(1) The Museum of Childhood. The Museum of Childhood is devoted to toys throughout the ages. Rocking horses, dolls houses, Sega mega drives, Lego, meccano—it is all here. There are lots of hands-on activities too, making this a great attraction for children up to 8 years old. A decent cafe in found in the central atrium, and there are frequently changing temporary exhibits and seasonal events and activities (including a great brass band each Christmas). Like most of London's museums, visiting is free. Located a three-minute walk from Bethnal Green tube station. The Museum of Childhood is currently closed whilst it undergoes a £13 renovation programme. It will be re-opened in 2023 under the name Young V&A.
(2) The Museum of London: Docklands. The Museum of London: Docklands tells the history of East London and in particular its docks. Whilst some of the exhibitions—for instance the slavery gallery on the third floor—are a bit heavy for kids, others are superb. We particularly recommend the recreated Victorian shops in Sailortown. Another draw is Mudlarks, a large soft-play area complete with a padded climbing frame, a small river to float boats down and lots more. Booking in advance is recommended but not always essential. Both the museum and Mudlarks gallery are free. Located five minutes from Canary Wharf tube.
(3) The Bank of England Museum. A surprising entry on our list is the Bank of England Museum. You might think that subjects like monetary policy aren't going to hold the attention of under-10s. You'd be wrong. This place is full of interactive things for children: they can try to open a safe, complete jigsaw puzzles of bank notes, hold a 13 kilogram gold bar (worth about £400,000!) and learn about the Wind in the Willows (whose author, Kenneth Grahame, was a former secretary to the Bank of England). There are also a range of activity sheets for kids of different ages. Entry is free and small prizes are handed out to those who open the safe or complete their sheets.
More options ... A bit further afield (and probably not in east London) is the London Postal Museum. The key attraction here is the underground mail train, part of a network that formerly ran from west London to the heart of the city. The 15-minute journeys in the tiny carriages are really informative. The adjacent museum makes post fun—no mean feat—with loads of hands-on and interactive exhibits. The Postal Museum also offers a soft-play area.
Another good bet is the small Emirates Aviation Experience, on the southern side of the Emirates Air Line. Its attractions include a Boeing 747 engine made of lego bricks, a number of flight simulators and a great video of Heathrow airport in operation. Entrance fees apply to both attractions.
2. Parks and Wildlife
(1) Victoria Park. Often described as East London's lung, Victoria Park is the place to start. The west park offers a large play area with a variety of swings, slides, sandpits, treehouses and a water-pumping area. The nearby Pavilion Café offers great drinks and vegetarian food (note that it has gone cashless!). The east park boats an even larger play area (in the middle of the park, adjacent to the angler’s lake). Suitable for older children, this area includes rope bridges and three 12-metre long slides. The Hub café and community centre are found nearby. A 12-minute walk from Bethnal Green and Mile End tube stations.
(2) The Olympic Park. The Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park is another great destination for children. Here, there’s a high quality (though fairly small) playground with swings, a sandpit and rope bridge close to the London Stadium. A larger (Olympic class) playground set amongst mature trees is found near the Lee Valley Velopark. There is lots else going on. Check out the Orbit viewing station (children over 8 and 1.3 metres can go on the 50-metre slide); the mountain biking track next to the Velopark; the outdoor climbing wall next to the river Lee; and the swan pedalos and boat trips down the River Lee.
(3) Mile End Park is another good option. Here the playgrounds are found at the north and south ends of the park (next to Bow Wharf and the go-karting track/skate park respectively). And the Regents Canal and ponds close to the Arts and Ecology Pavilions offer lots of scope for spotting wildlife (swans, ducks, geese etc ... and the ponds even have terrapins in them!). Mile End Climbing Wall is found by the canal at the park’s mid-point: kids can start here from 3 years of age, provided that they are supervised by an experienced climber.
More options ... another good choice is the 14-hectare Thames Barrier Park. This place offers a fantastic playground (with a few unusual features such as a trampoline). Adults will enjoy the beautifully planted flower beds. And both adults and kids will love looking at the Thames Barrier nearby. An added bonus is seeing the planes take off and land from the nearby London City Airport.
3. City Farms & Forest
(1) Hackney City Farm. City farms are fun and educational. And East London boasts a number of great ones. Hackney City Farm is locatd a five-minute walk from Bethnal Green tube station on the edge of Haggerston Park. It offers a large central courtyard where chickens, ducks and geese roam free. Other tenants include pigs, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits and sheep. But the farm’s two donkeys, Larry and Clover, steal the show. There’s a good quality Italian café for when you’re finished.
