London may be nicknamed ‘The Big Smoke’, but it certainly has some great parks to rival rural life. With major green spaces that make you forget all about skyscraping architecture, escaping the buzz of city life has never been so easy.
No matter which part of the city you’re in, a major park is always close at hand. Plus, (and here’s the best bit), wandering around the grassy fields won’t cost you anything. Just like some other major London attractions, exploring the parks is completely free. So you can put away your purse now. Or until you fancy an ice cream at least.
Whether you’re looking for a peaceful jogging route, a romantic spot to eat your sarnies, or simply somewhere to play catch with Fido, there’s a park that’s perfect for you. So take your pick from our list below, and find a shady spot to kick off your shoes.
Still can't decide? We've rounded up 10 of the best parks and gardens in the city...
RECOMMENDED: the full guide to outdoor London
Parks in north London
Wild and undulating, the 320-hectare grassy sprawl of Hampstead Heath makes a wonderfully untamed contrast to the manicured parks elsewhere in the capital. A playground for picnickers, dog-walkers, and nature-lovers alike, keep an eye out for some very special residents such as muntjac deer and parakeets.
Insider tip: Take a dip in the heath’s swimming ponds. The men’s and ladies’ ponds are open all year round, but be warned that even in the summer the water is pretty frosty.
Covering 410 acres in north-west London, Regent’s Park is teeming with attractions, ranging from the animal noises of the ZSL London Zoo to its enchanting Open Air Theatre. Various food and music festivals pitch up there over the summer and rowing boat hire, bandstands, beautiful rose gardens, tennis courts, ice cream stands and eateries complete the picture.
Insider tip: Get a taste of the Far East by heading to the park’s Japanese Island, which is full of winding paths, ornamental shrubs and flowers, a lake framed by overhanging willows and a picturesque wooden footbridge, the latter covered in sweet-smelling wisteria in the spring.
© Patrizia Ilaria Sechi
Parks in south London
Battersea Park has so much going for it that it’s almost unfair. What other green space in the capital can boast Thames views, an art gallery (The Pump House) and a family-run zoo, complete with lemurs, meerkats and pygmy goats? Oh, and there’s Battersea Dogs & Cats Home too.
Insider tip: Check out the Buddhist London Peace Pagoda, which features four large gilded bronze sculptures of Buddhas overlooking the Thames.
© Marina Imperi
Brockwell Park is a much-needed slab of green just south of Brixton. Locals from Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Brixton flock here in summer to sun-worship, fly kites, swim in the outside pool, play football and parade all kinds of dogs.
Insider tip: Make a splash at Brockwell Lido and admire its Grade II-listed art deco buildings, which have been at the centre of park life since the 1930s.
© Jamie Koster
This oasis of peace amid the busy traffic of south-west London dates back to 1776. At its perimeter, it houses a number of cafés, a skate park and the largest bandstand in London, which hosts open-air concerts during the summer.
Insider tip: Grasp your tackle and go fishing at Eagle Pond – the common’s most ‘natural’ pond – with wooden decked fishing platforms perfect for casting off.
© Matt Brown/Flickr
The Crystal Palace, which gave the park its name, may have burnt to a crisp in 1936, but its grounds, which make up this delightful park in south-east London still house some pretty amazing features, including five massive dinosaur sculptures that lurk among the trees around a lake, the remains of a Victorian prehistoric theme park.
Insider tip: The park hides a beautiful, abandoned Victorian subway with a Grade II-listed vaulted walkway supported by intricate pillars, and patterned orange and white bricks. Entry is by appointment only. Make one!
Situated right in the centre of Dulwich, this park is charming and peaceful. Not only do the abundance of flowers mean that this park is easy on the eye, but it has a particularly friendly atmosphere, too. You’ll find all of the usual suspects here, such as playgrounds, football pitches and tennis courts.
If you’re up for something sporty, then there is an outdoor gym complete with recumbent bikes (the chilled-out brother to the bikes in spin class). There’s also table tennis, and if you’re feeling particularly poetic, then you can hire a boat and float along the lake.
Insider tip: Take a look at Conrad Shawcross’s giant looping sculpture ‘Three Perpetual Chords’, which was commissioned to replace a Barbara Hepworth sculpture famously stolen from the park in 2011.
© Pam Fray
Greenwich Park boasts the honour of being the oldest enclosed Royal Park. A 183-acre grassland, it provides an urban sanctuary for deer, foxes and over 70 species of bird. Not only does it pack in a child-friendly boating lake, six tennis courts and the Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the prime meridian, it’s also home to The Royal Observatory, while the views from the top of the hill across to Canary Wharf and beyond are spectacular, and well worth the trek.
