If ever there was a seismic world shaker to remind a city of quite how lovely its parks are, the past year just about did it.
When all else was lost, the parks were a saviour in the pandemic – they might have been a little limited (and God, did we miss the loos) – but the green space was a welcome relief for those of us confined to a flat. Never again will we overlook them.
London isn’t short of green spaces, with eight main parks, 15 other large open spots and more than a hundred Commons, so suffice it to say, we’ve not covered them all here, just our favourites. It’s time to lace up your boots and get your kicks – and maybe grab a bottle of fizz from the fridge.
What's it like? A huge 350 acres, you won't struggle for a decent walk here. There's space to swim, too: Hyde Park houses a lido and is famous for the Serpentine. Both offer bracing dips, and the Serpentine can be enjoyed by hiring a pedalo, rowing boat, or scooting about as a passenger on the solar-powered SolarShuttle.
The park is teeming with wildlife – we don't just mean the, er, interesting types at Speaker's Corner – and has playgrounds for children and their grandparents alike.
What's there? Speaker's Corner, The eco-friendly LookOut centre, boating and swimming at the Serpentine, the Lido, children's playground, senior playground (with exercise facilities), football pitches, deck chairs, horse riding, lawn bowls, putting green, six tennis courts, Diana Memorial (presently still closed), Holocaust Memorial, bandstand.
Food and drink: Serpentine bar and kitchen, Lido bar and cafe, various refreshment points (including at Serpentine Road, the playground and Hyde Park Corner).
Opening times: 5am – midnight
Find it: Mayfair/Westminster, W2 2UH, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): Hyde Park corner, Lancaster Gate, Marble Arch, Knightsbridge.
What's it like? One of London's most beautiful parks, the high trees surrounding the grass, lakes and gardens mean that for many of the 395 acres, there's a feeling of having gotten away to the countryside. The boating lake is a highlight, where there's the choice of row boats and pedalos. Unless you’re committed to sitting back and pedalling, choose rowing – the queues are shorter and it's more romantic. Primrose Hill, on the northern side of the park, is a serious contender for the loveliest picnic spot in London: at the height of summer, prepare a breakfast and watch the sunrise. Throughout the summer, Regent's Park opens its open-air theatre in the Queen Mary's gardens; this year, highlights include Romeo & Juliet and Carousel.
What's there? The Hub sports facility, exercise classes, pitches for football, rugby, softball, lacrosse, cricket, tennis centre, netball courts, open air theatre, four gardens (Queen Mary's, the Avenue, Wildlife and St John's Lodge), an allotment, the bandstand, seven memorials and statues, bird walk. Nearby there is the ZSL London Zoo.
Food and drink: The Regent's Bar and Kitchen, the Hub cafe, the Broad Walk Cafe, the Espresso bar, the Boathouse cafe, the Regent's Park Tennis Centre cafe, various kiosks around the park.
Opening times: 5am – 9.30pm in summer, winter is closes slightly earlier depending on the month
Find it: Camden, NW1 4NR, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): Baker Street, Regent’s Park, Camden Town.
What's it like? Despite its moneyed surroundings, (the) Green Park somewhat skimps on the extras. Don't go expecting activities: instead, take advantage of the 40 charming acres and admire the beauty – the Mall runs along one edge and Buckingham Palace is just a stroll away. Those wanting exercise should bring their own frisbee – the gentle incline of Constitution Hill is about as strenuous as things get here. Though a quiet spot, Green Park is also home to some of London's most stirring memorials, including the Bomber Command Memorial and Memorial Gates.
What's there? Royal Gun Salutes, Diana Princess of Wales memorial walk.
Food and drink: Two refreshment points at Ritz Corner and Canada Gate.
Opening times: 5am – midnight
Find it: Mayfair, SW1A 2BJ, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): Green Park, Hyde Park Corner.
What's it like? Victoria Park, London's oldest public park, rightly has a sterling reputation. Once voted the nation's favourite park, it's won Green Flag and Green Heritage Awards five years in a row. Highlights include the Regal boat hire, which returned a little while back after a 30-odd year absence. There are a number of sporting clubs worth checking out too, but perhaps one of Victoria Park's best pleasures is also one of its simplest: the tree-covered walks shine bright and green as the sun comes through them.
