you're lucky, you'll spot minke, sei and fin whales off the north coast.
- Lundy Island, North Devon Take a day trip off the North Devon coast in search of puffins, Lundy ponies, sika deer and Soay sheep.
- Scilly Seal Snorkelling, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly Don your fins and swim with playful grey seals off the island of St Martin's.
- Cotswold Farm Park, The Cotswolds Watch the cows being milked, feed the lambs and ride pedal tractors.
- Shepherding Experience, Ilfracombe Come by! Away! Lie Down! You'll be herding like a pro in no time.
Best All-Round Family Fun
Sometimes a good dose of old-fashioned family fun is in order – so here are a few of our favourite days out that everyone will enjoy.
- Legoland Windsor, London Huge Lego models and thrilling rides galore – but be prepared to queue.
- Alton Towers, Staffordshire Arguably the UK's best – and certainly most popular – theme parks, with a riot of roller coasters and other rides to try.
- The Making of Harry Potter, Leavesden Step behind the scenes at the Leavesden studio where the films were shot.
- Warwick Castle, Warwick Jousting tournaments, trebuchet launches and waxworks bring medieval times to life.
- Bewilderwood, Norfolk Clamber through a tree-top world of zip wires, jungle bridges and tree houses.
- Eden Project, Cornwall Learn about all manner of environmental matters in Cornwall's spectacular space-age greenhouse.
- Baby Goes 2 (www.babygoes2.com) Advice, tips and encouragement – and a stack of adverts – for families on holiday.
- Visit England (www.visitengland.com) Official tourism website for England, with lots of useful info for families.
- Mumsnet (www.mumsnet.com) No-nonsense advice on travel and more from a gang of UK mothers.
- Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/family-travel) Inspirational articles about travelling as a family.
When to Go
The best time for families to visit England is pretty much the best time for everyone else − any time from April/May till the end of September. It's worth avoiding August − the heart of school summer holidays − when prices go up and the roads are busy, especially near the coast.
Places to Stay
Some hotels welcome kids (with their parents!) and provide cots, toys and babysitting services, while others maintain an adult atmosphere. Many B&Bs offer 'family suites' − two adjoining bedrooms with one bathroom − and an increasing number of hostels (YHA and independent) have family rooms with four or six beds, some even with private bathroom attached. If you want to stay in one place for a while, renting a holiday cottage is ideal. Camping is very popular with English families, and there are lots of fantastic campsites, but you'll usually need all your own equipment.
On the sticky topic of dealing with nappies (diapers), most museums and other attractions in England have good baby-changing facilities. Elsewhere, some city-centre public toilets have baby-changing areas, although these can be a bit grimy; your best bet for clean facilities is an upmarket department store. On the road, baby-changing facilities are usually OK at motorway service stations or out-of-town supermarkets.