As families think about booking flights for 2020 trips, we share some top tips for bagging a cheap fare.
Secret Flying, which specialises in uncovering discounted plane tickets, has compiled its guide to saving money on a family holiday.
You will get a cheaper flight if you do the following:
1. Travel midweek
The cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
2. Book a round-trip/return trip on a long haul airline
Round trips will usually be cheaper than two one-way tickets if you are flying further than Europe.
3. Check one-way on budget carriers
Occasionally, two one-way tickets with separate budget carriers around Europe will cost less than a round-trip ticket. For example, you could fly out to Malaga with Ryanair but return with EasyJet.
4. Booking last minute can work with charter flights
Companies which specialise in flying package holidaymakers, like Tui, can be heavily discounted at the last minute.
This is because if the package holidays haven’t sold then there will be extra space on their planes which they want to fill with flight-only passengers. We have seen prices as low as £249 to Florida and £299 to the Caribbean.
5. Last minute is rarely cheaper with scheduled or budget airlines
Most long haul airlines like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic raise prices the closer you get to departure. It is the same with budget carriers. In these cases, it probably pays to book in advance.
6. Use Skyscanner ‘Everywhere’ to find a bargain
The SkyScanner website lets you search every departure from a specific airport. For example, you can search every flight from Manchester between May 23 and May 30 (half-term week) to see which destination is the cheapest option.
7. Stop over on a long haul flight
You can save on airfare taxes, which often make up the bulk of any long haul fare, by taking a short flight to a European destination and going long-haul from there.
For example, flying from Birmingham to Amsterdam and then going with KLM to the Far East or the USA can be cheaper than going directly from the UK. You must stay over for at least 24 hours in Amsterdam in this case to benefit from the tax saving.
8. Be flexible
The more flexibility with dates you have, the more your chances of saving money will be. This is tricky with school holiday dates but try searching midweek departures in the summer holidays or leave it until closer to September for cheaper flights.
9. How to get an upgrade
According to Secret Flying, the best ways to boost your chances of a free upgrade to business class is to be a member of the airline’s frequent flyer programme, dress smartly and only check in at the airport.
If you check in online, your seats will already be allocated and the airline is less likely to move you up a class.
Secret Flying is a free service for users who get daily flight deals to their inbox every evening. Alternatively there is a new app. For more information please visit www.secretflying.com
We try out family-friendly activities around the lake and take a trip to Verona
We are holidaying in the beautiful Lakes – but for once it’s not our beloved English Lake District.
The waters are a clearer turquoise, there isn’t a walking boot in sight and ice creams are in greater supply.
We are in the fashionable Italian Lakes for a slightly chilly October half-term break and I am feeling cosy but a little out of place in my ‘school run coat’.
We are staying on the southern end of Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, loved by families and affluent travellers.
And home for the trip is also a family favourite with a great lakefront location.
Bella Italia – a five-star campsite – is a 15-minute lakeside walk from the town of Peschiera Del Garda.
It has four pools (sadly closed at this time of year), the same number of restaurants with well-priced tasty food, playgrounds, a children’s club, ice cream parlour, bouncy castles, fairground rides and more.
Our three-bedroom mobile home, a Girasole Suite, is smaller than similar holiday homes we have stayed in but is an ideal base to explore the area.
And we start out on the pebbly beach in front of the holiday park before getting on to the water itself – the quickest way to get around the lake’s beautiful towns and villages is by ferry.
You can hop on and off, visiting several spots in a day. Among our favourites were the enchanting village of Lazise with its castle and playground and tourist magnet Sirmione – the most picturesque yet busiest spot on the lake.
Another busy spot is Italy’s biggest theme park, Gardaland, just 15 minutes away.
There are plenty of rollercoasters for older children but younger children are well-catered for too – there’s even a small Peppa Pig Land.
And a Sea Life aquarium next door is a good rainy day option – you can buy one ticket covering a visit to both on the same or consecutive days.
Just a short drive away lies a more relaxing day out. Parco Natura Viva is a zoo and safari park with hippos, giraffes, rhinos and bears among a lovely site.
Another attraction worth a visit is Parco Sigurta. This 600-acre garden has a maze, small animal farm and plenty of space to run around in beautiful gardens. We explore on foot then hire a golf cart for 18 euros to get around the whole site.
Further afield, but still only half an hour away, is Verona.
Our children love the huge Roman amphitheatre, the 2,000-year-old Arena.
Others head to this city of Romeo and Juliet to leave love notes at Juliet’s balcony, linked to the fictional star-crossed lovers.
But it isn’t the most child friendly spot with a cramped courtyard full of selfie hunters taking photos at Juliet’s statue and balcony.
You are better off exploring Verona’s pedestrianised centre, the square around the Arena and its riverside walks. It is a compact city and in a day you can see historic churches, castles, museums or stop by one of countless gelato outlets.
To keep younger ones really happy, the city’s new Children’s Museum is a fantastic hands-on place where they can learn about light, water, power and science through play. It is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Children’s Museum, Verona
We throw ourselves into the Verona experience with an authentic Veronese feast prepared for us at Locanda Ristori – one of the city’s traditional eateries.
Afterwards we plan to walk it off up the Torre Dei Lamberti – the city’s 368 step tower.
However, the lure of the lift taking us most of the way up is too strong. And from there stretches street upon street of terracotta roofs, spectacular even in the rain.
Our full guide on where to take children on a family holiday to Lake Garda in Italy
Tourists flock every year to stunning Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) in northern Italy.
It’s a fabulous destination for a family holiday as we discovered on a recent trip.
Here’s our full guide to the best activities for children in and around this, Italy’s biggest lake, with its beautiful turquoise waters.
1. Visit a lakeside town
Spend time exploring the lovely towns and villages around the lake and enjoying an ice cream or two, such as:
A pretty village on the eastern side of the lake dominated by a 14th century castle and walls.
The centre has a ferry stop, small harbour and plenty of ice cream shops and restaurants.
It is mostly pedestrianised with car parking around the outskirts which means it feels safer to walk around with children.
Near the centre next to the castle is a small playground.
The town which gave the lake its name has a nice lakefront walk along its harbour, cobbled streets to explore and a busy market every Friday.
Our children were interested in a fun bridge on the lake shore where couples from around the world have left padlocks proclaiming their enduring passion!
This is the area’s tourist trap. Sirmione gets busy quickly, its narrow streets full of tourists, ice cream shops and restaurants.
It’s a stunning spot, the castle entrance is spectacular and worth a walk around (children enter for free, adults 6 euros).
On the other side of the town’s streets are thermal baths and at the top of its peninsula the remains of a Roman villa, Grotte di Catulla. It is incredible but a long walk for children so only for the most dedicated walkers.
Everything in Sirmione is more expensive than elsewhere in the area. The ice creams here are massive but at least double the price of other places.
There are plenty of lovely spots to sit and play away from the main thoroughfare, a few stony beach areas and nice park towards the Roman remains.
This town is made by the stunning blue waters of the river Mincio as it meets the lake. Its centre isn’t as pretty as some as Peschiera is also a working town.
However there are plenty of restaurants around the streets near the ferry port.
We walked into the town a few times from our holiday park Campeggio Bella Italia (see our review of it here here), which was a pleasant 15-minute stroll along a tree lined lake shore promenade.
2. Get around by ferry
The most fun and often the fastest way to see Lake Garda’s towns and villages is by ferry.
Every major place has a ferry stop and in high season there will be a boat roughly every hour between 8 and 6pm.
You must buy tickets before you board which are priced based on the distance you are travelling, from around 10 euros for a short return journey to 35 euros for a whole lake pass for a day. Children’s tickets cost around half an adult’s price.
The ferries are large, accommodating 500 people, boarding is efficient, there are toilets on board and a food and drink service in high season.
It is a smooth journey but because the lake is 50 miles long it takes at least three hours to get from top to bottom.
You can pick up ferry timetables from every ticket office where the boat docks or follow this link.
3. Parco Naturo Viva
This large zoo and safari park was set up by a husband and wife in 1969 and has expanded over a huge site.
The ticket price includes both the zoo and safari drive and you must do both to see all the animals – giraffes and zebras for example are only on the safari.
The safari takes around half an hour and is safe to do in your hire car. There are no dangerous monkey enclosures to threaten your windscreen wipers!
The main zoo is a large parkland which is steep in places.
It is divided into continents with the Africa section near the start featuring lions, rhinos and hippos. The Asian area has tigers and snow leopards with the Americas section including bears and colourful macaws.
Their latest attraction is a giants of the world indoor enclosure which has a Komodo dragon, anaconda, piranhas and giant otters.
There is also a dinosaur area with full size scale models of a T-Rex, stegosaurus and triceratops.
Picnics are allowed and there are several reasonably priced restaurants across the site.
The site is beautiful and makes for a pleasant walk – it will take you at least four hours to get round.
Signs are in Italian, German and English except for the dinosaur section.
Parking costs 2 euros on top of the ticket price.
This is Italy’s biggest theme park. There are lots of rides (and lots of queues) and you can easily spend a whole day here.
For smaller children there are four main sections, including a Peppa Pig Land.
This is smaller than the UK equivalent with only four major rides – a balloon ride, small train, circular boat trip and Peppa Pig’s house, which is frankly just a room where you can find pretend strawberries and pancakes.
It won’t take more than 90 minutes to do this part of the park but will still be a thrill for Peppa fans. All the music and songs are in Italian but the signs are also in English.
Near the entrance is a large carousel and other rides for younger children. And it’s only a short walk to Fantasy Land which has a plane ride and farmyard tractor ride.
Our two children loved an area for under 7s at the far end of the park with two gentle rollercoasters, a relaxing monorail, teacups ride and a dizzying Peter Pan ride.
Tweens and teens are more than catered for in the rest of the park with rides including spectacular rollercoasters.
Daily shows take place in two on-site theatres and there are themed events through the year at times like Halloween and Christmas.
There are lots of food options from candy floss stalls through to a la carte restaurants and everything in between.
Car parking costs six euros on top of your ticket.
5. Sea Life Aquarium
At Gardaland – on the other side of the car park – is the Sea Life Aquarium. You can buy joint tickets to Gardaland and Sea Life and visit them on the same day or consecutive days.
It doesn’t take that long to go round but is interesting and a good option for a rainy day. Children can do a quiz on the way round, in English, with the answers to each question on the information boards.
There is also a cafe at the end of the route around the aquarium.
6. Movie World
This is a smaller theme park just up the road from Gardaland based on films and special effects.
It has live shows and themed restaurants. We didn’t have time to visit on our trip.
