Hyde Park visitors can swim in the park’s lake, the Serpentine, from June until mid-September.
Ahhh, summer in London. For these precious few months, it’s all about the parks: London has more than 3,000 of them, and that’s not including the 142 nature reserves and nearly four million private gardens. Here’s our insider’s guide to the best of London’s outside.
Emerging as a great destination for families, East London is home to the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a must for fans of the 2012 Games. We love the field of interactive water fountains and the fantastic Tumbling Bay Playground. Sand pits, rock pools, climbing walls, and wobbly bridges provide great fun for children, and the sleek wooden benches provide plenty of comfortable space for tired parents to keep safe watch and relax. Cafes are on-site—or do as the English do and grab picnic fixings from the Waitrose in the massive Westfield Stratford City shopping mall. While there, don’t forget to climb the UK’s tallest art installation, the 374-foot-high ArcelorMittal Orbit, to get a view of the Olympic scale of London. This twisting, red steel sculpture—designed by famed artist Anish Kapoor—has two viewing platforms (the highest at over 250 feet) offering a great perspective of the Olympic venues and London skyline in the distance. Plus, our kids loved racing down the 455 steps that spiral around the outside.
If “looking” is not simply enough, take advantage of one of the many opportunities to live your Olympic dreams. “Taster” cycling sessions are available to anyone at the Lee Valley VeloPark. Choose from cycling the track in the iconic velodrome, tackling mountain bike skills, or jumping and bumping through the re-modeled Olympic BMX track. Bikes and helmets provided; kids just need to pass a short proficiency test (over the age of 7 for BMX and over 10 for other types). If, however, you lean more toward more amphibious pursuits, book yourself a swim session in the London Aquatics Centre and swim in the pool used in the 2012 Games. Advance booking is essential cycling and swimming.
Pictured: Holland Park is smaller than Hyde Park but equally beautiful, with peacocks roaming amidst the trees.
From the newest park, head to one of the city’s oldest: Hyde Park. This massive and immaculately groomed 350-acre park sits smack in the center of the city. Until we began living here, we had no idea there was so much to do in Hyde Park. Anyone can swim in the Serpentine (the large lake in the center) every day from June until mid-September. If you’re not up for an actual dip in the water, you can rent a rowboat or pedalo, or simply let your kids splash in the nearby Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Not to be confused, the Princess Diana Memorial Playground (in the northwest corner of the park) is a wonderland of a play-space with a giant pirate ship, teepee, climbing frames, gangplanks, and various other hiding places, so children and adults can get in touch with their inner Peter Pan. (But be sure to designate a meeting spot for the family as the tall hedges between the various sections have been known to send a parent or two into a bit of a panic when a gleeful little one runs off with enthusiastic abandon.)
Love horses? Make like the royals (and their cavalry) and gallop through Hyde Park. Hyde Park Stables offer lessons for adults and children on five miles of bridleways plus two outdoor riding arenas for dressage and jumping. Or watch the stunning Household Cavalry in their navy, red and gold splendor, as they trot from Hyde Park Barracks to arrive at Horse Guards by 11 a.m. every day.
And here’s a gem most Londoners aren’t even aware of—Hyde Park’s ISIS Education Center runs programs ranging from simple flora and fauna walks to full-on Bushcraft survival skills.
Hyde Park is also home to legendary rock concerts. An unforgettable venue, stake your spot under the stars with a picnic. Check out one of the music festivals taking place in the park this summer, including Hard Rock Calling or the British Summer Time festival. Playing this summer are Black Sabbath and Tom Jones, among many other acts that are yet to be announced. Or for a mix of classical, jazz and pop—the finale to the Proms (a series of concerts held at Royal Albert Hall, just across the street) will be held in the park on September 13.
Should you find yourself caught in Hyde Park in the middle of a summer shower, seek shelter in either of the Serpentine Galleries and see a bit of art. Situated next to the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery is The Magazine Restaurant. Though more of a fine dining establishment, this white, dreamlike dome, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, is an incredible space worth seeing, so pop in for tea or a drink at the bar.
At the western edge of the park is Kensington Palace, a.k.a. home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Though you can’t visit the private apartments of Prince William and family, you can learn about the history of the building, which has been a royal residence since the 17th century. Ask at reception for a “Family Trail” which makes exploring the state apartments fun.
Worth noting: Less than a mile west of Hyde Park is the smaller, but equally glorious Holland Park where peacocks roam amidst the trees and fields. Don’t miss the tranquil Kyoto Garden, with its lovely pebble paths, waterfall, and koi pond. Nearby is one of the best Adventure Playgrounds in the city with a zip line and loads of other opportunities for climbing. The new Holland Park Ecology Center runs terrific two-hour nature-themed classes for kids ages 5-12 during all school holidays. Pre-booking is essential.
Other parks and playgrounds we love in Central London: Regent’s Park, where you’ll find the London Zoo and the amazing Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens with 12,000 blooms; for respite between Russell Street and Holborn, try Coram’s Fields; over by King’s Cross is Handyside Gardens; and if you manage to hit Portobello Market, there is a spiffy new playground on the corner of Talbot Road and Portobello Road.
If parks are on the agenda, a nice counterpoint would be to sleep somewhere very urban. London’s hottest new luxury hotels are in the vibrant South Bank area, home to great family attractions: the Tate Modern, Borough Market, the London Eye, the London Aquarium, Shakespeare’s Globe, and The National Theatre. We love the new Shangri-La at The Shard, set on floors 34 to 52 of Western Europe’s tallest building. Guest rooms and suites are spacious (averaging more than 452 square feet) with breathtaking views in every direction. Parts of the hotel are opening this summer, including an infinity pool on the 52nd floor as well as a swanky cocktail bar, Gong. Families are a key market for the hotel, and we love the clever “London Bridge is Falling Down” package, which includes a personalized Half Day Blue Badge Tour of London; tickets to Tower of London, Cutty Sark or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; and breakfast.
Later this summer, Mondrian London opens in the white Sea Containers building as the first hotel project by beloved London-based interiors visionary Tom Dixon. Mondrian London will be buzzing from day one with a riverside bar and brasserie (with outdoor seating) and a rooftop lounge and terrace. Director of Sales and Marketing Simon Gilkes ([email protected]) says families will be an integral market, given the location in the heart of South Bank.