A toy double-decker bus was all I had to remind me of London.
My dad was stationed about three hours outside of the city for a few years when I was a toddler, but we moved to Texas before any of the memories we made there could really take hold.
So when my husband received a monthlong work assignment in London last spring, I was eager to tag along with our two young daughters, then 6 and 3, and spend the days discovering a place that had always been fond but fuzzy in my brain.
Because we had several weeks there, we tried to live like locals. We bought groceries, cooked at home, hopped on and off double-decker buses and discovered hidden neighborhood parks.
We also had the luxury of taking our time to explore big-name attractions, returning to favorites again and again. Here are nine things we loved doing during our time in and around London.
1. Exploring Kensington Gardens. The clouds were dark and moody as we made our way to Kensington Gardens, a sprawling, scenic park space — think quaint carousel and glittering duck pond — that has been featured in numerous movies including “Finding Neverland” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” The gardens themselves are free, although you will pay a fee to tour Kensington Palace, which was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and has served as a home for many members of the royal family. Inside the park is the Diana Memorial Playground, which was built in honor of the late princess and includes a giant pirate ship, tepees where you can hide and play and a miniature beach where, even on the coldest day, kids will kick off their shoes and socks to splash in the water. The highlight of our visit to Kensington Gardens, though, was high tea at the Orangery, which was built in the early 1700s and used by Queen Anne for entertaining. Today, it’s a wonderful place to take in tea while admiring emerald-green bushes manicured in the shape of giant lightbulbs. royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens
2. Stepping back in time at the Natural History Museum. I had heard that London was an expensive city, so I was thrilled to arrive at the Natural History Museum and learn that admission is free. After a serviceable lunch in the on-site restaurant, we set out to explore the three dozen sprawling galleries, where you can spot a 1,400-pound iron meteorite, the most intact stegosaurus fossil skeleton ever found and a selection of eggs ranging from those of the hummingbird to the giant elephant bird. While we were there, the museum was also featuring a Sensational Butterflies exhibit (there was an admission fee for this), where the steamy temperatures inside instantly reminded us of Texas summers as creatures with wings as colorful as stained-glass windows flitted by. The butterfly exhibit has since closed, but equally fascinating exhibits come through all the time. nhm.ac.uk
3. High on the Eye. When we started planning our trip, a spin around the Coca-Cola London Eye was at the top of my list. This Ferris wheel ranks among the tallest in the world and offers unparalleled views of the city — from our perch we were even able to spot a group of horses getting trained for the Queen’s Birthday Parade. If you book early enough (we didn’t) you can also partake in special events that may include an onboard wine flight — wine expert included — or a chocolate and truffle tasting. londoneye.com
4. Wild for Wonka. Here’s an idea for a sweet afternoon: High tea at the Chesterfield Mayfair, home to a “Charlie and the Chesterfield Afternoon Tea,” then go see the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” musical at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, a stunning space that has been called one of the world’s most haunted theaters. When you arrive at the Chesterfield Mayfair, you’ll be ushered to the hotel’s enclosed patio, covered in white and green decor and lush plant life, and given miniature bottles of fizzy soda, complete with striped straws, and activity packs and little stuffed bears for the kids. Next expect milkshakes (for them) and tea (for you), followed by a huge assortment of treats such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Wonka chocolate bars, scones, a cupcake and a golden egg. It’s the perfect energy boost for an evening at the theater, where the vibrant costumes and confetti falling from the ceiling will dazzle any audience member. drurylane.londontheatres.co.uk; chesterfieldmayfair.com/afternoon-tea
5. The view from above. No matter where you go in London, you can probably see the Shard, a 95-story skyscraper that’s the tallest building in the European Union. But with tickets to access to the viewing platform averaging around $45 per person, here’s an alternative: Go to the Aqua Shard restaurant/bar, where the view is also spectacular and you don’t have to pay for anything other than a cocktail or a tea. Don’t wear tennis shoes, though — they’re not allowed. aquashard.co.uk
6. Shop till you drop. There’s a saying that goes something like this: If you’ve ever wondered if a new pair of shoes can change your life, just ask Cinderella. So when my daughters walked up to me at Monsoon clothing and accessories boutique clutching totally adorable but totally impractical heels — one sparkle-blue with stars, the other sparkle-silver with rhinestones — I couldn’t say no. No matter where we turned in London, the window displays were filled with decadent, one-of-a-kind objects. Probably the most memorable (and problematic, if you have kids) place we visited was Hamleys, the self-proclaimed “oldest toy shop in the world.” The flagship store on Regent Street is seven stories and home to 50,000 toys that cover whatever your child is into, from Peppa Pig to Legos. It’s also a great place to pick up a souvenir toy double-decker bus. hamleys.com
7. Harry Potter appreciation. Another thing that topped our London to-do list was making a trek to “The Making of Harry Potter” Warner Bros. Studio Tour, which is actually about an hour outside of the city in Leavesden. The movies were filmed here for over a decade, and tour visitors are able to explore two soundstages and a backlot that hold original sets, animatronic creatures and special effects. The tour is mostly self-guided, took us about two hours to complete and was filled with fun facts about the movies. For example, the floating candles in the Great Hall in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” were originally suspended by wires that were to be removed in post-production. But during the first few days of filming, they kept burning through the wire and falling onto the tables, so the producers cut the wires and created them using digital effects. Other highlights for me included seeing the boys’ dormitory, Harry’s costumes and Dumbledore’s office, where the hundreds of books on the shelves are actually British phone books covered in leather. And we couldn’t miss a walk through the authentic Hogwarts Express. Visitors can also sample authentic Butterbeer, which was surprisingly delicious. Tip: If you can’t make it to the tour in Leavesden, just hop on the Underground and stop at King’s Cross Station, where you can take a picture at Platform 9 3/4. wbstudiotour.co.uk
8. Overnight in Brighton. Brighton, a seaside town with turquoise waves and a rocky, skipping-stone shore located about an hour by train from London, is ideal for a quick overnight getaway. Just beware of seagulls, which just might swoop down while you’re enjoying an ice cream on the boardwalk, steal your cone, bite your face and leave you frantically calling back to the U.S. to confirm that your tetanus shot is indeed up to date. Seagulls aside, though, Brighton offers an excellent escape from the big city. The scene along the shore when we went was vibrant yet mellow; we saw everything from pickup basketball games to a singer belting out “Move On Up” to couples sharing carafes of cocktails at picnic tables. In addition to the beach and the pier, which has a nice variety of arcade and carnival games, Brighton has several attractions worth visiting, including the Royal Pavilion, which served as the seaside palace of the prince regent. On that note, London is perfectly located for side trips — we also visited Paris and the Isle of Wight during our time there. visitbrighton.com
9. Broken phone booths and other quintessential experiences. You could spend a year trying to see everything in London and only scratch the surface. While we checked quite a bit off our list, we also realized that many of our favorite moments were the simple, quintessential London experiences: watching the guards at Buckingham Palace, snapping a photo in front of a red phone booth, touring the city on the top of a double-decker bus. By slowing down and taking time to just wander, we were able to soak in the culture and people of the city, falling deeper in love with it with every step.