Take time out from the hustle of the city to enjoy the green goodness London has to offer.
London is best explored on foot, but after pounding the pavement to see the major sights and seeking out under-the-radar adventures, you’ll welcome the slower change of pace in its exceptional array of parks and gardens. From former royal hunting grounds filled with free-roaming deer to wild heaths where swimming ponds await the bold and the brave (because: London weather), you could practically fill a London vacation just frolicking in its parks and gardens. Here are the best of them.
Once a favorite hunting ground of Henry VIII, Richmond Park covers close to 2,500 acres of grasslands and forest, making it the biggest of London’s Royal parks. Any given weekend sees a rush of cyclists pushing themselves around the undulating 6.7-mile road that circles the park’s perimeter, while others enjoy walking, running, and all manner of group activities across the meadows. Look out for King Henry’s Mound—the spot where the King allegedly once watched a cannon fired from the Tower of London to announce Anne Boleyn’s execution—and then take Afternoon Tea in the refined interiors of the park’s Pembroke Lodge.
INSIDER TIPSeek an even deeper sense of tranquillity inside the Isabella Plantation, a Victorian woodland garden that hits peak bloom in April and May.
As the only destination on the list that charges an entrance fee, Kew Gardens had best bring an impressive flower game—and it does. Home to some of the world’s rarest threatened species and most elusive plants, the Royal Botanic Gardens are more than just an attraction, they are a sanctuary, with a historic Victorian glasshouse at their heart. The range of exhibitions, installations, themed gardens, tropical greenhouses, and treetop walkways are way more than you can fit into a day, so start your explorations early.
A grand expanse of manicured lawns, nature trails, paths, and woodland surround the proud remains of a Jacobean mansion at the heart of Holland Park. The building suffered bomb damage during World War II, but even that dark cloud left a silver lining, with the remaining front terrace providing a spectacular backdrop today to the summertime open-air plays staged in the park. Ponder your Ikigai (the Japanese concept of “a reason for being”) in the stunning Kyoto Garden, where Japanese maple trees, dahlias, and a tiered waterfall with a koi carp pond are some of the highlights of this horticultural gem.
Annexed from Hyde Park by the Serpentine Lake, Kensington Gardens have a quieter, more intimate appeal compared to their larger neighbors. Here you’ll find the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, which is great for kids; the iconic bronze statue of Peter Pan that marks the park’s inspiring role in playwright JM Barrie’s most famous creation; and, of course, the historic royal residence of Kensington Palace, the complex that’s now home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate Middleton) and their children. While it’s unlikely you’ll bump into any royals around Kensington Gardens, if it’s going to happen anywhere in London, then this is the park.
While there’s plenty beyond the pristine gardens and well-kept lawns to keep visitors entertained in Hyde Park, arrive in summer when the temperature soars and it can seem like everyone in the city is here to sunbathe. Hyde Park is home to the popular Serpentine Galleries and the annual Pavilion (a temporary structure created each year by world-renowned artists) plus boating lakes, the Albert Memorial, and Speakers’ Corner, a fulcrum of free speech open to anyone with a point to get across, however big or small.
It’s the sign of a good London summer day when the bathing ponds of Hampstead Heath are packed with fair-weather locals and tourists alike, mixing it up with the ducks (there are separate male, female, and mixed ponds—ducks are welcome in all). But the real allure of Hampstead Heath is its wild, roaming grassland, wooded copses, and stunning views of the city, which combine to lend the heath an unmistakable literary quality.
INSIDER TIPThere are plenty of great pubs dotted around Hampstead Heath, perfect for a toasty drink in front of a roaring fire after a winter walk.
Horniman Museum Gardens
Located in far-off southeast London with fewer tourist draws nearby, the Horniman Museum Gardens require a leap of faith to make the slightly arduous 40-minute journey from central London. Those who do will find perfectly tended gardens with seasonal displays, an impressive variety of trees, a miniature farm with alpacas, sheep, goats, and rabbits, and a view of the London skyline that rivals that of Hampstead Heath. The weekly Saturday farmers’ market and the Horniman Museum itself—a quirky natural history collection with a small aquarium—help to encourage visitors to break south to the gardens’ location in Forest Hill.
St. James’s Park
Bordered by Buckingham Palace, the Mall and Horse Guards, St. James’ Park is London’s most whimsical royal green space. Roam the gardens, tour the lakes and spy their own lively pod of pelicans (residents here for over 400 years), or rest up in a sought-after deck chair and admire the views of London landmarks like Buckingham Palace and the London Eye that tend to pop up above the treeline at every turn.
If you’re worried the sunbathing, strolling, and boating lakes of London’s parks are all starting to feel the same, wait until you see Regent’s Park and its added attractions. On top of the gorgeous gardens, the picturesque lake and its pedalo boats, and an impressive collection of fountains and statues, Regent’s Park is also home to London Zoo. And if you want to witness London’s local football scene, head to the Sports Hub and watch the amateurs showing off their skills on pitches backdropped by lush parkland and grand views of the city in the distance.
INSIDER TIPAdjoining Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill is worth exploring for the views alone. The literal high point of one of London’s chicest, swankiest neighborhoods, Primrose Hill and the grassy hillock at its heart offer some amazing views of the city along with any number of celebrity residents on their morning runs.
There’s no park in London like Greenwich Park—after all, this is the only one of the city’s green spaces that gives visitors the chance to pose with legs astride the Prime Meridian Line. Located outside the Royal Observatory and its planetarium, the Prime Meridian establishes the reference for Greenwich Mean Time and the area’s maritime history. Besides the famed line that speaks to the mechanics of time, there are green fields, orchards, stunning gardens, and some truly spectacular views of London and its Docklands.