When my son Henry was four months old and the newborn fog was lifting, I got into the habit of standing around in our kitchen while he napped in the baby carrier. I would eat sourdough toast with a palm cupped over his blond head, squint at the mugs in the sink and the overblown tulips that needed to be thrown away, and text a small handful of friends with similarly-aged sprogs to see what they were doing. I was canvassing for ideas.
The stretch between birth and toddlerdom, activity-wise, can be a bit of a question mark. It’s too early for playgrounds or babyccinos, storyteller hours or biscuit-making classes (though I’m counting the days, Biscuiteers). But the upside of this age is flexibility, and the possibility of naps through lunch. With planning and nerve, it can be an opportunity to get back out into the world.
For new parents, both residents and tourists, London has a lot of practical things going for it: free public transportation for children under five, a rational attitude (and legal right) to breastfeeding, and vast, well-kept green spaces throughout the city. On top of the good infrastructure, Londoners have hurtled into the breach to come up with entertaining ideas for babes in arms and their carers. After eight months of motherhood, here’s where I would start.
Walks, Parks, and Lunch
On most mornings, the only plan I make is for a stretch of the legs and a snack. From the Angel Tube station in Islington, it’s a five minute walk to the traffic-free Regent’s Canal Towpath, which runs alongside a quiet waterway. After joining the canal at Colebrooke Row, follow it east, past river boats and moorhens, for twenty minutes of peaceful strolling before you reach the Towpath Café, a seasonal restaurant (March to November) with outdoor tables and a chalkboard menu. They make velvety flat whites, and their cheese toastie—which I think is the best grilled cheese sandwich anywhere—comes with spoonfuls of quince jam on the side. On Saturdays, if the baby is settled in for a longer ride, you can continue along the canal for another twenty minutes into Hackney and scale the ramp at Broadway Market, a weekly convocation of food stalls, vegetable stands, and independent shops with their doors thrown open.
To the west, if you want to stay along the canal, the towpath will take you through Kings Cross and Camden up along the northern perimeter of Regent’s Park, London’s prettiest public green space. Cut south into the park down the Broad Walk, a wide avenue lined with benches, past the London Zoo and then the allotment garden on Chester Road, where a scarecrow is propped between the vegetable beds, to get to Queen Mary’s Garden, an extraordinary corner of the park planted with around 12,000 rose bushes. A short walk away is the Regent's Bar and Kitchen, a cheerful café surrounded by picnic tables. There are heaped plates of carrot cake and squares of millionaire’s shortbread inside, as well as baby changing facilities, making it an evergreen magnet for prams.
Only a mile and a half north of Regent’s Park is Hampstead Heath, 800 acres of grasslands and thickets, woods and swimming ponds. There are extensive walking paths throughout the heath, of varying repair (some pavement, some gravel, many just worn footsteps), so if you plan to ramble, it’s helpful to bring a sturdy buggy with decent suspension, or else a baby carrier. Within the park you can find a table under an umbrella in the café at Kenwood House, a neoclassical mansion turned museum (free entry) that sits magisterially at the top of a ridge. I tend to skip the lunch offerings and go straight for the scones, which are reliably fresh and come with peel-away tubs of clotted cream and jam. For a more substantial meal, there are several excellent, good-looking pubs just outside the heath, and all of them are welcoming to families. The Wells Tavern and the Flask are a stone’s throw from the park exit on Well Walk, but my pick is usually the Holly Bush, slightly further afield on Holly Mount, for its working fireplaces and great honking slabs of sticky toffee pudding.
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, a UNESCO world heritage site 40 minutes or so from the city center via the Tube, are a more orderly (and better paved) option than the heath. Unlike the parks above, there’s a fee for entry (for adults and older kids; children under 4 are free) but this buys access to 300 acres of gardens, rotating exhibitions (currently it’s Chihuly, whose sky-high, vibrant sculptures have been integrated into the gardens until October), and clean nappy-changing stations. The grounds are an ideal place for a picnic, well groomed and rarely crowded, or else a 10-minute taxi will take you to Petersham Nurseries, an elegant cafe and teahouse with a dirt floor and ceilings hung with Jasmine and Bougainvillea. It's the sort of place where people keep their rubber boots on and dogs sit beneath the tables, so if you decide to breastfeed between courses, no one will bat an eye. The menu is blink-and-you-miss-it seasonal (right now: roasted beetroots with almonds and mustard greens; raw broad beans and pecorino), and if you're in the market for a kumquat tree or secateurs, there’s an extensive working plant nursery surrounding the restaurants.
