London – that great sprawl of brick, concrete and glass – is a surprisingly green city, with pockets of parkland making up more than half of the British capital. From posh Mayfair to hip Hackney, escaping the urban bustle is something of a local pastime. The first hint of sunshine sees blissed-out Londoners heading to their neighbourhood park, cold drinks and frisbee in hand, for a chance to soak up the rays.
But there’s more to London’s parks than just picnics on picture-perfect lawns. From swimming ponds to sandy pitches and herds of deer, the capital’s best parks have a little extra something going on. We’ve rounded up six of the city’s most iconic parks – and the reasons you should hotfoot it there this summer.
Once Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, this sprawling royal park is a favourite haunt for sports enthusiasts and idle loungers alike. The atmosphere here is genteel, thanks to horse-riding trails, a memorial fountain to Princess Diana and much loved outdoor concerts. Its open-air Serpentine Lido is a good spot for a swim: locals even swear by a splash in the winter.
A Regency-era landmark on the edge of Camden Town, this prettily landscaped park is a firm favourite with families. Soak up the scenery with a paddle around the meandering lake, then treat yourself to tea and cake at the Boathouse Café. Catch live performances at the Open Air Theatre, and get to know the more than 750 animals at the London Zoo.
Dinosaurs haven’t completely gone extinct in London. Make the trip to this Victorian-era park to wander among 30 full-sized antediluvian beasts, built with the park in 1854. It’s now a pleasure ground for rather more modern South Londoners. Get lost in the bewildering hedge maze, join a game of beach volleyball or show off your best tricks in the skate park.
One of the world’s largest botanical treasure troves, these celebrated gardens are home to more than 30,000 species of plants from across the globe. Step into a tropical paradise in the newly reopened Temperate House, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world. Or, see the gardens as a bird might on the Treetop Walkway, a dizzying 18 metres above the ground.
Few visitors come to London for bird-watching – except where this royal park is concerned. The gardens’ most famous locals are a pod of pelicans, whose ancestors arrived when a Russian ambassador gifted them to Charles II in 1664. Visit them at the lake, then get a taste of London’s grandeur along the dramatic approach to Buckingham Palace.
Set your watch while standing on the prime meridian at Christopher Wren’s Royal Observatory. This famously beautiful park was in fact designed by a certain Monsieur Le Nôtre (of Versailles fame, no less). There’s plenty to draw visitors here beyond postcard-worthy views of London. Root around the culinary herb garden and drop in to visit the residents at London’s oldest deer park.
Run riot in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, with its pirate-ship centrepiece.
Just a stone’s throw from crowded Holborn and the imposing colonnades of the British Museum, this garden is a peaceful retreat, hidden behind a low wall. After a few laps of the park, it’s time for a well-earned breakfast. Head for the Fields Bar and Kitchen, a café with Scandinavian flair over by the tennis courts. Go for a full English, or moreish French toast with bacon and maple syrup.
This is the leafy heart of London’s richest neighbourhood (Branson and the Beckhams bought here). It’s always been blue-blooded, as the grounds of Cope Castle and home of Lady Rich (yes, really). But its mind-blowing adventure playground, with a swing, climbing wall, zipline and other thrills, is a great leveller. Peace-seekers can meditate in the breathtaking Kyoto Garden.