The saying goes, “When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.” Well, the writer Samuel Johnson might not have gotten sore feet back in the 17th century, but traipsing around the city these days can be hard work, especially with children. That’s where London’s best playgrounds and parks are needed — havens of peace and tranquility that are perfect for catching a little downtime. My toddler, Mary, and I have done the hard work for you: scouting round London’s finest green spots to bring you the lowdown on where to go in between all that sightseeing.
The most famous of all London’s parks, Hyde Park is integral to the city. Acting as a giant pair of green lungs between Knightsbridge, Park Lane, Kensington and Bayswater in central London, it has hosted some of the biggest rock and pop concerts, political marches and sporting events in the capital’s history. Don’t visit London without at least passing through here!
Even though it’s less than half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, Hyde Park still feels vast — the most knowledgeable of locals always keep discovering new patches. Looked after beautifully by the Royal Parks team, it’s clean, tidy, safe and has so much to see; head for one of the many maps when you arrive to plan your route. My favourite is the Rose Garden by Hyde Park Corner. The gardeners have cleverly planted flowers that bloom through spring and summer and it’s just breathtaking … and free!
After refreshing yourself on rose scent, head up toward the park’s famous Serpentine Lake. There are cafes by the lake where you can have a drink whilst your younger family members splash around in one of the boats or pedalos for hire. There are also plenty of very friendly duck, geese and swans to feed. If the weather’s good, maybe hire a couple of deck chairs and people watch for a while … you won’t be short of characters! Teenagers will love the ultra cool rollerbladers who practise their tricks along the paths at the weekends.
Other highlights include the memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales. Next to the Serpentine, it’s a giant, low-lying sculpture with shallow water running through it, meant to serve as a paddling pool for splashing around in and fun water play. Young children can’t help but get their feet wet, so pack some spare clothes, as my toddler got soaked. And if you’re a family of keen riders with older children, then you won’t find a fancier place to horse ride. You can imagine being the Queen as you trot along Hyde Park’s famous Rotten Row. But be warned: Riding here isn’t cheap. And if you’re visiting on one of London’s rare super-hot and sunny days? Then bring your swimming costumes and have a dip in the Serpentine Lido! It will be refreshing, to say the least. Hyde Park is very busy on summer weekends, but don’t let that put you off. You’ll still be able to find a patch of grass you can call your own.
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Almost an extension of Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens could be called the slightly smaller, more upmarket neighbour — which is no surprise, given its royal inhabitants. This is where Will and Kate live, in Kensington Palace at the western side of the park. Beautiful mature trees line manicured paths and avenues that invite visitors to wander through and soak up the serenity.
This park is an art lover’s paradise. The famous Serpentine Art Gallery is here; so too are many stunning statues and sculptures such as the incredible Albert Monument, which sits right in front of the capital’s magnificent Royal Albert Hall. The Arch by Henry Moore is also a sight to behold and will be appreciated by older children who may be interested in art and architecture.
For children of all ages, there’s one attraction that should definitely not be missed — the fantastic Princess Diana Memorial Playground. This has to be one of the best playgrounds in London, complete with a giant wooden pirate ship and teepees so kids can let their imagination run wild. And it’s free! A warning, though: Because it’s so popular, the playground gets busy, so a one in/one out queuing policy has to be enforced. I’d get here early if you’d like to visit. If you’re lucky, you may get a glimpse of Prince George and his little sister Princess Charlotte playing with their nannies!
These are the oldest and smallest of London’s Royal Parks, and probably the most visited by the fact that they flank Buckingham Palace, The Mall and London’s political heartland, the Palace of Westminster and Whitehall. If you’ve visited London before, there’s a very strong chance you’ve stomped through these parks without even realising! Both areas are popular with tourists going from one sightseeing spot to the next and, on a sunny day, office workers seeking some much-needed vitamin D.
There’s a very pretty lake in St. James Park. But if you want to spend a couple of hours in a “proper” park, then I would visit elsewhere where there’s more to do. And the chances are you’ll walk through both these lovely spots anyway.
Nudging Hyde Park out of the way as the biggest park in central London, Regents Park is another of the capital’s beloved spaces. Home to Winfield House, the residential home of the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., it’s another well heeled spot. Boasting the biggest sporting fields in the capital, Regents Park is a mecca for fitness — you’ll see cyclists and runners galore. And located very near Madame Tussaud’s, Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street and the Lord’s Cricket Ground, it’s a great place for tourists to come once they’ve had their fill of sightseeing.
There’s so much to do in the park for families of all ages, you should allow a couple of hours here to do it justice, or plan your activities ahead. For example, a nice idea would be to come visit London Zoo, also based here, and then enjoy some fresh air in the park after. Or if the weather is good, arrive for a late-afternoon picnic before catching an evening performance at the park’s open-air theatre, which runs throughout the summer. There’s always a great programme on offer and usually a Shakespeare play too. But book your tickets in advance! And did I mention the roses? Again, outdoing Hyde Park, there are literally thousands of these beautiful buds planted in Queen Mary’s Gardens to feast your eyes on.
Primrose Hill is an area to the north of Regents Park and is famous for one of London’s most iconic views. Depending on how tired you are, you can either climb up the hill after exploring the park or jump in a cab. It’s an upmarket and fashionable area with great restaurants and shops nearby, so your wallet may take a beating. On a summer’s eve, it’s a perfect spot to grab a picnic blanket and toast the London skyline with a cold glass of something in your hand.
Of all of central London’s green spaces, this is my favourite. A short hop south of the river from Chelsea and Sloane Square, Battersea Park is smaller than its central London relatives, but in my opinion even more beautiful. With so many different pockets of peacefulness, this is where locals come to hang out, especially families and dog lovers. The River Thames runs along the northern length of the park, making for a stunning walk — perfect after a long pub lunch! There are tropical gardens to explore and a beautiful, peaceful lake, home to herons, ducks and geese.
Art lovers should check out the Pump House Gallery; for sports fans, playing fields abound — you’ll always see a game of cricket, rugby or hockey on the go. My favourite spot is the Old English Garden. Tucked away like a secret garden, with wisteria flowing, this is a perfect place to find a bench, snatch back some time and read the papers. Children, on the other hand, might not be looking for peaceful, so head instead to Go Ape in the park. This is a really impressive zip wire and treetop adventure playground for those who want an adrenaline rush. Be warned, you have to love heights!
If swinging from the treetops is a little too scary for younger kids, check out Battersea Zoo. Less lions and more lemurs here, it’s more like a large petting farm, but very cute for younger children. The boating lake and nearby restaurant are also of a high standard too. Unlike the other parks, there’s no nearby tube station, so I’d recommend jumping in a cab. Or if you’re driving, there’s plenty of pay and display parking.
Situated in west London, Holland Park is great place to visit if you’re spending time in Notting Hill or High Street Kensington and want to factor in some park time. It’s small but beautifully formed, with the highlight for me being its famous Kyoto Gardens. If you love Japanese gardens, you’ll love it here. Peacocks strut around and there’s a great children’s playground complete with giant seesaw for the younger members of the family.
The park is also famous for hosting the Holland Park Theatre, which puts on a fantastic programme of opera and theatre in the open air during the summer months. And if you fancy upmarket dining, then try out the Belvedere Restaurant. Bang smack in the middle of the park, it boasts a beautiful location, though small children may prefer snacks from the local cafe!
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