Entertainment for the Under-Ones
Of the things an infant can enjoy early, live music is at the top of the list. Bach to Baby was started by a concert pianist and new mother who missed ducking into town for classical performances. Her company brings top quality musicians into relaxed settings across London, like church halls and stately homes, where babies can be themselves, but the music is distinctly grown up (no nursery rhymes or sing-a-longs here). There is also half an hour of socializing over hot drinks prior to each concert, so everyone can mingle and fewer of us arrive fifteen minutes into the gig, creeping around fallen rice cakes. Mini Mozart has a similar ethos (that no one is too young to appreciate music), but classes, not concerts, are aimed squarely at delighting the kids. There are pint-sized maracas, the instructors blow bubbles, and touching the instruments is encouraged. Locations are also throughout London. At Royal Albert Hall, one of the most distinguished concert venues in the UK, trained musicians run short sessions (35 minutes) of songs and stories for groups of babies to four-year-olds. Some of the components (like dancing, or following a plot) are too advanced for infants, but the historic setting is unique, and the hall is right across the road from Hyde Park, so you can go for a spin around the Serpentine afterward.
For babies six months and older, the Dulwich Picture Gallery offers an early introduction to art making with their “Mini Masterpieces” drop-in course. Though the concept of art is over the heads of some participants, the tactile pleasures of making a mess are gloriously instinctual. The paint is edible, obviously. Bring a change of clothes. A comparable baby-friendly art class is also run by the National Gallery as part of their “Welcome Wednesday” series, where every session takes inspiration from a work currently hanging in the museum. Each week rotates through a different activity, like music or movement, which is handy if you love the gallery but not the paint-splattered rompers.
Grown-Up Places Where Babies are Welcome
Most restaurants in London are willing to have babies with considerate parents in their dining rooms. Calling ahead and booking for lunch (the only time we go out anyway, thanks to the 6 p.m. bath-and-bed routine) is our usual preamble to trying out a new place—and if you hit the morning “Baby Club” showing at one of the swishy Everyman cinemas on the way over, you’ll have the dinner-and-a-movie yearnings of yesteryear sewn up. However, we’ve come across a handful of great restaurants where the service is unusually accommodating, and these have become standby recommendations to other new parents.
The only restaurant (so far) where our darling nipper had a real, fuchsia-faced tantrum was at Gloria, a brassy, charismatic Italian trattoria in Shoreditch. Fortunately the crowd (and there’s always a crowd) was so clamorous that no one looked up from their cannoli. The bright upstairs dining room, where you’ll want to be during the day, has lemon-yellow banquettes where you can pull up a chic rattan high chair, and a marble bar topped with gaping ice buckets of prosecco. The menu is eager to please—anchored with things like platters of San Daniele ham and carbonara for two—but we never skip the burrata pesto pizza, which comes sprinkled, irresistibly, with almonds and candied tomatoes.
At Scully, the reigning destination restaurant in town, tucked unobtrusively into the back streets of St James’s, weekend lunches are full of families ordering char-grilled broccoli with licks of vinegar and plates of eggplant-stuffed arepas. Chef Ramael Scully led the kitchen at Nopi in Soho, owned by Yotam Ottolenghi, for six years before setting up on his own, and the food at Scully is marked by the best of that training: layered, vegetable-forward dishes with pleasure-filled oomphs of pickle and spice. The staff bend over backwards for everyone here, including babies, as the regular hillock of discarded espresso spoons beneath our table attests.
Quo Vadis had been a mainstay in our eating lives since before Henry, before my husband and I were married, when we used to take tiny glasses of Poire Williams to a table under the awning on Dean Street after dinner. Happily, it’s a place that’s just as much at ease with children as it is with booming theatre types from the playhouses on Shaftesbury Avenue, and visiting authors being treated to slap-up lunches by their literary agents. The guiding spirit here is gratification, with British ingredients and a European sense of fun, so start with oysters (￡3.50 a pop) and sally forth from there. Everyone darts to the profiteroles at the end, which are never off the menu, but look too for the delectably dense almond cake, which usually comes dressed in homemade ice cream or custard (and on red-letter days, both).
Nothing about the Michelin-starred, rococo dining room at the Ritz London, which has soaring windows onto Green Park and a mural overhead of drifting clouds, says "children's menu," but they've got one, in fact, along with a stash of high chairs and rollneck-wearing teddy bears that double, in our case, as teething fodder. The setting is unblushingly romantic—roving bowls of champagne, crêpes Suzette torched at a tableside trolley—but the service is frank and down to earth, and focused on giving everyone a good time. This isn't a reservation for every day, but when you have something to celebrate, it's a relief to know that you don't have to leave the family at home.