We visited London as a family (our children are aged 9 and 11) in July 2022, for a sightseeing theatre break. I love visiting the city as a tourist, although I’d like to say that I am a ‘distant local’ having spent the first 24 years of my life living on the outskirts of London before becoming a nomad! I’ve written up our trip review, which includes our money saving tips and attraction recommendations.
First and foremost, theatre has become extremely expensive over the last ten years, so I had to do a lot of research in order to find quality shows that did not bankrupt us. This initially, seemed like an impossible task, with four tickets easily costing in excess of £250 on average. My efforts however, were eventually rewarded, and we found two central London family shows for £35 per ticket or less, which had great seats (cheaper London Theatre tickets usually have you seated way up in ‘the Gods,’ which for me, is essentially pointless, particularly with kids, notwithstanding the fact that it is extremely steep high up in the older West End theatres). My absolute favourite website for helping to choose theatre seats, is Seatplan.com, which is comprised of photos from audience members in specific seats in most London theatres. There are thousands of photos, so a good chance that you can find the view from the seats that you are interested in, or from very close ones.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
For £35 each, we got tickets for the opening night of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. As a modern theatre, every seat in the 1300 capacity audience has a great view (to the extent that I would check their schedule to see what’s coming up next for that reason alone). The show itself was fantastic. We particularly enjoyed the puppetry, musician-actors and the production’s masterful use of physical theatre. (see @ArifaAkbar’s recent review in The Guardian).
101 Dalmations: The Musical
I came across this show in the spring, but was a little reluctant to book it at first, due to its location in the open air theatre at Regents Park. For the more robust, inclement weather won’t be an issue, but having lived in warmer climes for the last decade, we are a distinctly ‘fair weather family!’ When I saw the projected heatwave the week prior, I hastily booked tickets, and we managed to procure seats on the hottest ever recorded day in England. I ended up being far more concerned about heatstroke/sunburn/dehydration, but as we sat down, the storm clouds rolled in…
There were a couple of breaks in the performance, firstly due to the actors needing to hydrate in the heat, and then because of the rain, which majoritarily concided with the interval.
I booked seats in the back row (this is another theatre where all seats have a good view), which meant that we were able to put up umbrellas without being told off by the staff. I initially thought that this would be invaluable in terms of warding off the unseasonably strong sun, however, the changeable British weather reverted our umbrella usage to it’s more common function: the rain. The dense trees however in the top left hand side of the theatre did actually keep us smugly dry, so that would be a top tip for booking seats in the future.
The show itself was very good (here is Time Out’s review which largely echoes my own opinions); it must be extremely difficult for the cast to deal with the ‘stop-start’ nature of performing in the outdoors, but they all did a great job. I did find however, that the early evening daylight setting made the whole experience a lot less immersive; for me it was very distracting seeing the comings and goings of fellow audience members; I welcomed the darkness of act 2.
Of the two shows, our children had different favourites, although my husband and I preferred The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Navigating London in a Heatwave
It didn’t cross our minds that we would be seeking shelter from the extreme heat during our four day stay in London, but with temperatures peaking at 40 degrees, at times it felt like we were in Dubai, but without the abundance of air conditioning.
As I said previously, we live in a hot climate, so we basically adopted the same principles as we do at home: to stay inside during the peak sun. We adapted our intended itinerary (O2: I’m coming back to climb you in October!) and ended up visited the following:
1. The Natural History Museum. Although not air conditioned, the temperature of this fantastic (and free!) museum was mostly comfortable, supplemented by some industrial indoor fans. We went straight to the dinosaurs (turn left) and spent a second hour wandering around several other exhibits. My favourite tip to beat the heat and crowds: the (seemingly secret!) picnic area downstairs.
2. After our morning in The Natural History Museum, we walked two minutes around the corner to the Science Museum, which was beautifully cool and never fails to keep the kids amused. We spent two hours there, most of which wasin the highly interactive ‘Who am I’ exhibition. It is important to note that whilst both museums are free, you do need to book your slots online in advance. The Natural History Museum didn’t check (we were 45 minutes early), but the Science Museum did.
3. Harry Potter shop at platform 9 and three quarters at Kings Cross Station. We had to queue up for about 30 minutes to get the obligatory platform photos, but it was free to take our own shots and they were well co-ordinated, complete with scarves and an obliging staff member to flick it up! We did the Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio Tour at the other end of our holiday, which would be another top pick when the weather is not in your favour, although tickets are expensive and need to be booked well in advance.
4. Tate Gallery. We visited the Tate Gallery… shamelessly for the air conditioning. I had never been before, and with an A’level and keen interest in art, was also looking forward to perusing the exhibits. Ten out of ten for the air conditioning. We found four spare chairs and spent an hour (alongside many others doing the same) relaxing in one of the beautifully cool communal areas. A lower score for the art however. Maybe my cultural appreciation isn’t refined enough for abstract art, but it definitely gave me ‘Emperors New Clothes’ vibes. And the building itself is vast and half empty. Since its tax funding was reduced in 2010, the gallery seems to have struggled, and this is apparent. Perhaps they need to explore more ways to engage a younger, wider audience, alongside ways to utilise this huge building?
5. Coffee Shops in disguise. Two of the cheapest coffee shops in London are McDonalds and JD Wetherspoons. The latter doesn’t generally have AC, but they are generally cool and shady with £1.20 refillable coffees and plugs to charge your devices if you look for them, thank you very much. I used to get quite anxious that I was outstaying my welcome after about 20 minutes, but you can stretch a coffee to an hour or two if you need a bit of extra respite…
6. Westfield Shopping Centre. Whilst we don’t usually visit shopping centres on holiday, this was a last minute solution to a fairly glum morning trying to explore the Southbank in blistering heat. Shopping centres are exciting for us non UK residents, although I’m sure that it won’t conjure up the same level of enthusiasm for everybody! As shopping centres go, this is excellent, with shops and restaurants to cater for all tastes. There is another Westfield in Stratford if you are near to the opposite side of town.
7. Restaurants. Forget al fresco: air-conditioned restaurants were the way to go during our sweat-inducing break. Nandos in Covent Garden was perfect for a reasonably priced pre-theatre dinner. It’s underground eaterie had great decor and relaxed ambience, and the self-ordered dinner meant that we were in control of how long we spent there, which in our case, was around 45 minutes. As ‘Nandos Virgins,’ I thought that the food was good, but perhaps not as highly rated as all of my UK friends’ feedback suggested. Maybe I’m just ultra fussy.
We also ate at Zizzi at Westfield. The food was good (I highly recommend the ‘Rustica’ pizza base) and the ambience pleasant , but they really did need to have more staff; we spent most of our time trying to flag down waiters.
Accommodation for our London Theatre Break
We opted for an apartment through AirBnB with the intention of having at least breakfast at home. The flat was stifling however, so we barely spent any time there. Whilst the flat was TINY (we were going for the budget option, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected) and up four flights of stairs, the four minute walk to two central Underground stations made us realise how important location was.
We’ve booked another apartment for our next London visit (staying in Greenwich, a good budget option with great transport links), although a Premier Inn would be our firm second choice. We’ve stayed in numerous Premier Inn hotels all over the UK, and they are the best budget chain in my opinion.
Overall, we had a fun four days in London, despite the heatwave. Our much anticipated return to London’s theatres did not disappoint: you just can’t beat the tingle of excitement encapsulated in the opening bars of a live music score…
Have you got any London tips and tricks? Or maybe you’ve also been lucky enough to have seen a recent show? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!