If London’s your oyster, its parks are your pearls. Whether it’s lunch breaks on a park bench along with fellow city dwellers, evenings treading the footpaths to shake off the day, or Sundays perusing sensational floral displays, Londoners and tourists alike revel in the cities many green spaces. Here’s our pick of the parks, with a little history thrown in for good measure. Which one will you visit next?
London is the world’s garden capital. And that’s not by chance. The creation and conservation of these precious spaces has a deep-rooted history. Once the preserve of royals and aristocrats, London’s plethora of parks are now common ground. Brimming with lakes, streams, ancient trees and walled retreats, the capital’s over 1400 green spaces are abounding in wildlife, and people seeking a patch of scenic serenity amid the bright lights and bustle.
From the hanging gardens of Babylon to the lavish formal gardens of Paris and Vienna, to our very own Hampstead Heath, open parks and gardens in cities worldwide are as old as the cities themselves. If you visit London’s Garden Museum in Lambeth, you can trace London’s story all the way back to the medieval era, right up to the present day.
The museum, which underwent an extensive renovation in 2015, houses artworks and artefacts celebrating Britain’s enduring love affair with all things green and pleasant. If you’re particularly green-fingered, the regular exhibitions and talks are highly recommended.
So it seems Londoners have always been blooming mad for blossoming flower beds and tree-lined pergolas. And with plans to make the capital the world’s first Urban National Park, and extensive conservation initiatives in place across the city, minds don’t look set to change any time soon.
From the Royal Parks to the rambling heaths and commons, choosing the best green space to frequent can be a minefield. So, although the best parks and gardens are a matter of personal perspective, we’ve honed a list of our favourites to help you along your way. Whether you opt for pelicans, deer, cycle paths, ponds, palaces, or otherwise, is entirely up to you.
Pull on your lycra, clip on your helmet and get saddle-bound – Richmond Park is best explored by bike, pedaling around the 12km perimeter or off-road on the Tamsin Trail. And if you don’t have wheels of your own, you can borrow gear from the bike hire centre near Roehampton Gate.
A National Nature Reserve, London’s largest site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Area of Conservation, this park is home to a bevy of flora and fauna. Dappled with ancient trees and home to a range of rare species, including fungi, birds, bats, beetles, grasses and wild flowers, it’s a real wildlife haven. And of course you’ll rarely hear the words ‘Richmond Park’, without hearing ‘deer’ in quick succession. Over 460 of these princely animals roam the 2500 acres. Just remember, if you spot one, be sure to stay at least 50 ft away.
Within the grounds you’ll also find the Isabella Plantation – a 40 acre woodland garden. Famous for its Rhododendrons and Azaleas, this place is best seen in the spring, when you’ll be surrounded by rivers of vivid pink petals. But with a range of native and exotic plants and shrubs, there’s splendour to see all year round.
Another significant point of interest in this park is a small hole in a hedge. It may not sound that remarkable, but due to building regulations that protect London’s skyline, if you peak through this hole you’ll be blessed with a clear but distant view of St Paul’s Cathedral, which stands keeping watch over the metropolis.
The park also hosts a range of activities for the more adventurous visitors. Why not try your hand at power kiting, or horse riding? Or, if you’d rather keep your feet firmly on the ground, perhaps a spot of golf?
St James’ Park
If you’re an animal lover then the highlight of St James’s Park will undoubtedly be the trio of pelicans. The Jurassic-esque birds first came to the park as a gift to King Charles II by the Russian Ambassador in 1664, and the presence of pelicans has been sustained to this day (although, unsurprisingly, they are not descendants of the originals). You can watch the pelican feeding between 2.30pm and 3pm every day.
If the pelicans aren’t enough to lure you, then luckily the oldest park in London offers a whole lot more besides. Though it is the second smallest of the Royal Parks, what it lacks in size it makes up for 10-fold in its beauty. It’s perfectly manicured, and its position makes it prime for keen photographers.
Focus your camera on incredible views of the London Eye, Westminster, St James’s Palace and the Horse Guards Parade. And from the footbridge spanning the central lake, you’ll get one of the best sights of Buckingham Palace there is. The beautiful flowerbeds, which have stuck to a strict planting schedule for decades, will add a splash of vivid colour to your images, too.
