The neighbourhood around Kings Cross station has undergone an incredible transformation over the last two decades. Today, it’s bustling neighbourhood where glossy corporate headquarters for the likes of Google and Universal Music sit alongside cool restaurants and bars, high-end shops and lively food markets.
But it wasn’t so long ago that Kings Cross was an area best avoided, especially at night. It had a reputation for drugs, prostitution and illegal raves in cavernous warehouses. It was edgy, seedy and rebellious.
Today, however, Kings Cross is booming. The regeneration of the Kings Cross area – covering 67 acres behind Kings Cross and St Pancras stations, an area known as the railway lands – is one of the biggest in London.
What was once ex-industrial brownfield land is now home to showpiece architecture by some of the UK’s best known names, modern apartment blocks and public spaces as well as bars, restaurants, shops and more. But the neighbourhood doesn’t only look good, there are plenty of fun things to do in Kings Cross too.
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Much of the neighbourhood’s past has been kept alive in the new Kings Cross design. Coal Drop’s Yard, home to upmarket shopping, once stored 15,000 tons of coal and Central St Martins art school is housed within a vast ex goods depot.
Two of the most striking buildings are the Gasholder apartment blocks, housed within the original wrought iron circular gasholder guideframes. This is where gas was once stored.
Of course, the area is still home to King’s cross station with trains departing regularly, linking London to the rest of the country as well as Europe via Eurostar departing from St Pancras station.
But even if you are just travelling through the neighbourhood, or have time to kill while you wait for your train, it is well worth taking some time to stop and explore. You will discover lots of fun things to do in Kings Cross!
The best things to do in Kings Cross
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The following suggestions are some of our favourite things to do in the immediate Kings Cross neighbourhood and some – such as the Postal Museum and Charles Dickens Museum – that are just a short walk away. The British Museum is roughly a 20 minute walk away.
Don’t miss the colourful rainbow tunnel exit from the London Underground. This highly Instagrammable curved light tunnel features 190 vertical panels of constantly changing colours – teens will love it! You’ll find the light tunnel in the north-east corner of One St Pancras Square.
On Battle Bridge Place, just outside the German Gymnasium is another one of Kings Cross’ most photo-worthy attractions, the ‘Birdcage’. This structure (which is also a popular meeting place) comes alive at night when its lit by an array of neon colours. Be prepared to queue for a turn on the swing inside.
Visitors looking for the House of Illustration should know that the museum has moved and is now known as the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, named after the English cartoonist, caricaturist, illustrator and children’s writer, Sir Quentin Blake.
During the summer months, Everyman Cinema presents Screen on the Canal, an outdoor cinema in front of Regent’s Canal.
Serious Harry Potter fans know that there’s only one reason to head to Kings Cross and that’s to have your photo snapped at Platform 9¾.
Head to the concourse of King’s Cross mainline station, between platforms 8 and 9, and queue up for the chance to pose with a luggage trolley on the threshold of the magical Potter platform.
A professional photographer is on hand to capture the magic or, you can take your own snaps. The Harry Potter shop is just next door selling Harry Potter books, wands and myriad other magical things from the wizarding world.
Granary Square is where you’ll find Central St Martins, London’s prestigious art school, and amazing dancing fountains. Outside the main entrance are the Granary Square fountains, a true highlight for kids and an amazing free thing to do in the city. When the sun is shining, the square is packed with families watching as children run, shrieking with delight, through 1,080 jets of water.
Coal Drops Yard
Coal Drops Yard once formed part of the King’s Cross Coal Depot, responsible for storing 15,000 tons of coal to power the city. Today it’s an upmarket shopping and restaurant complex that’s also home to an Everyman cinema, a live music venue and some fun late night bars. The space also hosts regular events from photograph exhibitions and car boot sales to regular markets.
The Canopy Market takes place every Friday – Sunday with lots of delicious street food on offer as well as homewares and designs by London artists. There are always fun events taking place for kids during the school holidays (they had a curling rink one Christmas) so make sure to check the schedule.
Positioned alongside the canal towpath is one of London’s most unique parks housed within the cast iron frame that once held 1.1 million cubic feet of gas. Gasholder No. 8 is the largest or the iconic gasholders that once dominated the neighbourhood.
Amazingly, the wrought-iron structure was taken apart piece by piece to be restored before being put back together again. Today the structure frames lovely public gardens. It’s the perfect place for a picnic on a sunny day.
Camley Street Natural Park
One of the best free things to do in the Kings Cross neighbourhood with kids is to visit Camley Street Natural Park. Located on the banks of Regent’s Canal is this former coal yard turned nature reserve is run by the London Wildlife Trust.
The two acre space is home to birds, butterflies, bats and more, and regular family activities take place including pond dipping, bug hunting and wildlife arts and crafts.
Make sure to visit Viewpoint, a floating platform where you can sit and take in the views of the canal and the park.
Calthorpe Community Garden
Another green space in the former railway lands is Calthorpe Community Garden. The project started nearly 40 years ago when locals successfully campaigned for Camden Council to use a newly acquired block of land to create a community garden path than can office block.
