London is spoiled for choice when it comes to art, but how do you know whether a gallery is good for the family? Whether you want to continue your own interest in the arts or just want to introduce kids to art in a fun and interesting way, Phillipa Ellis, author of Arts Aloud: Enjoying The Arts With Little People picks her favourite family-friendly galleries.
1. Dulwich Picture Gallery
Packed with paintings that are alive with stories, and portraits with eyes that watch you from every corner of the room, Dulwich Picture Gallery is a firm favourite with the families of south east London. Founded in 1811 as the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery, today it hosts a range of exhibitions and is home to an impressive collection of paintings by Old Masters.
Pick up a free Gallery Trail on arrival (or download it from the website ahead of your visit) to get the most out of the permanent collection, or get hands-on through one of the Art Sunday sessions held weekly on... Sundays (free with gallery admission). With weekend and after-school workshops, storytelling sessions and Mini Masterpiece sessions for children 6-24 months (booking required), the gallery is living proof that no family member is too young to enjoy the arts.
Nearby: Formerly meadows and farmland, Dulwich Park has miles of lovely flat pathways making it a great place to hire a bike for a pedal. It also has a boating lake and good-sized children’s playground.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE21 7AD. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm. Admission is £16.50 for adults and free for children under 18s, other concessions available.
2. Parasol Unit, Hoxton
For some families, its proximity to the giant drive-through McDonald’s on City Road might be enough of a reason to visit, others will be pleased to know that a visit to Parasol Unit means two galleries for the price of one. Sharing the same site as Victoria Miro, it has an expanse of gallery space dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions, so expect large scale, colourful and unusual work that will divide family opinion.
Dedicated family workshops led by artists (various Sundays) are a chance for children and adults to get creative. Outside, the pretty garden overlooks a restored stretch of Regent's Canal, and a trip up to the second floor will treat you all to impressive views of London. Buggies can't be taken into the galleries themselves, but can be left in the lobby.
Nearby: A short walk to the pretty back-streets of Angel, The Island Queen is one of Islington’s best pubs. Serving speciality beers and fresh food, this family-friendly pub offers children’s portions on its most popular dishes.
Parasol Unit, 14 Wharf Road, N1 7RW. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 12-5pm. Admission free.
3. Estorick Collection, Highbury
Housed in a stunning Georgian townhouse, in a square that is straight out of Oliver Twist, the Estorick Collection is a hidden gem of a gallery that is perfect for families. With only six small rooms, it’s refreshingly manageable, a casual space with something to inspire children of all ages.
School-age visitors will recognise a number of techniques from their art classes, such as oil, pastel, charcoal and woodcutting, while the collection of drawings and etchings will amaze younger ones with what they can achieve with coloured pencils. The gallery has a Family Trail with activity sheets (suitable for ages 3+, available on request), and as well as free Family Art Days during the school holidays, it hosts year-round workshops at local libraries and children’s centres.
Nearby: The gallery café sells delicious Italian food, cakes and fresh coffee, best enjoyed in the small but pretty garden (weather permitting).
Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, N1 2AN. Open Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm, Sunday 12-5pm. Admission £7.50, Concessions £5.50, free for school children and full time students.
4. Tate Modern, Bankside
Tate Modern is a fantastic option for art-loving parents looking to combine a lovely day-out spotting boats and buskers on the South Bank, with introducing their children to modern art in a relaxed and inspiring environment. For families with younger children, the Turbine Hall provides a welcome space for little ones to explore installation work from world-class artists, while school age children can spot iconic works from Picasso, Rothko and Salvador Dali in the free collections.
For those seeking a more organised visit, there are various open studios and participatory activities for families during weekends and school holidays — check the events page to see what's coming up. A highlight for any family visit has to be the Bloomberg Connect digital drawing bar on Level 1. Fight your way to one of five digital sketch pads, for the chance to create your own masterpiece and showcase it on the big screen above.
Nearby: A short stroll along the river, Southbank Centre is another gold mine of family fun, from seasonal festivals to free lunchtime concerts, as well as a well-stocked café.
Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG. Open Sunday-Thursday 10am-6pm, Friday & Saturday 10am-10pm. Admission free, except for special exhibitions.
5. Barbican Centre
The first time I took my children to this other-worldly Grade II listed building, they were mesmerised. An enormous warren of staircases and walkways, intense lighting and hidden shapes, it provides younger visitors with all the break-out space they’ll ever need. And when it comes to galleries, you can take your pick.
