It's a common conundrum — London may be packed with museums, parks, galleries and more, you always end up thinking you've either been there with your family already, or they're packed with people. So here's our guide to getting away from the big-name attractions so you can enjoy a more unusual family day out in London.
One of the last working examples in London, Brixton Windmill is a treasure. This beautifully-restored 1816 Grade II* listed building isn’t just a history lesson on London’s agricultural past, it’s a celebration of everything that’s great about London now. The heart-warming story of the Friends of Windmill Gardens is that of a close-knit group of residents who campaigned to restore the windmill and were instrumental in its reopening to the public in 2011. Today, it stands complete with sails, driven by wind-powered machinery as well as electricity. Alongside the free monthly guided tours offered by the active Friends group, families can enjoy a host of seasonal events in Windmill Gardens including an Easter Egg Hunt (5 April) Summer Festival (28 June), Halloween spooky stories and even Santa’s windmill grotto. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on National Mills Weekend, you might even see the sails turning! Windmill Gardens, Off Brixton Hill, SW2 5EU. Apr-Oct, every second weekend of the month, 2pm-5pm. Special events coincide with windmill opening times. Child height restrictions apply.
Thanks to films such as A Night At The Museum, an overnight stay is now a popular gimmick offered by a range of family attractions, but imagine a place so haunted that only one member of the public has ever made it through the night. Rumour has it that Chislehurst Caves is that place, and the lamp-lit tours that share stories of ghosts, druids, smugglers and murderers, 30m below the homes and woodlands above, have done nothing to dispel the hearsay. Originally dug for chalk used to make bricks in the building of London, this labyrinth of man-made tunnels also has a rich modern-day history, from sheltering Londoners during the Blitz to acting as a backdrop for six episodes of Dr Who — The Mutants in 1972. Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, BR7 5NL. Weds-Sun, 10am-4pm or daily during school holidays, tours on the hour last 45 mins, Adults £6, Children 3+ and 60+ £4, Under 3s free.
The crumbling headstones and imagined stories of those buried in the churchyard are captivating for all members of the family. Thanks to the efforts of community groups, councils and the Heritage Lottery Fund, many of London’s cemeteries are now in great shape to receive family visitors. Opened in 1840, Nunhead Cemetery was one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries established to alleviate overcrowding in Victorian burial grounds. As well as a resting place for heroes who fought at the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, it has incredible views, attractive monuments and is an established haven for wildlife, including several species of butterfly, parakeets, woodpeckers and tawny owls. Its open day (16 May 11am-5pm, free) is a particularly good time for families to visit with the added attraction of bug hunts, face-painting and music in the ruined chapel. Visit any other time for a more tranquil experience. Linden Grove, London SE15 3LP, various seasonal opening times apply, check website for details. Free tours on the last Sunday of every month, 2.15pm from Linden Grove gates.
Visit London’s only lighthouse
Despite its atmospheric location, London’s only lighthouse can’t lay claim to magical stories of navigating boats through the high seas. It did, however, play an important role in testing maritime lighting and training generations of lighthouse keepers, from its creation in 1864 through to the mid-20th century. The climb to the top might be modest, but you’ll still be treated to jaw-dropping views of the river, The O2 and Canary Wharf to the west. This vibrant arts quarter is also home to one of London’s smallest museums; dedicated to Michael Faraday (who conducted many of his lighting experiments here) as well as an unusual sculpture park featuring a fascinating moon and tide clock. Nearby, Fat Boys American diner serves giant brunches, burgers and milkshakes that will make the kids smile. Trinity Buoy Wharf, 64 Orchard Place, E14 0JY, Lighthouse Sat & Sun, 11am-5pm, admission free; Fat Boys: Sun-Tues 9am-5pm, Weds-Sat 9am-7pm.
Morden Hall Town & Country Show
However much you love living in London, it’s reassuring to know that every now and again, the countryside comes to you. Celebrate the traditional quirks and eccentricities of the British countryside at Morden Hall Town and Country Show with a showcase of morris dancing, ferret racing, a goat show and even "jive pony equestrian acrobatics". Mesmerised by basket-making and bee-keeping, the kids won’t even notice the funfair or the bouncy castle, and if you’re lucky, you might even be able to sneak a sample of the ale or scrumpy. Similar shows also run in other locations in and around London. Morden Hall Road, Morden, SM4 5JD 2-4 May, 10am-6pm, adults £7.50, children £3, under 5s free, concessions available.
Creekside Discovery Centre
Sporting a collection of flotsam and jetsam to rival that found at some of the UK’s most famous beach-combing spots, the Creekside Discovery Centre offers families a fascinating range of activities. You can walk through a wild river, fish for animals in their natural environment and experience the diversity of urban wildlife resulting from the rich history of fishing, ship building, dockyards and slaughterhouses found at this tidal tributary of the Thames. Deptford or ‘Deep Ford’ was named after its tidal creek, and as the tide falls each day it exposes almost a kilometre of riverbed, making an ideal setting for their popular low tide walks. During school holidays, the centre also runs a comprehensive programme of workshops from Bug Hunting to Crab Fishing and Mud Larking. Deptford Creek, 14 Creekside, SE8 4SA. Holiday workshops from late Spring: prices vary, age restrictions apply, booking essential for all events and activities. Mon-Fri, 3-5pm by appointment only outside events. Low tide walks: Monthly, various times see website for details. Adults £10, children 8-16 £8.50, concessions available. Waders, waterproofs and walking sticks provided, wear old clothes.
Grant Museum of Zoology
What could be more fun than inspecting pickled brains, handling the skull of a leopard seal or trying to piece the bones of a gorilla back together? This hidden gem of a museum gives families an unrivalled opportunity to delve deep into history and get hands-on with a host of relics from the animal kingdom, many of which are now endangered or extinct. Take the family trail around the museum or learn more through specimens at Explore Zoology sessions. Menagerie Saturdays also invite families to create art inspired by their curious collection. Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, WC1E 6DE Family trail: school holidays, 1-4.30pm, admission free, other events alternate Saturdays, term-time only, 1-4.30pm, admission free.
By Phillipa Ellis, author of Arts Aloud: Enjoying the arts with little people
If you're looking for other ways to entertain the family, see our other guides: