The largest of London's parks at 350 acres, Hyde Park and its neighbour Kensington Gardens (275 acres), create a vast green space amid the urban metropolis where you can take some time away from the noise and pollution to sit quietly, get up close with some unusual wildlife, row a boat, explore free art galleries, listen to a talk, enjoy a cold drink by the waterside, let the kids run free or explore the huge number of monuments and memorials scattered throughout.
This is the perfect place for the Slow Traveller to find some peace and nature in the middle of England's capital, and there is enough to do to easily fill more than a day if you are looking for an extended period of calm.
Although separate parks with different opening times, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens seem to merge into one huge green space, which combined together are larger than the Principality of Monaco. A mix of formal gardens, open land, lakes and wooded areas, there is plenty of space to be able to rest, relax and to take some time away from the dissonance that can be London life.
The parks may be places to just chill, but there is also a multitude of things to do in them to help you unwind, whether it's cultural, sporting or dining activities.
Things to do in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
(Click on each one to find out more, or scroll down)
1. Amble through the trees (free)
2. Hang out with wildlife (free)
3. Contemplate contemporary art (free)
4. Listen to free speech in action (free)
5. Chill out in a deckchair (£2 per hour)
6. Mess about in a boat (£12 per person, per hour)
7. Sail model boats in Round Pond (free)
8. Cycling (£2 per 30 mins)
9. Horse Riding (expensive)
10. Outdoor Swimming (£5 per session)
11. Sporting Activities - tennis, bowls, putting, padel (various)
12. Football (free)
13. Yoga (free/various)
14. Senior Playground (free)
15. Kids Playgrounds (free)
1. Amble through the trees
Both parks have a mixture of wide open spaces, formal gardens, wooded areas and lake, all of which can be explored at your leisure. Although there are pathways, there is no obligation to stick to them and you can wander where you wish. There are so many monuments and memorials that you can just bimble about the park looking at the ones that interest you the most. You can do an online search for self-guided walks of the park, but none of them cover every monument, so I think just wandering around and seeing what you stumble across is more fun.
Royal Parks have a free app where you can download a scavenger hunt for the park, taking you to some of the park's highlights and providing little nuggets of information about it as you go along. Download both the Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens Scavenger Hunts here >>
There are two long distance walks which include the parks. One is the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk which is 7 miles long and takes in three palaces and two mansions connected with her life - find out more about it here >>
The other is the Jubilee Greenway which is 15 miles long and takes in most of the iconic sights of London, including Hyde Park. You can even download a certificate afterwards to show you've completed it. Find out more about the Jubilee Walkway >>
2. Hang out with Wildlife
There is an unusual and diverse amount of wildlife in the parks. The first thing you may notice is the squirrels. Everywhere else in the country, squirrels will run away as soon as you approach.
Here, they head straight towards you, sit at your feet and gaze up at you, little white tummies on display and paws raised expectantly. It is fascinating to get this close to them, but bear in mind that feeding wildlife is strictly forbidden in the parks, and it is an excess of people ignoring this that is the reason why they optimistically scamper towards you.
Near the water's edge of the Serpentine you will find far more waterlife than you would expect for an inner city area. Regulars include swans, geese, a variety of duck breeds, woodpeckers, thrushes, tits, terns, skylarks, owls, herons and plenty more.
The unusual screeching will baffle you until you realise that there are also plenty of parakeets who have made their homes here too. Apparently there is a particular spot where you can stand in Hyde Park holding out an apple, and they will descend upon you and devour the apple.
The water birds line the edges of the lakes and ponds showing no fear at all of the humans as they are so used to them. There are people who completely ignore the signs about not feeding the wildlife and you will see huge flocks congregating around the feet or on the arms of those who are feeding them, the squawking and flapping attracting even more of them until the people are surrounded.
3. Contemplate contemporary art
Hyde Park has two art galleries, Serpentine North and South, which display contemporary art both within their walls and outside. They are free to visit although you may have to book your tickets to reserve your chosen time slot. They also run various events and workshops throughout the year. Find out more about what's on at the Serpentine Galleries >>
4. Listen to free speech in action
Hyde Park is home to Speakers Corner, a bastion of free speech where anyone can speak on any lawful subject matter they wish, without fear of censure. It is a two way conversation and speakers can often find themselves heckled, or even worse, ignored. The corner draws some diverse speakers - previous ones include Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell and Tony Benn. Go along on a Sunday - it is thoroughly entertaining.