Insider tip: Take a look at Queen Elizabeth’s Oak. It may look like a mossy old lump of wood, but it’s been in the park since the twelfth century. Acording to legend Henry VIII once danced around it with Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I often had picnics on it.
© Anne Marie Briscombe, courtesy Royal Parks
Parks in east London
This vibrant hipster hangout is probably the coolest of London’s green spots. It’s home to a permanent ping pong table, a wildflower meadow in the spring and summer, and London Fields Lido, while Broadway Market is conveniently located nearby for posh picnic food.
Insider tip: This is one of the only parks in London where you can barbecue legally, so be sure to bring some raw meat, one of those charcoal tray things and some cans with you in the summer months.
Victoria Park started life as a Royal Park but became municipal in 1887. It’s rougher round the edges than its western counterparts, and has a great green expanse to kick back and let nature revitalise you. Wildlife includes a deer enclosure, moorhens, grey and Canada geese and squirrels, while, by the lake, you’ll find The Pavilion Café serves tasty, locally sourced food from breakfast to teatime. It also plays host to a theatrical fireworks display every November.
Insider tip: Get green-fingered at Growing Concerns, a social enterprise garden centre staffed by a team of horticulturalists and garden designers who work with local groups to transform little pockets of public space and go out into local schools to raise gardening awareness. You can also sign up for one of its gardening classes, which include learning how to plant and raise a vegetable patch.
© Dave Sinclair/LBTH
Parks in west London
Situated just north of Hampton Court Palace, Bushy Park is one of several vast open spaces that sprawl across the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Named after the large number of hawthorn bushes that grow within its boundaries, it’s home to herds of both red and fallow deer.
Insider tip: Take a look at the Christopher Wren-designed Chestnut Avenue, where locals gather annually on Chestnut Sunday in May for a festival to celebrate the blooming of the trees.
© Max A Rush
One of London’s finest green spaces, the park surrounds a Jacobean mansion, Holland House, named after its second owner, the Earl of Holland, whose wife (fun fact!) was the first person in England to successfully grow dahlias. They’re still grown within its 55 acres, which also houses the Japanese-style Kyoto Gardens with its koi carp and bridge at the foot of a waterfall. In summer, open-air theatre and opera are staged in the park.
Insider tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the many peacocks, which are right at home amid the ornamental scenery.
© Andrew Brackenbury
Richmond Park is the largest of London’s Royal Parks, occupying some 2,500 acres. There are hundreds of red and fallow deer roaming freely across it, presumably much happier without having to listen out for the ‘view halloo!’ cries of one of Henry VIII’s hunting parties. From the park’s highest point, there are unobstructed views of St Paul’s Cathedral, over 12 miles to the east.
Insider tip: Get your floral fix at the Isabella Plantation, a 40-acre woodland garden bursting with bright blooms of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias in the spring and summer.
© Charlie Pinder
Parks in central London
This green, triangle-shaped expanse just beyond The Ritz was enclosed by Charles II as a hunting ground in 1668. Thankfully it was opened to the public in 1826 and today, you’ll find lunching commuters and tourists lounging in the park’s famous stripy deckchairs.
Insider tip: If you happen to be strolling through on the day of a special royal occasion look out for (although it’ll be pretty hard to miss) the Royal Gun Salute by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. A basic salute involves 21 rounds of ear-shattering cannon fire, but in Green Park 20 extra rounds are added – so hold on to your deckchair.
© Garry Knight
At 1.5 miles long and about a mile wide, Hyde Park is one of the largest of London’s Royal Parks. Head inside and you’ll find London’s oldest boating lake, The Serpentine, which is home to ducks, coots, swans and tufty-headed grebes.
Insider tip: Catch a glimpse of the Victorian pet cemetery hidden in the park’s north-west corner, where around 300 furry Londoners from the past are buried.
© Girish Nayyar/ Flickr
At the end of the seventeenth century, William III – averse to the dank air of Whitehall Palace – relocated to Kensington Palace and, subsequently, a corner of Hyde Park (Kensington Gardens) was sectioned off to make grounds for the residence. Princess Diana’s presence in Kensington Gardens is strong: the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is a favourite for children and people flock all year round to her memorial fountain here.
Insider tip: Look out for the bronze statue of Peter Pan, erected in 1912; eight years earlier the playwright JM Barrie met Jack Llewelyn Davies, the boy who was the inspiration for Peter.
St James’s Park was founded as a deer park for the royal occupants of St James’s Palace, and remodelled by John Nash on the orders of George IV. The central lake is home to numerous water-loving birds and its bridge offers very snappable views of Buckingham Palace.
Insider tip: Keep an eye out for wandering pelicans that have been kept here since the seventeenth century. The big-billed birds are fed between 2.30pm and 3pm daily, though they have been known to supplement their diet at other times of the day with the occasional pigeon.