by Telegraph Travel, The Telegraph, June 20, 2018
It’s a curious paradox: escaping the city during a European city break. But resting blistered feet in the leafy coolness of a local park after a hectic morning of museum-hopping is a quintessential part of the experience. Funny how we make pilgrimages to the West’s cultural icons such as the Trevi Fountain and the Louvre – but then remember with equal fondness a gelato nursed under a chestnut tree afterwards.
This doesn’t make us park-lovers philistines. They are potent seats of culture in their own right, after all. The Tuileries in Paris was the back yard of both Marie Antoinette and Napoleon. Madrid’s rose-perfumed Retiro once belonged to Spanish monarchy. Parks are also noble preservers of national quirks and traditions. Where else but in the green spaces of Europe can one stumble across family puppet shows that bob with wooden marionettes or hushed games of afternoon boules?
Then there’s the brilliant people watching: the academics snoozing behind their newspapers on benches; the tortured artists hunched against iron gates that hang with watercolours for sale; and skateboarders snaking through slow-footed pedestrians. Here Telegraph Travel’s destination experts share their favourite city parks for summer, from Berlin to Barcelona.
1. Augarten, Vienna
The park: It certainly covers a lot of ground. Where else would baroque manicured box trees open a view to a massive concrete air defence tower from the Second World War? Where else could you admire fine porcelain just after coming out of a fragrant lime grove? Vienna’s oldest baroque garden, just 15 minutes’ walk from the centre, is a natural habitat for historians, nature lovers, music aficionados, and cineastes.
The highlights: Tour the historic porcelain manufactory on the grounds, followed by coffee at the adjacent café; listen to the Vienna Boys Choir performing at their concert hall, but do book in advance; in the summer, join the locals at the open-air cinema. Children will also love the park’s five playgrounds.
The alternative: Türkenschanzpark on the outskirts of the city, where the Ottoman army entrenched themselves some 330 years ago, is a neighbourhood jewel. Most enticing are the hilly surroundings, magical ponds, viewing tower ‘Paulinenwarte’, a monument of an allied Ukrainian Cossack, and the park’s quaint café.
Where to stay: Nearby Grätzlhotel Karmelitermark is in keeping with Augarten’s history-steeped neighbourhood feel. The contemporary hotel is housed in the erstwhile shop of a button-maker (00 43 1 2083904; telegraph.co.uk/tt-grazlhotel)
2. Retiro, Madrid
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The park: Originally the gardens of a royal palace, the Retiro is now Madrid’s main playground and is particularly popular with locals on Sunday mornings. Take a rowing boat out on the lake, which is dominated by a statue of Alfonso XII. The monument has just opened to the public, so you can go up to the top for panoramic views (free but reservation required; reservaspatrimonio.es). Don’t miss the Rosaleda rose garden, with more than 4,000 bushes in flower until early July, or the Versailles-inspired parterre.
The highlights: Look out for the Àngel Caído fountain, which depicts Lucifer’s descent to Hell and is one of the few statues celebrating the devil in the world. Rest your feet at Florida Retiro, a revamped pavilion that now houses a tapas bar, deli market, roof terrace and restaurant.
The alternative: El Capricho was created in the late 18th century as the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna – back then Goya and other luminaries were regular visitors. Wandering around the romantic gardens (now next to a residential area close to the airport), you come upon follies, a lake and a maze, as well as a bunker from the Civil War.
Where to stay: The fashionable Only You Atocha, five minutes’ walk from the Retiro, has a running club and provides maps of routes around the park (00 34 914 09 78 76; telegraph.co.uk/tt-atocha)
3. Vondelpark, Amsterdam
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The Park: Nicknamed ‘Amsterdam’s Green Lung’, the Vondelpark is indeed lung-shaped, and constantly on the move – from the children’s playgrounds and tennis club, to joggers’ highways and a 1930s café that resembles a grounded flying saucer. Laid out in the mid-19th century in the highly fashionable English style, the 120-acre park also has green nooks aplenty, an elegant rose garden, a lake with a no-humans wild patch, and even a meadow with a neglected sculpture by Picasso. This is where Amsterdam flocks and flops out on hot summer days.
The highlights: An open-air theatre stages concerts and other shows day and night through the summer; the Blauwe Theehuis has a terrace where you can sit back over lunch, drinks or cocktails, and the Groot Melkhuis café has a children’s playground attached.
The alternative: Laid out for the huge Floriade flower expo in 1972, the Amstelpark is a motley haven of exotic flora, wildflowers, some 140 species of rhododendron, a Japanese garden, a bird-filled forest and more. A little out of the centre, beside the river Amstel and a 17th-century windmill, it’s a more peaceful retreat than the Vondelpark.