7. Parco Sigurta
For a relaxing day out, the huge gardens of Parco Sigurta are a 15 minute drive south of the lake, on the banks of the river Mincio.
This 600 acre park is vast with a small animal farm, beautiful gardens, a fun maze and other trails like a zig zag path through woodland.
The park would take hours to get around on foot but you can see it all in an hour if you hire a golf cart or take the train which circles it.
Our children enjoyed walking around first, despite wet weather and then taking a golf buggy (you need a driving licence to hire one) to explore the far flung parts. It has a screen with an interactive map and English commentary.
There are food kiosks and toilets around the park plus a restaurant on site.
8. On and in the water
The lake is clear and inviting – most towns have places where children can swim and some offer water activities like pedalo boats and windsurfing.
The beaches are pebbly so take beach shoes for paddling.
We stay in a mobile home at this campsite in Peschiera del Garda
Campeggio Bella Italia.
Where is it?
On the shores of Lake Garda, at the bottom right of the lake, in Peschiera del Garda. Lake Garda (Lago di Garda), the largest lake in Italy, is in the north of Italy between Venice and Milan.
What is it?
It is a large holiday park with mobile homes, apartments, bungalows and camping pitches.
Is it family friendly?
There are little playgrounds/play parks, swimming pools and slides (not open out of season), a children’s club for 4-12 year-olds, as well as evening entertainment like mini-discos.
The site is good for riding bikes, walking and backs on to the lake which you can swim in during warmer weather.
Sport-wise, you can play tennis, football, basketball, beach volleyball and table tennis. And during the summer, guests can do water activities on the lake.
There are four types of mobile home here – we stayed in a Girasole Suite.
It slept six, with three small bedrooms, a kitchen/diner and bathroom with good-sized shower.
The kitchen had a hob (no oven), microwave and fridge/freezer. Towels and bedding are provided for an extra cost.
There was a sofa bench on one side of the dining table and a TV (no English channels on ours). Outside the mobile home, there was a decked area with table and chairs plus parking space for a car.
It also had a heater/air conditioning unit and the warmth from it was very welcome when we stayed.
Food and drink
There are four restaurants on site and the prices are very reasonable. We ate twice at Le Terrazze, overlooking the lake.
There is also Corte Riga, which has an almost identical menu to Le Terrazze but offers a takeaway option, Trattoria Bella Italia and a diner and takeaway cafe offering fish and chips and burgers which has an ice cream parlour attached.
*The lake – the site is on the southern banks of Lake Garda. There are exits on to the shallow pebbly beach and a small pier where you can walk down steps into the lake for a swim.
*It’s a 15-minute walk along the lake to the town, Peschiera del Garda, where you can shop, eat or catch a ferry.
*Gardaland theme park is a 10-minute drive.
*Verona is less than half an hour a way and we had hired a car so visited this city which was the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For our top tips on what to do with children in Verona, read our guide: What to do with children in Verona
*There are other lovely towns around the lake you can visit by car or ferry – we tried Sirmione, Lazise and Garda.
*Supermarkets – there is an Aldi and Lidl nearby, handy if you have a car and want to stock up.
*The park was lovely and quiet as we visited at October half-term in the last week before the site closed for the winter.
*The ice cream parlour – we sampled a LOT of ice cream in different towns on this trip and the ice cream from here was our favourite. Great to walk to for a leisurely dessert after a meal too.
*The park’s position next to the beautiful lake.
*The children’s areas which open in the evening – a little fair and another part with a bouncy castle and bouncy slide.
Combined with evening entertainment and mini-discos, there is a lot to do after dark.
There is also a games room/arcade.
*The choice of restaurants and good-priced range of food.
We ate at Le Terrazze where a child’s pizza was only 4 euros and a plate of adult pasta around 8 euros.
*The swimming pools and water slides here look amazing. We sadly didn’t get to experience them as we visited out of season and they were closed.
*There are sports facilities like tennis courts and beach volleyball courts plus you can hire bikes.
*The distance from Verona airport – about a 25-minute drive.
*You can do water activities at the park’s Waterski Centre between May and mid-September. For an extra fee you can try parasailing, paraflying, a banana boat and more.
*You pay extra for wi-fi.
*You pay extra for bedding and towels.
*If your children will be going in the lake, take beach shoes as it is pebbly.
Campeggio Bella Italia, Via Bell Italia 2, Peschiera del Garda 37019
For more information visit the Campeggio Bella Italia website.
Our top tips for activities on a family holiday to Verona in Italy
How do you take in this beautiful, historic Italian city while keeping both adults and children happy? Read our guide for the best ideas of what to do and where to go.
This Roman amphitheatre is right in the centre of the city in Piazza Bra square and makes a good starting point for exploring.
It dates back to the first century and is second only to Rome’s Colosseum in terms of its size and history.
You can explore inside, climb to the top, walk inside the walls and across the stage area where Roman gladiators once fought and our children really enjoyed it.
The Arena is really well preserved and is still used today – it is a world-famous music venue and hosts big operatic shows.
Piazza Bra (also called the Bra)
Verona’s main square, next to the Arena in the centre of the city, is one of the largest in Europe.
There are plenty of places to sit and eat with restaurants and cafes along one side.
There are historic buildings around it and a small park in the middle with a fountain. It is mostly car free.
Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony
A ten-minute walk from the Arena, through a pedestrianised shopping area, is ‘Juliet’s House’, Casa de Giulietta.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may have been fictional but this house is linked to the star-crossed lovers as it was once inhabited by the Cappello family, a surname similar to Juliet’s, Capulet.
Tourists enter the courtyard and queue up for photos with Juliet’s bronze statue (and rub her right breast for luck in love).
People also take pictures of the balcony where they like to imagine Juliet was wooed by Romeo (although the balcony was actually added at a much later date) so keep a hold of your children as it gets busy here.
Inside the house is a small museum.
There isn’t much for children once they have seen the balcony and statue but the walls outside scrawled with love letters and graffiti are interesting to see.
And it is near Piazza Erbe with plenty of ice cream parlours and a market.
Torre Dei Lamberti
Just around the corner from the famous balcony is the best viewpoint of Verona – from the top of an 84-metre-tall tower.
Torre Dei Lamberti
There are 368 steps to the top of Torre Dei Lamberti, quite a way with children.
But there is a lift for an extra euro which takes you almost to the top of the first viewing platform.
And from there you get 360 degree views of Verona.
The view of Verona from Torre Dei Lamberti
A ticket for the tower also gives access to the an art gallery next to the tower, the Gallery of Modern Art.
Verona Children’s Museum
This bright museum opened in 2019 and offers lots of hands-on fun for children.
Situated on the edge of the city, it is essentially one big space of science and learning, disguised as fun.
Before you go in, everyone must remove shoes and leave coats and bags behind, so you automatically feel more carefree.
Tickets are for allocated 90-minute slots through the day to make sure it never gets too crowded. Then the staff tidy up again so that everything is neat and clean ready for the next group.
It is designed and created for children – you can build your own mini-houses, milk a pretend cow, learn about light and shadows and play in a ball pit and climbing area.
There’s a also a water section where you can use water to create music, put balls into a whirlpool and more.
The staff are really friendly and helpful. If you have children under 10 they will love it here as ours did.
It also makes a good rainy day activity as it is all indoors.
This large Veronese building on the banks of the Adige river is part museum part castle.
There is a lot of 16th century religious artwork here which didn’t hold much appeal for our children. But some of the exhibits had old swords and armour.
And the walk around the castle was good fun. You get a good view across the river to Ponte Scaligero which was rebuilt after being blown up by the Germans in World War Two. And you can walk along the castle walls and into raised courtyards.
Visitors have to leave backpacks in lockers at the entrance.
Have a traditional Veronese meal
The Veronese take food very seriously. There are restaurants at every turn and they welcome children.
Almost all will serve you a plate of tomato pasta or a pizza, if that is what you are after.
For a real authentic experience, we tried Locanda Ristori, a traditional Veronese restaurant just outside the touristy centre near Castelvecchio.
The restaurant was mostly full of locals when we visited on a Sunday lunchtime, which is always a good sign and staff are warm and attentive.
The lovely owner Lia, a former ballet dancer across Europe, is very friendly and passionate about the food, explaining it all to us.
The menu includes a mix of pasta and meat dishes.
The Veronese tradition is a big plate of up to eight mixed meats including tongue, which my husband tucked into. It was served with mashed potato, vegetables and a broth which takes four hours to cook.
Lia serves a Veronese speciality
My children just fancied a plain tomato pasta (pasta pomodoro), not on the menu, but Lia was more than happy to make them some and they loved it.
There is also a good selection of desserts, including ice cream and we grown-ups sampled some fabulous wine.
Get a Verona card
The quickest and cheapest way to get into the main sites is with a Verona card, which costs 20 euros for a day and 25 euros for 48 hours.
If you are going to visit the Arena and at least two other sites then you will save money with the card.
It includes free entry to all the attractions above (except the Children’s Museum), all the largest churches and city centre museums.
You can pick up the card at the tourist information office in a corner of Piazza Bra.
Our children were also given a couple of city centre trails to do while we wandered around.
*Have you taken children to Verona? Where did you go? Tell us below!
A pride of Asiatic lions have moved into a new home at Chester Zoo
Chester Zoo has today opened a special new home for a pride of Asiastic lions – the world’s rarest lion species, on the brink of extinction.
The lions have taken their first steps in the new conservation area, which is designed to recreate the environment of the Gir Forest region of India, where the last few hundred Asiatic lions live in the wild.
Lionesses Kumari and Kiburi and adult male Iblis, all aged 12, explored their new home before it opened to the public.
Dave Hall, team manager of carnivores at Chester Zoo, said: This brand new habitat at the zoo – the largest in the UK – really is a fitting new home for them.
“Asiatic lions are impressively built animals, with compact bodies, powerful legs and strong jaws and teeth, making them superb hunters.
“Their retractable claws, which they use for gripping tightly on to prey, can be up to 38mm long and they have rough tongues, like sandpaper, for scraping meat from bones.
“They are truly majestic animals.”
The species is ‘endangered’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ‘Red List’ of threatened species – meaning it faces a high chance of extinction.
Poaching, human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and disease have caused a catastrophic decline in Asiatic lion populations, which once roamed across Northern Africa, Greece, Turkey and Asia but are now confined to one small region of India.
Around 650 of the lions are thought to remain in the wild and this facility could be a major boost to the European breeding programme for the species.
