London's best parks: A guide to outdoor activities from Hyde Park to Clapham Common

David Ellis
The Royal Parks

When the sun decides to show up, there's few better places to be in London than in one of the many glorious parks.

It’s easy to take them for granted. After all, they do just lie there. Still, most offer far more than a chance to sunbathe: cricket pitches, swimming spots and even deer are all surprisingly common.

London isn't short of green spaces, with eight main parks, 15 other large open spots and more than a hundred commons. Suffice it to say, we've not covered them all, just our favourites. Still, if there's a glaring omission, let us know in the comments below.

Anyone looking for more outdoor larks should read our guides to the best rooftop bars, alfresco eating and outdoor swimming spots.

(The Royal Parks)

Hyde Park

What's it like? A huge 350 acres, you won't struggle for a decent walk or picnic spot 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 interesting folks found at Speaker's Corner – and has playgrounds for children and their grandparents alike. Hyde Park is known for high-profile gigs and events, so check it isn't going to be overrun by tourists or stray roadies before you get there.

What's there? Speaker's Corner, Isis Education 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, 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: 05:00 – Midnight

Find it: Mayfair/Westminster, W2 2UH,

Nearest tube(s): Hyde Park corner, Lancaster Gate, Marble Arch, Knightsbridge

(The Royal Parks)

Regent's Park

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. 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 – officially The Regent's Park – opens its open-air theatre in the Queen Mary's gardens.

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, 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, Smokehouse, the Espresso bar, the Boathouse cafe, the Regent's Park Tennis Centre cafe, various kiosks around the park

Opening times: 05:00 – 21:00

Find it: Camden, NW1 4NR,

Nearest tube(s): Baker Street, Regent’s Park, Camden Town

(Anne Marie Briscombe/The Royal Parks)

Green Park

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 of sunbathing and picnic spots 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 (but we'd pop into the Ritz nearby, or lunch at Le Caprice. Why not, eh?)

Opening times: 05:00 – Midnight

Find it: Mayfair, SW1A 2BJ,

Nearest tube(s): Green Park, Hyde Park Corner

(Laurence Fredric White/Wikimedia Commons)

Victoria Park

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 has returned after a 30 odd year absence. There are a number of sporting clubs 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 cafe

Opening times: 07:00 – Dusk

Find it: Grove Road, Bow, E3 5TB,

Nearest tube(s): Mile End, Bethnal Green, Stepney Green

(City of London Corporation)

Hampstead Heath

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. If you aren't taking a dip in one of its famous ponds (there are single and mixed options) or the Parliament Hill Lido, you could be running circuits on the athletics track or even visiting the Hampstead Heath zoo. For sheer childhood pleasure, though, the model boating pond is difficult to top. 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 also pitches for just about every sport, including croquet. What what.

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, Kenwood Brew House restaurant

Opening times: Open 24 hours

Find it: Gordon House Road, NW5 1QR,

Nearest tube(s): Hampstead, Highgate, Golders Green


Clissold Park

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 charming paddling pool, decent play area and even a small zoo. Parents can get competitive on the all-weather ping pong tables and then head to Clissold House for anything from a snack to a full Sunday roast. The park often hosts events, too, from twilight walks in search of bats to football festivals to sessions discovering the edible fruit and flowers which grow in the grounds.

What's there? Aviary and animal enclosures, children's play area, Clissold House, fountains, multi-use games area, organic food growing area, pond, paddling pool, table tennis, tennis courts

Food and drink: Clissold House cafe and function rooms, refreshment kiosks around the park

Opening times: 07.30 – 20:00

Find it: Off Church Street/Green Lanes, N16 9HJ,

Nearest tube(s): Manor House, Finsbury Park, or head to either Dalston Overground or Stoke Newington train station

Battersea Park

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. Many of its original charms have resurfaced, including the fountains. The highlight, though, is the lake, where one can happily while away an afternoon boating. If you have children with you, the zoo is the place to start. 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 either head to the Pump House gallery or take a walk to find the Henry Moore.

