London’s Best Parks & Gardens
Here’s something that might surprise you: nearly half of Greater London is green space.
There are parks and gardens of all sizes dotted all over the capital. So whether you’re a resident, or are visiting on a London hotel break, there’s no excuse not to get out and about.
There are plenty of pocket parks in the City of London that give office workers respite in the concrete jungle. The peaceful St Dunstan-in-the-East (pictured below) is always worth a visit as it’s where a bombed-out medieval church has been almost smothered by nature. And from the small to the enormous, Richmond Park in west London was created in the 17th century as a deer park and spreads over 2,300 acres.
The eight Royal Parks in London are all former royal hunting grounds. All are free to explore and each has something different to offer.
Green Park, between Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly, only has colour in springtime when a million daffodils bloom. It’s said that the formal flower beds were removed by Charles II’s wife (Catherine of Braganza) after she caught him picking flowers for another woman.
St James’s Park is between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, so it’s a great place for some greenery while seeing the sights. You can watch the pelicans being fed at Duck Cottage at 2:30pm daily.
Climb the hill in Greenwich Park and you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views beyond the twin domes of the Old Royal Naval College and across The Thames to Canary Wharf. You can also stand over the Prime Meridian Line just outside of the Royal Observatory (so no need to pay to go inside, if you don’t want to).
Another fun freebie while you’re there is to watch the red time ball on top of Flamsteed House drop at 1pm every day. At 12:55pm, the time ball rises halfway up the mast. At 12:58pm it reaches the top, and at 1pm exactly the ball falls to provide a signal to passing ships and anyone else who happens to be looking.
Hyde Park is the largest of the Royal Parks in central London. You can take a rowing boat or pedalo out on the Serpentine Lake or dip your toes in the Diana Memorial Fountain. Look out for the Household Cavalry riding by on the south side of the Park to and from their Knightsbridge Barracks. Or go to Hyde Park Stables and take a horse out yourself.
Next to Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens has the Peter Pan statue close to where the author JM Barrie lived to the north, and the Albert Memorial facing the Royal Albert Hall to the south. Kensington Palace is on the western edge where you can visit the state rooms. It also has royal apartments for William & Kate and Harry & Meghan. If you’re here with children they will love the Diana Memorial Playground, which you can only enter when accompanied by a child.
Linked to Hampton Court Palace by the Longford River, Bushy Park is known for its mix of waterways, gardens and roaming herds of red and fallow deer. Stroll through the pretty Waterhouse Woodland Gardens or admire the Diana Fountain (the goddess, not the princess this time) in the Round Basin pond.
Regent’s Park has lovely wide avenues with statues and fountains, as well as the fragrant Queen Mary’s Gardens with London’s largest collection of roses. Head to the north of the park to catch glimpses of the exotic animals inside ZSL London Zoo and go further north again to Primrose Hill for those impressive views of London.
At #67 on Travelzoo’s list of 101 Things to Do in London is Richmond Park, also home to hundreds of deer. You can climb King Henry’s Mound to see the protected vista of St Paul’s Cathedral or discover the stunning Isabella Plantation with a hundred varieties of azaleas. It’s a 40-acre woodland garden that blooms at its peak brightness in late April and early May.
In the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and on the Travelzoo 101 Things to Do in London at #54, the Kyoto Garden is a beautiful Japanese garden hidden away in Holland Park.
It’s a place for reflection and tranquility with a picturesque waterfall over a koi carp pond. To add to the serenity, there are free-roaming peacocks and often locals quietly meditating or performing tai chi routines.
Keeping that royal theme going, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (better known as Kew Gardens) makes for a fantastic day out.
This is somewhere I’m happy to visit all year round as it changes so much throughout the seasons. In spring, million of bulbs bloom and the cherry blossom is fabulous. In summer the gardens do the full “riot of colour” and by autumn the trees look their most colourful in burnt reds and oranges. It’s quieter during winter at Kew which makes it a great time to explore The Palm House and the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse: The Temperate House.
If you want a view from above, enjoy the 18-metre high, 200-metre long Kew Gardens Treetop Walkway included at #81 on our list of 101 Things to Do in London. It offers a completely different perspective to admire the lime, sweet chestnut and oak trees.
QUEEN ELIZABETH OLYMPIC PARK
The former home of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, has a lot to offer. It’s the largest new urban park in the UK for over a century. You can get a selfie with the Olympic Rings, read facts on the benches, find the huge R.U.N. letters outside The Copper Box or put your head inside the Spiegelei Junior to see the world upside-down. Oh, and if you need more exhilaration in your life, The Orbit has the world’s tallest and longest tunnel slide (below)!
You can wander freely or pick up a trail. And as there are canals and rivers running through the park you can take a boat tour too.
When the Hampstead extension of the northern line was built in 1905, the spoil from the tunnels was used to raise the pergola for views over the West Heath. Intended for summer garden parties, the faded Edwardian grandeur is still dramatic. The elevated walkway is as long as No.1 Canada Square at Canary Wharf is tall. And it looks truly lovely in May and June when covered in purple Wisteria.
Close to St Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London, Postman’s Park got its name as the postman from the nearby old General Post Office liked to spend there lunchtime here. But it’s most well known for The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. This wall of ceramic tablets, commemorates individuals who gave their life while attempting to save another.
It’s difficult to read the heartbreaking tales without shedding a tear, as each story seems more tragic than the last. But for reminding us of the selflessness of these everyday heroes it can’t be beaten.
THE PHOENIX GARDEN
Between Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road, the Phoenix Garden is a simple community garden. Created in the 1980s, it is entirely run and maintained by local volunteers.
Open every day of the year (until 4pm), the planting benefits the wildlife and requires minimal intervention. Everyone says the pond has frogs although I’ve never seen them. Do head to the back to see the street art and to enjoy real peace in the middle of the city.
There are so many more London parks and gardens I could tell you about. We didn’t even get onto the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park. The park also has a maze and huge stone sphinxes on the ruins of the Crystal Palace used in the 1851 Great Exhibition. And I didn’t mention the Inner Temple Gardens that are only open at lunchtime on weekdays. But these ideas should convince you that London is not just buildings, but also plenty of green outdoors too.
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Laura Porter writes AboutLondonLaura.com and contributes to many other publications while maintaining an impressive afternoon tea addiction. You can find Laura on Twitter as @AboutLondon, on Instagram as @AboutLondon too and on Facebook as @AboutLondonLaura