Where to stay: Just five minutes from the Vondelpark, The Neighbour’s Magnolia is a simple, cheerfully run family hotel, with a dog you can ‘borrow’ to take for walks (00 31 20 676 9321; telegraph.co.uk/tt-magnolia)
4. Monsanto Forest Park, Lisbon
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The park: For a gargantuan gulp of arboreal air and the chance to shake off the city streets, head to this tranquil green stretch on a re-forested hillside in the Boavista neighbourhood. The park stretches over six square miles of verdant, vegetative lushness. Pack sarnies and some of the sparkly stuff: panoramic picnic spots looking out over the Portuguese capital and the Rio Tejo abound. To get there, stroll along the ‘Green Corridor’ (Corredor Verde) from Praca dos Restauradores.
The highlights: For sporty types, Monsanto offers an adventurous maze of hiking trails and bike tracks. There is plenty for culture vultures too, with a regular programme of outdoor concerts and theatre productions. Children have their pick of three recreation areas: Alto da Serafina, Alvito and Moinhos de Santana.
The alternative: Located in the west of the city, the beautifully maintained Jardim da Estrela – overlooked by the Basilica da Estrela, one of the capital’s most ornate churches – has been a favourite hideaway for city residents since the 1870s. Boasting a wrought-iron bandstand, a duck pond and a popular children’s play area, it has something for everyone.
The hotel: The super-stylish, riverside Altis Belém Hotel and Spa offers sunset views and a rooftop swim, plus all the pampering you could ask for. Renowned as the home of Lisbon’s famous custard tarts (pastéis de nata), it continues to earn culinary fame for its Michelin-starred Restaurant Feitoria (00 351 21 040 0200; telegraph.co.uk/altisbelem)
5. Tiergarten, Berlin
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The park: Although the largest, most central and arguably most obvious park to choose, Berlin’s Tiergarten has it all, from historical monuments and cultural institutions to art installations and picturesque beer gardens. Once a wild forest and hunting reserve for the Kaiser, it was transformed into a landscaped park by famed architect Peter Joseph Lennéin the 1800s. Stroll the park’s network of winding pathways to discover the many highlights dotted throughout.
The highlights: The oyster-shaped Haus der Kulturen der Welt offers a consistently high quality array of exhibitions, conferences and events. Cafe Am Neuen See has frothy beers, a proper restaurant and a pretty lake with rowboats for hire; climb the Siegessäule (Victory Column) for stellar views.
The alternative: Nestled against the Spree in the former Eastern district of Treptow, Treptow Park is popular with table tennis-playing hipsters as it is with barbecuing families. Sunbathe on the grassy banks of the river, admire the outsized Soviet Memorial or rent a kayak from the nearby Insel der Jügend.
The hotel: Das Stue is a five-star design hotel located right on the edge of the park. Some suites overlook the Tiergarten’s zoo (to which the bar enjoys a private entrance). There is also a Michelin-starred restaurant, a spa and pool (00 49 30 3117220; telegraph.co.uk/tt-dasstue)
6. Letná Park, Prague
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The park: Rising above the city to the north of the picturesque Vltava river and extending to the east of the Mala Strana neighbourhood and Prague Castle, pretty Letná Park is a wonderful place for active exploration or sunny relaxation. As well as grassy meadows ideal for picnics and sunbathing, there are asphalt paths for jogging and in-line skating, and a dedicated skateboard park, plus gardens and some impressive royal architecture.
The highlights: Grab a frothy Pilsner at the popular Letná beer garden while admiring the architecture of the adjacent neo-renaissance Letná Chateau; get lunch there or at the cast-iron Hanavský Pavilion, which offers spectacular views over the city and the river. On sunny Friday evenings, you can catch some outdoor salsa dancing near the park’s landmark giant Metronome.
The alternative: Situated next to the eye-catching Basilica of St Peter & Paul just outside Prague’s centre, the small but charming Vysehrad Park has a fairy-tale quality enhanced by an atmospheric national cemetery (Alphonse Mucha and Antonín Dvořák, among others, are buried there), and breathtaking views down onto the winding Vltava.
The hotel: Prague’s esteemed Golden Well hotel, hidden away below Prague Castle and walking distance to Letna park, has an aristocratic air and one of the best restaurant views in town (00 420 257 011 213; telegraph.co.uk/tt-goldenwell)
7. Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona
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The park: Created in the 18th century to replace the hated citadel (ciutadella) of Philip V, this is now one of Barcelona’s best loved spaces; an elegant but lively park with acres of grassland, and a picturesque boating lake at its heart. It’s home to the city’s zoo; the Catalan Parliament building (the former arsenal of the citadel); a handsome Modernista gatehouse; playgrounds, picnic areas and an impressive array of classical and modern statuary.
