1. St James’s Park
Best for palaces
One reason why London has so many green spaces is that many of the parks were previously royal gardens and hunting grounds. The general public started to get permission to walk in these previously restricted areas around two centuries ago, and St James’s Park, dating from 1532, was the first one to be opened to the public. Landscaped as a ‘pleasure garden’ with a lake (originally created so that the king could take a swim), its weaving paths and water features inspired many pleasure parks that were to come. Thanks to its close proximity to Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster, the park provides a perfect place to take a rest during a hard day’s sightseeing, and it’s also right next to the Churchill War Rooms (open 9:30am to 6pm every day, entry £17.25), the secret underground bunker where Winston Churchill spent the Second World War. The park’s most famous residents are undoubtedly the pelicans, a species not usually seen in the British Isles. The original birds were a gift from the Russian Ambassador in 1664, and you can watch their descendants being fed fresh fish between 2:30pm and 3:00pm every day, adjacent to the Duck Island Cottage. If you’re mad about palaces, take a peek at our guide to the top royal attractions in London, which even includes some info on where Charles Dickens is buried (he’s literary royalty, after all).
2. Greenwich Park
Best for history buffs
Situated on top of a hill, Greenwich Park provides sweeping views across the Thames and over the city. Greenwich is the oldest enclosed Royal Park, and is home to a herd of fallow and red deer along with the Secret Garden Wildlife Centre, which teaches children about the various flora and fauna in the area. But the park’s main attraction is The Royal Observatory (open daily 10am to 5pm, entry £9.50*), home of Greenwich Mean Time. The Prime Meridian – zero degrees longitude – runs straight through it, providing excellent photo opportunities as tourists straddle the line between east and west. Further down the hill is the National Maritime Museum (open daily 10am to 5pm, entry free), which introduces the story of Britain and the sea, showcasing treasures such as the coat Lord Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar. If you can’t get enough of history, take a look at this guide to London’s best museums – can you guess which one has its own Bat-Cave?
3. Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill
Best for romantic strolls
Queen Mary’s Gardens in Regent’s Park features more than 12,000 roses of 400 varieties, which makes it perfect place to take a romantic walk arm in arm with your loved one. After an amble among the flowers, head to the Open Air Theatre to catch an outdoor play – current productions include A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. The park officially shuts at 5pm (except for access to the theatre), but Primrose Hill is open all night, and the beautiful views across London provide a stunning backdrop for a moonlight walk a deux. It’s not all about couples, though: Regent’s Park is home to London Zoo (open daily 10am to 5.30pm, entry £29.75), one of the world’s oldest, and it also includes three children’s playgrounds, a boating lake and several sports fields.
4. Kensington Gardens
Best for Victorian oddities
Kensington Gardens contains the astoundingly ornate Albert Memorial, which commemorates Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, and was designed by George Gilbert Scott, who also designed St Pancras Station. The memorial is 53 metres tall, and took more than 10 years to complete. The park’s famous Peter Pan statue, meanwhile, was commissioned by the creator of Peter Pan himself, J.M. Barrie. It was secretly erected overnight in 1912 so that it would appear in the morning as if by magic, to the delight of park goers. Barrie lived close to Kensington Gardens, and it’s where he first bumped into the real life ‘Peter Pan and the Lost Boys’ (the Llewelyn Davies boys), who inspired his children’s stories. In the first Peter Pan tale, ‘The Little White Bird’, Peter flies out of his nursery and lands beside the Long Water (part of the Serpentine Lake – created in the 1720s). The statue is located on this exact spot. For a luxurious treat, head to the Orangery café in the exquisitely designed gardens of Kensington Palace, and swing by the Serpentine Galleries for daring exhibitions of contemporary art.
5. Hampstead Heath
Best for views
It’s hard to believe you’re still in of Europe’s major cities while exploring the huge, wooded expanse of Hampstead Heath, although once you get to the top of Parliament Hill, you can enjoy wonderful views across the entire city. The former stately home of Kenwood House and its estate have been incorporated into the park, and the building hosts a fine gallery (open daily 9am to 5pm) featuring works by Rembrandt, Turner, Gainsborough and Vermeer. If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind getting pondweed in your hair, bring your bathing costume with you: three of Hampstead Heath’s 25 ponds are for open swimming during the summer months. There’s even a pond for dogs!
