UK & Ireland

Unmissable UK winter family destinations to entertain energetic kids

Keeping your kids entertained when it's cold outside isn't easy, but mum Carrie Bradley knows exactly how to help with her picks of the best places to go for a great UK winter family holiday.

With a seven-year-old and a four-year-old, life can become very busy with school, clubs and endless birthday parties. But as a family, we try and make time to visit our friends dotted all over the UK—whatever the season.

I find my children need to have a run-around and burn off all that bottled up energy—so unless the weather is particularly brutal you will find us outside, exploring a place for at least part of a day. The UK has a plethora of wintery attractions for families with some great centrally located family hotels. We’ve rounded up six places guaranteed to provide the kids with a fun-filled trip.

Winchester | a family-friendly city full of historical charm and countryside fun

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Picturesque Winchester is steeped in character with historical buildings, world-class attractions and countryside trails for walking and cycling. Did you know it is also the original capital of England? During winter it dazzles with festive fun—with something for all ages.

Things to do with the kids:

From December, there are the popular Santa Specials steam train rides on the Watercress Line. Travel in a festive train carriage for a magical trip where Santa and his jolly helpers pass through and give children a gift and an activity pack for the hour journey. We’ve been on a similar ride and my two enjoyed the build-up to the ride with little activities such as miniature train sets, carols being sung and moving animatronic Christmas scenes as you queue.

Once on the train, everybody gets into the spirit with festive songs, the excitement of the children is infectious with the anticipation of Father Christmas making his way through the carriages. The warming glass of mulled wine accompanied by a mince pie was much appreciated by us grown-ups too!

Journey through the Winchester Mill—a National Trust property—for a treasure hunt left by Father Christmas himself and help collect the reindeer. Treasure hunts always seem to go down a treat with our two: my eldest practises her reading and loves solving the puzzles, whilst the youngest is more motivated by finding the treasure before her sister!

Children and adults alike will enjoy ice-skating at the atmospheric open-air ice rink set up in the heart of the cathedral grounds. We all wobbled our way around and our youngest appreciated the penguins on stabilisers—which help give little ones a bit more independence. Surrounding the ice rink is one of the best Christmas Markets in Europe—full of pretty wooden chalets filled with crafts, gifts and festive food. Don’t forget a glass of warming mulled wine and of course hot chocolate topped with marshmallows!

If it’s too chilly outside, families can head to the Winchester Science Centre and planetarium. My eldest would be thrilled by the interactive games and an immersive space zone—where you can find out how to bend light, create a tornado and vortex, experiment with electronic music, see a heat-sensitive camera in action and lots more. Even the youngest tots are catered for too.

A short drive away from the city centre, set in acres of land, lies another popular attraction—Marwell Zoo. There is even a tropical house area if you need to warm up! The zoo also hosts an enchanted Christmas World: Listen to Mother Christmas as she tells stories from Neverland—inspired by Peter Pan.

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Marwell Hotel, close to Marwell Zoo, is a safari-themed hotel with family rooms set in the countryside. Some family rooms come equipped with bunk beds and a double bed. All rooms have a kettle—which is useful if you need to make up a bottle of milk.

Facilities include a large indoor swimming pool, an outdoor play area, free wifi and an activity pack for kids! Older kids may enjoy the games room and movie nights. Best of all, it is walking distance to Marwell Zoo.

Marwell Hotel

7.8 Good (2230 reviews)

London | Bright lights, big city with great transport options for families.

London is a popular trip for families whatever the weather, but in winter the city truly sparkles and glistens in festive lights.

Things to do with the kids:

Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park: this yuletide winter-themed carnival opens every year in November and is home to a host of attractions including The Snowman™ Experience, Peter Pan On Ice, a new “Secret Forest” theme for The Magical Ice Kingdom, a virtual reality roller coaster, a Parade of Light. Returning favourites include shows from Zippos Christmas Circus and Cirque Berserk, a big wheel and the UK’s biggest open-air ice rink. It is free to enter but the games, rides and special attractions do require tickets.

Always a crowd-pleaser, the Natural History Museum. is a fun-filled way to spend your day and an absolute must for dinosaur fans like my pre-schooler. From October to late January, there is an ice-skating rink and a traditional carousel.