Dr Mark Pilgrim, Chester Zoo’s chief executive officer, said: “This remarkable species is facing a very uncertain future. The European endangered species breeding programme is critically important. If the worst was to happen in the wild, good zoos would be the only thing standing between Asiatic lions and extinction.
“We’re very proud to be able to give the Asiatic lion pride the world’s best conservation breeding facilities. We also hope the new area will help us raise much needed awareness about the plight of Asiatic lions.”
The area – which has been specially created by the zoo’s carnivore experts – spans 4,780 square metres.
Male Iblis and female Kiburi
It is a dry forest habitat with raised hilltop viewing points for the pride, heated rocks, a water hole and heated indoor dens, which zoo experts hope will one day be the perfect environment for cubs.
Dr Pilgrim added: “Lions were among the first carnivores cared for here by Chester Zoo’s founder George Mottershead. He was a pioneering animal welfare advocate, who realised his vision for the first ‘zoo without bars’.
“Our ongoing habitat creation programme continues to deliver George’s ‘always building’ philosophy, which has pushed the boundaries of world-class animal welfare and conservation in zoos.”
Chester Zoo welcomes 1.9 million visitors a year and is the UK’s most visited zoo and England’s most visited tourist attraction outside London.
Asiatic lion facts:
*The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion which today survives only in India.
*Asiatic lions stand at between 1 and 1.2 metres tall.
*They are the most sociable of the big cats, led by a dominant male who is the only male in the pride who can mate.
*Their long tails with black tufts at the tip help them to balance, communicate their mood and lead other lions through long grass. The tuft hides a sharp spike at the end of the tall, which is their spine.
*Only the males have manes, which are to attract females and intimidate other males.
*They communicate in varied ways like grooming each other and rubbing heads.
*Lions defend their territory by roaring and scent marking. Scents also help a male to discover if a female is in season.
*Asiatic lions spend between 16 and 20 hours each day resting. They have few sweat glands so they wisely tend to conserve their energy.
Work has begun to bring the magic of David Walliams’ books to life at Alton Towers resort
Alton Towers Resort has announced that a David Walliams World will be launched at the UK attraction from Spring 2020.
The partnership with the comedian, actor and best-selling author, will see some of his best-loved characters brought to life at the Staffordshire resort.
The theme park said the project is ‘shrouded in secrecy’ but will centre around the existing Cloud Cuckoo Land area.
Nearly 100 specialists from Alton Towers’ creative team and experts in the latest theme-park technology are working on the project.
It will include:
*A ground-breaking headline attraction
*A number of other attractions and characters across the theme park and within the resort’s hotels.
David Walliams OBE was the UK’s biggest selling author in 2017 and 2018. He began writing children’s books in 2008 and has published 12 novels as well as short story collections and picture books.
He said: “It’s a huge thrill for some of my favourite characters to be getting their own attractions at Alton Towers.
“I can’t wait to experience them for myself and from all the work that has gone in I think people are going to love it. All will be revealed next year.”
The resort has been working with David Walliams and HarperCollins Children’s Books for the past two years on the project and construction work has already begun.
Alton Towers Resort managing director, James Walker said: “We are delighted to be able to announce our partnership with David Walliams on what promises to be a hugely exciting addition to Alton Towers Resort in 2020.
“David’s books have really captured the imagination of Britain’s children and their families. So it’s a huge honour to be working with David on this fabulous collaboration for 2020, the year in which we celebrate our 40th birthday as the nation’s favourite theme park.”
We round-up some of the best half-term and Halloween 2019 events happening around the country
There is a lot happening at the Eden Project for half-term and Halloween between October 19 and November 3, including a puppet cabaret show, a spooky woodland, web-weaving workshops and the chance to create potions in the Eden Cottage.
There will also be ice-skating, pumpkin-carving, an Owl Sanctuary and spooky tales read by professional storytellers.
And there will be a Halloween Disco: Little Monsters’ Ball on October 26.
Blackpool is a popular destination at this time of year thanks to its famous illuminations.
This free nightly display along the entire length of the promenade – which runs until November 3 – attracts more than three million visitors to the area every year.
But there is plenty more going on as well over half-term including the town’s Lightpool Festival which offers more free entertainment between October 11 and 26.
Blackpool Carvinal of Lights
This features performance and light-based art installations, including a replica planet Earth in The Blackpool Tower Ballroom, the world premiere of a large-scale Sun in the Winter Gardens and a display of giant illuminated see-saws in the town centre.
Blackpool Tower Projections is also taking place – where Blackpool Tower is bathed in a sea of light, colour and sound as multi-media shows are projected on to the building (from now until November 3).
And there are other shows including Carnival Magic – a puppet and dance show featuring fire breathing robots and a 20-piece band, on October 25 and Pyronix – this Belgian performance group will do a music and fire show on October 26.
Dover Castle promises visitors they can descend into a tunnel of terror, and meet a ghost or two on spooky tours over half-term.
Visitors will also be able to have a go at making a menacing mask or witch’s cat to take home.
Events run from October 19 to 27 between 10am and 4pm, for more information click here.
Marwell Zoo in Winchester is putting on a monster trail around its large 140-acre site. Visitors must track down 12 hidden monsters around the zoo, including a panteater, spitopotamus and a scary scornbill.
There is also broomstick-flying with Marwell’s resident and wise old wizard Lowedolf, spooky story telling and optional extras such as wand decorating or monster making for £1 each. The special events are on from October 26 to November 3.
Paultons Park will have more than 4,000 pumpkins, ghostly scenes, spooky meet and greets, Freaky Fancy Dress competition and a Little Monsters Ball finale to finish each day.
And there is a new Legend of Paultons Manor theatrical show featuring spectacular illusions and slapstick comedy. Book online here.
Blenheim Palace has half-term Halloween events from October 26 to November 3. There are train rides through a terrifying tunnel, performances in the Great Court and spooky stories in the Cinema.
In addition, the palace has a scarecrow trail for small children and is bringing statues to life inside the Palace.
On November 1, there is a new laser and lighting show in the Great Courtyard, set to music from Star Wars ‘Deep Space and Beyond’. Limited tickets are available, see the website.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is hosting a Monster Madness Party on Wednesday, October 30, with music, dancing, activities, ghoulish games and prizes. The party runs from 1.45pm to 3.30pm.
Spooky Science Night at Thinktank
At Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, there is a Spooky Science Night on October 31 where you can visit the museum after-hours and try eerie experiments, a silent disco and take in the Science of Fright show.
Thinktank also has Halloween activities throughout the half term week. For more information see the website.
We explore the family-friendly attractions in the city of St Albans and eat at the oldest pub in Britain
As we climb up and up, twist after twist, turn after turn, the staircase gets narrower and narrower.
The top of the Clock Tower is a particularly tight squeeze, its 600-year-old roof can only take a few visitors at a time – but the view at the summit of the 93 steps is well worth it.
Stretching in front of us is St Albans – a city where the ancient and the modern sit side-by-side.
For example, the Clock Tower was built in 1405, but on the street below, people queue up outside Darlish, the UK’s first Persian ice cream parlour, whose speciality is a deliciously sweet baklava ice cream sandwich.
The city’s park contains both a modern splash pool and Roman remains. And pubs which played host to Oliver Cromwell now serve the latest culinary trends.
And that theme of ancient and modern is clear at our first stop, St Albans Museum and Gallery.
St Albans Museum and Gallery
St Albans Museum and Gallery
Refurbished in 2018, the city’s main museum contains 2,000 years of history over three floors. Children are given an activity pack and trail to follow around.
You can visit the underground cells which used to be the city’s prison and then climb up into the former courtroom.
While your little ones pretend to be a judge or a villain in the dock, pensioners merrily sip away at cups of tea and tuck into slices of cake.
Our little magistrate sentences her big brother to life imprisonment
Upstairs there are more displays of the city’s history and on site is a tasty cafe. You can eat in the old courtroom or on the market square as we did, tucking into large sandwiches, varied salads and a wide range of excellent cakes.
Information: St Albans Museum and Gallery, Town Hall, St Peter’s St, St Albans AL1 3DH, open daily 10am to 5pm, 11am to 5pm on Sundays. Entry free.
St Albans Market
It is worth visiting on market day – Wednesdays and Saturdays between 8.30am and 4.30pm – if you can. There has apparently been a market in the city since the 9th century. 1,100 years on and the stalls are packed, stretching along the high street. You can buy everything from toys, to handbags, to Pakistani or Indonesian street food. It is a vibrant, colourful sight with more than 160 stalls.
Market day in St Albans, our view from the Clock Tower
At the bottom end of the market and high street is the Clock Tower. The stairs to the top do get very narrow but it is fun to climb and you are rewarded with views across Hertfordshire and even London on a clear day. The friendly volunteers at the bottom of the tower let children help ring the city’s 600-year-old bell, which has been clanging away since the Wars of the Roses.
The Clock Tower
Information: Clock Tower, High St, St Albans AL3 4EL. opening times vary. Entry £1 adults, children free. This is the only surviving medieval town belfry in England.
St Albans Cathedral
Even older than the clock tower is the building which dominates this city. St Albans Cathedral, known locally as The Abbey, is named after Alban, Britain’s first saint.
St Albans Cathedral
It is a huge building and entry is free. Children can get an activity pack from the new welcome centre, which has a shop, cafe and toilets. The pack contains 12 questions taking you around the cathedral, encouraging youngsters to explore the whole site.
The quiz also explains to them some of the history of this building and the story of how Alban became St Alban and met a grizzly end at the hands of the Romans.
There are also tree trails to explore the cathedral’s gardens, which takes around 45 minutes to complete.
On certain heritage open days there are also graffiti trails where children can hunt for clues on the various etchings visitors have drawn into the stone around the cathedral.
All the trails cost £2 per child and include a badge when successfully completed.
Some churches can feel a little stuffy and unwelcoming to children but this felt like a site where little ones were actively welcomed.
A short walk down the hill from the cathedral brings you to Verulamium Park, a former Roman site.
It is named after the Roman city of Verulamium on which it stands. And there are Roman remains dotted around its 100 acres. It was full of families when we visited, there is lots of space to run around, you can stroll by the lake, feed the ducks and climb trees. There is also a playground, fairly new splash park open during the summer, football goals, cafe and indoor swimming pool.
Verulamium Museum next to the park grounds has artefacts, which explore everyday life in Roman Britain.
St Albans has a wealth of options for eating out with almost every conceivable chain restaurant having an outlet around the city centre. We took a chance on something slightly different. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is officially Britain’s oldest pub, the octagonal building dates back to the 11th century.
