Often we don’t have to travel far to find fun places to visit, fascinating history to admire or beautiful scenery to explore. And thankfully so, as I found day trips to be a highly effective way of giving a high-energy toddler a good run around, while having fun and making great memories as a family.
We’re very lucky in England, where organisations like the National Trust or English Heritage provide access to countless historic sites for little money. Farm parks, which are cropping up more and more, are another fun way to spend the weekend outside.
Here is my ever growing list of recommendations and ideas for anyone who is looking for a great family day out in Southern England (and beyond).
Drusillas describe themselves as the best zoo in South East England and Sussex, but I don’t think this does it justice. It is so much more than a zoo! The adventure playground, with various zones suitable for different age groups, is fantastic and can keep little ones busy for hours. The water play area is great for a refreshing break on a hot day. There are several rides and adventure areas to explore, as well as an indoor soft play for rainy days.
The zoo, with its vast range of species and educational walk through exhibits is a joy to discover and explore again and again. Close encounter experiences are available to make the day extra special, and seasonal events happen throughout the year.
Drusillas has a nearly 100-year history in Sussex and is one of my favourite places for a family day out. At £20 per person including children over two years old it is one for special occasions only, but good value annual memberships are available as well as occasional discount offers.
With its wide moat reflecting its grandeur in the sun, Herstmonceux Castle is one of the most beautiful castles in Sussex. While it certainly looks the part, Herstmonceux is in fact a rather large country house, built in the mid 15th century. It is surrounded by beautiful formal gardens and vast park and woodland. The gardens include a wonderful walled rose garden, a herb garden, a Shakespeare garden, a magical woodland garden and a collection of sculptures. It now houses an international study centre and is not open to the public, but tours are available on request.
Raystede is a beautiful sanctuary for pets and domestic animals, near Ringmer by Lewes. Laid out over a 43 acres of woodland, meadows and a large pond, it’s always a pleasure to visit. Although cats and dogs are usually kept inside, there’s plenty more to see: goats, donkeys, ponies, rabbits, guinea pigs, alpacas, tortoises, turkeys, and lots more. The colourful light installation over the pond has always been Rosie’s favourite. There’s also a play area, and a cafe and shop run by the charity. Visits are free although donations are welcome.
Less well known than Drusillas, Fishers is a farm-themed adventure land for kids of all ages. Star of the show are the farm animals which children are allowed to meet and stroke close up during regular animal encounters. There are numerous play areas, tractor and trailor rides, flume rides, trampolines, merry go rounds, barrel train rides, a ghost ride and much more. The indoor play areas are also excellent, with exciting slides and a delightful sensory den for little ones. Under 2s go free, adults cost £16.
Located in the unassuming town of Crawley, Tilgate Park is a treasure trove of activities for families. The nature centre is a cozy little mini-zoo, with a great selection of animals, from Tapirs to wallabies, reindeer to guinea pigs. It is organised by continents, with lots of educational activities for the kids. And at £4 entry it doesn’t break the bank. Tilgate parks also houses Go Ape, tree top adventures for both children and adults. There’s a boating lake and bike rental, an adventure playground, a restaurant, garden and cafe.
It would be hard to imagine this Asian inspired pleasure palace dreamed up by an arguably slightly mad King George IV in a place other than Brighton. The pavilion is a vision with its countless domes and torrets, and it’s interior never ceases to surprise. I’ve visited many times and I’m still gasping at the opulence of the dining hall, dominated by gargantuan, spikey dragon-inspired chandeliers. One of the highlights displayed in the vast kitchen is a menu served by chef Marie Antoine Carême in 1817, consisting of 121 dishes, emphasising the opulence of the banquets the Prince Regent held here. The pavilion and its gardens is fun to look at but the real surprise awaits inside.
The beauty of this former residence of one of Britains most iconic personalities, Winston Churchill, blew me away. While the house itself feels modest compared to other country retreats, the grounds are stunning. With views over the rolling hills and large grounds to amble in, it’s easy to see why Churchill and his wife loved this place. Visitors can explore the house, outbuildings, gardens and surrounding woodlands. It’s owned by the National Trust, so free for members.
It’s loud, oh so loud. Blaring speakers and talking Lego sculptures everywhere. But once you get over the noise and adjust your senses to the madness, it’s a real fun day out for families. The rides are fun and varied, and though the choice for under 2s is (understandably) limited there’s still plenty to keep them entertained. Adventure playgrounds, water splash areas, minature villages, and much more. The treasure hunt in the hotel room was a fun surprise, enjoyed by adults and kids alike. I particularly appreciated that the prize yo be won was adjusted to the age of the children staying in each room. And the food was so much better than expected, too. I didn’t want to like it, but I did…
Partnered with London Zoo, Whipsnade is more of a safari park than a traditional zoo, with a focus on big game. Elephants, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears… if you’ve not yet had the chance to see the big 5 in the wild, this is as close as it gets. Thankfully the enclosures are very spacious, allowing the animals to roam and play. Similarly to Longleat, it’s possible to drive between the ‘continents’ in the park, or explore on foot. A ride on the old coal fired steam train makes for a great introduction to the park. There’s also a couple of adventure playgrounds for kids to spend any remaining energy.
A little further afield in Staffordshire lies this monkey forest, which is linked to the Trentham Estate. Hundreds of Brarnaby maquaques roam freely in the grounds, catered for by attentive and engaging stagg. With the entrance ticket visitors can enter the ³/⁴ mile walk round the woodlands as many times as they like and take a break at the cafe, playgrounds or picnic areas in the surrounding parks in between. It’s easy to spend a few hours here and at a reasonable £9 it’s good value.