5. Chill out in a deckchair
At various places in the parks, you will find large deckchairs spread out on the grass - see map for locations. You can either book these in advance, or just show up and hope there are some spare, which there often will be. These green and white striped chairs are available at 5 locations in Hyde Park and 3 at Kensington Gardens.
Prices start at £2 for an hour and go up to £9.50 for a full day. You can even get season tickets! Book your deckchair >>
If you don't want to spend any money to just sit, there are loads of benches around, or you can just lie back in the grass wherever you fancy.
6. Mess about in a boat
You can hire both rowing boats and pedal boats on the Serpentine Lake all year round.
It is £12 for an hour for an adult and £5 for a child. Plenty of people take the opportunity to get out on the water and you will see families having fun, groups of friends with their beers or a couple trying to have a romantic float across the famous Serpentine.
7. Sail model boats on Round Pond
The Round Pond in Kensington Gardens is home to the oldest model yacht club, having been started in 1876. They meet every Sunday morning at the pond at 10.30 and race their boats of various types. You can either just go along to watch or I believe it is possible to take your own boat and have a go yourself.
8. Cycle on the many pathways
There are plenty of pathways and routes for cycling, and Hyde Park is particularly popular with people hiring Boris Bikes as there are no cars in the park. There are Boris Bike docking stations at various points around the outside of the park and a couple within it - find a docking station >> Hiring a bike costs £2 for unlimited journeys up to 30 minutes, within a 24 hour period. For journeys longer than 30 minutes, you pay £2 for each additional 30 minutes. You can collect and return your bike at any of the docking stations.
9. Horse Riding
Horse Riding is permitted in the park and in fact there are sandy paths and two arenas specifically for horse riders, as both the Metropolitan Police and the Household Cavalry ride here.
10. Outdoor Swimming
The Serpentine has a lido, that classic symbol of early 20th century leisure, and you don't need to be a member of the swimming club to go for a refreshing outdoor swim. At the moment it is £5 for a 45 minute session, which needs to be pre-booked - it is open May - September for non-members. The water is unchlorinated and you can often find yourself sharing it with ducks and other waterfowl. There is a gated family area with a chlorinated paddling pool, sandpit and swings. There is a mock beach, a private sunbathing area and sun-loungers for hire, as well as a food kiosk.
The Hyde Park Tennis and Sports Centre in the south of the park has six public floodlit tennis courts registered with the Lawn Tennis Association, one of London’s only public park padel tennis courts (padel is a mixture of tennis, squash & badminton and takes place in an open air enclosed outdoor court), grass football pitches, a six-rink flat green bowling green and a nine-hole putting course. You don't need to be a member for any of this - you can just show up - although booking ahead will guarantee there is availability for you. Find out more and book >>
You can book a football pitch on the old football pitches for free, or if you want something more casual you can just show up with your football and have a kick around - there is plenty of space.
Hyde Park has several yoga groups who run sessions at various times, many of them are free. You can try Sunset Yoga, Power Yoga or SUNday Yoga which is every Sunday at 10am and is entirely free, even though it is run by a certified instructor.
There seem to be other groups too, as I walked past a group doing yoga one Saturday morning, who had gongs, tubular bells and vast amounts of incense, lending a very exotic air to that part of central London.
14. Senior Playground
Not just for kids, there is also a Senior Playground, a free facility to help older people get exercise. It is essentially an outdoor gym, but all of the equipment has been selected to ensure that a high level of accessibility, ease of use and enjoyment can be provided for all users, and there is a lower age limit of 15. You can find it on the south of the park near the Sports Centre. Hyde Park Senior Playground >>
15. Kids Playgrounds
There are of course playgrounds for kids too. There is a small one in the south of Hyde Park, and the excellent Princess Diana Memorial Playground near Kensington Palace which has loads for kids to play on, including tepees and a large wooden ship. There is the Buckhill Playground in the north of Hyde Park, and also the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain - a large circular water feature which people are allowed to dip their feet and splash around in.