Britain’s oldest pub
It is well situated near the entrance to Verulamium Park and has a beer garden. Inside, the low ceilings and timber beams make the pub feel medieval. Fortunately, the food is most definitely modern. There are four children’s options (£8 each) including pasta, burgers and sausages. The quality was high, as were the adult meals.
The pub becomes less family-friendly the later into the evening it gets so I would suggest trying it for lunch or an early dinner.
As we stroll back from the pub where Oliver Cromwell once stayed the night, the beautiful cathedral is lit up and it’s easy to see why this is a city is a great place to introduce children to our country’s history.
Where we stayed – St Michael’s Manor
St Michael’s Manor
Our hotel, St Michael’s Manor, is next to the park and has a lovely garden of its own – five acres to explore and its own lake.
The hotel’s original building dates from 1500, which practically makes it a modern development in St Albans.
This luxury hotel has excellent family rooms – our suite had two televisions and a huge bathroom.
Our hotel room, Sycamore
Breakfast is in a beautiful orangery-style restaurant.
Ryanair announces ‘Awesome Autumn’ sale on winter and spring flights
Airline Ryanair has today cut the price of a million seats on flights by 25 per cent.
The ‘Awesome Autumn’ sale applies to flights between November (2019) and May (2020).
The offer runs until Sunday, October 13.
Ryanair’s Alejandra Ruiz said: “This week we’re cutting 25 per cent off one million seats across our European network for travel between November and May, so it’s a perfect time to plan a bargain breakaway between these months.
“This amazing offer will end at midnight on Sunday, 13 October so customers should log on quickly and take advantage of this amazing Autumn discount today.”
We stay at St Michael’s Manor Hotel with our children to visit the Harry Potter Studios and explore St Albans
St Michael’s Manor Hotel.
Where is it?
A 10-minute walk from St Albans city centre, which is just north of London near the M1 and M25 motorways. The building, converted into a hotel in 1965, is on Fishpool Street bordering the city’s large Verulamium Park.
What is it?
An historic 500-year-old building which is now a lovely four-star upmarket hotel in five acres of fabulous grounds, which include a lake. The hotel has 30 bedrooms, a bar and restaurant.
Is it family friendly?
Families are probably not the hotel’s main market (it is a popular wedding and fine dining venue) but they are well catered for here.
The main attraction for visitors with children is the large grounds, nice for children to run around and explore. There’s a pool with a fountain and big fish. Inside, family rooms are an excellent size and breakfast has plenty of child-friendly options.
The hotel’s suites are the rooms suitable for families of four. We stayed in Sycamore and it was a very good size with a king-size bed and a sofa bed for the children tucked around the corner so it almost felt like having two rooms.
Our hotel room, Sycamore
There were two TVs, one opposite each bed, a massive bathroom with large bath and separate shower.
There was also a desk, large wardrobes with plenty of storage, kettle, ironing board, coffee maker, biscuits and bottled water.
Food and drink
Breakfast was all self-service with a good selection of six cereals, including Weetabix, Cornflakes, Rice Krispies and Coco Pops. There were also pastries, fresh fruit, yoghurt and a full cooked breakfast offering.
Breakfast is served in the bright and spacious Lake Restaurant, which has views over the gardens and, as you might have guessed, the lake.
Breakfast at Lakeside Restaurant
The restaurant also serves afternoon teas, which you can eat on the large terrace or in the gardens on a nice day. The evening meal menu is upmarket fine dining so may not be ideal for children – we ate in the city centre instead.
The large Verulamium Park is a three-minute walk away. It has a playground, splash pool, football goals, Roman museum and plenty of space to run around.
The main attractions of the city centre, like the huge cathedral, market and museums are around a 10-minute walk.
St Alban’s Cathedral
We combined our visit with a trip to Warner Bros. Studios Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, which is a 20-minute drive from St Albans.
*The grounds – a fantastic space to explore, although be careful with young ones around the lake. The five acres are flat and inviting to burn off energy. In the corners of the garden there are trees and bushes to play in. It could do with a swing or slide in a quiet corner, but apart from that it is a wonderful space.
*The room/suite – we all felt comfortable straight away, a lovely room with plenty of space and everything we could need.
*The bathroom – one of the best family bathrooms we have seen in a hotel – big with a large bath and separate shower, bath robes and fluffy towels.
*Breakfast – a good selection of food for children in a sunny and bright orangery-style restaurant, with great views over the garden.
*Parking – sounds a bit dull but parking is very tricky in St Albans so this is a godsend. The hotel’s large car park is free and stretches around the side and back of the property. It is close enough to the city centre to leave your car for your entire stay. You can stroll through the park to reach the attractions, or take the slightly quicker route along Fishpool Street to the Cathedral area.
Our son’s review!
It’s great, the rooms are named after trees.
It has a delicious breakfast, a fountain, a pond, a garden, deck chairs and a car park.
St Michael’s Manor Hotel, Fishpool St, St Albans AL3 4RY.
We take our children on a family trip to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter
What is it:
The Harry Potter Studio Tour is a magical long look behind the scenes of the famous wizarding films.
It is at the actual Warner Bros. studios near London where a lot of the filming for the eight Harry Potter movies took place.
This is nothing at all like a theme park – there are no rides.
Instead, fans can explore the sets, see the thousands of props and costumes and have their pictures taken with iconic memorabilia and backdrops.
It has won lots of travel awards hailing it the best UK attraction and best family day out.
What did we think?
Harry Potter fans will adore this attraction. There’s absolutely LOADS to see. It’s a four-hour (or so) look at how the films were made.
It makes you appreciate how much work, talent and creativity goes into making films like these.
It’s a really memorable day out – our oldest child is a fan but our youngest – who is too young for the books or film yet – also enjoyed it.
*When you first enter the main lobby before the tour, a huge dragon hanging from the ceiling gives the wow factor. (Apparently it’s Ironbelly from Deathly Hallows Part One, but we haven’t watched that far yet)!
*The tour starts in a room where people in ‘pictures’ on the the walls are talking to you – fans, actors such as James and Oliver Phelps (who play Fred and George Weasley) and Harry Potter writer JK Rowling. Then you go into a small cinema and watch a short film with Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson talking about making the movies. At the end, the screen lifts up revealing the door to the Great Hall.
*The Great Hall – the iconic heart of Hogwarts Castle is the perfect area in which to start the experience. The space in the middle is clear for visitors but tables are laid for dinner along the sides. Sadly we didn’t get to enjoy a great feast!
The Great Hall
Models of the characters wear some of the costumes. It’s great to see the size of Hagrid at the front, next to the other teachers. The ceiling is arched but not enchanted (this was created afterwards with special effects). A guide comes in to the hall with you, pointing out areas of interest, you are free to explore on your own from then on.
*Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Although this part is a reproduction of the actual set, this room takes your breath away as you walk in – it’s vast. And sparkly! With marble columns, huge chandeliers and goblin bankers sitting at their desks.
*Diagon Alley – you don’t get to go in the shops, but can peep in at the famous store fronts like Flourish and Blotts, Mr Mulpepper’s Apothecary and Ollivanders wand shop. One shop even has a broomstick floating in the window.
*The Hogwarts Express. You see the train at platform 9¾ and can climb on board, walking along the narrow corridor but not going in any of the small carriages. This train was the one used on location for exterior shots only.
But you do get the chance to sit with your family in a carriage nearby with a green screen for a window. You have your picture taken (to buy if you want afterwards) and are given emotions to act, which is great fun. A video then plays on the screen/window to simulate the train moving through different landscapes, but be warned – Dementors appear at the ‘window’ at one point which can be scary so sit younger children nearer the camera.
*Wand training – our children loved being taught how to use a wand. Participants stand in front of mirrors and follow a demonstration video, learning wand moves, with help from a guide.
*The guides – they are fabulous. They are spaced around the attraction, are friendly, approachable and very knowledgable. They know loads of fascinating facts so make sure to talk to them.
*Green screen photo areas. You are put in Hogwarts robes, in the house of your choice, unless you have your own. You can pose for a ‘Have you seen this Wizard’ poster picture, ride a broomstick over London and buy the resulting pictures and video.
*Dobby the house elf interactive motion capture experience – stand in front of three different stages of the CGI process and watch Dobby reflect your movements – my daughter loved this bit and didn’t want to leave.
*Seeing the animatronic versions of creatures like Buckbeak the Hippogridd and how they were made.
*The props – there are so, so many amazing with such attention to details. For example in Snape’s Potions Classroom there are more than 950 potion jars with weird and wonderful props inside.
*The tour ends with a stunning model of Hogwarts Castle. There are interactive screens here showing how it was built (in 40 days) and how it was used in the films.
*The shop at the end is huge with lots of quality (expensive) merchandise.
*DO NOT turn up to the Harry Potter Studio Tour without pre-booking a ticket. Buy one in advance from the website.
*Book tickets as far ahead as you can as, even though 6,000 people a day take the tour, they sell out quickly.
*Tickets are timed entry, to control the amount of visitors entering. You can take as long as you want going round so it can get busier throughout the day. We booked our tickets for the first time slot of the day (9-9.30am the day we went) and didn’t have any crowds or queues to face – even half an hour behind us, people were queuing for things we hadn’t.
*Opt to have your tickets posted then you can go straight in on arrival, otherwise you have to collect them from a ticket window and there might be a queue.
*Arrive at least 20 minutes early to park and get through the security checks – bags are checked and people are scanned with metal detector wands.
*After the security checks you enter a room where you can collect a handheld digital guide for £4.95. These enhance the tour for adults and some children, they give extra details and facts for visitors as they walk around.
*Also in this first room you can collect a free children’s ‘passport’. They can be stamped around the tour and make for a nice memento. They also give clues for spotting the golden snitch.
*When leaving the door with the talking pictures to enter the cinema, go through the door on the left and then you can sit on the front row of the theatre and be first into the Great Hall. If it’s your birthday you may even get to open the doors.
*A couple of parts can be frightening –
The Forbidden Forest – it’s only a short walk through, but it is dark, there is fake mist rising and eerie sounds and movements.
Buckbeak in the Forbidden Forest
If your children would be scared by big spiders – take the first turning on the right inside the forest to miss a part complete with a big Aragog and family.
If you have children who don’t want to enter the forest at all, ask a member of staff and they will take you another way round. Once through the forest, you come out at Platform 9¾ and see the Hogwarts Express – if you tell them this it might get them through!
The other frightening part for some children is at the end of the fabulous Gringotts section where a dragon appears to run at you breathing fire.