Today, the gardens are haven for the local community and are open to all. There’s a sports pitch, playground and regularly daily sessions on everything from general gardening and tennis for beginners to coffee meet-ups and cooking classes.
St Pancras Gardens
Behind the railway lines and development around Granary Square is St Pancras Gardens, and St Pancras Old Church, one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in England. Behind the church are the remains of the Hardy Tree, a once mighty ash tree that was named after the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy.
Long before Hardy became a famous author, he worked for an architect’s firm who was hired in the 1860s to exhume human remains, including recently buried ones, from the cemetery to make way for a new railway line. Hardy oversaw the project and, according toe legend, arranged headstones around the base of the ash tree, which was later named after him.
Others say that there’s little evidence to support the story and that it’s more likely that the tree’s roots grew around and over the headstones.
Sadly, the tree became infected with a fungus in 2014 and at the end of 2022, finally toppled over.
St Pancras Station
St Pancras Station opened in 1868, a wonder of Victorian engineering and one of the most beautiful stations in the world.
It was built by the Midland Railway Company to connect London with major cities across England. Its grand design – along with the St Pancras Hotel – was meant to represent the might of the Company.
The train shed, designed by William Henry Barlow, was build on wrought-iron pillars topped with a 207m-long and 74.8m-wide glass arched ceiling – making it the largest enclosed space in the world at the time.
But in the early 1900s, things started to go downhill. The Midland Grand Hotel closed and the building was used for railway offices. The station was badly damaged during the Second World War and later changes to the railway routes mean that station was no longer useful.
Plus, the grand – yet impractical – design made the building hard to convert and so it sat for years covered in London’s grime and soot.
In the 1960s plans were afoot to tear the building down. Fortunately, however, Poet Laureate John Betjeman started a campaign to save the station from demolition and, in 1967 – just 10 days before the wrecking balls were due to start work – the building was granted Grade I listed status. A life size bronze statue of John Betjeman, by sculptor Martin Jennings, stands today on the station’s upper level.
Despite being saved from destruction, it look another 40 years for the station to reopen. The actual restoration process took nearly 13 years and around £800 million. St Pancras reopened in November 2007 and is now a truly beautiful place.
As well as the tribute to John Betjeman look out for the sculpture ‘The Lovers Statue’ by Paul Day. This 9m tall bronze statue of a couple embracing is often the first thing you see when you step off the Eurostar (St Pancras being the hub for Eurostar trains running Paris and beyond) and is apparently a wildly popular spot for proposals.
Shining bright in the main concourse is a giant neon sign by renowned British artist Tracey Emin. The giant pink letters stretch for 20metres with the words I Want My Time With You.
St Pancras is also home to Europe’s longest champagne bar. Kids might not be interested in the champagne at Searcys but they might enjoy the afternoon tea. The Staycation Afternoon Tea arrives in a suitcase with a choice of tea (or a glass of champagne), a selection of savouries, freshly baked scones and decadent sweet treats.
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel
You can’t miss the beautiful St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, it’s one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in London.
The hotel was commissioned by the Midland Railway Company and no expense was spared on this Grand Dame. First completed in 1876, the ‘Midland Grand Hotel’ featured gold leaf throughout and every room had a fireplace (that’s 600 fireplaces in total!).
The hotel was home to England’s first revolving door and the grand staircase was designed to be wide enough to allow two ladies to pass comfortably in their large dresses. This staircase was also famously used in the Spice Girls’ Wannabe music video!
The hotel began to fall out of favour from the early 1900s and shut in 1935 to become offices and accommodation for the railway. In the 1980s it shut completely and was left abandoned until 2004 when it was given planning permission to turn it back into a hotel by the Marriott group.
The hotel reopened in 2011 and is once again a true Grand Dame of Kings Cross.
The Welcome Collection is a free museum and library that sits along the Euston Road, just a short walk from the Kings Cross train station. The museum explores what it means to be human through books, manuscripts, images and objects.
It was started by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, an American pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector with an interest in health and medicine. An ardent traveller, Wellcome voyaged around the world building up a collection of art and artefacts along the way – as well as a number of museums.
The Wellcome Collection opened in 2007 and the permanent and temporary exhibitions explore themes related to health and medicine. The permanent exhibition, ‘Being Human’ explores what it means to be human in the 21st century.
Past exhibitions have explore the psychology of magic, Indian medicine and the asylum.
A museum dedicated to canals and canalboats might sound a little unusual but it’s a fascinating insight into the large and varied network of canal routes that snake their way through the capital.
Originally built to transport goods, today they are some of the prettiest corners of London (our favourite is Little Venice) and canalboats are used for all kinds of purposes including bookshops and even a puppet theatre.
Housed within a former ice warehouse from 1862, the London Canal Museum explores the history of the canals and the lives of the workers and cargoes, as well as the history of the ice trade and ice cream!
