Sightseeing with babies and toddlers

There’s a temptation, once children come along, to abandon cultural holiday experiences like galleries, historic houses and cathedrals in favour of guaranteed child-friendly pursuits like beaches, waterparks or camping. I’m certainly not knocking that type of holiday (you can read my post on camping with babies and toddlers here, in fact) – I just want to make fellow parents aware that it’s not the only option available. When it comes to unweaned babies in particular, sightseeing with your offspring is not really very different from sightseeing child-free.

You don’t even need to be on holiday to enjoy these sorts of sightseeing excursions. Parental leave is a great opportunity to get to know your own back yard a bit better, whether that’s visiting a gallery for the first time, ticking a major tourist attraction off your list or exploring the sightseeing possibilities of a nearby city or town. There are only so many ‘rhyme time’ and baby swimming sessions you can go to in a week anyway, so why not mix it up by swapping into holiday mode and taking your offspring to see something new?

Timings: feeding, nappies and naps

A pushchair covered with a SnoozeShade on the concourse at Waterloo Station
Snoozing at Waterloo Station en route to Strawberry Hill House

Travelling at nap time (the baby girl has always been a good buggy sleeper, but I appreciate that not everyone is so lucky) increases the chance that your little one will be alert, cheery and interested in whatever you’re seeing when you get there. I try and give the baby girl lunch or a snack when we arrive (read my post on eating out with babies and toddlers), but before we start the experience proper, for the same reason. Eating and drinking isn’t allowed outside specific areas at a lot of attractions, so it makes sense to fuel up before you go in. This is less of a consideration for unweaned babies as you’ll usually be able to find somewhere to feed a small baby, whether you’re nursing or bottle-feeding.

Some attractions are excellently equipped with myriad baby change toilets, but many are not – at historic houses in particular the facilities are often in an out building far away, for example. Doing a pre-emptive nappy change on arrival means there’s one less thing to think about as you’re wandering around (though obviously a code brown situation could occur at any moment, particularly if your baby is very little).

A trip to a nearby playground or soft play place after you’ve finished your visit is an excellent way of letting your toddler blow off some steam. If I’m planning an excursion and it’s a toss up between two attractions, the proximity of a playground can be a useful deciding factor.

Whatever the age and mobility of the little one you’re sightseeing with, be less ambitious in your planning than you would be if you were child-free, and factor in lots of breaks. Lugging a baby around, even a newborn, is more tiring than sightseeing solo, and you’ll need to stop to feed her every couple of hours anyway. Going anywhere with a toddler takes forever – leave extra time for those moments when she won’t get back in the buggy, walks off mid-nappy change, loses a shoe, etc, etc, etc.

Essential kit

A toddler wearing a bag that looks like a bee at the top of the stairs at the Gothic masterpiece Strawberry Hill House
Action shot of the girl and her bee bag at Strawberry Hill House

You’re likely to have a pram with you, so will need to factor that into your travel planning (see my blog post on public transport with a pushchair for tips). That said, you should be prepared to leave your buggy at the entrance of the attraction you’re visiting, as not all of them are accessible to pushchairs. It’s worth calling ahead to check the pushchair policy, and make sure you’ve got a sling with you just in case. (On a recent visit to Ham House and Garden in West London, where you have to leave your buggy at the door, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they have a few slings available for parents to borrow – well played National Trust, well played.)

Don’t forget to transfer any essentials (bottles, muslins, nappy change wallet) from the pram into your bag so you’ve got everything you need with you. It’s better to take a little longer to get yourself sorted at arrival than have the faff of returning to the pram for something important later on.

I wasn’t sure about toddler reins in the past, but I’ve become a fan since the baby girl started walking. She has a little bee backpack with a sort of leash attached to it, which has come in very handy on recent visits to historic houses. It’s extremely rare that I would actually use the leash to halt her progress, but it’s comforting to know that I could if I needed to, particularly if there are stairs around. The baby girl doesn’t like holding my hand most of the time when we’re out and about (I’m pleased she’s so independent of course, but this does make me just a bit teensy bit sad, I must admit), but the backpack means I can keep her close.