You can hear the roar from the room before, which causes the walls to ‘shake’. When you look in, it’s a set of a destroyed Gringotts made to look deeper than it is with a clever screen. A digital but very realistic Ukrainian Ironbelly moves towards you, setting the bank on fire. It’s a short sequence on repeat and anyone who doesn’t want to see it has about 10 seconds to run through this room before it starts again. Our children were worried so a heroic member of staff brandishing a sword to ‘defend them’, led them through.
Wands for sale at the shop
*Be prepared to spend money once inside – we are normally careful but here we ended up paying for two green screen pictures and two green screen videos (£50), food in the café as we were away so couldn’t make a packed lunch, plus a little gift in the shop at the end, totaling £90 on top of already expensive tickets.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter information
There are a couple of cafes at the entrance/exit (Chocolate Frog Cafe and Hub Cafe) along with a food hall.
Half way around the tour is the Backlot Café with seating inside and out. Staff will supply hot water for heating up bottles here. This is also where to buy butterbeer and butterbeer ice cream. You can queue separately for this.
You can take a picnic, but you must eat it at the Backlot Café half way round.
Opening hours: vary throughout the year, check here.
2019: Adult £45, child aged 5-15 £37, family (2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children) £148,
2020: Adult £47, child aged 5-15 £38, family (2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children) £150.
Children aged 0 to 4 are free but still need a ticket. Carers are also free.
You can also buy a complete studio tour package which includes a studio tour ticket, digital guide and souvenir guidebook. An adult package costs £54.95 for 2019 and £56.95 for 2020. A child package costs £46.95 for 2019 and £47.95 for 2020. These give a saving of £4.95.
There are also deluxe tickets including studio tour entry with a two-hour guided tour, reserve parking, a souvenir guidebook, a butterbeer, four free photographs and a video at one of the photo opportunities and a hot meal and drink.
The Deluxe ticket includes entry to the Studio Tour with a complimentary two hour guided tour, reserved parking, a souvenir guidebook, a Butterbeer, four free photographs and a video at one of our photo opportunities and a choice of hot meal and drink. They cost £225.
Best for: Harry Potter fans aged eight and above and equally interesting for adults!
Time needed: Around four hours but you can stay as long as you like.
Access and restrictions: Most of the studio tour is suitable for wheelchairs but some areas are difficult including the cobbled streets of Diagon Alley. It is also suitable for buggies/pushchairs/prams or these can be left in the cloakroom.
Address: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden, WD25 7LR
We answer ALL your questions about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter
The Warner Bros. studios in Leavesden near London were home to the hugely popular Harry Potter films for over 10 years.
And now fans can go ‘backstage’ at the Harry Potter studios where the magic was made.
Here we answer all your questions about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter.
Also, don’t miss our full review and all our top tips here and watch our exclusive video of our day out at the studio tour below:
Is there a Harry Potter World or theme park in England?
No, there is the Harry Potter Studio Tour – a multi-award winning UK attraction near London.
What is the Harry Potter Studio Tour?
It’s a huge self-led back stage tour at the studio where a lot of the filming for the Harry Potter movies took place. You can see real sets from the films, costumes, props and creatures, plus take part in some interactive green screen fun.
Is this one of the best Harry Potter experiences?
Yes, the Harry Potter Studio Tour is great for adults and children because it is authentic. Many of the sets, costumes, props and creatures you see here were used in the Harry Potter films. They show the work and craftsmanship that went into the films.
Where is it?
It’s at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, where much of the film series was shot, home to the movies for over 10 years. Leavesden is 20 miles from London, near Watford, England. The full address is: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden, WD25 7LR.
How to get there
You can drive by car and park in the car park directly outside or take a return bus tour from London or other parts of the country. You can also get a train to Watford Junction and then a shuttle bus, run by the attraction.
When did Harry Potter Studios open?
The studio tour opened on March 31, 2012. Unusually, the crew had saved a lot of the sets, props, animatronic creatures and costumes in case they were needed again for future films. They are now on show for the attraction, next to the working film studios where all eight films were made in Leavesden.
What can you see on the tour?
There’s far too much to mention but it includes The Great Hall, The Forbidden Forest, Gringotts banking hall, the Griffindor common room and boys’ dormitory, Snape’s Potions Classroom, Dumbledore’s Tower, the Weasleys’ Burrow, Hagrid’s Hut, the portrait of the Fat Lady, the Mirror of Erised, and the giant clock pendulum.
There is also Malfoy’s Manor, Dolores Umbridge’s pink office, the Hogwarts Express, The Knight Bus, Privet Drive, the Hogwarts Bridge, Godric’s Hollow House, the Ford Anglia, Diagon Alley, Buckbeak, Aragog, the scaled model of Hogwarts Castle used in the films. Plus thousands more animatronics, props and costumes.
Trying out the Knight Bus
Are there any rides at Harry Potter studios?
No but there are interactive features including wand lessons, green screen picture and video areas where you get to ride a broom over London and a Dobby motion capture experience where the house elf reflects your actions and more.
How long is the tour/ how long do you need to spend at Harry Potter Studios?
*There is no time limit – you can stay as long as you want – unless you have a ticket for later in the day and it is closing time! You’ll need at least three hours. If you take your time and look carefully at everything, you could easily spend four or five hours here.
Can I just turn up on the day?
No, you will not get in. You must pre-book a ticket. You will be given a time slot to arrive. We chose the earliest slot and were pleased with the lack of queues at that time as crowds had not built up.
When should you arrive?
They recommend arriving at least 20 minutes before your time slot to go through security checks.
Can you arrive earlier than your time slot?
Yes you can, you can look around the lobby or eat or drink at one of the cafes, before your tour starts. You may also be able to get on to an earlier tour.
What happens when you arrive?
You collect your tickets (if they were not posted to you), show your tickets, go through security (bags are checked and people are scanned with a hand held metal detector wand), then you go into the first area where you can collect a digital audio guide if wanted. Here you can pick up free ‘passports’ for children too, which are easy to miss. Youngsters can then stamp them as they go round the attraction and search for the golden snitch.
Is the tour guided?
Only the start is guided (unless you pay for a deluxe tour). The guide takes the group into a room with talking pictures on the wall – fans, actors and Harry Potter author JK Rowling, then through to the cinema room where you see a short film with Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson telling of their life making the films. The guide then takes you into the Great Hall and explains more to you before leaving you to take the rest of the experience at your own pace.
The Great Hall
What is a deluxe tour?
Deluxe tours are more expensive. They include a guided tour, photo package, meal, butterbeer, guidebook and special parking.
Are there staff around during the tour?
*Yes there are guides dotted around. They are really lovely, don’t hesitate to talk to them, they know a lot and it will enhance your experience.
Who would enjoy the tour?
Mainly Harry Potter fans old and young but also people interested in the process of film making, sets, costumes and props. Children aged eight and over would get the most out of it. Teenagers seemed to be really enjoying it when we went.
Can you take pictures and videos?
Yes, everywhere except the cinema and green screen areas, which is great as there are lots of great photo opportunities. Pretend to push your trolley through the wall at platform 9 3/4, ride in the flying Ford Anglia, hold the Sword of Griffindor, pose in Diagon Alley, the Great Hall and much more.
Do people dress up in Harry Potter outfits?
If your children want to dress up, definitely let them. We saw some people dressed up, most were in normal clothes, or Harry Potter tops etc. Staff provide cloaks for the green screen pictures but we took our children’s own outfits to save time and they ended up wearing them for the rest of the tour which was great for our pictures.
Are there restaurants or cafes?
*There are a couple of cafes at the entrance/exit – Chocolate Frog Cafe and Hub Cafe – along with a big food hall.
Half way around the tour is the Backlot Café with seating inside and out. Staff will supply hot water for heating up bottles here.
Where can you buy Butterbeer?
This sweet non-alcoholic drink can only be bought at the Backlot Cafe, midway through the tour. It is not suitable for vegans or people with a dairy allergy as it contains some dairy but is suitable for those with gluten, wheat and nut allergies. It can be bought in a souvenir tankard which you can rinse and take home.
You can also buy Butterbeer ice cream here, available in a souvenir sundae dish to take home or a cone.
Can you take a picnic/packed lunch to Harry Potter studios?
Yes, you can take your own food but it must be eaten at the Backlot Cafe halfway round the tour.
Do you pay for parking?
No, parking is free. We were on the first tour of the day and were able to park right outside the doors. Have your tickets or booking confirmation ready to show them before you park.
Can you be dropped off?
Yes, you can be dropped off right outside.
Are there any frightening parts?
The two main scary bits are The Forbidden Forest and a fire-breathing dragon at the end of the Gringotts section. The forest is dark and eerie, inform staff if your children want to miss this part, and they will take you another way. When you enter the forest take the right turning to miss the bit with Aragog and big spiders.
Some of Aragog’s family
Staff can also help get through the room with the Ukrainian Ironbelly Gringotts dragon – there are 10 seconds between the sequence, which is on repeat, to run through.
Can I see Hogwarts Castle?
The tour ends with a stunning model of the castle. There are interactive screens there showing how it was built and used in the films.
What if it is raining or snowing?
This is a great attraction if the weather is rubbish as most of the tour is inside. Apart from one area – the backlot – where the exterior sets are – the Knight Bus, Privet Drive and Hogwarts Bridge.
4 Privet Drive
What is included in the ticket price?
The tour and experiences such as a wand skills mini-workshop, making a wand jump up to your hand by saying ‘up’ and picture opportunities with the sets and props including the Hogwarts Express and pushing a trolley through the wall at Platfrom 9 ¾.
What is not included in the ticket price?
Pictures and videos made from the green screen attractions.
Obviously also allow for food, drinks and purchases from the shop, it can get very expensive.
What age is this for?
Older fans will get the most out of it – with the patience to stop and look properly at everything. Children from aged eight are likely to enjoy it the most.
Where is the shop?
You will be lucky to escape without having to buy something here and the items in the shops are great quality, but pricey. There are a couple of smaller shops on your way around and one huge store at the end (you can also look in here at the start).
The studio has an online shop too, if you want to have a look before you go or order something afterwards that you wished you had bought.
Is there any provision for visitors with autism?
There is a sensory room within the studio tour to give a calming environment for people with autism and other additional needs.
Are there any disabled toilets?
There are accessible toilets throughout the tour. There’s also a Changing Place facility in the lobby, accessed using a RADAR key, with a hoist (take your own slings), height adjustable changing bench, toilet and washbasin. It is big enough for a wheelchair user and two carers.
Is there a cloakroom?