If you’re planning a visit, we’d recommend timing it in line with one of the many events that take place here every year. The Trooping of the Colour, the Changing of the Guard and the Beating Retreat – a floodlit musical spectacular, are particular favourites among tourists.
Morden Hall Park
The 125 acres of parkland, at the very end of the northern line is surrounded on all sides by a 12-foot wall. Deep in the heart of lively south London, from the outside you wouldn’t dream this lush green space was just steps away, and from the inside, you’d never imagine you were slap bang in the bustle.
The parkland is cut through by the River Wandle, which makes it a haven for local wildlife. If you’re an early-riser, take a crack-of-dawn wander through the wetland and along the boardwalk to meet some of the feathered inhabitants, including Little Egrets and Snipes. It really is a twitcher’s paradise.
In the summer, the rose garden is a thing to behold. But there’s something for every season. How about a frosty morning dog walk through a bounty of trees, topped off with a homemade cake and a coffee, at one of the onsite cafés? Or maybe you’d just like to lean back on a tree trunk and leaf through the pages of a good book? What about taking a beginner’s pottery class? All this and more can be in store if you pass through Modern Hall Park’s walls.
Chelsea Physic Gardens
Shielded from the city by a tall wall along the Thames, Chelsea Physic Gardens is a pleasure to stumble upon. Founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673, this, the oldest botanical garden in London, is now home to over 5000 species of medicinal, herbal and edible plants. Including the largest fruiting olive tree in the country.
Why not take a guided walk through the 3.5 acres? You’ll see the world’s oldest rock garden – made from bricks, flint, stones from the tower of London and Icelandic lava brought up the Thames by ship in 1772. There’s Britain’s first garden of ethnobotany: the study of the botany of different ethnic groups and indigenous people.
Don’t forget the Garden of Medicinal Plants, which takes you back to Greek herbs and forward into the possible future of plant-based remedies. In 2015 the World Woodland Garden was also introduced. Weave the serpentine path to discover useful and medicinal plants from the Americas, Europe and East Asia.
After soaking in the wonder of these super-plants, you’ll no doubt be hankering for a cuppa and some lunch. Well, you’ll be well taken care of in the delightfully named Tangerine Dream Café. Or perhaps you’ve been inspired to discover more about natural remedies? In which case you can book a spot at one of the garden’s many workshops and talks. Search their website for upcoming events.
For over 100 years, as part of Hyde Park, this land was King Henry VIII’s deer chasing playground. But all that changed in 1689 when William and Mary came to the throne. They made Nottingham House their main London residence and renamed it Kensington Palace, which Queen Mary surrounded in formal Dutch-style gardens.
Next in line, Queen Anne took 30 acres from Hyde Park, planting an English-style garden and orangery. Then in 1728 Queen Caroline added a further 300 acres, creating the stunning space we know today.
These outstanding gardens have inspired many artists throughout time. Most notably the playwright J.M. Barrie, who was moved to conjure Peter Pan through afternoons spent here. And the location has even made it to the silver screen, playing a part in films from Finding Neverland to Bridget Jones’ Diaries: The Edge of Reason.
From the Diana Memorial Garden to the Serpentine Galleries to the palace itself, you’ll be hard pushed to fit everything in, in one visit. So take your time. Soak in the surroundings. How about trying out the Talking Statues app? When you spot a statue, swipe your phone on a nearby tag and you’ll get a call from the famous figures themselves (well, notable actors anyway), who’ll tell you their story first-hand. A chat with Peter Pan? Don’t mind if we do.
What About the Rest?
We know not all of your favourite parks have been added here yet, but we’ll be adding more of London’s parks to this guide as the months go on. Battersea, Holland Park, Hyde Park and Hampstead are still to come!
If you’ve got a penchant for London’s parks and gardens, why not continue your exploration by downloading the Green & Rural London app. It’ll guide you through London’s secret gardens, parks, farms and other green spaces. And if you find a spot worth shouting about, we’d love to hear about it. Share with us via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
We know what you’re thinking, ‘if only I could visit these green havens every day’. Well, if you’re inspired to make a move towards London’s exceptional gardens and parks, we’re sure we can help. Simply register with SnapdUp, and whether you’re looking to rent or buy, we’ll take the rigour out of house hunting for you.
There’s not enough time in the world to scroll through property ads. That’s where we come in. With our help, you may even snap up a property before it’s advertised online!
For more great information about life in London, visit our blog.