We love cities, and we love city breaks. But we all feel the need to step away from the concrete and the crowds for a time. These outdoor spaces tucked away in world-class European cities offer a whole world of natural beauty to explore—by foot, by bike, by boat, or sometimes by other quirky means. And some of them are home to special attractions too, from festivals to top-notch art museums. Find your green space in one of these glorious cities.
Get a breath of fresh air at the Villa Borghese, Rome
With its woodlands, gardens, lakes, and fountains, the biggest public park in the Italian capital can be a welcome refuge from the city’s busy streets and dusty archaeological sites. That said, there’s culture here aplenty for those who want it—art museums within the park’s confines include the Galleria Borghese in the original 17th-century villa, the Museo Pietro Canonica in a replica medieval castle, and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna. The park is also home to the Piazza di Siena, hosting both horse-racing and folk festivals throughout the year, and the Bioparco di Roma.
Discover London legends in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
Swimming, boating, cycling, in-line skating, tennis, horse-riding, and a giant Christmas fair including ice-skating make these adjoining green spaces two of the world’s very best city parks—and great places to “escape” the British capital while being right in the heart of it. Several children’s playgrounds include one dedicated to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who lived next door in Kensington Palace. Its Neverland theme hails from the fact that author J.M. Barrie also lived by Kensington Gardens and set his first Peter Pan story here.
Picnic with a view in Paris’ Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
A to-die-for vista over the City of Light is just one of the charms of this hilltop venue in north-east Paris. Wander its labyrinthine paths to discover an artificial lake, a grotto, a waterfall, and two bridges leading you onto a vertiginous island topped by a scale version of a famous Roman temple. One of the bridges was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Summer brings puppet shows for families, and there’s plenty of lawn space for a sunset picnic you’ll never forget. Or spend a lively few hours at Rosa Bonheur, a traditional old-time cabaret and restaurant within the park.
Royal relaxation in Madrid’s Buen Retiro Park
With its eye-opening sculptures, marble monuments, and landscaped lawns, the Spanish capital’s largest park retains some of its royal feel. Yet for all, these days it’s very much a locals’ hangout—join madrileños at weekends or in any fine weather as they stroll, read the papers on an outdoor terraza, or take a rowing boat out on the lake. Among several notable buildings, the standout is the metal-and-glass Palacio de Cristal, an 18th-century winter garden for exotic flowers, now hosting changing art exhibitions.
Enjoy easy living in the Englischer Garten, Munich
Munich’s second-biggest beer garden, Seehaus, is just one of the draws of the “English Garden”, which rivals NYC’s Central Park for size. Other unique offerings include a scale replica of a Greek temple, an 18th-century Chinese pagoda, and even a Japanese teahouse hosting authentic tea ceremonies on selected weekends. Joggers and cyclists abound, but you’re free to take things at a more leisurely pace—perhaps with a gentle row around the lake with its three minuscule islands.
Go native in Vondelpark, Amsterdam
Just west of the mighty Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’ most famous park is where locals head for picnics and barbecues, dog-walking, cycling, in-line skating, and jogging—or simply to flake out on the lawns. In the warmer months, catch free concerts at the open-air theatre or the bandstand. Eateries include a restaurant in the historic Pavilion, with a summer terrace, and a café serving pancakes—handy for the largest of the six children’s playgrounds. The park is named for a 17th-century poet whose three-metre-tall bronze statue you can see here. Look out too for Picasso’s concrete “The Fish”.
Take a trip through time at St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin
An oasis of calm in one of the Irish capital’s most buzzing areas, close to Grafton Street, this lush green space dating from Victorian times includes a playground, an aromatic garden for the visually impaired, and the Yeats memorial garden with a sculpture by Henry Moore. History lovers can seek out the many monuments to Irish history, while nature buffs can enjoy tracking down the waterfall and ornamental lake with its wildfowl. In summer, come at lunchtime and enjoy a free concert.
Be laid back in Letná Park, Prague
With glorious views of the Czech capital and its iconic bridges, this park overlooking the Vltava River attracts joggers, in-line skaters, and anyone looking for a green interlude. The ticking metronome by the steps up from the riverside occupies the site of what was once the world’s largest statue of Stalin, blown up in 1962. Close to it, the neo-Baroque cast-iron Hanavsky Pavilion is the perfect spot for coffee and cake accompanied by awesome views. Or head for the park’s beer garden or its fine-dining restaurant Belcredi, and treat the kids to a spin on the oldest working carousel in Europe.
Make a break for Budapest’s Margaret Island
Tear yourself away from the lively streets of the Hungarian capital for a few hours or more and discover this peaceful island in the middle of the Danube, complete with a rose garden, meandering pathways, musical fountains, and medieval ruins. Despite the aura of calm, there’s plenty to detain you here, including swimming pools, a waterpark, playgrounds, a small zoo, and seasonal open-air theatre and cinema. Once a royal hunting reserve known as the Island of Rabbits, Margaret is easy to reach by tram, bus, or taxi.