*First Published with Union Times*
:: Find the Best Park for Your Plans ::
This city blows my mind. The people, the energy, the industry, and the art… it’s contagious. It’s compelling! Coming from the relatively young city of New York, this kind of vivacity is confirmation that Londoners still have something vital to share with the world, even after almost two thousand years since their city was officially founded.
The dynamism is palatable even in the furthest reaches of the tube map, and it’s impressive. At the same time, there are moments I feel overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of stimuli, and at moments like this, I am very happy to live in a city that cherishes its green spaces.
The only problem? Knowing which park suits my plans best! These past few months have been a series of successes and failures as I explored the various parks and public gardens around London. Whether you’re a tourist looking for a verdant stroll or a busy citizen in search of a peaceful space, let me save you some time, energy, and money by sharing with you what I’ve learned so far.
Here are four top-notch London parks to get you started on your journey around London’s leafy bits…
:: WEST LONDON ::
This lovely park is one of my favorites. Surrounded by Kensington and Chelsea, it has a quite a lot to offer anyone with designs on being outdoors. There are three main sections : Game fields covering the southern reaches of the park for the athletic visitors, various well-kept gardens providing sun, shade, and scenery for peaceful strolls and serene lounging around the middle, and topping the lot of it is a knit of intertwining wooded paths providing an effective buffer from the quaint hubbub of Notting Hill’s boutique businesses and Victorian houses.
The only relatively “touristic section” of Holland Park, the popular Kyoto Garden with its slow-swimming koi and easy-going peacocks, is still tasteful and adroitly engineered with just a small amount of onlookers at any given time. Nearby you’ll undoubtedly find several quiet spots among manicured tulip gardens, warm glycine-covered stone walls, and patches of soft cut grass with views of sculptures and waterfalls. Occasionally, a curious peacock might wander by your small picnic to check you out.
And if you’re interested in opera, (you classy reader, you!) there is a large open-air opera theater in the repurposed Holland House that runs a myriad of operatic plays throughout the warmer months (generally June to August). Click here for a list of upcoming performances.
I would suggest Holland Park for anyone interested in:
+ Intimate, small-scale picnics
+ Exotic (yet docile) animals
+ Quiet wooded strolls
+ Art (The Friends of Holland Park)
+ Game fields
In the park:
+ Children’s Playgrounds
+ The Belvedere (Very fancy Modern “Euro Dining” in a gorgeous ballroom)
+ Holland Park Café (sustainably and locally sourced simple snacks)
+ Tennis Courts
+ The Ecology Center ( Educating young people about wildlife and ecology)
Around the Park:
+ Cafés & Bistros
+ High Street Kensington
+ Notting Hill
+ Holland Park Avenue
+ Portobella Market
+ Westbourne Grove
+ Kensington Palace
+ The Science Museum (free admission, but IMAX, simulators, and some special exhibitions require a ticket purchase)
+ Natural History Museum (free admission)
+ Olympia Exhibition Complex (Victorian Era show room)
If you’re looking for something a little larger yet still central, Regent’s Park might be the best place for you. Located in energetic Camden, Regent’s Park boasts an array of activities in and around the park that can keep you entertained for an entire day. First, let me begin by telling you what’s inside the park, then I’ll get to the good stuff on the outside.
410 acres of gaming fields, lakes, ponds, grounds, and gardens sprawl across several fantastic neighbors connecting them by a network of pleasant trails including a charming path along Regent’s canal.
Although admittedly a little drab in winter, once the flowers bloom this park is awash in soft tulip shades and punchy Passiflora, perfect for bringing real color back to your life. There are two main gardens: the font and flower-filled Avenue Gardens, designed by John Nash, and Queen Mary’s Gardens with it’s 12,000 types of roses to the west in the Inner Circle.
As you stroll through Queen Mary’s roses, you might come across the entrance to an popular spring and summer open air theater (aptly named the “Open Air Theater“) which entertains visitors with shows and events from May to September.
For some aqueous activity, the duck-laden Boating Lake hires out row boats and the unfortunately-named “pedalos” (they are paddle boats, people) for getting some exercise and strengthening your sea-legs. There is even a pond just for the kiddies to paddle about in and get out on their own for a bit.
Another great area for the young and young at heart is the Regent’s Park London Zoo located in the northern reaches of the park. It is a little pricey, adult tickets are £24.25 and children’s tickets clock in at around £17.60, but go down slightly in the colder months.
For sporty readers, Regent’s Park has an expanse of Grade I playing fields on which to get your blood pumping, and they are all connected by The Hub. This facility is where athletes can hire sports pitches, but it also offers showers, bathrooms, changing rooms, classes, children’s activities and even a café for after the match.
If there’s not enough space at The Hub’s café, another great place to grab a meal in Regent’s Park is The Smokehouse, which offers hot and cold food as well as pints and glasses of wine to be enjoyed on their busy terrace.