One of our favourite museums in London is a quick 15-minute walk from Kings Cross. Located opposite the enormous Royal Mail depot, the London Postal Museum explores the history of the humble letter as well as the origins of postal service.
The museums consists of three parts: the main museum traces the history of the Royal Mail; Sorted! is a fun interactive play space for children under the age of 8; and the Mail Rail gives visitors the opportunity to travel underground on the original railway that once transported letters and parcels across the city. The museum really is a great place for all ages.
The Postal Museum regularly hosts family-friendly events during the school holidays.
The British Library
The incredible British Library is a short walk from Kings Cross and well worth a visit. Home to over 170 million items from almost every language and faith group, it is one of the largest libraries in the world. The collection is so large that the library estimates if you were to see five items each day, it would still take you over 80,000 years to see the entire collection!
Some of the highlights from the collection include the Magna Carta and Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebook as well as manuscripts from Jane Austen, Handel and the Beatles.
At the heart of the library is the King’s Library, the collection of George III, which contains 65,000 volumes of printed books and 19,000 pamphlets from Britain, Europe and North America.
The library hosts regularly events and exhibitions relating to its collection, including family-friendly workshops during the school holidays.
Charles Dickens Museum
Not far from the Postal Museum is another one of London’s more unusual museums. Housed within the Victorian home where Charles Dickens lived with his family between 1837-1839 is this museum dedicated to the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.
This really is a fascinating insight into the life and times of Dickens; the house has been set up to look as if the famous author was still living there and represents a traditional middle-class Victorian home with furnishings, portraits and decorations that belonged to Dickens.
Also on display are works by Dickens; it was while living here that he finished writing The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist.
Word on the Water
London is home to some fantastic bookshops for kids and while this one isn’t dedicated solely to children it is still one of our top things to do in Kings Cross.
Housed on 100-year-old Dutch barge, Word on the Water stocks a wide range of titles across a huge range of subjects. The floating bookshop also has a decent children’s selection. Visitors are invited to take their time browsing, there are even cosy corners where you can sit down and read for a while.
The UK’s first museum dedicated to LGBTQ history and culture opened in May 2022, in advance of the 50th anniversary of Britain’s first gay pride march.
The award-winning museum Queer Britain is dedicated to temporary exhibitions on LGBTQ+ themes. The museum’s inaugural exhibition, We Are Queer Britain, explore a century of activity art, culture and social history. Among the many exhibits on display was the cell door from Reading Gaol where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned and behind which he wrote De Profundis.
Entry to the museum is free.
Best restaurants in Kings Cross
As well as boasting lots of things to do, King’s Cross St. Pancras is home to dozens of excellent restaurants, many serving some of the best breakfasts in London. The following are some of our favourites:
Be prepared to queue at this Kings Cross branch of the popular Dishoom chain. This chain of Indian restaurants first opened in 2010 and have been wowing customers with their black daal and sausage naan role ever since. It’s one of our top places to eat in London with kids.
Another one of our favourite places to eat in Caravan. This branch is located on Granary Square and promises excellent all-day dining including pancakes and porridge for breakfast (or, my favourite, fried jalapeño cornbread) and grilled halloumi or hot-smoked salmon with seasoned rice for lunch. They also serve a mean pizza.
For the best Sri Lankan food in town head to Hoppers. A range of curries accompanied by traditional Sri Lankan hoppers and dosas (Sri Lankan savoury ‘pancakes’). They also serve larger rice dishes, perfect for sharing. There is no dedicated kids’ menu here.
For delicious steamed buns head to BAO, a Taiwanese cafe that serves tasty fluffy white buns handmade and steamed fresh each day in the bakery. Fillings include traditional beef as well as fish and prawn. You’ll find other things on the menu too including noodles, dumplings and rice – and bubble tea!
For a quick bite head to The Courtyard, a food hall home to four food stalls serving a variety of street food including sushi, vegan, tacos and more. Open seven days a week.
The German Gymnasium is one of those buildings with a fascinating history (admittedly there are a lot of buildings like that in London)> It was built in 1865 for the German Gymnastics Society and was England’s first purpose-built gymnasium. In 1866, it hosted London’s first indoor Olympic Games.
Today the Grade II listed building is home to an enormous restaurant divided into three parts: The Grand Café on the ground floor open all day; the Restaurant and the Meister Bar on the first floor. If you’re visiting with kids make a reservation for the Grand Café and enjoy excellent traditional German and European food (the schnitzel is very good). They also have a kids’ menu.
Morty & Bob’s
Morty & Bob’s is home to what we confidently believe is one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in town. They also serve sandwiches, burgers and make very good coffee.
Aux Pains de Papy
For a tasty sandwich or pastry treat (their eclairs are something else) head to this authentic French boulangerie and patisserie in Kings Cross. It’s the next best things to catching a train to Paris, promise!
Where to stay in Kings Cross
For ideas on where to stay in the Kings Cross area, take a look at the map below which details hotels and holiday rentals.
All photos from Depositphotos.com