Yes, there is a cloakroom where you can leave coats and bags free of charge as well as buggies, pushchairs and prams.
Where are the baby changing facilities?
There are baby changing facilities in every toilet block.
Is there a parent and baby room?
Yes, there is an area for parents to feed with a nursing chair and changing tables next to the Backlot Café.
Any interesting facts to end on?
Yes – over the ten years, an incredible 588 sets were created at Leavesden Studios.
Also, Daniel Radcliffe went through 160 pairs of glasses and 70 wands during filming for the Harry Potter film series!
Travel giant Thomas Cook goes into liquidation leaving families stranded abroad and upset over booked holidays
Thomas Cook has collapsed and all flights and holidays booked through the firm have been cancelled.
Thousands of families are stranded abroad and over a million other customers may have lost future bookings.
People flying today have been advised not to travel to airports.
The 178-year-old company ceased trading today (Tuesday) after entering compulsory liquidation due to mounting debts.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has pledged to bring over 150,000 British holidaymakers stuck abroad, home, the county’s biggest ever peacetime repatriation.
Thomas Cook’s chief executive Peter Fankhauser described the collapse as a “matter of profound regret”.
“I would like to apologise to our millions of customers, and thousands of employees, suppliers and partners who have supported us for many years,” he said.
“This marks a deeply sad day for the company which pioneered package holidays and made travel possible for millions of people around the world.”
Thomas Cook statement
So if you are abroad now or have booked a Thomas Cook flight or holiday what do you do?
Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: “In general those abroad now will be brought home once their holidays have finished.
“Most who haven’t travelled will have a route to get their cash back, but this unprecedentedly large repatriation and refund operation will not be without problems.
“It’s going to be a stressful time for many people.
“The Government has said all British travellers who were due to fly back within the next two weeks will be brought home free of charge. Those who’ve already paid for their hotels abroad as part of a Thomas Cook package shouldn’t pay again. Yet that won’t stop a few uncertain and scared hotelliers overseas wanting money directly from British travellers to be doubly sure. This could leave UK tourists in sticky situations. If so, the Civil Aviation Authority has a helpline which should sort it for you.
“For those who’d booked future trips, ATOL and ABTA schemes should mean full refunds, but some, especially those who booked flights only, may be unprotected. Travel insurance won’t help for most, as travel company failure cover is rarely included as standard – though check your policy or give them a call.
“If you did book without travel industry or insurance protection, the next route is your card provider. Those who paid more than £100 on a credit card get Section 75 legal protection – which means the card firm is jointly liable with the retailer, so you can get your money back from it. However this may not work if you booked via an agency, or via certain Paypal transactions, as that break in the direct transactional relationship can stop it working – we wait to see how widespread that problem will be.
“If that happens, or you paid by debit card, instead ask your bank to do a ‘chargeback’. This isn’t a legal protection – it is a Visa, Mastercard and Amex rule where your bank gets your money back from Thomas Cook’s bank as you didn’t receive what you paid for. It should work for most people. Those who paid by other methods such as cheques or cash have very little protection sadly.”
We stay at a holiday park in the middle of the Netherlands with our children
Sand stretches before us. A vast expanse of gold, nothing on the horizon save for a makeshift den of withered tree branches.
Where is this extraordinary landscape? The Sahara? Outer Mongolia?
Try central Holland, the Dunes of Loon.
This natural phenomenon was created by sand drifts 10,000 years ago and its 30km of desert are fun to explore.
Dunes of Loon
You experience it by walking just five minutes from our family campsite at Duinhoeve (read our full Duinhoeve Holiday Park review and tips here).
And we certainly feel like explorers as we unzip the door to our glamping lodge at the park.
Our glamping lodge at Duinhoeve
From the outside it is a huge tent, but through the zipped entrance you find a fabulous, modern interior.
There are three bedrooms, a den/storage area for children, spacious shower and bathroom, TV, well-equipped kitchen and large dining table. See our video below.
The park is ideal for younger children with three playgrounds aimed at under-7s and two swimming pools – one large and heated by solar power, the other for toddlers complete with pirate ship.
There’s a restaurant/cafe selling hot and cold meals every evening.
There’s also bike and go-kart hire. Very useful as Duinhoeve is well located to explore what the natural world has to offer with cycle paths and walks through the dunes and woodland.
If you want to experience further afield then the small medieval city of Den Bosch is less than 30 minutes away.
If you are browsing its ancients streets, squares and markets don’t forget to try the local delicacy Bosch Bollen – a type of giant profiterole sold in every bakery.
Bosche Bollen, yum
The city was home to the medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his fantastical imagination.
And if it is a wild imagination you want to witness, then just 10 minutes from Duinhoeve is the fairytale themed theme park of Efteling (full review and top tips for visiting Efteling here).
Efteling Theme Park
Think Disneyland minus the schmaltz, the sky high food prices and super-long queues.
Not that Efteling is quiet, it is still Holland’s largest theme park and draws visitors from around Europe.
The best place to get a feel for Efteling is the Fairytale Forest with recreations of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Pinocchio’s workshop and the witch’s gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel, which even smells authentic.
The park is broadly divided into two halves, to the left of the entrance is mostly aimed at younger children. Head right if you have roller-coaster loving tweens and teens who are seeking plenty of thrills. See our exclusive video below.
With our younger ones, some of the best rides are Symphonica – a theatrical indoor adventure and the Pirana River Rapids Ride.
If you need a break, there are plenty of places to sit and rest. You can hop on a steam train around the park, take a leisurely boat ride on a lake, or head up the pagoda viewing tower to see Efteling from above.
When you are hungry you can pick from plenty of food options with more than just the usual expensive fast-food.
A day at Efteling ends with a 15-minute fire and water show called Aquanura, set to classical music.
Efteling is a reminder that this area – capable of extraordinary landscapes is also pretty good at man-made mythical lands as well.
Aquanura water show
There’s more water and drama back at our glamping lodge that night.
After days of humidity, a terrific thunder storm breaks out. As we look out across the park, enjoying the sight and the sound of the rain hammering on the canvas roof, we are very glad to be in safe and secure in our very, very posh tent.
We take our children via mini-cruise to Amsterdam in Holland
Amsterdam may be a stag and hen do favourite – but there is much more to the city than its infamous seedier side.
We head to the beautiful Dutch capital with our children, in search of a family-friendly break.
It’s just a short, 45-minute plane journey from the UK. So we decide to travel by ship. Obviously.
Billed as a mini-cruise, our overnight ferry crossing is with DFDS from Newcastle.
The children love it and it doesn’t feel like part of the journey – more a highlight of the holiday.
It sets sail at 5.30pm, so enough time to explore the ship, eat and enjoy the entertainment.
Then most of the journey is spent asleep in our cabin, before waking up for breakfast and disembarkment. Read our review and tips for taking this ferry crossing here and watch our video below.
Our visit to the Netherlands is in two parts so it’s a bonus to have our car and lots of luggage.
Part 1 Amsterdam
There are bicycles EVERYWHERE we look. I’m expecting this but am still staggered at the sheer volume of cyclists, their confidence and the natural way they rule the road.
All ages are on two wheels, children too young to pedal themselves ride on a seat or in a trailer with an adult.
And NOBODY wears a helmet.
It’s a stressful city for car drivers to negotiate – it’s also difficult and expensive to park.
So we use a cheap park and ride car park on the outskirts (read our Amsterdam park and ride guide here) and take a couple of trams to our hotel.
NH Amsterdam Center is a good base to explore from plus it was great value when we booked. (See our full hotel review and pictures here).
Our hotel room
It’s a well-positioned hotel next to Leidseplein square in Amsterdam, across the road from canal cruises, within five minutes’ walk of Vondelpark, Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Plus, our room is huge.
Then, armed with an I amsterdam city card, which gives free access to attractions, public transport including ferries and a free canal cruise, we start our exploring.
We tick off Nemo Science Museum, a great hands-on attraction, where our children even get to be scientists in a lab.
Nemo Science Museum
We take a pancake cruise – a 75-minute cruise – with all you can eat pancakes and toppings. None of us get near to the record of 15. Then, part of the boat’s floor opens up to reveal a ball bit below deck.
The Pancake Boat
We pop to see the outside of the real-life Hunter Street house from the Nickelodeon programme of the same name.
And we get close to nature at Artis Zoo – a beautiful attraction, with some species you don’t get to see in English zoos.
Less child-oriented but a must-see for art lovers, is the Van Gogh Museum which houses the biggest collection of the Dutch painter’s work in the world. Even his famous work Sunflowers is there when we visit.
We use our cruise tickets (free with the I amsterdam card), with the Blue Boat Company. The cruise really caters for children – they have their own Pirates commentary on headphones and goody bags.
The Blue Boat Company
Read our complete reviews and guides to Amsterdam’s children’s attractions here and watch our video below.
Walking is a great way to see the city and the canals but it’s a challenge to negotiate the roads and crossings with children, remembering to check the cycle lanes and look out for trams as well as other traffic.
Amsterdam is fascinating, brilliant and intensive and when it’s time for part two of our trip, all four of us are ready to head south.
We take our children to the fairytale-themed Efteling Theme Park Resort in Holland
Efteling Theme Park Resort.
What is it?
This is a huge fairytale-themed family attraction. It’s the biggest theme park in the Netherlands and is open every day of the year.
Where is it?
In the town of Kaatsheuvel in the Brabant region of south central Holland. Just over an hour’s drive from Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
What did we think?
This is a great theme park for all ages – it feels Disney-like and magical as you walk in with music playing around you, but it is much quicker to park and get into than Disney parks.
Navigation around it was made easier as the left-hand side is largely suited to younger children and the right has more for teenagers and older children with more rollercoasters and bigger rides.
*The fairytale forest – you wander through a wooded area, seeing recreations of fairy tales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and some we had not heard of before. The commentary is in Dutch but there are written descriptions in English.
Hansel and Gretel in Fairytale Forest
*There is lots for younger visitors, we saw three carousels alone. There are some lovely gentle rides, plus a little train.
*Comfort – there are lots of shaded areas and it’s big, it didn’t feel cramped at all.
*Carnaval Festival – a nice gentle ride, with music, through different countries.
*Symphonia ride – this had the longest queue, it is a theatrical, dark, indoor ride suitable for the whole family but scary in parts for some young children.
*The Aquanura water show is a great way to finish a day at the park. It is normally on at around 7.15pm and 8.15pm on a lake near the exit. It’s along the theme of the Princess and the Frog. Water shoots out of giant frogs’ mouths and from the middle of the lake while classical music plays.
There are lots of vantage points to get a good view.
