This – the world’s most famous department store – is also the biggest department store in the UK, with 330 departments featuring everything from fine fashion to fragrances, homeware and interiors, antiques and artefacts, food delicacies and even pets. Shopping doesn’t always come top of the list for young children, but Harrods has a series of spectacular departments that are sure to delight every age group.
Located in the affluent borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the store has its origins at a less salubrious address, when 25-year-old Charles Henry Harrod established his drapery and haberdashery business at 228 Borough High Street in 1824. In 1849, in an effort to capitalise on trade to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, Harrod took over a small shop in Knightsbridge, the site of the current store, where he and his son, also Charles, built the business into a thriving retail operation selling medicines, perfumes, stationery, fruit and vegetables.
Disaster struck in early December 1883, when the store burnt to the ground. Remarkably, Charles Harrod still fulfilled all of his commitments of Christmas hamper deliveries that year – and made a record profit into the bargain. A new building was built on the same site, now in the famous palatial style, featuring a frontage clad in terracotta tiles adorned with cherubs, swirling Art Nouveau windows and topped with the iconic baroque-style dome.
Harrods has always prided itself on its superlative offering of wares. The store’s motto “Omnia Omnibus Ubique” is engraved as the insignia at the front of the building and boasts “All things for all people, everywhere.” All people, eh? Well, that would have to include children, right?
The Toy Kingdom is just that: an entire ‘world’ dedicated to play. This multi-sensory space features an enchanted forest, an intergalactic science lab, curious sweet emporium and toy ‘grand canyon’ devoted to every plaything imaginable, from
Lego to Ludo, fairies and Furbies, Scalextric and soft toys, more Barbies than you can shake a blonde mane at, plus a bonanza of books
Another favourite with children is the Pet Kingdom. In 1917 Harrods opened an in-store zoo offering live poultry and goats. Later, the department concentrated on unusual and exotic pets and became a children’s favourite. These days, the department is Harrods Pet Kingdom, and it still sells some pets – from fish to puppies and kittens. It also has accessories and haute couture for the discerning pooch (plus other pets) and delicacies such as Mini Pupcakes and Pupcorn from the Canine Cookie Company. Want your pooch in Burberry? No problem. And if your pet needs a treatment rather than a treat, there is always the Harrods Pet Spa.
As well as the Toy Kingdom, there is also a brand new Disney Store at Harrods and a new-look Disney Café, where you can enjoy afternoon tea or an assortment of hot dishes – but save room for your dessert, which could include a chocolate brownie in a rather familiar shape. (Clue: it has two big round ears).
Then there is the world-famous Harrods Food Hall, which sells edible delicacies from fine teas to truffles, foie gra to fortified wine and everything in between. There are currently 27 drinking and dining offerings, including family-friendly options at Godiva Chocolate Café, the Ice Cream Parlour and Milk Bar, Yoomoo Frozen Yogurt and Disney Café by Harrods. The gorgeous Laduree is tucked into a corner of the store and is the ideal spot for a sumptuous ‘special occasion’ afternoon tea with a little princess. If the princess in question is not performing so well, there is always the option of purchasing a few of the divine and delicate macaroons this establishment is renown for and taking them home for a bit of post-dinner bribery.
On its busiest days, Harrods welcomes up to 300,000 visitors through its famous doors, often held open by the distinctive “Green Men”, all suited and booted in deep emerald hues and ready to assist shoppers laden with the iconic green bags with golden lettering and turn away anyone who might be unsuitably clad in flip-flops and short shorts!
Over the years, Harrods’ esteemed customers have included Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. In 1921, AA Milne visited Harrods toy department and purchased a teddy bear for his young son, Christopher Robin, who became the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.
Fabulous facts about Harrods…
* In 1898, Harrods debuted England’s first “moving staircase”, a precursor to the escalator. The state-of-the-art device was actually a woven leather conveyor belt-like unit with a mahogany and silver plate-glass balustrade. After their heady ascent on the new-fangled staircase, customers were offered a reviving nip of Cognac and smelling salts to calm their nerves.
* The tradition of illuminated lights began in 1959 when 1,100 bulbs were used as Christmas decorations. Now, 12,000 light bulbs glimmer on the façade of Harrods, with up to 300 light bulbs needing to be changed every day.
