I discovered the magic of European parks on my very first trip across the Atlantic. Travel weary, tired of touring museums, castles and palaces in Spain, my husband and I decided to skip the Museo del Prado in Madrid and instead go soak up some sun in the Parque del Retiro. I expected to find a park similar to the one in my neighborhood with a playground, a grassy area, some shade trees and a spot to read a book and take a snooze. Instead, what I discovered hooked me forever on spending at least a small portion of any vacation in a European park. Here are a few of my favorites.
Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens in London, England
These are actually two separate parks that are part of the vast park system that runs through the center of London. Combined together, these two parks total 625 acres. In the center of the parks is a large man-made lake called the Serpentine. It’s a wonderful place to rent a rowboat, sit and watch the ducks, or get a bite to eat at one of the two lakeside restaurants. Both parks have vast, well-manicured, colorful flower gardens and areas for your kids to run free, and if you’re lucky you may even find an outdoor concert.
In Hyde Park, my kids discovered a huge tree with overhanging branches that swept down to the ground. On closer inspection they found a secret entrance to take them inside the tree. This “secret fort” occupied them for an hour while we relaxed and talked. You’ll find playgrounds in different parts of both parks, but our favorite is the Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. The park is based on stories from Peter Pan, and there is a huge play structure with a wooden Pirate ship in the center, teepees, sand, toys, sculptures and a café if you or the kids get hungry.
St. James’s Park in London, England
Ok, we obviously like London parks and you will too once you visit them. This park is much smaller in size at 58 acres. There are still plenty of lovely gardens and grassy areas for kids to run and adults to nap, but you won’t find play structures and lakes with rowboats. What you will find is the magic of royal Pomp and Circumstance. St. James’s Park borders the Mall (no, not the shopping mall, but a road used for ceremonial processions) and Buckingham Palace. With a small amount of planning you’ll at least get to see the Changing the Guards ceremony. The day we were there we lucked out and got to see the guards practicing the Trooping of Colors parade. This parade only happens on the Queen’s birthday and although we weren’t watching the real event, the guards were dressed in full uniform and looked spectacular. The only thing missing was the Queen (and we got to see her on two other days driving by in her Range Rover).
Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, France
The first time we were in Paris we literally stumbled into the 63-acre Tuileries Gardens. We were out for a walk with the kids when we saw an enormous Ferris wheel, “La Grande Roué,” towering over Paris. With that as our guiding point we eventually made our way into the midst of the Tuileries. These incredible, ornamental gardens are near the Louvre Museum and along the River Seine. They are full of modern sculptures and around every corner it seemed we discovered a new activity for the kids. First we found the fenced-in trampolines, which seem to be in all large European parks. After the kids took a few turns jumping, we proceeded to the musical Carousel for a ride on the colorfully painted horses, and then unfortunately, it began to rain and we had to cut our visit short. However, on our next trip to Paris, we made a point to stay directly across the Rue de Rivoli from the Tuileries. This time it was summer, the sun was shining and there was a carnival in the park. And yes, we finally did get to go on our Ferris wheel ride. The panoramic view of the Paris skyline was worth the wait.
St. Stevens Green in Dublin, Ireland
When we were in Dublin our hotel, Clarion Stephen’s Hall, was very close to this centrally located park. We were able to begin and end each day by walking diagonally through the park to main city sights like Grafton Street, Dublin Castle, Trinity College and the National Museum. This 22-acre green is full of the usual natural delights like shade trees, lawns and colorful flowerbeds, but you’ll also find surprises like a garden designed for the blind using primarily fragrant plants. There is a lake with a gazebo on its edge, a perfect spot to sit and rest your weary travelers’ feet; a fountain to make-a-wish in; and a bandstand that offers free daytime concerts in the summer. If you miss the outdoor concerts there are also street performers to keep you entertained. Scattered throughout the park are memorials and statues honoring famous Dubliners, but our favorite statues were the cows. We discovered the cows on our first walk through the park. After that, we began each sightseeing excursion with the kids racing out the door of our hotel, excited to go “see the cows.” These fun, life-size, whimsical animals are decorated in ways as varied as Camouflage to Marilyn Monroe and are a must-see if you have kids in tow.
Keukenhof Park near Lisse, Netherlands
The only thing bad about Keukenhof is that it isn’t open year round. But if you happen to be in the Netherlands between March and May, this is an incredible place. As you approach the park, you drive through the famous Dutch tulip fields. Once inside, you’ll find 70 beautifully, manicured acres of flower gardens including tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths, azaleas, and more. If the flowers aren’t enough, you’ll see people dressed in character costumes, someone making wooden shoes, a play ground for the kids, a giant maze, a petting zoo, a tea house, and a windmill. You and the kids can sample some Dutch treats like Fritters (similar to a doughnut) and chocolate waffles. And, even though my son accidentally slipped in the pond and ended up with wet shoes on a chilly day, we still had a great time.
Take time out of your busy tourist schedule to visit the parks of Europe. Whether they are large or small, a lot of thought has gone in to the planning of these parks to make them enjoyable for all ages and some of the best you’ll find in the world.
About the author:
Deanna Hyland lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and 10 year old twins. When she’s not writing about travel, she’s dreaming about or planning her next trip.