Aquanura water show
*Check when the Dutch holidays are, we went at the end of the summer holidays when local children had already returned to school so it wasn’t too busy.
*The best place to start with younger children is the Fairytale Forest. Climb into Sleeping Beauty’s castle and see Rapunzel leaning out of her tower while the witch climbs up. It is a good gentle introduction for younger children to what the park is all about.
*If you’ve got a picnic and don’t want to stop to eat it, you could eat during the lake cruise – you sit on a boat being led around a track for 20 minutes. It’s a good spot for a rest as its also next to a pagoda, which takes you high above the park, giving you a good view of everything.
*A lot of the signs have an English version and staff speak good English. But a lot of the commentary and shows are in Dutch.
*Parking is well-organised. It costs 10/12 euros to park, you pay at the entrance/exit and use your ticket to open the barrier when you leave.
*Use the Efteling app, it is simple and straightforward. It shows you where you are on a map, gives up-to-date ride queue times and basic information about each ride to assess its suitability for your children.
*There are no fast track passes or similar (except for disabled visitors), other than the Python rollercoaster where you can book a ride time.
*Baby switch is available for two adults who have a baby and both want to go on a ride – one queues and the other waits at the exit with the baby and they can then swap with the new adult going in through the exit.
*You can rent wooden pushchairs/strollers for 4 euros.
*All toilets in the park have at least one baby changing cubicle.
*Restaurant staff can warm up water, milk or food for babies.
You can stay overnight in a hotel or holiday home with unlimited access to the park.
Good rides and areas for children aged under six
*Fairytale Forest – walk through recreations of famous fairy tales.
*Stoomcarrousel – a big undercover carousel (there are others in the park too).
*Avonturendoolhof – adventure maze – look out for the bridge where you will get wet!
*Stoomtrein – the train – it does a circuit of the park and there are two stops so you can use it to get from one area to another or stay on for the duration to rest your legs.
*Kleuterhof – the playground.
*De Oude Tufferbaan – classic car ride – children feel like they are driving the cars themselves and even have their own horn.
Older children, teenagers and thrillseekers
There are plenty of bigger, faster rides for those that want them including the Python roller coaster and the Baron 1898 Dive Coaster. There’s a pirate ship, water rides and more.
Efteling Theme Park Resort information
Food: The cost of food is good and there is a wide variety of choice including a Vietnamese food stand, a Dutch pancake house and restaurants.
There are lots of ice cream stands (good value at around €1.50 for an ice cream) including one where you pick a flavour of whipped ice cream and FIVE toppings which get mixed together, yum!
But it was also great to see fresh fruit and vegetable stalls at a fair price – a punnet of strawberries was 3.45 euros.
We ate an evening meal at Octopus restaurant, before watching the water show at the end of the day. Billed as an ‘underwater’ restaurant (it’s not but it is really quirky, dimly lit with moving animals and play areas), fresh pasta and a drink for children was around 6 euros.
There are also nice picnic spots.
Opening hours: Opens at 10am and closes at 6pm during the week and later at the weekends, depending on the season.
Cost: Tickets are 42 euros. Children aged three and under are free. You can buy a parking ticket in advance for 12.50 euros.
Best for: Aged four and above.
Time needed: At least one full day.
Access and restrictions: Accessibility is very good and most rides have wheelchair entrances to get on rides without a long queue. These are available to all with physical or learning disabilities. You must register at guest services where you are given a card to present to ride attendants showing them, then you wait at the disabled entrance.
There are plenty of toilets around the park and this being Holland, the park is mostly flat and easy to get around.
Address: Efteling Park, Europalaan 1 5171 KW Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands.
We take our children across the North Sea on an overnight ferry from England to Amsterdam
Newcastle to Amsterdam
This route runs every day linking England and Holland/The Netherlands, with overnight crossings both ways. The ports are North Shields near Newcastle and Ijmuiden ferry port in the Netherlands.
15 hours 30 minutes.
The ship leaves at 5pm from Newcastle and arrives in Holland at 9.45am local time. Returning, the ship leaves Holland at 5.30pm and returns to Newcastle at 9.15am.
There are two ships which operate this crossing – we sailed out with the ship Princess Seaways and back with King Seaways.
DFDS calls them cruise ferries because of the facilities and entertainment on board.
They each have 140 crew. The King takes 1,300 passengers and the Princess 1,250.
We thought that they were great ships and our children loved exploring them. There is plenty to occupy a family between boarding time and bedtime.
The ships each have two restaurants, a cinema, play areas, games rooms, a small casino, bars, a club and a shop.
There is good entertainment on board. Our children took part in children’s entertainment on King Seaways and enjoyed it. The play areas and games rooms were slightly bigger on the King.
A play area on the King Seaways ship
Food (same on both)
*Explorer’s Kitchen – a buffet restaurant for breakfast and dinner which we tried on King Seaways. Perfect for families, not too formal with lots of choice.
For dinner, there is a variety of foods from different parts of the world including Chinese, Indian, German, Dutch, Italian and British. There’s an ice cream bar, where you can order your own soft scoop flavour with a selection of toppings.
*North Sea Bistro – we ate here on Princess Seaways. It is formal with table service – the food was more expensive but delicious.
North Sea Bistro
There is a three-course menu for adults featuring steak, sea bass and other upmarket options.
The children’s menu offers two courses for £11.95 from a starter, main and dessert. Main course options included spaghetti Bolognese and a burger. Pancakes for pudding went down well with our pair.
My delicious dessert at North Sea Bistro
*Coffee Crew – a café next to the play areas which serves snacks.
All the cabins are en suite, ours were five-berth – with two bunk beds – a double on one side and triple on the other! The bathroom has a shower. Towels and bedding are provided.
Our cabin on Princess Seaways
Cabins are well located away from all the communal areas.
Who can travel?
Cars, caravans, motorcycles, bicycles, motorhomes and lorries can all use the ferry or foot passengers without a vehicle.
How does it work?
You check-in at the port in North Shields near Newcastle, at least 45 minutes before departure – and if you are in a car or other vehicle, drive to a vehicle check-in booth, open the window and hand over your passports to be checked.
You are given boarding cards which are also your cabin keys. There are lots of crew around to direct you into a lane and then on to the ship. You are told exactly where to park, the crew guide you as far forward as possible in your lane in order to fit all the cars on board. Remember your deck number so you can find your car quickly again in the morning!
Foot passengers check in at the passenger terminal.
There are six disabled cabins on King Seaways and three on the Princess. There are lifts and disabled toilets.
It may take longer than flying but there are lots of benefits to the ferry:
*You have your own car, so you don’t need to rent or worry about children’s car seats in Holland.
*You can pack more luggage – there is unlimited baggage on board.
*You can take bikes and scooters.
*You can take pets. Pets can travel on board in their own area or there are even pet-friendly cabins. Make sure you are up-to-date on requirements for pet passports and vaccinations.
*The mini-cruise is a fun experience, part of the holiday rather than the journey.
*We headed for the ports both ends early to make sure we arrived in time and then stretched our legs on a beach – at Long Sands beach in Tynemouth near Newcastle and Zandvoort beach on the way to Ijmuiden port in Holland.
Long Sands Beach, Tynemouth
*Keep an eye on young children outside on the ships, it can get very windy. Also, the doors to outside are very heavy to open and may slam shut.
*The car deck is locked once the ship sets sail. You can’t return to your car then so make sure you have everything with you that you need. We packed a separate bag for the cruise so we didn’t have too much to carry.
*Don’t book a restaurant time until half an hour after sailing time if you want to enjoy the ship setting off.
*There are a lot of stairs but lifts are available if you have a buggy or a pram and there would be room for a pushchair in the five-berth cabins we had.
*The restaurants are fantastic but bring water/drinks and food from the car for your cabin to save money. You are not allowed to take your own alcohol.
*Breakfast can get very busy. There is an announcement at 8am to wake everyone up so lots of passengers eat after that. The quiet period, where you are more likely to get a window seat to enjoy the sea view, is 7am to 7.45am. Also 9am is quieter – but you are called to your car as soon as the ship docks, around 9.15am.
*Don’t feel you need to rush to your car as soon as they announce it as you will be sitting in it for some time, wait a few minutes, but not too long!
A great experience for the children and a fun way to travel to Amsterdam. This really makes the journey a fun part of the holiday rather than a chore.
What to do with children in Amsterdam – our reviews and top tips
Amsterdam isn’t just for hen and stag dos, it is a family-friendly city with lots for children to do. We had a great time with our two, here’s our video and lots of information below about what we recommend.
NEMO Science Museum
This is a fantastic hands-on museum. NEMO looks like a giant ship rising from the harbour where it is situated. Inside there are four floors of interactive activities.
Floor one demonstrates how science works with pulleys, the chance to create electricity and an hourly show which is great fun, showing how a chain reaction works. One young volunteer gets to set off a reaction which spreads around the stage.
Floor two explains everyday technology such as how water is purified – children can collect water in a bucket and tip it in and out of various systems. There is also a great perspective room with altered height ceilings and angles where you can make children look like giants and turn the adults tiny.
The third floor has a display about planets and a brilliant science lab. The whole family put lab coats and goggles on to create their own experiments showing how rockets can fire and how sun cream works. It is hands-on learning at its best.
The fourth floor was closed when we visited but will be all about the human body.
There is a fifth floor with a nice cafe – the food is good quality with a wide variety. And don’t miss the roof terrace, especially on a sunny day – take your food out there to eat. There are panoramic views of Amsterdam and children can play in various water features.
NEMO Science Museum roof terrace
*Entrance to the museum is free with an I amsterdam card or book tickets via their website.
Hunter Street house
The popular Nickelodeon children’s series Hunter Street is set in Amsterdam. The actual show is filmed elsewhere in the Netherlands but the exterior of the Hunter house is a real home.
The Hunter Street house
It is at Singel 140-142, a small canalside road just outside the heart of the city.
It is best reached via a tram to Nieuwezijds Kolk stop and is then about a five-minute walk, through some side streets and over a canal. Our children enjoyed having their picture taken outside but did complain the black door in the series had been painted dark green!
This is a great way to mix a river cruise, meal and a soft play.
The Pancake Boat
De Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake Boat) is moored across the IJ river from Amsterdam Centraal Station (catch the free NDSM ferry 906 from the far left pontoon at the station).
It is a 75-minute cruise along the river past Amsterdam Central Station. Once on board you can eat as many proper Dutch pancakes as you want (the record is a huge 15, which considering how filling they are is barely believable). There are three types of pancake – plain, with apple and one with bacon – plus lots of toppings you can put on.
