Iconic City Parks Around the World

Cities are defined by towering skyscrapers, non-stop energy and densely-packed quarters. Yet many top-visited cities also offer rightly famous urban oases - iconic parks that provide greenery, fresh air, picnic knolls, beautiful foliage and walking paths. When visiting one of these destinations, take time to enjoy the outdoors as the locals do - in a leisurely, carefree way with family and friends.

New York, NY, USA
Manhattan can, famously, feel like endless rows of apartment blocks and office towers for most of its length. At least above 14th Street, a regular grid of streets and avenues, bisected only by Broadway, has transformed the city into a dream for real estate developers. The green spaces interrupting the pattern—Union Square, Gramercy Park, Madison Square Park—are few and far between, with one enormous exception: Central Park. Running from 59th Street to 110th Street, and between Central Park West (Eighth Avenue) and Fifth Avenue, it is one of the world’s largest urban parks, measuring some 843 acres. It is the masterpiece of the 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted working in collaboration with Calvert Vaux. Inside its borders are stately allées and naturalistic scenes, ice-skating rinks (in the winter), an enormous reservoir, and a faux castle. The park is hugely popular, and so to call it an escape from the bustle of the city is often not accurate, especially on mild summer days and the first warm ones in the spring when thousands of residents head to its playing fields, bike and run along the road that loops the park, and enjoy picnics on the Sheep Meadow or one of its other lawns.
601 Murray Circle, Fort Baker, Sausalito
Spend the night nestled under the Golden Gate Bridge in the most dignified of accommodations: the former living quarters of high-ranking officers in the U.S. Army. Cavallo Point is the result of the luxurious reimagining of a cluster of military lodges located within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just over the bridge in Marin County. Today, the 142-room hotel serves as a retreat for in-the-know travelers and locals looking for an easy, elevated escape from everyday city life. Original brick fireplaces and beamed ceilings mingle with modern finishes and furnishings, such as butter-soft leather sofas and whitewashed Adirondack chairs. The expansive grounds are meant to be explored on foot or bicycle. The Wellness Weekend package includes all meals, prepared with an emphasis on health at Murray Circle restaurant, morning yoga classes, guided hikes, a spa treatment, nightly wine receptions, and plenty of free moments to soak in the serene meditation pool—the very best kind of boot camp.
08024 Barcelona, Spain
A pilgrimage to this enchanting park is a must for any Antoni Gaudí fan. Located atop Carmel Hill to the north of the city, the park was inspired by English landscape gardens, but its fantastical elements make sure you know it was created by Catalonia’s most eccentric architect. Though there are multiple entrances, the most impressive is via a grand staircase guarded by an enormous, mosaic-tiled dragon. It leads to a sprawling plaza with a mosaic-covered cement bench stretching some 328 feet around the perimeter. Park Güell was originally designed as a gated residential development, but it failed; a show home built to lure buyers is now the Gaudí House Museum (not included with park admission). Visitors should reserve an online ticket to avoid lines.
Vancouver, BC V6G 1Z4, Canada
Vancouver’s most famous urban space, the thousand-acre Stanley Park, epitomizes everything that locals here love about the outdoors, and visitors have many ways to explore the expansive grounds. Hiking trails weave around totem poles and hemlock trees, while at the beaches, you can swim, people-watch and picnic. Rent a bike or a pair of in-line skates for a scenic ride along the Seawall, or wander through the many gardens where rhododendrons, azaleas and roses bloom.
Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, USA
A 1,200-acre green space filled with museums, theaters, and gardens, Balboa Park is the center of art and culture in San Diego. It’s also one of the city’s most historic sites, built for the Panama–California exhibition in 1915. While the museums are definitely worth seeing, there are also a number of free attractions, including the photogenic Botanical Building, which houses more than 2,100 plants (including Venus flytraps); the Desert Garden, filled with succulents from around the world; and a sculpture court with works by Miró and Rodin. For one of the area’s best views, purchase a timed ticket to climb the California Tower in the Museum of Man. The ornate structure reopened to the public in 2015 after being closed for nearly 80 years and features a spiral staircase to the eighth floor, where you can catch a glimpse of the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Cabrillo Bridge, and even Mexico’s Coronado Islands.
London, UK
What was once a private hunting ground for Henry VIII is now a favorite destination for London locals and visitors alike. One of the eight Royal Parks, Hyde simultaneously serves as a natural oasis and civic hub. A day on the green has endless possibilities: unpack a picnic at Serpentine Lake; take a stand at Speakers’ Corner; reflect at the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain; ride horseback or attend a rock concert. However you choose to watch the world go by here is guaranteed time well spent.
