If you have school-age children, you’ve just taken a leap into the summer holidays, with joy, apprehension and/or fear (!) about how to fill the long weeks ahead… Perhaps you have an actual holiday booked to occupy a week, or more, or perhaps you’ll be in the UK the whole time and are in serious need of some seriously fun outing ideas. We’ve rounded up a selection of our favourite family day trips near London, allowing you to avoid painfully long journeys and max out time at your destination of choice.
If you want to make it even more special, take the kids for a sleepover at a hotel nearby (and give yourself a break from preparing meals and providing snacks, on repeat). My own offspring would vote for the tried-and-tested Legoland, Whipsnade and Bekonscot, although I’d have to choose Harry Potter…
The Wizard of Oz afternoon tea
Scones, sandwiches, and Swiss roll, oh my! Biscuits, cupcakes, and sausage rolls, oh my! Cocktails… you get the picture. If you’re looking for a memorable afternoon out with the family the limited-edition Wizard of Oz afternoon tea and ticket package at The Soho Hotel will have you clicking your heels together with glee.
Be welcomed into the bright main restaurant, where the talented pastry chefs and friendly, staff will take you on a magical culinary journey with their wacky concoctions made in collaboration with the London Palladium.
The detail and attention given to each magical treat will put a smile on your face, from the strawberry and custard sparkling ruby slippers to the soft, spongey, psychedelic Over the Rainbow lemon Swiss roll, and the bite-sized red velvet Toto cupcake. The selection of finger sandwiches (or sand-‘witches’ as the waiters prefer to call them) are also worth a mention, and the team won’t bat an eyelid at making modifications for tiny tastebuds if you’re out with the little ones. Save room for the fresh-from-the-oven scones, which you can choose to wash down with either tea, coffee, or a tin man-inspired cocktail in the form of the Hot Melted Silver, a smooth blend of Ketel One vodka, lychee liqueur, coconut milk, chilli, and lime.
When it comes to the show, fans of the original won’t be disappointed by this classical reproduction, with a modern twist. Boasting the iconic original score from the Oscar-winning MGM film, including Over The Rainbow, Follow The Yellow Brick Road and We’re Off To See The Wizard, as well as extra songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, you’ll be immediately transported to the weird and wonderful land of Oz. Featuring an all-star cast including Jason Manford’s exceptional Lion, Ashley Banjo as Tin Man, and Georgina Onuorah as Dorothy, special mention has to go to Dianne Pilkington’s Wicked Witch of the West, who has children jumping into their adult’s laps and holding their ears as she descended on her fire-wielding broomstick. Standout moments include the crazy and colourful welcome to Munchkin Land, the bursts of red glitter as Dorothy dons her famous heels, and of course, the great reveal when the booming voice of Oz turns out to be not all it seems.
How to get there: Tube! Located in the heart of Soho both the hotel and theatre are a short stroll from Oxford Circus or Tottenham Court Road.
Available until 3 September 2023; afternoon tea from £45 per person; ticket and afternoon tea package from £79.50 per person, including a Band A ticket and afternoon tea. 4 Richmond Mews, London, W1D 2DH, visit firmdalehotels.com
Where to stay nearby: Soho is brimming with luxury stays but, really, after sampling its afternoon tea, you’re going to want to check in to the Soho Hotel. Cots and additional beds can be easily added to the rooms while a babysitting service is on offer should you wish to sample the Soholistic spa treatments.
Warner Bros Studio Tour London
I can summarise what this outing involves in two words. Harry. Potter. Judging by the number of children of all ages we spotted on a recent visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour – many in full costume – the wonderful world of witchcraft and wizardry holds them as spellbound as ever. Whether they’ve read the books voraciously or have been enthralled by the films, they’ll revel in the chance to explore the cavernous Watford site, packed to the rafters with Potter sets, costumes, props and effects (of the special, visual AND creature kind).
Our top tips: book as early a ticket slot as you can, as the site is huge (and there’s too much you’ll miss if you rush); wear the comfiest shoes you have; and prepare for negotiations in the gift shop as your child tries to persuade you that they can’t live without Hermione’s wand (£32) or a Quidditch jumper (£75). Chocolate frogs are a more reasonable ask (£8.95). Adults, you may well enjoy it just as much as the youngsters: you definitely will if you’ve read and loved the books or watched the films. If not, you can still appreciate the immense amount of skill that has been poured into bringing this unique world to life on screen. Mischief managed.