About 30 minutes into the cruise, they open a big ball pit with slide in the bowels of the boat, which kept our daughter entertained for most of the rest of the journey.
Tip: There are two levels – the top deck is cooler and has better views but the pancakes and ball pit are downstairs. But once you have eaten you can sit wherever you want.
Cruise times vary but there are at least four a day in high season, book via their site
This glorious zoo in the centre of Amsterdam is a tropical delight to walk through. It has some of the usual animals you see at English zoos such as elephants and giraffes but other species you don’t see very often.
I liked seeing the armadillos – having only ‘seen’ one before when Ross dressed up as the holiday armadillo on Friends!
Little Fennec foxes with huge ears and a black jaguar were other highlights.
We also felt we could get much closer to the animals than usual. There are a few areas under cover, great for hot or rainy days, including a big space to watch the sea lions underwater.
Entry to the zoo is free with an I amsterdam card or book via the zoo’s website.
Van Gogh Museum
This popular museum houses the largest collection of works by Van Gogh in the world – over 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 of his letters.
It is a wonderful collection including famous paintings like Almond Blossom, Sunflowers (which was on temporary exhibition) and my daughter’s favourite there, The Bedroom.
The Bedroom (credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
But it is not ideal territory for a lot of children, you may have to work hard to sustain their interest.
The museum is fairly spacious and if they are old enough, we would recommend the audio guide (5 euros for adults, free for children aged 6 to 12) to keep them interested for longer.
Once they have seen enough of the artwork, the Van Gogh Museum does have a couple of good areas for little ones. They can pose in front of a giant sunflower picture in the entrance hall and also the shop has an easel where they can sketch their own portrait.
Children can enter for free so if they get fed up it isn’t the end of the world. It isn’t a huge museum, so you can get around it in an hour.
Book a time slot in advance – if you have an I amsterdam card, book through their link not on the museum website.
Pirate Canal cruise – Blue Boat Company Kids Cruise
You have to do a canal cruise in Amsterdam and this was the only company we found which specifically catered for children.
Despite being a 75-minute journey, our two were entertained throughout.
The Blue Boat Company
Every passenger gets a new set of headphones to plug in and listen to a commentary in a language of their choice. But there is also a great children’s Pirate commentary to select (in English).
And children are given an activity pack including binoculars and an activity book with answers to be heard within the commentary.
Plus, our captain was very accommodating and happy to chat and answer questions and also pointed out places of interest along the route.
Most tables are under cover, there is also space to sit at the back in the open, plus there’s a toilet on board.
The cruise is a great way to see life in Amsterdam.
This cruise is free with an I amsterdam card which offers one free standard canal cruise per ticket. Or book via the website.
There are lots of parks to enjoy in Amsterdam to stretch young legs, including the largest, Vondelpark.
Vondelpark (credit: Klapfilm.nl)
It is the most popular park in the Netherlands and has a great children’s play area. The main areas for children are in the centre of the park.
Many of Amsterdam’s parks have small petting zoos, one of the largest Amstelpark, to the south of the city centre also has a small train to ride.
I amsterdam cards
The simplest and most cost-effective way of getting to around Amsterdam’s attractions is with an I amsterdam cty card. You can buy then in 24 hour periods for as long as you need.
The card includes one free canal cruise, public transport around the city centre and access to more than 40 museums.
We used a 72-hour card for two adults but not for our children as a lot of museums are free to children and a public transport ticket is only four euros per day.
We found that three was the magic number to save money. If you are going to visit more than three attractions on the I amsterdam list (all major attractions are included except the Anne Frank House), then you will definitely save money.
Top tips for navigating Amsterdam with kids – car, tram, foot, bike, taxi, or ferry?
Amsterdam in Holland is a good size in many ways but for navigating with children it can be awkward.
The city isn’t huge like London or Paris where you have to get public transport to most areas. And it isn’t compact enough to just cover on foot with little ones.
We found the quickest and simplest way around was to catch the trams. You can buy an hourly or daily ticket. A child’s daily ticket costs 4 euros. If you have an I amsterdam card, travel is included but only on GVB transport (that is every bus or tram which is blue and white).
The trams are a fun option for children as you don’t see them that often in the UK. They were almost always on time and clean when we visited, however there isn’t much ventilation so they get a bit stuffy in hot weather.
If you do end up walking and you will do for some journeys, watch out for the cyclists.
I know it is an Amsterdam cliche but bikes are literally everywhere and the cycle lanes are between the road and the pavement.
It is easy to forget about the bikes when you cross the street, when already looking out for trams, cars and other vehicles. Plus they don’t seem to often stop for red lights.
Even the most confident of drivers avoids driving in Amsterdam. The roads are confusing and hectic and parking is scarce and really expensive (around 5 euros an hour). So it’s lucky that Amsterdam has such good public transport.
Dutch cyclists are very, very confident and quick and really know what they are doing and where they are going.
The pace is full-on, it is definitely NOT the place for youngsters to be practising their skills, so make sure children are really, really competent if this is how you plan to get around.
Or get them to sit on your bike. We saw children riding in seats in front of the adult cyclists, not behind like is common in the UK. There are also cute bike trailers or cargo bikes (where a large container is attached at the front of the bike for the children to sit/play in).
More cycling in Amsterdam tips:
*There are lots of places to hire bicycles in Amsterdam.
*Cross tram lines diagonally else you could get your wheel stuck.
*Remember to stay to the right and most cycle paths are one-way
*Helmets are not required by law (I didn’t see a single one), but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear one.
Taxis and Uber
You can’t just hail a taxi in Amsterdam, there are specific taxi ranks or you have to call to order them. We tried an Uber (the popular taxi app) for one journey and the vehicle arrived immediately. Just remember that they probably won’t have children’s car seats or booster seat and fares can be unpredictable. The main city centre has priority given to cyclists and pedestrians over cars so what on the map can look like short taxi journeys may take quite a long time (and therefore cost more).
You can get free ferries across the River IJ. They are blue and white and can mostly be caught behind Amsterdam Central Station. See here for routes and schedules.
We caught the free NDSM ferry from the far left hand side of the station which took us to a Pancake Boat cruise but the short 20-minute return journey would be fine for some free sightseeing from the river.
Beat the hefty parking fees and hectic streets of Amsterdam with our 10 steps to the park and ride system
We travelled to Amsterdam with our car, via ferry (full review here).
Handy? Well, yes, especially for the next part of our journey. But drivers are warned to avoid taking cars into Amsterdam city centre itself. It is difficult for tourists to navigate, has a high volume of trams and bicycles, scant parking spaces and hefty parking fees.
Thankfully, there are park and ride (P+R) options – seven good value car parks on the edge of the city.
Follow our 10-step guide to using them.
Find a park and ride site, they are marked from the motorways. The biggest and most popular is Olympic Stadium. The junction signs will tell you if the P+R is full (Vol means full in Dutch, Vrij mean free).
You can’t book in advance.
Enter the car park and take a normal ticket.
Park up and find one of the blue park and ride machines. Buy the number of transport tickets you need (one per person – each ticket costs around 2/3 euros).
Find public transport into the city centre straight away. You only have an hour after parking to reach the city centre.
IMPORTANT – You can only use the blue and white GVB trams or buses.
Tickets are not valid on other options like the metro or red buses.
When you enter the tram/bus you MUST tap your ticket (everybody’s tickets) on the small, black, circular machine next to the door.
Ride to your city centre stop and when you exit you MUST tap the card on the exit to register it.
Put that card away for the remainder of your Amsterdam visit. It is useless until your return journey to park and ride – but don’t lose it!
When leaving the city to get your car, repeat the process – tap in with your original blue card when boarding and then tap out when you arrive to collect your car.
Return to the special park and ride machine in the car park.
Put your car park ticket in first. A huge price comes up. Don’t panic.
Then scan your blue transport card and if you have followed the steps above your fee goes down to potentially as low as 1 euro per day.
This is the cheapest way to take a car to Amsterdam but it is fiddly and complicated so take care to follow these steps and you will save possibly hundreds of euros to spend on your holiday.
We review a stay at NH Amsterdam Centre in Holland/The Netherlands
Where is it?
NH Amsterdam Centre is a well-positioned hotel right next to Leidseplein square in Amsterdam. It is across the road from canal cruises, within five minutes’ walk of Vondelpark, Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.
What is it?
A six-floor hotel featuring cafe and restaurant, gym and sauna.
Is it family friendly?
Fairly – standard rooms don’t accommodate more than two people so you will have to book a suite or superior room.
Breakfast was of a high standard but is adult-orientated – eg cereal options were cornflakes or six different types of muesli. But our children were welcomed with activity book and crayons.
The televisions in the rooms have a good choice of English language channels including some children’s programmes.
Tasteful and modern decor with a light wooden floor, the rooms are welcoming. We thought the beds were very comfortable and a good size.
Bathrooms vary, we tried a superior room with a bath and overhead shower and then a suite (which was a great size), which just had a large shower.
There were good size flat screen televisions (two in the suite)! Plus tea and coffee facilities and a small fridge/mini-bar.
The suite had two televisions
Food and drink
Breakfast has a high-quality selection of food. As noted above, it isn’t geared particularly towards children but the food was excellent with eggs made to order, fruit, cooked options and pastries.
For lunch and dinner, the Copper Pot restaurant does not offer a separate children’s menu but they happily catered for our two.
The restaurant is at the front of the hotel, with modern decor looking out onto the road, park and canal opposite.
We all really enjoyed our dinner there and it was nice to finish the day close to bed for our children after a busy day exploring Amsterdam.
The location is great. Next to the busy Leidseplein, it is walking distance from three major attractions – Vondelpark, Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.
There is a tram stop across the road with a frequent service into the heart of Amsterdam (Centraal Station is about a 15-minute ride on the tram). In addition, you can take lovely canal strolls just outside the door and catch several canal cruises (we took the Blue Boat company family cruise from just down the road from the hotel, see our review here). There are also plenty of places to eat around Leidseplein.
Location – far enough into the city to be near major attractions but well away from the seedier side of Amsterdam. The hotel is in a great spot for exploring.
Breakfast – a high quality selection of food in a nice dining area. The scrambled eggs were particularly good. The pastries were fresh and there was lots of choice – plus the colouring packs kept the children entertained.
Beds – comfortable and clean in bright and modern rooms.
Value – when we booked it was a great price for peak season, for the standard of hotel.
Address: NH Amsterdam Centre, Stadhouderskade, 7, Amsterdam, 1054ES, Netherlands.