What's there? Two children's play areas, football summer and winter pitches, artificial cricket wickets and cricket practice nets, four tennis courts, bowling green, specialist cycling classes, fishing lake, war memorial, model boating lake, Chinese pagoda, deer enclosure.
Food and drink: Pavilion café.
Opening times: 7am – dusk
Find it: Grove Road, Bow, E3 5TB, towerhamlets.gov.uk
Nearest tube(s): Mile End, Bethnal Green, Stepney Green.
What's it like? Hampstead Heath offers stunning views over the city, but one could be forgiven for not noticing, as there's an awful lot to do there. If you aren't taking a dip in one of the ponds (there are single and mixed options) or the Parliament Hill Lido, you could be running circuits on the athletics track or visiting the Golders Hill zoo. For sheer childhood pleasure, though, the model boating pond is difficult to top (for God’s sake, don’t try to get in for a swim). The heath also benefits from its wooded areas and is a conservation area with plenty of wildlife, especially on the bird sanctuary pond. There are pitches for just about every sport, including croquet.
What's there? Swimming ponds, swan pond, model boating pond, bird sanctuary pond, a zoo, tennis courts, rugby pitch, football pitch, cricket pitch, bowling green, croquet lawn, play parks, athletics tracks.
Food and drink: Parliament Hill cafe, Golders Hill park cafe and Kenwood Brew House restaurant. Although we’d be tempted to wander over to nearby pub The Wells Tavern.
Opening times: Open 24 hours, though Golders Hill Park opens 7.30am – 10am in the summer, usually closing around 5pm in the winter.
Nearest tube(s): Hampstead, Highgate, Golders Green.
What's it like? This Stoke Newington spot has held a Green Flag award since 2006, and is deservedly popular. It's very child friendly, with a decent play area and even a small zoo (and, like Richmond park, boasts deer also). In a pre-lockdown world, the park often hosted events, from twilight walks in search of bats to football festivals to sessions discovering the edible fruit and flowers which grow in the grounds. These are set to return soon, with a bit of luck.
What's there? Aviary and animal enclosures, children's play area, Clissold House (presently still closed), fountains, multi-use games area, organic food growing area, pond, table tennis, tennis courts. The paddling pool is currently being refurbished.
Food and drink: Clissold House cafe and function rooms, refreshment kiosks around the park.
Opening times: 6.45am – 9pm in summer, though it closes earlier in the winter months. Details are on their website.
Find it: Off Church Street/Green Lanes, N16 9HJ, hackney.gov.uk
Nearest tube(s): Manor House, Finsbury Park, or head to either Dalston Overground or Stoke Newington train station.
What's it like? Since 1858, Battersea Park has had a mixed time of things but recent restoration means it's now something of a south London must-see and undoubtedly one of London’s best parks. Many of its original charms have resurfaced, including the fountains. The highlight, though, is the lake, where one can happily while away an afternoon. There's also a zoo, which has reopened. It also counts a number of gardens among its grounds – our favourites are the Old English garden, the sub-tropical garden and the beautiful winter gardens. Artsy types should take a walk to find the Henry Moore, too.
What's there? Riverside promenade, boating lake, children's play areas, Putt in the Park crazy golf course, Battersea children's zoo, Pump House gallery, fitness centre, cricket pitch and nets, cricket pavilion, football pitches, rounders and softball pitches, lacrosse pitch, netball court, rugby pitch, bowling green, all weather sports pitch, bandstand, many gardens, war memorial.
Food and drink: The Pear Tree Cafe, Putt in the Park, tea terrace and kiosk.
Opening times: 8am – dusk, though the park gates open at 6.30pm and close at 10.30pm for access to its facilities.
Find it: Battersea, SW11 4NJ, wandsworth.gov.uk
Nearest tube(s): Fulham Broadway, Victoria.
