Nestled within Europe’s most fabulous cities are some of the world’s greatest parks. These parks aren’t just pretty, they’re also full of history, gorgeous green spaces, and lots of people-watching. You’ll see locals going for their daily jog, children playing in a hundred-year-old fountain, teenagers skateboarding along snaking pathways, street performers doing their thing, academics snoozing behind newspapers, and artists sitting by iron gates hung with artworks for sale. These parks also offer the perfect spot to rest your tired feet after a hectic morning of museum hopping or shopping.
Let’s take a wander through some of my favorite European parks.
1. Hyde Park
To start off, let’s touch briefly on the first park I ever visited in Europe, London’s Hyde Park. Every year, millions of people visit Hyde Park, one of the city’s eight Royal Parks. Covering over 350 acres, the park is home to over 4,000 trees, a lake, meadow, gardens, restaurants, and fountains, as well as Speaker’s Corner and the Dianna, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. You’ll also find boating, skating, tennis, cycling, and horse riding here.
I still have a rather old photo of my sister and me, awkwardly standing to attention, somewhere in Hyde Park, dressed in one of those hideous “matching” outfits my mother was fond of putting us in. As a child on holidays, tired of being dragged from one tourist attraction to the next, the respite in Hyde Park was both welcome and memorable.
2. Victoria Tower Gardens
London is blessed with green space like few other cities on the planet, so before we leave the city behind, let’s take a look at Victoria Tower Gardens, from where you can glimpse several city icons. Reclining on the grass, you’ll find the Thames River, Westminster Bridge, and the London Eye to your east, to the north are the Houses of Parliament, and to the west Westminster Abbey.
Pro Tip: Look out for a number of memorials celebrating freedom, including the Buxton Memorial which marks the abolition of slavery, and French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. There is also a memorial to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragettes, who campaigned for women’s right to vote. She died in 1928, a month before all adult women could finally vote in elections. Somewhat ironically, the memorial was unveiled in 1930 by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had opposed votes for women, and musicians from the Metropolitan Police, some of whom had arrested the suffragettes during demonstrations, were asked to play at the ceremony.
3. Princes Street Gardens
Moving on from London, let’s visit Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens. The lush expanses of this park are gorgeous, and looming above them is the magnificent 900-year-old Edinburgh Castle. Princes Street Gardens bridge the gap between the Old and New towns and give the city a gorgeous, green center. However, beneath their leafy beauty lies a somewhat unpleasant past.
It’s hard to believe that these 37 acres of gardens were once a stinking marsh, called Nor’ Loch, which formed the northern boundary of Edinburgh. Already useful for defense, the marsh was made even more impassable in the 15th century by the damming of a nearby stream, which flooded the valley. In those days Edinburgh had a “limited” sanitation system. All waste, human and otherwise, ended up in the streets, where it would be washed away by heavy rain, usually into the Nor’ Lock. As you can imagine, over the centuries, the Loch became a stinking reservoir of filth.
In the 16th century, witchcraft trials became popular in the city. Across Europe, a common way of testing whether someone was a witch was by dropping them into water; if they floated, they were guilty. While this technique was not widely used in Scotland, there are stories of suspected witches being dunked in the Nor’ Loch, though trials were abandoned when the mob realized the Loch was so full of waste that it was almost impossible for anything to sink in it, let alone people!
With the building of the New Town in the late 18th century, the Nor’ Loch was drained so Edinburgh’s two halves could be connected and it eventually became Princes Street Gardens.
4. Jardin d’Acclimatation
Buried in the history of Jardin d’Acclimatation is a rather grisly tale. Established in 1860 as a zoology park, Napoleon had hoped to make this a combination of a public park and a place to showcase wild animals. But during the invasion of Paris by the Prussians, things took a disturbing turn. Parisians were forced to eat dogs, cats, and other animals to survive as food supplies dwindled. But the well-to-do couldn’t bring themselves to dine on such “lowly” creatures. Instead, legendary chef Alexandre Étienne Choron concocted menus using the most exotic animals from the Jardin d’Acclimatation — kangaroo stew, elephant consommé, bear shanks in a pepper sauce, roasted camel, antelope in truffle sauce, peacock galantine, and python stew. All dishes were served with the very best of wines!
After this catastrophe, Jardin d’Acclimatation went in a new and disturbing direction, and in 1877 a human zoo was opened. The “zoo” exhibited people ranging from remote African tribes to New Caledonian Kanaks and Inuit people from the Arctic. The tribes were held in enclosures where Parisians could observe their way of life. The exhibit was incredibly popular, doubling the number of visitors to the zoo. Shockingly, it was only in 1931 that the human zoo was closed.
Today the park’s dark past isn’t visible, instead becoming a family-focused leisure park with mini roller coasters, rides, farm animals, and birds.
5. Montreux Jazz Park
The town of Montreux is a stunning location flanked by Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps. It’s hard to imagine how it could get any better. But that’s what happens each July when the town’s historic streets are filled with the sounds of some of the world’s best jazz musicians. Nearly 25,000 spectators come to the Montreux Jazz Festival every year and enjoy concerts in this breathtaking setting.