What's there? 1km 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, bandstand, many gardens, war memorial

Food and drink: The Pear Tree Park, Putt in the Park, tea terrace and kiosk

Opening times: 06:30 – 22:30, although the gates are often left open in the summer for use of the all weather pitches

Find it: Battersea, SW11 4NJ,

Nearest tube(s): Fulham Broadway, Victoria

Clapham Common

What's it like? This busy park always has plenty on, from one day festivals to football tournaments. 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. It's the quiet spot in the middle of a manic postcode and is ideal for spending all day with a picnic, a pile of friends and drinks.

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

Food and drink: Three cafes across the park

Opening times: Open 24 hours

Find it: Windmill Drive, SW4 9DE,

Nearest tube(s): Clapham South, Clapham Common, Clapham North

Brockwell Park

What's it like? Brockwell park offers a number of rather surprising attractions: come for the outdoor cinema screenings at the Lido (is there any better way to enjoy Jaws than being sat in an inflatable dinghy?), or watch the bikes bound along the BMX track, or take things more gently and sit down for a coffee with the park's writer in residence, Shelley Silas. 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: 07.30 – 15 minutes before sunrise

Find it: Norwood Road, SE24 9BJ,

Nearest tube(s): Brixton, Clapham North

(The Royal Parks)

Greenwich Park

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 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. Once you're outside again, 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, a number of gardens, cricket lawn, Greenwich park tennis centre, ancient ruins, deer park

Food and drink: The Pavilion Cafe, Park View Coffee Cabin, White House Bakery (our pick of the three)

Opening times: 06.00 – 20:00

Find it: Greenwich, SE10 8QY;

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

(The Royal Parks)

Kensington Gardens

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. For food, head to the Orangery, which adds a further splash of glamour to things.

What's there? Kensington Palace, the Diana Memorial playground, Sepertine gallery and Serpentine Sackler gallery, Diana Princess of Wales memorial walk

Food and drink: The Orangery, The Broadwalk cafe and playpark cafe, two refreshment points at the Italian Gardens and the Albert Memorial

Opening times: 06:00 – 19.45

Find it: Kensington, W2 2UH,

Nearest tube(s): High Street Kensington, Queensway, Lancaster Gate, Notting Hill Gate

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Richmond Park

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 - go to the Isabella plantation to see what we mean. It is a National Nature Reserve, London's largest Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Area of Conservation. The red and fallow deer that live in the park are remarkable creatures, too.

What's there? Horse riding, guided walks, Isabella Plantation, wildlife, King Henry's mound, St Paul's Cathedral Tercentenary Gates, two playgrounds, fishing, power kiting

Food and drink: Penbrook Lodge, Roehampton cafe, three refreshment points at Broomfield Hill, Pen Pond car park and Pembroke Lodge car park

Find it: Holly Lodge, Teddington, TW10 5HS;

Nearest tube(s): Richmond Opening times: 07.30 – 19.30, though pedestrian gates are open 24 hours a day

(Henry Kellner/Wikimedia Commons)

Holland Park

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 Japenese-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 and opera are staged outdoors. Still, we'd go for the wildlife: koi carp, peacocks and, er, cows.

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, The Belvedere

Opening times: 07.30 –30 minutes before dusk

Find it: Ilchester Place, Kensington, W8 6LU;

Nearest tube(s): High Street Kensington, Notting Hill Gate

(The Royal Parks)

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, deck chairs for sunbathing, the Tiffany fountain

Food and drink: Inn the Park is a lovely spot for a glass of wine. Refreshment spots across the park, at Marlborough Gate, Horse Shoe Bend, Artillery Memorial and playground

Opening times: 05.30 – midnight

Find it: SW1A 2BJ;

Nearest tube(s): St James's, Westminster

(The Royal Parks)

Bushy Park

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 and horseride here, and there's a children's playground too. The park has been settled land since the Bronze Age, too, which is something to think about while lying out 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: 06.30 – 19.30

Find it: TW11 0EQ;

Nearest tube(s): Take the train, either to Hampton Court, Hampton Wick or Teddington

(Jes/Wikimedia Commons)

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 dinosaur models 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, children's play area, children's farm, concert bowl, cafe

Food and drink: They've a café

Opening times: 07.30 – 19.00 (09.00 on the weekend)

Find it: Thicket Rd, SE19 2GA;

Nearest tube(s): Take the train to Crystal Palace or Penge West

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