Where to visit

Your options are almost limitless when it comes to sightseeing with a babe-in-arms, but there’s more to think about once your little one is crawling or walking. ‘Family-friendly’ attractions, often involving either animals or the great outdoors – I’m thinking aquariums, zoos, city farms and botanical gardens – will be almost guaranteed fun for your toddler and entertaining for you too. More ‘grown-up’ attractions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few tips based on my sightseeing adventures with the baby girl…

Museums and galleries

There’s no hard and fast rule about which museums and galleries will make you feel welcome when visiting with a toddler, but I’d usually go for a large institution over a small one. In general, the more rooms there are to explore the more likely you are to be able to find somewhere for your child to run around/have a bit of a shout and not disturb other visitors. Smaller institutions also tend to be more tightly packed with exhibits, always a bit of a worry if your child has trouble with the notion of ‘look but don’t touch’. I’ve covered visiting museums and galleries elsewhere on the blog – you can read that post here.

Places of worship

A buggy in a Byzantine-style chapel
The baby girl snoozes in the pram at Westminster Cathedral

Churches and other places of worships are always welcoming in my experience. You wouldn’t necessarily think that a church would hold much interest for a toddler but the combination of lots of space – including high ceilings, which little ones often find pretty impressive – and unusual acoustics make them a surprisingly diverting outing.

Historic houses

Historic houses can be great but make sure you do some research ahead of time so you don’t end up at a stately home full of priceless antiques – paranoia about your toddler breaking something doesn’t make for a relaxing experience. What you’re looking for is the type of historic house that’s all about the architecture, gardens, etc, rather than a treasured furniture collection. (We had a great time at Strawberry Hill House and Garden – I pretty much let the baby girl run around at will because the rooms were mainly empty and it wasn’t busy on the day of our visit.)

Another good rule of thumb is to go for a historic house that runs events for young children. Even if there’s nothing suitable for toddlers specifically, the fact that the team there will be used to having kids around is a good indicator that you’ll be made welcome.

A fun activity to do with toddlers at historic houses (this works for galleries and museums too) is to hunt for animals in paintings, tapestries or stained-glass windows. When it comes to your own enjoyment of the place you’re visiting, forget the idea of reading any of the information boards or a guide book if you’re there with a toddler – your attention will be too divided for such demanding intellectual pursuits. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an informed experience however – I’ve found myself chatting to volunteers at historic houses much more than I ever used to, apologising in advance for the moment when I’ll inevitably have to rudely dash out of the room after the baby girl mid-conversation.

How to experience the London culture scene with a baby in tow

Published by Forbes Travel Guide, 30 January 2017. 

A man with a baby in his arms look at an art work
Crib Notes event for parents and babies at the Whitechapel Gallery

Traveling with a baby might stop you from doing some of the things you used to do on vacation — bar-hopping and fine dining, for example, are trickier with a small person underfoot. That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the fun, though. London is well stocked with cultural experiences specifically designed with little ones in mind. Here are our favorites.

Theater
Baby-friendly performances are a new thing on London stages, but it’s a trend that’s gathering momentum, with more and more venues offering one-off showings.

As with movie theaters, plays aren’t necessarily selected with underage audiences in mind, but changes are usually made to ensure that sound and lighting effects and actors’ delivery won’t overwhelm those all-important theatergoers of tomorrow.

Check with theaters such as Park Theatre in Finsbury Park and the Young Vic in Waterloo for specific parent-and-baby shows, and keep your eyes peeled for “relaxed” performances, which are aimed towards anyone who would benefit from a more informal environment, including kiddos.

Classical concerts
Acclaimed pianist Miaomiao Yu founded the classical concert series Bach to Baby after becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunities out there for moms and dads wanting to introduce their kids to high-quality musical performances. The concerts present professional musicians performing in welcoming, family-friendly venues across London and South East England.

An informal atmosphere means that children are free to express themselves during the concerts while, at the same time, learning from their parents (who are asked to refrain from talking) about the behavior expected from them once they’re a bit bigger. Concerts take place in locations like beautiful historic churches and art galleries, making this a lovely way to discover some of the capital’s hidden gems.

