London may very well be the most interesting city on the planet, with no shortage of amazing things to see and do. Try telling that to some teenagers, however, and you might get an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. It goes with the territory when traveling with teens.
Last summer, I traveled with seven of them on a Boy Scout high adventure, setting off for the north of England to walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path. The first stop before the big hike was the capital city of London. My challenge was to keep these boys, ranging in age from 14 to 17, interested and engaged for three days as we explored the history, architecture, and culture of London. It wasn’t easy, but I came up with a plan that kept the teenagers from being bored. The key is to go easy on the museums, and to schedule a hands-on activity each day. There’s only so much looking and listening that teens can do. It’s most important to have them doing something.
On our first day, after a long 11-hour flight, we staved off jet lag by going for a leisurely stroll through Hyde Park, visiting the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and walking among the trees and statues. The goal was to keep the boys from napping, and just get them through to evening when they could begin to switch over their body clocks with a good night’s sleep.
Tower of London
Our first full day of activities started off with the Tower of London. I dare anyone, young or old, to be bored here. The layers of history, going back 1,000 years to William the Conqueror, ensure something to match anyone’s interest. Teens, of course, will go straight for the display on medieval torture devices. But they might also get excited about the stunning gallery of weapons and armor in the White Tower. They’ll certainly want to gawk at the Crown Jewels. The Yeomen Warders, also known as Beefeaters, are the ceremonial guards of the Tower, and they deliver humorous guided tours sure to entertain your teen. It’s a great place to get kids interested in history.
We walked from the Tower, across Tower Bridge, and to the HMS Belfast, a World War II era light cruiser that is now a stunning museum ship that shows what life was like at war and on the sea. The boys ran wild, so to speak, all over the ship, from the depths of the engine room to the captain’s chair high on the bridge. Almost everything is hands-on, and the history can’t help but soak in while your teens are having fun.
London RIB Voyages
Normally, I would suggest limiting yourself to two big activities per day, but I knew I had to schedule one more to shake off the last of the jet lag. We walked further along the South Bank to the towering London Eye, but not to ride the London Eye. Instead, we boarded a 12-person jet boat at London Rib Voyages and rocketed down the Thames for an exhilarating tour of the river from the Houses of Parliament to Canary Wharf, complete with rock music and a hilarious tour guide. The boys still talk about their ride on a Thames Rocket, as it was definitely the highlight of their time in London.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Our second full day in the city began with a brief tour of London’s most famous building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. I say “brief” because teens are not going to appreciate the majestic architecture of Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. What they will like, however, is the 528-step climb to the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome. Ascending to the top of St. Paul’s is something you can’t leave London without experiencing. It was not just a great workout for the boys, but they actually stopped to appreciate the amazing views from the top. The rest of the cathedral is certainly astounding, but the boys were all about the climb that day.
That afternoon, I scheduled another “active” outing, with a visit to HintHunt, a real-life escape game that has been all the rage in Europe the past few years. For one full hour, the boys worked together as a team to find and solve clues to help them get out of the locked room. It was great fun, and a nice break from looking at history.
After the thrill of the game, we met up with a tour guide from London Walks, the foremost walking tour company in London. I had thought long and hard about whether to take my group of teens on one of these walks, and I finally decided it was better to try than not. I wisely selected their “Ghosts of the Old City” tour, which involved side trips down hidden alleys near St. Paul’s, and many spooky stories of murder, witchcraft, and the Black Plague.
Our third full day started once again with a bit of history, but what history it is. The British Museum houses a huge collection of artifacts from around the world. Almost every major civilization is represented here, from Babylon to Rome to Easter Island. Even the most jaded teen will find something to “wow” about, whether it’s the Rosetta Stone or a mummified cat from Ancient Egypt. We spent two hours roaming the halls, after which the boys had been sufficiently impressed, but were ready to go. This was the only truly formal museum we entered, and I would suggest it’s the only one you really need to get your teens interested in world history.
The only other must-see site in London (for teens) is Westminster Abbey, the traditional site of royal coronations and burials for nearly 1,000 years. Tell your teens to look up briefly to admire the Gothic architecture, but then let them look down the rest of the time to see the names on the graves they’re walking on. Famous people from Isaac Newton to Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens are buried in Westminster Abbey. While the sights within the Abbey are as eclectic a collection as you can imagine, this is the one place where we spent the least amount of time. The boys made the circuit around the inside of the Abbey, and then were ready to leave, having seen enough. If you have to cut one activity on your list of things to do with teens in London, this might be it.
Later that night, on the eve of our train ride north to the Hadrian’s Wall Path, we took in one last classic London activity, a night at the theater. We saw The 39 Steps, a humorous homage to Hitchcock murder mysteries, but any show will be a thrill to your teens. There’s nothing like the live theater, and London’s West End is as good as it gets.
Keeping teens entertained while surrounded by the deep and inescapable history of London is not difficult if you follow my plan. Easy on the museums, shorten your time in the churches and cathedrals, plan a hands-on activity every day, and try to make things relevant to something your kids might already know, like a book or movie set in London (re: Harry Potter). Mix in a few memorable restaurants and pubs, and you’ll find a trip to London with teens can be a real joy.
— Phil Corless
Phil Corless is an at-home dad of two living in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2004, he has been writing about fatherhood and family at the Idaho Dad blog. He believes the best way for kids to learn about the world is to travel through it.