How to get there: Direct services go from London Euston to Watford Junction (it's a 20-minute journey) and there's a free electric shuttle bus to the studio from Watford Junction for ticket holders. Oyster cards are valid between London Euston and Watford Junction too.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden, WD25 7LR; visit wbstudiotour.co.uk
Where to stay nearby: The Grove, just 2.5 miles away, has everything you need. Explore 300 acres of beautiful grounds by Segway, enjoy some family archery and splash in the black mosaic-tiled pool.
Bekonscot Model Village & Railway
We visited Bekonscot for the first time last summer and I was as charmed as the children by the world’s oldest original model village, which opened in 1929. They won’t necessarily appreciate the full scope of its 90 years of history and every eccentric, painstaking detail but they will love meandering around the huge model railway, which has seven little towns “stuck in a 1930s time warp”, more than 200 buildings, 3,000 inhabitants, 1,000 animals, hundreds of vehicles and many models that move. My kids loved spotting everything from coal mines, castles and cable cars to docks, racecourses and escaped convicts! I recommend going round at least twice as you see different things each time.
Highlights include the 450 metres of tiny trains running around the whole site and a mini light railway that you can ride on, operating every day between 10.30am and 4.30pm (£1.60 per person; under 2s free), plus there's a pirate-themed playground, a pond with remote-controlled boats and a café for a sit-down and snacks.
How to get there: Take the train from London Marylebone to Beaconsfield (25-minute journey) then it's a five-minute walk to Bekonscot.
Bekonscot Model Village, Warwick Road, Beaconsfield, Bucks, HP9 2PL; visit bekonscot.co.uk
Where to stay: Beautiful British countryside estate, Cliveden House, just five miles down the road, is home to the three-bedroom Spring Cottage, perfect for family stays.
Legoland Windsor Resort
This is, quite simply, heaven on earth for Lego-obsessed kids and it’s pretty brilliant for everyone else. My family finds the size of the park just right (kids at pre-school and primary age) and its 12 'Lands', including Mythica, Miniland, the Kingdom of the Pharaohs and Heartlake City, are easy to navigate. Ideally, the smallest member of your party will be 0.9m or taller as the majority of the attractions have a height restriction in place, although there's lots for the tiniest to enjoy nonetheless.
Our top tips: download the app ahead of time, plan ahead and use it at the park; it's really useful. Pack lots of snacks (plenty available on site but the combo of excitement and walking = hungry kids) and hire one of the single or double buggies even if your kids are a bit too old for them; they’re perfect for heaping raincoats, backpacks and more onto and for transporting exhausted kids desperate for ‘Just one more ride!’
Reserve & Ride Ultimate (from £70pp) is a godsend for those who want the maximum number of rides from their day; use the app to book a slot in advance and enjoy the fastest ride access time. None of you will forget the Flight of the Sky Lion (it’s incredible) but you’ll avoid the waiting times which can top an hour on the busiest days as one of the park's most popular attractions (loved in equal measure by me, my husband and both kids). On the hottest summer days, you’ll be glad to get soaked repeatedly on the water rides. New this summer: the Lego Ferrari Build & Race Experience at the Legoland Windsor Resort. And you’re booking because the *kids* will love it, you say…?!
How to get there: It takes half an hour from London Paddington to Windsor & Eton Central via Slough, or travel direct from London Waterloo to Windsor & Eton Riverside in less than an hour. There is a shuttle bus service to the park close to both rail stations; this is a chargeable service and is not operated by the park.
Winkfield Road, Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 4AY, visit legoland.co.uk
Where to stay: The themed Legoland Windsor Resort, of course! This is one for the kids but you will be in favour with them for weeks before (and after) so absolutely worth it for the during-stay merriment and post-visit memories.
Hever Castle & Gardens
A castle. Mazes. Lakes. Archery. Jousting. Boating. Miniature model tea houses, a Japanese tea garden, and a playground to top it all off. Hever Castle has something for everyone, and we bet you’ll be planning your next visit before you’ve even left. It’s worth being organised before you go; visit the Hever website and print out a number of fun activities to do as a family – there are trails focusing on the castle, maths, geography and nature, with puzzles, tasks and challenges to complete. Learning by stealth - the best kind of summer fun!
Until 3 September, your children can take part in Heroes and Villains School, included in a Gardens Only or Castle & Gardens admission ticket: secret call signs and battle skills are quite the change from Monday maths and weekly spellings. It starts daily at 11.30am, 12.30pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm on the Winter Lawn and, if they’re really keen, they can wear their best caped crusader costumes to get into the spirit. There are also jousting tournaments and falconry displays running throughout July and August. Some guardians may also relish Supercar Sunday on 6 August, and kids will gravitate towards face painting, on selected days in July and August.
How to get there: Trains run from London Victoria and London Bridge to Edenbridge Town Station – journey times range from just under an hour to 1.5 hours – and then take a taxi for three miles to the castle.