The highlights: The moving Desconsol (Disconsolate) statue that sits in a lily pond at the centre of the Plaça d’Armes is surrounded by manicured rose gardens – the perfect place for a picnic. Don’t miss the waterfall in the north-eastern corner; one of the earliest commissions for the young Antoni Gaudí.
The alternative: The neo-classical gardens of the Parc del Laberint d’Horta are just far enough from the centre to dissuade most tourists, but reward those that make it. Built on various levels and dotted with follies, canals and romantic corners, it has as its main attraction a tall and just-difficult-enough 18th-century maze.
Where to stay: A stone’s throw from the park’s entrance, the Chic & Basic Born hotel has small but artfully designed rooms in dazzling white for good design on a budget (00 34 932 95 46 52; telegraph.co.uk/tt-chicandbasic)
8. Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
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The park: The Luxembourg Gardens, created in the early 17th century to accompany Marie de’ Medic’s Renaissance palace (now the French Senate) is known for its central sunken parterre and picturesque plane-tree-lined avenues, but it’s not all ornamental. In summer you’ll find busy tennis courts; very serious pétanque games played by regulars; basketball and even bee hives. On the south side, stop in the secluded English-style gardens, replete with greenery and birdsong and dotted with neoclassical sculpture.
The highlights: Napoleon Bonaparte dedicated this park to children and famous features include the Guignol puppet show, pony rides and whimsical miniature sailing boats on the central octagonal basin; take in the view from the raised banks above the parterres, where you’ll spot Saint-Suplice church, the Panthéon and Eiffel Tower.
The alternative: The Jardin des Rosiers – Joseph-Migneret is (like many good things in Paris) hidden in plain sight, tucked away behind rue des Rosiers, in the historic heart of the Marais. Amid the bustle of the now-hip area, these secluded gardens provide a pocket of quiet verdure, flanked by old aristocratic mansions.
Where to stay: Soak up St-Germain atmosphere at dinky L’Hôtel, famous for being the pension where Oscar Wilde died, and now a swish boutique address with décor from Jacques Garcia (00 33 1 44 41 99 00; telegraph.co.uk/tt-lhotel)
9. Villa Borghese, Rome
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The park: With immense foresight, Rome’s council snapped up this peri-urban estate of the debt-saddled Borghese dynasty and opened it as a public park in 1903. At nearly 200 acres, this is the city’s third-largest park, retaining all the hallmarks of a nobleman’s property. It’s slightly scuffed but wholly charming: statues, a boating lake, aviaries, fake temples and shady promenades. The view from the Pincio balcony towards the dome of St Peter’s is second to none, and a paddle round the little lake is quaintly pleasurable.
The highlights: Located inside the park, the Galleria Borghese contains one of the world’s finest art collections. Within the park walls, the Bioparco – Rome’s zoo – keeps little ones entertained.
The alternative: Altogether more intimate, Villa Celimontana is the green heart of the Celio district. There’s a children’s play area frequented by locals. On summer evenings, the park is a cool venue for jazz concerts.
Where to stay: Oozing art nouveau grace, the Hotel Locarno sits just below the Pincio balcony, with Villa Borghese’s umbrella pines always in sight as you do the 10-minute climb to the park (00 39 06 361 0841; telegraph.co.uk/tt-locarno)
10. Parco di Villa Groggia, Venice
The park: In this city, with its intriguing glimpses of private gardens concealed behind high walls, municipal green space is often a dusty afterthought. Parco di Villa Groggia, in Venice’s far northern reaches, is an utterly charming exception. Hemmed in between palazzi in the Cannaregio district, this lush space with its huge hackberry trees and pillar-box-red benches is a haven of birdsong and chirping children who play around quaint ‘ruins’ erected in the 18th century – a Venetian take on the English garden style.
The highlights: Tiny Teatrino Groggia – a neoclassical gem inside the park – stages the occasional play or concert, though the programme is difficult to find. Next door to the park, the Piscina di Sant’Alvise is an indoor Olympic-sized pool – for swimming rather than splashing.
The alternative: Grassy stretches beneath towering umbrella pines by the Sant’Elena vaporetto stop are a fine place to escape the crowds. A handful of bars around the edge of the park are perfect for lunch or aperitivi.
Where to stay: Ai Mori d’Oriente enjoys the special mix of residential quiet plus buzzy nightlife scene that characterises the northern Cannaregio district where Parco di Villa Groggia is located (00 39 041 711001; telegraph.co.uk/tt-moridoriente)
Contributions from Annie Bennett, Oliver Balch, Rodney Bolt, Barbara Cacao, Sally Davies, Anne Hanley, Sherelle Jacobs, Hannah Meltzer and Paul Sullivan