* The promise to sell “everything” extended to animals. In the past, Harrods has famously – or perhaps imfamously – sold a baby elephant called Gertie as a gift for former US president Ronald Reagan, as well as an alligator for Noel Coward. In 1969, Christian the lion cub was bought from Harrods by two Australians, who cared for him in London until he was a year old. He was later reintroduced to the wild by George Adamson (of Born Free and Elsa fame).
* While you might be able to enjoy plenty of conventional shopping at Harrods, there is also plenty that is unconventional about this experience too. In October 2009, Harrods Bank started selling gold bars and coins that customers can buy off the shelf – or rather, from the safety vault! And in September 2007, Harrods hired some unconventional security: a live Egyptian cobra who guarded a £62,000 pair of haute couture ruby, sapphire and diamond encrusted sandals.
Why go? It’s the world-famous Harrods! Plus, for children, it really does offer an outstanding array of toys that can be difficult to find anywhere else in London (possibly even the world).
Who is it best for? All ages – if your children are closer to tweens the toddlers, they will still find plenty of fashion brands to ooh and ahh over.
Top Tip Mix up your visit so that it isn’t all about shopping – so prepare children for a visit to the Pet Kingdom as well as the Toy Kingdom, and plan to peruse the offerings in the Food Hall before you stop at one of the restaurants. After all, there are some glorious parks nearby where you might prefer to picnic on a sunny day.
Our favourite bits The Toy Kingdom, The Pet Kingdom, The Food Hall, and Laduree (for its gorgeous macaroons).
Don’t Go… If you only have half an hour – there is no way you are getting out of that toy store with less than an hour to spend.
While You’re Here… Head to the Diana Memorial Playground on the north side of Kensington Gardens (Harrods is on the south side of the Gardens); so do note that it is a bit of a walk, but a lovely one as long as it is a sunny or warmish day. Alternatively go the opposite direction and down to Exhibition Road where you could spend an afternoon at the Science Museum, the V&A or the Natural History Museum (all free to visit for adults and children alike).
CHRISTMAS 2013 New for Christmas 2013 is the exclusive pop-up Biddibi Bobbidi Boutique, already an established feature at Disneyland Resorts. Billed as “the ultimate immersive storytelling experience”, your child will be whisked away – under the gentle guidance of their own personal fairy godmother-in-training – into a magical world of fairytale heroes and heroines where they will learn the intricacies of life as a princess or a knight.
Decked out with more than a modicum of pink, the boutique has ‘thrones’ where children are seated as their magical transformation takes place. It’s true that this experience is more focussed towards the princesses, who can have their hair plaited like Rapunzel or tied chicly in a Cinderella chignon, while their nails are painted with sparkles and polish. Each child gets to choose an outfit too: for boys, a knight’s hooded top and a sword, while girls get to choose a dress in honour of their favourite Disney princess (judging by our fellow invitees, Rapunzel appears to be the current favourite).
Inspired by the famous “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” scene in the Disney animated classic Cinderella where “you can do magic, believe it or not”, all proceedings are accompanied by a Disney soundtrack, as the fairy godmothers in training (and the occasional mummy) will intermittently burst into song!
The Biddibi Bobbidi Boutique experience for children aged 3–12 years has a range of experiences to choose from Knight for £50 for the boys, and a choice for girls Courtyard £100; Crown £200; Castle £500 to Royal for a princely sum of £1,000 (the ultimate package which includes three exclusively designed luxury ball gowns, four glittering Princess shoes, a sparkly tiara and an exclusive sash and T-shirt, plus a make-up case filled with lots of goodies, a Princess travel case, a keepsake crystal Cinderella slipper and the complete Disney Princess doll collection.
The Harrods Christmas Grotto is another wonderful festive tradition, but book early as it’s always a sell-out (There is a £10 booking fee for the grotto, but you must be a Harrods Rewards Member to book tickets. Registration is free – as long as you are a UK resident? – and gives you access to exclusive offers).
And finally, one tradition that won’t cost a penny is the viewing of the Harrods Christmas windows. For 2013, it’s all aboard the Harrods Express with each window decked out to resemble an old-style locomotive carriage, filled with the most luxe and sought-after festive fashion, accessories or homewares. The spectacular display took 50 people 500 hours to build and features a stunning Ralph & Russo gown, dripping in Swarovski crystals and jewels, a snip at £80,000. One to rival a Disney princess. Well, almost.