In its 50-year history, Montreux has hosted performances by Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and more. While jazz, soul, and blues are the roots of the event, other styles of music have found a place here in recent years, with artists like Muse, Radiohead, Pharrell Williams, Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, Adele, and Lady Gaga.
Alongside the main venues for the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, there’s a petite park lined with statues of some of these music legends, and visitors are kept company by statues of Ray Charles, Carlos Santana, Ella Fitzgerald, and more while admiring the park’s striking views across the lake.
6. Parc De Bruxelles
Known as the “Parc Royal” for many years, this was the first public park in Brussels, and it stands proudly between the Federal Parliament and the Royal Palace. At 32 acres, this is one of the largest parks in Brussels, yet is remarkably quiet considering its central location right on the fringe of the historic Old Town, the city’s main tourist area. As you wind your way through the park, you’ll come across secluded leafy clearings, an array of ponds, statues, a bandstand, a theater, two fountains, and a couple of kiosks serving refreshments. These old royal hunting grounds are now one of the principal leisure spaces for residents of Brussels and in the afternoons and during the weekend, the park comes to life with families and groups of people sitting, talking, jogging, cycling, or drinking a beer. Groovy Brussels offers a 3.5-hour “Highlights of Brussels” tour which includes the main sites as well as a mid-cycle stop for a beer and fries.
A Park Secret: Most people don’t know that in the late 1930s, a bunker was built underneath the park to shelter members of the Royal family and members of parliament, and to be used as a military headquarters in case of emergency. The bunker could accommodate up to 30 people and was connected by tunnels to the House of Parliament and Royal Palace. During the Second World War, the Gestapo took control of the bunker and all its communications equipment. After the war, the site was abandoned.
7. Parc Güell
Park Güell, designed by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí, is one of Barcelona‘s most beautiful public spaces and one of the city’s most famous sights. Gaudi, a mad genius who experimented with quirky styles of architecture and interior design, left his imprint all over the Barcelona cityscape. With Parc Güell, he channeled his remarkable creativity into creating a terrifically odd park.
In 1885, Gaudí’s patron – industrialist Eusebi Güell – acquired the land on which the park now stands, and in 1890 commissioned Gaudi to build a garden city, a place in which nature and housing would exist in symbiosis. The full design was never realized, and only two of the planned 60 villas were ever completed, though the hillside is covered with Gaudi’s incredible structures and mosaics.
The actual green areas of Park Güell are cleverly integrated with a maze of trails, walkways, walls, and bridges, and what makes this park all the more memorable are the sprawling views across Barcelona.
Pro Tip: About 95% of the park is accessible free of charge, however, the famous Gaudí structures are in the “monumental zone” and not free, and only 400 visitors are allowed here per hour. I’d recommend doing a guided tour which is combined with skip-the-line tickets to avoid long queues.
8. Villa Borghese
With immense foresight, Rome’s council snapped up the estate of the debt-saddled Borghese dynasty and opened it as a public park in 1903. At 148 acres, this is the city’s third-largest park, and has all the hallmarks of a nobleman’s property, with statues, a boating lake, aviaries, mock temples, and shaded promenades. The view looking towards the dome of St. Peter’s is second to none, and a paddle round the little lake is both quaint and pleasurable.
Park Highlights: Located inside the park, the Galleria Borghese contains one of the world’s finest art collections. Also within the park walls is Bioparco di Roma, a 42-acre zoological garden, home to over 1,000 animals.
9. Parco Delle Rimembranze
Venice is not that green-friendly, and it’s long been criticized for being saturated with tourists. Visitors who are prepared to venture beyond its crowded central areas, though, are rewarded with serene locations like Parco delle Rimembranze. Dedicated to the Italian soldiers who died in WWI, the park is on the eastern fringe of Venice, a 2.5-mile walk from Venezia Santa Lucia train station. The park is remarkably peaceful. It also boasts picture postcard views across an especially picturesque stretch of the Venetian Lagoon.
Families come here to sit on the benches, roller skate around the rink, and play on the slides and swings. Not only does it provide a shady respite from a crowded urban environment, it also offers a real slice of Venetian life.
Amsterdam has one of the world’s great clusters of museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Moco Modern Art Museum, and the Stedelijk Art Museum. Immersing yourself in all this culture for hours on end can be tiring, so it’s handy that the city’s best park is right next door. Nicknamed “Amsterdam’s Green Lung,” Vondelpark is the city’s most popular park, attracting tourists and locals alike, welcoming 10 million visitors a year. Laid out in the mid-19th century, the 120-acre park is a delightfully relaxing stretch of ponds, gardens, lawns, and trees; there’s even an elegant rose garden with more than 70 types of rose and a meadow with a neglected sculpture by Picasso. There’s a network of paths perfect for riding a bicycle, the preferred Dutch way of getting around, and something every tourist to Amsterdam should try – an easy way to do this is to join a guided tour.
Park Highlight: An open-air theater stages free concerts and other shows day and night through the summer. Admission is free, but some performances are so popular that we advise you to make an online reservation via their website.