Whenever I’m exploring an urban locale, checking out its museums and cultural offerings, finding well-known and yet-to-be discovered restaurants, and inevitably looking up at fine architecture, I always enjoy taking a break from all that by finding parks where I can have a snack among trees and greenery, rest weary feet, and, occasionally, succumb to an unexpected power nap. They’re not hard to find—many are positively huge. And they’re not merely big patches of grass and trees; often, these green lungs teem with superior attractions and activities. These are my favorites.
#1 Stanley Park (Vancouver, British Columbia)
The scents of cedar and fir fragranced the air before I reached their source. Abutting downtown Vancouver, Stanley Park comprises 1,000 acres on a peninsula with extraordinary views all around. You can easily spend several days in this stellar urban oasis, Vancouver’s largest and oldest park, checking out such attractions as Vancouver Aquarium, one of the top five aquariums in the world as well as Canada’s largest, and the red and white Brockton Point Lighthouse, which guided ships through Vancouver Harbor for nearly a century. The park’s most dramatic feature, the 5½-mile Seawall Promenade, runs around the perimeter of the entire park. You can hop on two wheels and enjoy it on one of the world’s best bike rides, or you can slow it down with a long, leisurely walk. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the downtown skyline, North Vancouver, bays and harbors, and Lions Gate Bridge, the British Empire’s longest suspension bridge when it was built in 1938. A collection of totem poles introduces you to the culture of the First Nations people, and you’ll want to stop to consider Siwash Rock, an ancient sea stack (32 million years old) that, according to First Nations legend, is a Squamish warrior transformed into this monolith. A statue sitting on a rock in the water strongly resembles Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, and a bold flash of color is added to the surrounding greenery by the SS Empress of Japan Figurehead, a replica of the figurehead of the 456-foot ocean liner that sailed to and from Asia more than 300 times between 1891 and 1922. All this walking worked up an appetite, so I broke for lunch at the Teahouse Restaurant, just past Third Beach, with its log benches on the sand offering respite and vistas of the North Shore and cargo ships plying the waters of English Bay. If you veer off the promenade and trek deeper into the park along the 17 miles of hiking trails, you’ll plunge into a forest of meadows, the Lost Lagoon, and thousands of fir, hemlock, maple, red cedar, and spruce trees, making you forget you’re in the middle of one of Canada’s 10 largest cities. Organized nature can be found in the Rose Garden, featuring over 3,500 rose bushes and other annuals and perennials. Eternal gratitude goes to Lord Stanley, Canada’s governor general who was responsible for preserving the land as the world’s best city park way back in 1888.
#2 Hupisaaret Islands City Park (Oulu, Finland)
In one of my favorite small cities in the world, situated at the mouth of the Oulu River by the Gulf of Bothnia, I headed to the charming Hupisaaret Islands City Park. Built as a public park for the residents of Oulu, Finland, in the 1860s, it now welcomed me more than a century later. The park houses a couple of theaters and museums—the Tietomaa Science Museum on its edge (located in a former leather processing factory) and the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum, with its exhibits on the history of the city (including a massive scale model of Oulu) tucked inside the same building since 1931. But it’s the grounds that enchanted me. Small brooks and waterways divide the park into smaller and larger islands, connected by lovely white wooden bridges that date back to the park’s origins. Bike paths and walking trails, lakes and ponds, streams and fountains, greenhouses, and a lovely rose garden make the park a true destination. A greenhouse café offers a pleasant setting for refreshments. At the right time of year, you can watch salmon jumping up the 64 steps of the fishway created so that they could bypass a hydroelectric dam on their way upstream to their spawning grounds. The park is so well integrated into the city that, at one point, I inadvertently stepped outside its borders and didn’t even realize it.
#3 Kadriorg Park (Tallinn, Estonia)
I emerged from the wonderful Savoy Boutique Hotel and boarded a tram headed about a mile east from the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia. Unlike the UNESCO World Heritage Site I had just left, this neighborhood is chiefly for locals. But savvy visitors know that its most famous attraction, Kadriorg Park, offers a full day’s worth of leisurely activities. And we have a Russian czar to thank for it: This extremely pleasant green space of about 170 acres constituted the grounds of the royal palace of Peter the Great and has been open to the public since 1718, when he built the palace for his wife, Catherine I, after his conquest of Estonia. A soft entry to the park awaited me at Swan Pond, a placid body of water encircled by flower beds, benches, and carefully manicured trees. A bandstand with a dome, arches, pillars, and balustrades stands on an islet in the lake beside a small fountain that resident ivory-white swans gracefully skirt around. On my way to Rose Hill, where more than 6,000 yellow, red, white, and pink roses of 32 varieties bloom in Estonia’s largest rosarium, I passed by several of the palace’s outbuildings, such as the kitchen and guardhouses, which have been transformed into museums and cafés, as well as the neo-Baroque administrative building of the Office of the President and the modestly sized former home of the czar and czarina. A meadow and groves of oak, silver maple, and silver birch trees leads to the Japanese Garden, with its stone bridges made in Japan, two ponds, mixture of upright and flat stones, orange tiger lilies, and bushes of white hydrangea. The centerpiece of the park is, of course, Kadriorg Palace, which I approached via the wonderful Upper Gardens, a genteel space of formal gardens, fountains, and staircases, reminiscent of Versailles. Red, white, and purple flowers are snugly tucked into irregularly shaped beds in plots surrounding two fountains. A tall wall at one end, topped by a lengthy balustrade and dozens of urns, features a fountain of Poseidon and his trident as well as small waterspouts—faces look like a cross between a mythological god and a bison, with water streaming from the eyes. The palace provides a dramatic backdrop to all this, a grand Baroque structure painted white, cream, and deep orange, with a green roof. Completed in 1718, the palace was embellished by subsequent improvements, including a fantastic ceiling fresco and smaller allegorical paintings in the Great Hall, a two-story space rich with intricate stucco decoration, ornate fireplaces, and Peter and Catherine’s monograms on a deep-blue field. The days of Russia’s high society and intellectuals gathering here came to an end in 1917. Intermittently opened and closed as an art museum over the decades, the palace reopened in 2000 after nine years of restoration as the Kadriorg Art Museum—the only museum in Estonia dedicated to foreign art, complete with a collection of 9,000 works of Western European and Russian painting, sculpture, porcelain, and applied art, and a perfect way to end your time in this elegant park.
