London with kids: HMS Belfast
Where is it?
The most significant surviving Second World War Royal Navy warship is moored on the south side of River Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. If you want an easy walk to the ship, London Bridge is the underground station to aim for. If you fancy a historic stroll, head for Tower Hill and meander past the Tower of London and across Tower Bridge.
How much does it cost?
Adults who just rock up at HMS Belfast are charged a jaw-dropping £18, but you can save at least 10% by booking online in advance. I say at least, because there is an online option which offers you the chance to remove the voluntary donation from your ticket. I took this option and it got my ticket price down to a slightly more palatable £14.70.
Seniors, students and disabled adult tickets cost £12.95 or £11.75 (without your voluntary donation) online, while children aged between 5 and 15 cost £8.10 or £7.35 (without donation). Children aged 4 or under are free, although you still need to get them a ticket.
What are the best things about it?
I’m sure older kids will devour the vast array of historical information on offer, but my son’s three, so for him the big highlights were:
- The incredible views (Shard, Tower of London, Mayor’s Office, Tower Bridge)
- The bit where he sat in the Captain’s Chair (see above)
- Scrambling up and down loads of ladders – there are nine decks on the HMS Belfast and visitors get to navigate their way around all of them
- Waving at the boats that went past
- The interactive navigation game in the map room
And the worst?
Warships aren’t the most spacious or easy to traverse things in the world, so if you experience claustrophobia, or have a toddler who isn’t a particularly confident climber, this probably isn’t the attraction for you.
It was disappointing to discover that access to the engine and boiler rooms was based on height (you have to be at least 4ft) rather than climbing ability – my son might be small, but the steep ladder would not have fazed him.
Also, if your kid is the type to suffer nightmares, keep them away from the sick bay, as it features a rather graphic model of the ship’s doctor cutting someone open.
Is the food any good?
The café next to the ticket office sells a small and fairly pricey selection of soup, salads, drinks and sandwiches. The on-board café is better value. It mainly offers teas, coffees, soft drinks and cakes, but also has the odd panini and baguette and a five-piece kids’ meal deal for £5.
If none of this takes your fancy, there’s a selection of places to eat in the nearby Hay’s Galleria.
What are the toilets/baby change like?
Given HMS Belfast is a warship that recently turned 80, I expected the facilities to be on the tired side, but the visitor toilets were actually pretty modern and well-maintained. I didn’t check out the baby change, however if you’re robust enough to lug a kid up and down the ship’s ladders, you’re almost certainly robust enough to change a nappy in whatever facilities are on offer.
Any special insider tips?
- If you hear a loud and lengthy siren it means the Tower Bridge is about to open. Head to the back of the main deck, because you get a great view of the bridge from there.
- If in doubt, or simply interested in finding out more, ask. There are loads of employees on board and all of them are happy to chat and provide extra information.
- HMS Belfast offers a kip in a ship experience for children’s groups and schools. So, if you’re looking to get rid of the kids for a night, maybe suggest it to their teacher or scout leader…
- The website suggests that you can easily spend 90 minutes on HMS Belfast and our experience seconds this. In total, we were on board for two hours, but this included 10 minutes of watching Tower Bridge open and shut and 20 minutes of panini eating.
The bottom line
An expensive, but unique London attraction that serves up a potent mix of historical education and physical exertion. If your toddler likes climbing, they’ll love it. If they don’t, they won’t.