Art museums
You’d be hard pressed to find an art museum in London unwilling to admit a baby, but gallery-hopping with an infant can be a nerve-wracking experience all the same. Worrying about your child disturbing others and having concerns over the presence of diaper-changing facilities or places to breastfeed comfortably is no way to spend the day.

Fortunately, the Whitechapel Gallery has thought of everything, offering curator-led tours of its exhibitions for infants and their escorts that take place in the morning before the museum’s regular opening. At the end of the tour, gratis refreshments are available in the museum’s education space, with toys and playmats available to mini visitors needing to blow off steam.

Movies
Many London movie theaters offer weekly parent-and-baby screenings, so there’s no reason to miss out on the latest releases, whether you’re into blockbusters or art-house flicks. Screenings tend to take place in the late morning and, with so many cinemas now serving excellent coffee and snacks, a visit to the movies feels like a real daytime indulgence.

Everyman Cinemas — where you’ll find comfortable sofas as well as more traditional seats — even throws in a complimentary hot drink and cake with every ticket.

Movies on offer are programmed with parents rather than babies in mind, but the atmosphere is sure to keep the small ones comfortable. Most cinemas turn the volume down a bit and leave the light levels in the auditorium higher than usual to ensure that younger moviegoers — and therefore their parents — have the best experience possible.

Children enjoying a piano concert © Alejando Tamagno
A Bach to Baby concert © Alejando Tamagno

Essential kit, part 4: sling

Aside from a pushchair, a sling – or baby carrier as they call them in the US – is the bit of kit you’ll use most often when adventuring with your baby. In the very early days it’s ideal for making her feel supported and secure while you have your hands free to get things done, whether at home or out and about. While your baby is little it’s also much more convenient to carry her on you than to lug a pushchair around, particularly in crowded environments or locations with lots of stairs, like train stations (but have a read of my post on navigating public transport with a pushchair for when you do get to that stage).

Once the baby girl was a few months old she got too heavy to carry about in the sling all the time, but I still never leave the house without it. I transfer her into it when I want to look around an art exhibition without the hassle of the pushchair, for example (more museum tips here), and use it as a tool of last resort to calm the baby girl down if she’s flaking out about something when we’re on the move. For long hikes my partner will carry her in our big backpack carrier, but I use the sling for short walks over terrain the buggy can’t handle.

A sling is particularly invaluable when flying, especially if you’re travelling solo with your baby. You can take a pushchair as far as the gate, or sometimes onto the tarmac, but you can’t take it into the cabin, so once it’s gone into the hold, a sling is the only way to effectively juggle baby, cabin baggage, passport and boarding pass. It’ll also save your arms and back when walking up and down the plane is the only thing that works to keep your baby quiet in the air. With any luck she’ll snooze in it too. (All this applies to train journeys too, of course.)

Finally, a sling means that you take your baby out with you in the evening during those first few crazy months before she’s settled into a bedtime routine and is still sleeping a lot of the time. This won’t work in all situations, obviously – you need to make a call depending on what you’re doing and where – but we took the baby girl out to dinner with us in her sling every night of our trip to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain when she was six weeks old (more on eating out with babies and toddlers in a future post – sign up to my mailing list so you don’t miss it), and I’ve been at comedy gigs where audience members have brought their little ones along.

We had the baby girl out in the evening with us in the sling at Glastonbury Festival too when she was nine-months-old. It wasn’t as easy as when she was small, as she was sleeping less well in the sling by then, but it was still doable and meant I could see more evening gigs than I would have otherwise been able to.

There are lots of different styles of sling to choose from, so see if you can find a local sling library to try some out before you invest – hire fees are usually minimal. For what it’s worth, the most popular brands among my parent friends are Ergobaby (we’ve got the 360) and Lillebaby. I never got on with stretchy fabric slings – too much material, hard to get the right fit – but my partner and I both loved our Vija tops, which look like ordinary T-shirts but have special supportive panels in them to enable you to carry a baby up to 7kg or so, with skin-to-skin contact.

A woman carries a baby in a sling, holding a pair of binoculars up to the baby's face. In the background is the rocky landscape with a lake.
The sling came in handy for short hikes in Joshua Tree National Park in California. © Steve Pretty

Museums and galleries

Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.

The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.

Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.

Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.

With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.