(2) Mudchute Farm. The larger Mudchute Farm, a five-minute drive from Canary Wharf, has a wider range of animals. In addition to those found at Hackney City Farm, you can see pigs, Alpacas, horses and a collection of colourful birds. Mudchute also offers carousel rides, an anti-aircraft gun from World War 2 (part of London’s air defence), a café and a farm shop.
(3) Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. Forest is a little hard to come by in East London … unless you go to the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. One of the magnificent seven cemeteries constructed in Victorian times, this 27-acre site is chock full of mature trees, interesting tracks and paths and over 200,000 graves. Check out the park’s website for details of nature walks for kids.
(4) Epping Forest. Further afield is Epping Forest, a former royal forest in which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I maintained a hunting lodge. Epping Forest is 2,400 hectares in size and runs 19 kilometres from Wanstead (in the south) to Epping (in the north). Aside from Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, two of the best spots to visit are High Beech (offering great views and a number of walking tracks) and Connaught Water and Hollow Pond (two of Epping Forest’s 109 ponds).
4. Boats, Planes and Cablecars
At the risk of stating the obvious, kids love boats, planes and cablecars.
(1) Thames Clipper. So why not take them on the Thames Clipper, leaving from the Canary Wharf Pier for a short journey to Greenwich or for an extended trip to the Westminster Pier (taking in the skyscrapers of the City of London, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the Tate Modern, the Houses of Parliament etc). The boats go at a fair clip and are very efficiently run. Plus this won’t cost you very much: an oyster card trip from Canary Wharf to Westminster costs £6.80 (under 5s go free and 5-15 year olds pay a half fare).
(2) London City Airport. Another great option is to catch the driverless DLR to London City Airport (a fun trip in itself) and then head to the far end of the carpark (a five minute walk from the terminal building) to watch planes taking off and landing. You are around 100 metres away from the planes, so you get a great view (take ear muffs if your child doesn’t like loud noises!). And check the airport’s website in advance for a good time to visit (there are, for example, no Saturday afternoon services to/from the airport). Get a free Pret a Manger babychino on the way back from the outlet just inside the airport! NB. You can park at the airport, but the cost is extortionate (£20 for 1-2 hours)!
(3) Emirates Air Line. Finally, the Emirates Air Line is a must-see. Connecting the O2 Arena and the Royal Docks, this ultra-modern cablecar whisks passengers up to a height of 80 metres for the Thames crossing. The views are fantastic: the O2 Arena, Canary Wharf and London City Airport are nearby, with the City of London, Greenwich and Shard in the mid-distance. The crossing is surprisingly cheap when you use your OysterCard.
5. Seaside, swimming and softplay
(1) Canvey Island. East London, of course, has no beach ... but it isn’t far away from the Thames Estuary. The lovely town of Canvey Island can be reached within an hour. It offers a charming pebbled seafront, two seawater paddling pools, lots of spots for crabbing, a small fun fare, the highly rated Labworth café (on the seafront and housed in a listed art deco building), and a fantastic children’s playground. Other great beach options a little further afield are Southend-on-Sea and Whitstable.
(2) Swimming. East London has a number of great swimming options. For small kids, we highly recommend the Mile End Leisure Centre's baby pool. It is a good size, there are always lots of inflatables and floats to play with and (most importantly for parents who aren't swimming) the water is really warm. For older children (8+) the London Aquatics Centre offers a brilliant Extreme Aqua Splash: this 40-metre obstacle course, erected in the Olympic swimming pool, will keep them thoroughly entertained. They can then head to the inflatable slides coming off the 3 and 5-metre diving platforms. The London Aquatics Centre has a decent cafe.
(3) Softplay. East London offers a number of softplay options. First on our list is the free softplay area on the ground floor of the Museum of London: Docklands. This area includes a padded climbing frame, children's river, giant scales and much more. Another great free option is the soft play area in the basement of the Science Museum (okay, this isn't East London). If you don't mind paying, check out the next multi-level softplay area at the Mile End Sports Centre and the softplay area at the London Postal Museum.
More options ... The best softplay we have ever seen is found in Romford's Brewery Shopping Centre. Kidspace Romford has a huge central play area, a virtual aquarium, a go-karting track and three climbing walls. Worth the £14.50 entry price for 3-12 year olds.