6. Hyde Park
Best for events
Hyde Park hosts a bevy of concerts in the summer: famously, the Rolling Stones played there in 1969, then came back to play again in 2013, and Blur staged a concert to coincide with the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012. For the past 10 years, Hyde Park has been hosting the family friendly and very popular Winter Wonderland from November to January, an event filled to the brim with Christmas-themed rides and market stalls. Sights of interest in this huge open space include Marble Arch at the northeast corner, which is notable for its lack of a crowning statue of King George IV, even though he commissioned it –he died before it was completed, and the statue was cut to save costs. This area is now known as Speakers’ Corner and has been a traditional site for public speeches and debates for over a century.
7. Richmond Park
Best for pretending you’re in the countryside
Richmond Park is the largest of London’s Royal Parks: its vast expanse makes it feel like a bit of the countryside has invaded the city. It was created by Charles I in the seventeenth century as a deer park, and the deer are still its most famous feature. They roam free across the park in huge numbers (630 at the last count), except for the fenced-off Isabella Plantation, a beautiful woodland garden. Elsewhere, Pembroke Lodge is open to the public, and this Georgian mansion was once the residence of the Prime Minister John Russell and the childhood home of his grandson, the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Its landscaped grounds include King Henry’s Mound, from which there is a protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral (the hedges and trees have to be trimmed specially so as not to spoil the view). Despite this, you’ll be hard pressed to spot the cathedral – it’s only really visible through a telescope.
8. Holland Park
Best for opera
With its lovely views and woodland paths, Holland Park has a reputation for being one of London’s most stunning parks. It was first opened in 1952, and can be divided into three areas. The northern half of the park is semi-wild woodland, the central section around the ruins of Holland House is more landscaped, and the southernmost section is used for sport. Holland House is now a ruin after it was bombed in the Second World War, but the remains form a backdrop for the open air Holland Park Theatre, home of Opera Holland Park during the summer. The orangery is now an exhibition space, the ballroom is a restaurant, The Belvedere, and the ice house has become a gallery space. Holland Park is also the site of two Japanese gardens and an adventure playground, and peacocks can be found in abundance throughout the park.
9. Victoria Park
Best for hipsters
Opened in 1845, Victoria Park quickly became known as the People’s Park as a result of being the only green space near the historically poor East End, providing an amenity for the working classes. Nowadays it’s become something of a hipster haven, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the ultra-trendy Broadway Market, home of artisan food and alternative crafts from 9am to 5pm every Saturday. The park is bordered by canals on two sides that teem with brightly coloured narrowboats, and open-air pop and rock concerts are held every summer. The Pavilion Cafe has great views of the lake that dominates the centre of the park, while The Park Café serves award-winning sausages next to the skate park.
10. Battersea Park
Best for kids
Battersea Park dates from the Victorian era and includes a children’s zoo that is packed with suitably cute animals for youngsters, from chinchillas to squirrel monkeys to otters. It also boasts a huge sandpit, fort-style adventure playground and toy tractors to ride on, so there’s plenty to keep the kids occupied all day. Meanwhile, grown-ups can enjoy the Pump House Gallery in the centre of the park. Housed in a four-storey Victorian tower, the gallery hosts exhibitions, talks, workshops and film screenings throughout the year. Here are a few more ideas on where to take the kids in London, including where to see a dodo.
Here are a few more useful guides for planning a holiday in London:
The UK capital can be an expensive place to visit, but did you know that you can stay there for as little as zero pounds per person, per night?
London has thousands of pubs; from modern establishments honouring the city’s flourishing real ale and craft beer scene, to ancient public houses that haven’t changed since the last century.
April marks Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, and many people will be paying homage to the world’s favourite bard with a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. On this milestone, take a stroll and celebrate your favourite writers in London.
*Published March 2017. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.