What's it like? This heaving park usually always has plenty on, from one day festivals to football tournaments taking place here pre-lockdown. The lake is beautiful – and there's also the nearby Tooting Bec Lido. The park is popular for the variety of facilities for sports it offers, from Aussie rules to skateboarding, and is normally busy with Londoners from all over out for a picnic – don’t be surprised to see groups with their own towering speakers. At present, about a whacking great chunk of it is off-limits as they’re sorting the grass, but it should return by the end of the summer.
What's there? Bandstand, two children's play areas, paddling pool, fishing flower gardens, three ponds, athletics sprint track, Australian rules football pitch, basketball court, bowling green, cricket nets and wicket pitch, football pitch, rugby pitch, netball court, skateboard facilities, softball pitch, tennis courts. Note that the play areas and sporting facilities are currently closed.
Food and drink: Common Ground cafe and the Pear Tree Cafe.
Opening times: Open 24 hours
Nearest tube(s): Clapham South, Clapham Common, Clapham North.
What's it like? Brockwell park offers a number of rather surprising attractions: in previous years, the outdoor cinema screenings at the Lido have been popular – is there any better way to enjoy Jaws than being sat in an inflatable dinghy? – and while that’s off for 2021, al fresco films are still on in the park itself. There's also any number of sporting facilities and the park does exercise classes for older people in the evening.
What's there? BMX track, basketball court, bowling green, cricket nets, cricket wicket pitch, athletics sprint track, football pitch, tennis courts, Brockwell lido, playground, film screenings.
Food and drink: The Lido cafe, Brockwell hall.
Opening times: 7.30am – 15 minutes before sunset
Nearest tube(s): Brixton, Clapham North.
What's it like? Parks are loved for their outdoor space, so it may seem peculiar to extol the virtues of Greenwich by starting with the buildings, but Greenwich Park is part of the Greenwich Maritime World Heritage Site and houses the currently closed The National Maritime Museum and Old Royal Naval College, both of which are worthy of an afternoon or three, no matter how brightly the sun is shining. For the meantime, head to the deer park and the tucked-away Queen's orchard, which smells stunning when the fruit is ripe. The rose garden and the flower garden charm and of course, it's always worth seeing the meridian line, which marks Longitude Zero (0° 0' 0"). Greenwich park also has some Roman and Anglo-Saxon ruins. Go and geek out.
What's there? The Royal Observatory, The Meridian Line, National Maritime Museum, Old Royal Naval college, cricket lawn, Greenwich park tennis centre. The park is hoping to offer boats for hire shortly.
Food and drink: The Pavilion Cafe, Park View Coffee Cabin, White House Cafe.
Opening times: 6am – 9.30pm, though it closes earlier in the winter.
Find it: Greenwich, SE10 8QY; royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): New Cross, North Greenwich. However, it may be easier to take a mainline train: Maze Hill railway station is only 5 minutes away. Greenwich railway station and Westcombe Park are both around quarter of an hour from the park.
What's it like? More than just home to Wills & Kate, Kensington Gardens offers 242 quiet acres of sculpted gardens, monuments, ornamental flower beds and a lake. Another park to enjoy for its beauty rather than its facilities, Kensington Gardens do however put on the occasional event – think photography masterclasses and tips from their allotment, rather than raucous gigs.
What's there? Kensington Palace, the Diana Memorial playground, Serpentine gallery and Serpentine Sackler gallery.
Food and drink: The Kensington Palace Pavilion, The Italian Gardens Cafe, three ice cream points, various tea kiosks.
Opening times: 6am – 9.45pm, though this changes regularly. More details here.
Find it: Kensington, W2 2UH, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): High Street Kensington, Queensway, Lancaster Gate, Notting Hill Gate.
What's it like? Richmond Park is the largest of London's eight Royal Parks and is an extraordinary space where the grass seems greener, the flowers seem to smell better and the sun seems warmer. The park has a magic that's not tangible – make sure to visit the Isabella plantation to see what we mean. It is a National Nature Reserve, London's largest Site of Special Scientific Interest and an European Special Area of Conservation. The red and fallow deer that live in the park are remarkable creatures, too.