Place de la Concorde, 75001 Paris, France
Before the French Revolution, this park used to be the site of the Royal Palace. Today, the garden, which separates the Louvre from Place de la Concorde, is a place where Parisians and tourists stroll amid Rodin and Maillol statues or relax alongside the many fountains after a long afternoon spent at the city’s museums. Done in a formal French style, the garden features manicured rows of trees and grassy areas punctuated by gravel walkways. There are benches throughout but the green metal chairs are the most popular choice of seating; pull one around the ponds as the Parisians do and enjoy your book or a snack while taking in the view. On warm days, people gather at shady cafés around the park; during chilly months, vendors sell mulled wine. Whenever you come, though, we recommend you don’t wear your finest shoes, as the gravel paths will get your kicks quite dusty.
1071 Amsterdam, Netherlands
Beloved by locals and popular with tourists, the Vondelpark is a 120-acre oasis of green in buzzing Amsterdam, southeast of the Leidseplein. Opened in 1865 as the Nieuwe Park, it was later renamed after 17th-century Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel. In the 1960s, Vondelpark was a magnet for peace-loving “flower children.” In the ensuing half-century, it has evolved into a symbol for a place where everything is possible and (almost) everything is allowed. The park hums with activity in summer, when residents converge to enjoy Amsterdam‘s rare sunshine. Bring cheese, bread, wine, friends, and a few musical instruments to chill on the grass. Vondelpark is home to a skate-rental shop, an open-air theater, a playground, a bandstand, and a rose garden.
75006 Paris, France
On sunny days, Parisians head for the Luxembourg Garden, built by Marie de’ Medici in 1611 and modeled after the Boboli Gardens in her native Florence. In addition to the magnificent Medici Fountain, there are more than 100 statues arranged around the garden’s 20 hectares (50 acres), which encompass both formal French and English gardens. Here you’ll find chess players, puppeteers, children sailing tiny boats on the octagonal pool and sometimes a free concert in the gazebo.
139/4 Witthayu Road
In a city where gold-spired temples are much more ubiquitous than green space, Lumphini Park is a veritable oasis in the heart of Bangkok. Established by King Rama VI in the 1920s and completed after his death, the 142-acre chunk of tropical greenery is a treasured spot. One of the few parks of any size in central Bangkok, Lumphini is well used: In the morning, tai chi practicers arrive, while in the early evening, joggers monopolize the main path that runs around its perimeter. Even so, there’s ample room to get away from the crowds here. More than 30 species of birds flit among the park’s giant trees, and monitor lizards and turtles inhabit its waterways. Other attractions within the park include a public library, a youth sports center, and swan paddleboats in the man-made lake.
Mrs Macquaries Rd, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Sydney’s 158-acre botanic garden, which hugs the harbor between Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Sydney Opera House, is home to nearly 9,000 plant species. Depending on the season of your visit, you might seek out spring peaches and wisteria or tropical orchids and summer lotus flowers. On any occasion, don’t miss descendants of the 200-million-year-old Wollemi pine, a dinosaur of a conifer only discovered in 1994. The gardens are also studded with sculptures from historical statues to modern works by Bronwyn Oliver, Paul Selwood, and Keld Moseholm. The quartz-and-sandstone Wurrungwuri depicts an Aboriginal shield once used by the traditional owners of this land. Tours are offered throughout the year, including a 1.5-hour Aboriginal history tour on the food and medicinal properties of native Australian plants.
201 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60602, USA
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust. For my inaugural highlight on AFAR, I am starting with my wife’s favorite quote, and a local sight in Chicago. Sometimes people feel they must jet off to some far off exotic place in order to ‘travel.’ However, if you gaze anew at your immediate surroundings with fresh eyes, you will discover an entire host of wonderful surprises. Here we have Cloud Gate, located down in Millennium Park, back before they buffed out the seams. The contrast between the organic form of ‘the bean’ and the structured grid lines, along with the warped fun house mirror quality of the city, makes this a truly unique destination.
Munich, Germany
One of the largest urban parks in the world, Munich’s English Garden was founded in 1789, when Elector Carl Theodor ordered a public park to be built along the Isar River. Having undergone many alterations over the centuries, it now offers a slew of contemporary leisure activities. Cyclists, joggers, and rollerbladers make use of almost 50 miles of pathways, while less-active visitors head to the Japanese teahouse (opened in 1972) or one of several beer gardens (the one next to the Chinese Tower is Munich’s second largest, with seating for 7,000). Additionally, there’s a man-made lake, soccer fields, a small amphitheater, a carousel, a Greek temple, and even a popular surfing wave on the river. The park’s large meadows are ideal for picnicking, barbecuing, and sunbathing, making the English Garden one of Munich’s most popular hangouts in summer. That said, autumn is also a spectacular time to stroll the grounds and peep all the changing leaves.
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AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe