Half term in London? Are you mad or what?! I hear you cry. Well, I’m not joking at all. February half term is often the best one to head out in London because it’s decidedly off season as far as the tourist industry is concerned. Only Brits would be so happy to trudge around in the sleet, snow and sporadic sunshine. And as for the weather, that just can’t be helped, but sometimes the best way to experience London and all it’s grandeur, is to take a trip on a grey, cloudy day, just as I did when I took these photos..
Here are my tips for free half term days out – walking, wind, rain and great memories are all included – and I love all of these places, which span the North, South, East and West of London. All you need is an oyster card, bags of energy (or coffee) some sturdy feet and a desire to explore London without taking in all the tourist traps.
East: Rain Room at the Barbican
This is the quintessentially British thing to do, queue up to stand in the rain. Yes, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing if you head to the Barbican for the free Rain Room exhibit, created by Random International. You can dance in the rain and not get wet as you experience this surreal and atmospheric installation. It really is well worth the wait (expect two to three hours) and while it opens at 11am, queues start at 9.30am, so you might want to get there early and park your butt on the floor with a good book. You can always keep fed and watered by taking your own food and rink or frequent trips to the Barbican cafe (and loo!. The assembled throng of people waiting will be chatty and as fed up as you, but your inside and it’s carpeted so it’s not that bad. Make it worth the wait and enjoy the rest of your time there. Once you’ve come out of the exhibit, pop to the Barbican shops and have a walk around the surrounding areas. There are lots of side streets steeped in history to explore; among the coffee shops, pubs and cafes, is Smiths of Smithfields which serves all day brunch downstairs, it’s achingly hip and child friendly.
East: Museum of Childhood
Always seen as the poor relation of the Victoria & Albert Museum, this amazing venue is very close to Bethnal Green tube station so you can easily pop back on the train and head to St Paul’s or back to Oxford Street for some shopping. I’ve spent many happy hours and days there with my daughter when she was really small. The Museum of Childhood is easily accessible because it’s only on two floors with a mezzanine. There are lots of static exhibits; including creepy Victorian dolls houses and ancient dolls, and some new ones so definitely worth checking out their web site for more. They always have lots of activities and the central cafe area is not too pricey which makes it a good place to meet, eat and chat. Victoria Park is not far away, as is Broadway Market and Columbia Road, but if you want to visit the flower market, you should save your trip until Sunday when it’s open very early until lunchtime.
South: Tate Modern
The expanse of the Tate and vast collection of permanent exhibits make this a no-brainer to visit, especially as there is such a fun filled walk along the South Bank these days, so whether you start at London Bridge and walk past Shakespeare’s Globe theatre or start from Waterloo and take in the London Eye, you are guaranteed a visually stunning treat taking in London’s finest features and icons with this chilly early Spring walk. Kids love running around the Tate Modern and the vast turbine hall, while a little hazardous for buggies, is a great place to burn off energy. You can expect a queue for the Tate restaurant so probably best to take in one of the many eateries along the South Bank – although avoid the new, modern complexes full of chain restaurants as they’re packed with the work crowds – try something smaller and less expensive for a taste of local colour.
West: Hogarth’s House Chiswick
Just a stone’s throw away from Chiswick House, is Hogarth’s House Museum which is free (but not open on Mondays). Formerly home to raconteur, satirist and social commentator, William Hogarth, the property now stands as testament to his life and beliefs. The property has been lovingly restored following a fire three years ago. Chiswick House gardens, just across the road (well the M4 actually) are also well worth exploring and there is a lovely cafe there to pick up a gourmet lunch for just a few quid. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can always take a walk down the river by way of Strand on the Green and pop into local eatery Annie’s for a snug and stylish lunch in beautiful surroundings. Make sure you take bread for feeding the ducks, swans and geese too.
South: Explore the 02
The former Millennium Dome isn’t just for gigs – there’s still a lot to look around and take in while you’re there. If you want to catch a movie, the 02 has the largest screen for 3D movies in Europe, although it wasn’t working when we went there and we didn’t get a refund, so I’d avoid doing that again (unless you phone ahead to make sure it’s working). The highlight of the trip is to take the spectacular Emirates cable car across the river, the views are stunning and you don’t need to pay any extra than you would on a normal tube trip, so it beats the London Eye for prices and much smaller queues. Once you’ve scaled the heights and enjoyed the view, you can head over to Greenwich Park to enjoy one of London’s largest green spaces.
North: Hampstead Heath
If you want to consider yourself a London explorer worthy of your salt, you have to have spent time walking across the rugged landscape of Hampstead Heath come rain or shine. It’s wonderful whatever the weather and there are cafes and small play parks for regular stop offs and entertainment. Plus there are amazing pubs in the locale like the famous 16th century Spaniards Inn which was once frequented by the original dandy highwayman, Dick Turpin.
So there you have it, London on a plate, whatever the weather and without breaking the bank. Enjoy.