What's there? Isabella Plantation, wildlife, King Henry's mound, St Paul's Cathedral Tercentenary Gates, two playgrounds, fishing, power kiting.
Food and drink: Pembroke Lodge, Roehampton cafe, three refreshment points at Broomfield Hill, Pen Pond car park and at Pembroke Lodge car park.
Opening times: 7am – dusk, though pedestrian gates are open 24 hours a day.
Find it: Holly Lodge, Teddington, TW10 5HS, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): Richmond.
What's it like? If you think this park is impressive, just imagine it being your personal garden: the 54 acres of Holland Park used to be the grounds of Jacobean mansion Cope Castle. The gem of the park are the Japanese-themed Kyoto gardens; wander in and you'll feel like you've stepped out of London. The park also has an impressive range of sporting facilities, including pentanque (this is Kensington and Chelsea, after all). Throughout the summer, open air theatre is staged, and the park is famed for its wildlife.
What's there? Tennis courts, football pitches, golf practice nets, cricket practice nets, netball court, squash courts, open-air opera, open-air theatre, playground for children (including zip wire).
Food and drink: Holland Park cafe
Opening times: 7.30am – 30 minutes before dusk
Find it: Ilchester Place, Kensington, W8 6LU; rbkc.gov.uk
Nearest tube(s): High Street Kensington, Notting Hill Gate.
St James's Park
What's it like? St James's is known for its wildlife – the pelicans are extraordinary birds and are fed daily, which is worth watching. It's the eastern tip of the chain of Royal Parks which make for a gorgeous (and very long) day's walk, as it runs into Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. It's perfectly suited to those seeing the sights, as Buckingham Palace is quite literally a stone's throw away and Horse Guard's Parade runs along its edge. There are also many iconic statues and monuments here. Its charm, though, is that despite being in the centre of town, it feels worlds away.
What's there? A lake, duck island, Diana memorial walk, wildlife, Queen Victoria Monument, Admiralty Arch, the Tiffany fountain.
Food and drink: St James's Café, Storey’s Gate Café. Refreshment spots across the park, at Marlborough Gate, Horse Shoe Bend, Artillery Memorial and playground.
Opening times: 5am – midnight
Find it: SW1A 2BJ, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): St James's, Westminster.
What's it like? A little out of the centre of London but well worth the journey, Bushy Park is huge at 1,100 acres, so there's plenty of space to make your own. There are lakes and streams dotted throughout the park, and plenty of wildlife, including deer and pheasants. You're able to cycle here, and there's a children's playground too, though it's currently closed. The park has been settled land since the Bronze Age, too, which is something to think about while walking under the sun.
What's there? Pheasantry Cafe, cycling, horse riding, woodlands, Diana fountain, Upper Lodge water gardens, playground.
Food and drink: Pheasantry Cafe in the Woodlands area, and a refreshment point in the Diana car park.
Opening times: 6.30am – dusk, though the pedestrian gates are open 24 hours.
Find it: TW11 0EQ, royalparks.org.uk
Nearest tube(s): Take the train, either to Hampton Court, Hampton Wick or Teddington.
Crystal Palace Park
What's it like? No mere park, this was originally brought to life as a Victorian Pleasure Ground. Among its attractions are lakes, a maze, their famous world-first dinosaur models (which, despite exaggerated rumours of their demise, are still in place) and the Italian terraces, which survived the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace. There's also the 'rusty laptop' concert stage, on the site Bob Marley once played, but it's sadly underused, and perhaps more interesting as an oddity of architecture. If none of that appeals, take it easy at the fishing lake.
What's there? Maze, dinosaur sculptures, famous bust of Sir Joseph Paxton, concert bowl, children's play area, children's farm.
Food and drink: One café, which is being refurbished.
Opening times: 7.30am – 9.30pm on weekdays and 9am – 9.30pm on weekends. Opening times change during the year and the park shuts as early as 4.30pm in the winter.
Find it: Thicket Rd, SE19 2GA, bromley.gov.uk
Nearest tube(s): Take the train to Crystal Palace or Penge West.