#4 Balboa Park (San Diego, California)
By the numbers, San Diego’s Balboa Park racks up an impressive list: nine performing arts venues, 19 gardens, 13 recreational opportunities, 12 restaurants, 65 miles of trails, three dog parks, and nine random attractions. Given the city’s penchant for sun and comfortable temperatures, you’ll be able to enjoy all of those attractions year-round. Seventeen museums—including the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego Natural History Museum, Model Railroad Museum, and Museum of Us—may lure you indoors, but I wanted to spend my time outside. Of course, the attraction that gets the lion’s share of attention is the San Diego Zoo, one of the first zoos in the world to pioneer the revolutionary idea of releasing animals from their cages into re-created natural habitats, one of just four zoos in the United States taking care of giant pandas, and home to some very adorable giraffes. From there, the choices seemed endless, but one of my favorite things to do was to stroll down El Prado, a pedestrian walkway flanked by the museums, all of which are housed in buildings constructed in the flamboyant Spanish Colonial Revival style. Erected for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16, these buildings provide plenty of architectural eye candy: the Casa del Prado Theater, with an entrance framed by elaborate Churrigueresque ornamentation; the Casa de Balboa, with its confectionery top and graceful columned arcade; and the California Building, with its blue and gold dome and soaring bell tower. Cool off by the park’s water features, such as the Bea Evenson Fountain and the Lily Pond. The Botanical Building is a particularly peaceful place to enjoy snacks and sunshine. I wrapped up my visit in the serenity of the 12-acre Japanese Friendship Garden, complete with a koi pond, azaleas and camellias, and a little workshop that provides free leaflets on how to create origami. While folding crisp paper into a duck and a hat, a musical bravura accompanied me, provided by the talented hands and feet of someone next door playing the Spreckels Organ, the Western Hemisphere’s largest outdoor organ, which has been entertaining audiences since New Year’s Eve 1914.
#5 Hyde Park (London, England)
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by London, one of the world’s greatest cities. Its overabundance of museums, churches, theaters, nightlife, and other attractions can rapidly exhaust you. I made sure not to overtax myself by taking some breaks in the city’s parks. Hyde Park’s 350 acres make it the largest and the best of the four royal parks in central London, established back in 1536 by King Henry VIII, when he usurped land from Westminster Abbey and used it as a hunting ground. A century later, the park opened to the public. Over the centuries, Hyde Park has been the site of duels, fortifications, military camps, and military executions. Things are a little more sedate, and happy, today, with the park hosting celebrations, fairs, concerts, sporting events, and a Christmas extravaganza. But there are plenty of nods toward history among its lovely landscaping, which started to take shape in 1726. Speaker’s Corner, for instance, has a history of about 200 years of free speech, allowing anyone with an opinion to share it (as long as it’s lawful), and the public has been pontificating here about everything from a single world government to global climate change, always subject to hecklers in the crowd. The 19th-century triumphal Marble Arch, one of the world’s top arches, anchors a corner of the park, and Wellington Arch commemorates Great Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars. All of that is set among green fields, bridal paths, lime and maple trees, flowers, a fine Italian Water Garden, a rose garden, fountains, and greenhouses. Visitors include not only people but geese, swans, grebes, butterflies, and bats as well. The Long Water and the Serpentine, with a single bridge crossing and one island, provides a watery border between Hyde Park and the adjacent Kensington Gardens, forming a continuous green space, the latter the home of Kensington Palace and the fantastic Albert Memorial, one of the world’s top five memorials. Despite its location in the heart of the United Kingdom’s largest city, with a population hovering around nine million, Hyde Park still, surprisingly, offers plenty of quiet spaces where you can feel like you’re by yourself. And on a characteristically foggy day, it’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in a city that may tire you out but that you never tire of.
- Vigeland Park (Oslo, Norway)
- Washington Park (Portland, Oregon)
- Churchill Park (Copenhagen, Denmark)
- Queen Elizabeth Park (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Falls Park (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
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