The ground floor is home to the magnificent Curve, a giant arc of a gallery, dedicated to bite-sized exhibitions of new or recently-produced work by contemporary artists. On the third floor, the main art gallery usually requires a longer commitment. Set over two floors, and a considerable number of rooms, it is unlikely kids of any age will last the duration of a major exhibition but with such a unique variation of work featured, ranging from art, architecture, design and photography, there’s always a reason to bring them back.
Nearby: Head upstairs to the tropical Conservatory (Sundays only), the second biggest in London and home to over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees, and exotic fish. Barbican Kitchen offers free kids' meals too.
Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS. Open Monday-Saturday 9am-11pm and Sunday 11am-11pm. The Art Gallery and exhibition spaces run their own opening hours, check the website for more details. Admission to the centre is free but specific exhibitions may charge entry.
6. Whitechapel Gallery
Located on a busy main road, Whitechapel Gallery doesn’t immediately scream ‘family-friendly’. But this restored gallery and library has long played an important role in providing access to the arts for its immediate community and beyond, with a specific focus on children and young people. As well as education and outreach projects, every summer the Children’s Commission challenges an artist to create new work to specifically engage with children aged four to 12.
A range of other family days and activity trails run quarterly, complementing major exhibitions. But it's the Crib Notes sessions which make it stand out from the crowd. This dedicated session for people with under 5s allows them to be guided around a major exhibition, usually by the curator, with no fear of spoiling the enjoyment of other patrons. Advanced booking essential.
Nearby: Spitalfields City Farm is an oasis of calm. As well as your farmyard favourites (chickens, pigs, cows, donkeys), there’s a large vegetable garden, an interactive bug hotel and a farm shop where young horticulturists can get hands-on with produce.
Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-6pm, with late opening on Thursday evenings. Admission free.
7. SPACE, London Fields
Established in the 1960s with a focus on providing affordable creative workspace for emerging artists, today SPACE manages an impressive programme of workshops for its neighbouring community, schools and young people.
The main gallery is a casual affair, making it less of a destination gallery and more of a great local option for families who want to drop-in and see what’s on offer on their way to or from nearby London Fields. Those who wish to stay longer can explore the network of atmospheric exhibition rooms and stairwells at the rear of the gallery, as well as a magnificent community mural, which oddly goes unmentioned in their literature.
Nearby: If you’re seeking a gallery with a difference, just one stop down the line on Platform 1 of Hackney Downs station is the eccentric Banner Repeater – a unique artist-led project space and library housed in a former waiting room.
SPACE, 129–131 Mare Street, E8 3RH. Open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 1-6pm. Admission free.
8. Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery, Ealing
A comfortable distance from Ealing Broadway, this Grade I listed house is as much a museum as it is a gallery. Due to its fascinating history, the free monthly tour helps to bring the many rooms of the house to life for young visitors. However, a self-guided expedition of the house is still marvellous and the gallery — the largest of its kind in west London — offers an exciting contrast.
Spacious and relaxed, it features two magnificent skylights which reflect the contemporary style of art on display. As well as artist-led workshops for schools, the gallery is hugely popular with families of pre-school children and regular talks for all ages are worth looking out for.
Nearby: Recently renovated, the stunning grounds of historic Walpole Park boast a unique rectangular fish pond, ornamental gardens, ancient cedar trees and an eco-friendly playground with a range of timber play equipment suitable for children up to 14 years old.
Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery, Mattock Lane, W5 5EQ. Open Tuesday-Friday 10am-4.30pm, Saturday 10am-3pm and Sunday 10am-4.30pm. Admission costs £7.70 for adults and under 18s are free.
9. National Portrait Gallery, Charing Cross
Every visit to the National Portrait Gallery with my children has been memorable. Visiting Lucien Freud in 2012, my 19-month-old daughter found it hilarious to see not just faces but nudes staring back at her, while my youngest took a fancy to every image of Mick Jagger during 2014’s show, Bailey’s Stardust. What I’ve learned is that children love portraits. And unlike other works of art that take some time to fathom out, a portrait has an immediate impact, especially with the younger viewer, making the National Portrait Gallery a lot of fun for families.
As a parent, be prepared to answer a lot of “Who’s that man?” questions, or worse “What did they do?”, but specifics aside, it serves as a reminder that here, versus most other galleries you’ll visit, the subjects are more important than the artists. With over 200,000 portraits in the collections of notable British men and women, it’s unlikely you’ll make it all the way around. However, a visit at the weekend or in school holidays provides workshops, activities and storytelling sessions as a welcome break.
Nearby: St Martin in the Fields, opposite, provides an opportunity to experience spooky subterranean London. Take a ride down in the magnificent glass lift and have afternoon tea in the atmospheric Café in the Crypt.
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE. Open daily 10am-6pm. Admission free except for special exhibitions.