Although Regent’s park is impressive, I find that the best feature of the park is simply it’s location. It is an easy (and beautiful) walk west along Regent’s Canal to find yourself in Little Venice with its little restaurants and smooth-sailing swans or, inversely, a short traipse east to the infamous Camden Market, the cornucopia of specialty street foods and “alternative shopping.” South of the park lies the stylish neighborhood of Marylebone (that’s pronounced “Mar-lee-bone” for you non-Londoners, like me!) Marylebone is home to a myriad of desirable boutiques, family-owned cafes, museums, and drinks spots. It’s got something for just about everybody.
I would suggest Regent’s Park for anyone interested in:
+ Medium-sized picnics
+ Family day trips
+ Grand, floral strolls
Around the Park:
+ Abbey Road Recording Studios
+ Little Venice
-Clifton Nurseries ( I could write an entire article on their flora, fauna, and charming restaurant, and probably will in future!)
-Puppet Theater Barge (for the kids)
+ Madame Tussaud’s
+ The Sherlock Holmes Museum
+ The Wallace Collection
+ Camden Market
+ Marylebone High Street
+ Daunt Books
:: NORTH LONDON ::
If you’re looking for a wide-open space away from tourists to enjoy panoramic views of London and let your dog feel like a free pup again, I would suggest Hampstead Heath. Although it is also located in Camden, Hampstead Heath feels like it is miles away from city life. Rough grassy hills rise and fall over 320 hectares in Northern London, creating the sensation of being in a rural field somewhere far away.
Dogs run freely and over the tumbling grass and splash in some of the twenty-five ponds that dot the heath. Three of the ponds are open-air natural swimming holes. One exclusively for men, another for women, and an extra for both genders to mingle in splashy harmony.
A fantastic view of the London skyline can be found at the top of Parliament Hill located in the southeast area of the park. The view is so beloved by Londoners, it is officially protected by English law.
Because of its tremendous size, Hampstead Heath plays host to a number of summer concerts, large-scale picnics, and runners really looking to stretch their legs. The sprawling trails are especially great for long distance runners looking to improve their stamina. And if you don’t want to jog alone, a “Hampstead Heath Parkrun” is organized for every Saturday starting at 9am in the park. And although I would not suggest that the hilly heath is ideal for sports involving a field, there is a sports and track field near Parliament hill that can be used for matches.
Tennis lovers can find their courts by Golders Hill Park which is located in the far west of the park, where you can also find a little zoo, a duck pond, and the “faded grandeur” of Hampstead Pergola‘s formal flower gardens. Overgrown and unexpected, the Hampstead Pergola & Hill Gardens are impressive with undertones of old world splendor
I would suggest Hampstead Heath if you’re looking for:
+ Wide-open spaces
+ A place to let your dog run free
+ Natural swimming ponds
+ Panoramic views of London
+ Large-scale picnics
Inside the Park:
+ Parliament Hill Café
+ Kenwood House (fine art collection)
+ Parliament Hill Fields Athletic Track
Around the Park:
+ Keats’ House (the former residence of English Romantic poet, John Keats)
+ Burgh House & Hampstead Museum (for art & history exhibitions, as well as concerts & recitals)
Last minute picnic spreads:
:: EAST LONDON ::
If you’re looking for something to do in the East End of London, Victoria Park is a great place to start. Straddled along its western border by the much adored Regent’s Canal and Hertford Union Canal along the south, Victoria Park feels central and sleepy at the same time.
The western section of the park offers easy paths and a plethora of worn wooden benches from which to admire the peaceful beauty of the West Boating Lake with its families of ducks and people in paddle boats. If you didn’t bring your own picnic, grab a delicious and healthy bite at the very popular “Pavilion Café” next to the boat hire. They provide ample outdoor seating along the pond for patrons to chat and enjoy their refreshments in the fresh park air.
Victoria Park is also known as “the People’s Park,” and for good reason. Open from 6am until dusk, Victoria Park is famous for its history of political soapboxing and current practice of hosting large concerts and festivals with political causes. If you’re interested in attending, you should plan your visit for the summer months when there are more performances and events.
To the east, an expanse of open fields lined by gargantuan trees offers sport-lovers a place to enjoy their match, while the roads weaving around them are ideal for cyclists and joggers looking for a shady place to stretch their legs. Even tennis lovers have a place to swing a racket just north of the Model Boating Pond.
I would suggest Victoria Park for anyone interested in:
+ Large-scale picnics
+ Music Events
+ Pretty strolls on paved paths
Around Victoria Park :
+ Canal Walks
+ Mile End Park
+ The Olympic Stadium
+ Columbia Road Flower Market (20 minute walk, 8am – 2pm every Sunday)
Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to write about more of London’s fabulous parks, such as the ones on the southern side of the Thames, but I will definitely be working on a new article that extolls the highlights of London’s southern green space. In the meantime, I highly suggest that you explore some of the parks that I’ve mentioned and discover a bit of leafy London for yourself!