Kidzania is a miniature city for kids with over 60 real-life role-play adventures. From the moment you step into the ‘airport’ and hand over your boarding pass, you’re whisked away into a world of play. Children are able to have jobs and make money. They can be a doctor, pilot, fireman, work for the postal office, retail, learn to cook, write for the newspaper, work in broadcasting and even play on a professional football team. I am not sure who had the most fun in the pilot section—me or the girls?

For some unusual trip ideas in London, how about visiting an underground postal museum and riding on the old postal train, or explore the Museum of Childhood or even the Churchill War Rooms?

With great transport links, London can easily be used as a base to visit attractions further afield, too. For example, Muggles can walk in the footsteps of Harry Potter and explore the wonders of the Wizarding World at the Warner Brothers studio tour in Watford. This is absolutely top of our list as we are huge Harry Potter fans (even the four-year-old!)—but be warned, tickets must be bought well in advance and popular dates such as school holidays sell out quickly!

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Park Plaza Westminster Bridge is centrally located for many tourist attractions including Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, and Buckingham Palace. It is also very close to the London Eye. Unusually, for a centrally-based London hotel, it comes with an indoor pool.

Helpfully for families, rooms are equipped with fridges—which is incredibly useful when you are travelling with kids: mine like having fresh fruit to hand and when they were younger warm milk before bedtime. The family studio room has a double bed and a double sofa bed for children. The kitchen area has a kettle, microwave plus a mini-bar.

Just outside the hotel, you can expect great transport links for the buses, tube and even the river bus. Top tip: If you are visiting over the New Year period, ask for a room facing the London Eye to catch the fireworks!

Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London

Top rated
8.6 Excellent (7241 reviews)

Edinburgh | a mystical castle and family fun at a children’s market set in a friendly city

With its majestic castle welcoming you to the city, you can’t help but be enthralled with all it has to offer—whatever the season. However, in winter especially, Edinburgh becomes rather magical indeed.

Things to do with the kids:

Younger kids will love Santa Land in Princes Street Gardens, a festive fairground with six fun rides and a children’s Christmas market full of gifts and toys. Try to find the Elves’ Workshop hidden in the Christmas Tree Maze, or visit Santa’s Grotto to meet the man himself! Those looking for an ice-skating rink will be happy to see the one in St Andrew Square.

For a further festive shopping experience, there are several other Christmas markets, including food and drink and traditional crafts at the Scottish Market on George Street, and the European Market in the Mound Precinct.

If you are in Edinburgh over New Year, head down to the Torchlight Procession on the 30th December. My two would be full of delight and no doubt plenty of ‘ooh’s and ahhs’ at the children’s firework display in Bairns Afore to celebrate Hogmanay.

No trip would be complete without exploring Edinburgh Castle, which hosts the Scottish crown jewels, weapons and armoury, an impressive Great Hall and much more.

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Rutland Hotel is an ideal base to explore Edinburgh. For rainy days, you’ll be pleased to know your TV has Netflix—which basically makes a hotel “the best’ in my kids’ eyes! Cots and folding beds are available, plus a Nintendo Wii, free toy boxes and baby packs with monitors. Teenage girls will be pleased to hear GHD hairdryer and straighteners are provided in every room, too.

Splurge on their two bedroomed apartment—perfect for families like mine who appreciate not having to whisper in the dark whilst small ones sleep! The onsite restaurant caters for children before 6.30 p.m. Otherwise, head to the nearby “Dough” take-away pizzeria and enjoy a delicious pizza in the comfort of your hotel room.

The Rutland Hotel & Apartments

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9.6 Excellent (694 reviews)

Cardiff | discover art, history and culture with kids

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Not to be outdone, Cardiff has a Winter Wonderland, too! With an indoor ice-skating rink, a funfair, seasonal activities, bars and food stalls, all against the backdrop of the iconic civic centre and spectacular lights.

Things to do with the kids:

Space fans will be enthralled by seeing the spacecraft that brought British astronaut Tim Peake back to Earth from the International Space Station. Running from November to February at the National Museum Wales. We visited the exhibition during its stop at Peterborough Cathedral—which has sparked a fascination with all things space-related with my seven-year-old.

Marvel at the festive decorations at Cardiff Castle and visit Santa’s Grotto. Explore the tunnels within the walls of the Castle. Tunnels which acted as air-raid shelters during the Second World War. Alternatively, head to the historic undercroft and enjoy the underground cinema over Christmas.