Hever Castle, TN8 7NG, visit hevercastle.co.uk
Where to stay: Hever Castle has its own luxury bed and breakfast, so to make the most of two days here, stay overnight in its four-bedroom cottage.
This is slightly further to travel than some of the other places on our list but you’ll easily persuade the kids if you mention the UK’s oldest wooden rollercoaster, Big Wheel, Mirror Maze, street food, crazy golf and the nearby beach (we are yet to meet a child who isn’t happy to spend hours digging holes and splashing in the sea). There’s so much to do both in Dreamland and Margate. Since reopening in 2015 and expanding in 2017, Dreamland now has an amusement park, a retro roller disco and diner, 1,500 capacity music venue, seafront pub and amusement arcade. The park is free to enter with rides, amusements and activities available on a pay-per-ride/play basis.
Time your visit to coincide with one of its summer gigs – headliners include Tom Jones, Gabrielle, Dizzee Rascal, Olly Murs, The Streets and Two Door Cinema Club – and admire some of the art installations for which Margate is renowned: Banksy’s Valentine’s Day Mascara appeared on the side of a Margate house just steps away from Dreamland on Valentine’s Day 2023 and was relocated to Dreamland.
How to get here: Dreamland is a five-minute walk from Margate train station and is regularly served by services from London St Pancras and London Victoria (from St Pancras it takes 90 minutes and a little longer from Victoria).
Dreamland, Marine Terrace, Margate, CT9 1XJ, visit dreamland.co.uk
Where to stay: No.42 Margate is brand new and just moments from Dreamland. There are interconnecting rooms available if your kids are young, and you'll all appreciate the library of bedtime books, the kids' food and drink menu, and the free treats (including pots of local ice cream) for them to grab at the pantry.
I’ve had Whipsnade membership for three years, so I can say with absolute confidence that you and your kids will have an absolutely brilliant day out here. For starters, it’s the UK’s biggest zoo, meaning that its 10,000+ animals have 600 acres of the Chiltern Hills to call home. I recommend paying for a car pass so you can cover the whole park more easily – don’t miss the penguins, giraffes, rhinos or elephants. The playground is incredible so allow enough time there or you’ll be dragging the kids out, and there are free (bookable) slots at the indoor Hullabazoo soft play, particularly great if the weather isn’t on side.
Amazing experiences include Keeper for a Day, where you can expect to work with some of the larger mammals (perhaps mucking out rhinos or distributing morning snacks!), as well as smaller animals, and Meet the Giraffes, a 20-minute VIP experience for those aged eight or over. There are also free daily talks throughout the zoo, and you can pay to take a ride on the Great Whipsnade Railway (which smaller kids particularly love) - that's a good time to enjoy an ice-cream, while they're stationary!
How to get here: Only 20 minutes from the M25, Whipsnade Zoo is signposted from the M1 and all major roads - just follow the elephant. Local bus services 40 and 40A operate from Dunstable to Whipsnade Zoo.
Whipsnade, Dunstable, LU6 2LF; visit whipsnadezoo.org
Where to stay: On-site! Visitors staying at Lookout Lodge can enjoy a sunset tour, torch-lit night tour and morning tour when the zoo is closed to the public, plus two days of access to the zoo. On family nights, a maximum of two adults and two children can stay in one lodge (aged five or older).
Just watch their eyes widen and little faces light up when they see the adventure play area, Blenheim's epic "hidden world of adventure, where mini explorers of all ages can create their own exciting stories... clamber up rocks, cross bridges, hop over stepping stones, discover hidden chambers, whizz down zip lines and slither down slides". Bring wellies or wet shoes so the kids can enjoy all the water play too.
Blenheim Palace is a special place; it was given World Heritage Site status in 1987, joining the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Barrier Reef. And there's so much to do here. Take a boat out on the Great Lake or hop on a paddleboard or kayak. Walk behind the scenes of blockbusters on the Lights, Camera, Action! Tour to discover filming locations for Harry Potter, James Bond, Gulliver's Travels and the new Netflix series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story and allow plenty of time for some delicious food while you're there too - they'll love the Snack Shack.
How to get here: Travelling from London Marylebone by Chiltern Trains to Oxford Parkway (then connect to Blenheim by Bus 7) is the quickest route from London to Blenheim. Get 30 per cent off Palace, Park & Garden tickets if you arrive by train – use the code GREEN30.
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, OX20 1UL; visit blenheimpalace.com
Where to stay: The Old Bank Hotel in the centre of Oxford is perfect because you can do Blenheim on day one, stay overnight at the Old Bank and immerse yourself in everything wonderful Oxford itself has to offer on day two.