Culture vultures will love the ballet shows at St David’s Hall. This year, the Russian State Ballet of Siberia is accompanied by The Russian State Ballet Orchestra return with four enchanting ballets including Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella and the Snow Maiden.

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Novotel Cardiff City Centre is a four-star hotel which is just a 15-minute walk from Cardiff Castle. Spacious rooms have free Wi-Fi, a mini-fridge and kettle—perfect for a hot cup of tea after exploring the city.

Children dine free at breakfast, but the hotel clearly hasn’t seen how much mine eat! Older kids will enjoy the Xbox and Apple computers in the lobby area. There is also an indoor heated pool which is a huge bonus when travelling with kids.

Novotel Cardiff Centre

8.3 Very good (2558 reviews)

Derry-Londonderry | Kid-friendly activities galore near the ancient city walls and River Foyle

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Derry–Londonderry is the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest in Europe. Fans of Horrible Histories will enjoy the fascinating stories about 17th-century sieges, starving citizens and fearsome roaring cannons.

Things to do with the kids:

Jungle NI in Moneymore, County Londonderry is an exciting outdoor adventure location offering paintballing, zorbing, segwaying, a high wire Tarzan treetop adventure course and much more. Over the festive period, there is also a Christmas Wonderland where children can meet and greet Santa, ride on the Jungle Express to and from Santa’s retreat in the forest, enjoy storytelling and puppetry with Mrs Claus or even ride a rodeo reindeer!

Need to entertain teens? For something a little bit different for older teens, how about riding in a hovercraft? Foylehov Activity Centre is the only Hovercrafting Centre in Northern Ireland. For those who don’t quite make the age requirements, there are family days out packages which can include archery, laser tag, football, golf and clay pigeon shooting.

Just over an hour away, lies the Giant’s Causeway, part of the National Trust and a World Heritage site. My kids would love searching for the Giant’s Boot, the Wishing Chair and the Camel!

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The Roe Park Resort has parkland walks on your doorstep, plus it is home to an 18-hole golf course (I usually omit this sort of information to my husband!). The Giant’s Causeway and historic city of Derry-Londonderry are just minutes away and the family suites are amongst the largest family rooms in Northern Ireland.

This hotel is also equipped with an indoor pool and baby pool for smaller tots—but you do need to bring a swimming cap to use the pool and hot tub. These can be currently purchased for £2.50 in the spa reception area. An array of kid-friendly activities are put on at various times; including a kids’ disco, balloon making and face-painting.

Roe Park Resort

Top rated
9.2 Excellent (1380 reviews)

Windsor | a family- friendly town full of pomp, ceremony and kid friendly activities

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With two recent royal weddings, Windsor has been very much in the public eye. From the historic castle to festive theme park offerings, there is something here for kids big and small.

Things to do with the kids:

Windsor Castle is clearly a must-do—it is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world which has plenty of areas to see and explore for all ages. Ice skating fans will enjoy Windsor on Ice, set by the River Thames, with Windsor Castle as a backdrop. In addition, there are also children’s rides and other Christmas shows and attractions, these include a Reindeer parade, pantomimes, Christmas holiday walks and trails for all the family.

The Legoland theme park is a short distance away, with plenty of extra festive fun over winter; including creative workshops, treasure hunts, elf scavenger hunt, costumes character meet and greet. Before Christmas, kids can meet Santa and if you are good, receive a Lego gift.

For an immersive wintery trip, then consider Lapland UK. Lapland UK is just 15 minutes away in nearby Ascot and recreates Father Christmas’ arctic homeland. Make sure you book in advance—this enables you to give your child’s details to Santa, making it a unique personal visit. Children can help the elves make toys, wander through snowy woods and enjoy ice-skating.

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The Holiday Inn Express is a great option for families on a budget, especially as children under-19 stay for free. It is just a few minutes from Windsor Castle and only a ten-minute drive from Legoland.

A welcome amenity are the in-room tea and coffee facilities. However, don’t expect many more frills. It is a clean, modern hotel with on-site parking (for a fee). Alternatively, there is a public car park located approximately 10-minutes walk away. Look out for the small shop nearby which sells duck and swan food: £1 for two bags, perfect for a gentle stroll to the river.

Holiday Inn Express Windsor, An Ihg Hotel

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8.6 Excellent (3377 reviews)