Hanging with the Locals: Our favorite urban parks in Europe

Relaxing with the locals in Berlin's Tiergarten. Photo: Ya Po Guille
Relaxing with the locals in Berlin's Tiergarten. Photo: Ya Po Guille

Most Cheapos know that when in doubt while traveling, it never hurts to take a cue from the locals. One of the finest ways that Europeans spend their time on weekends is with a visit to a nearby park.

While each park has a different culture, no matter where you are, you’ll likely find musical performers, sculptures, and fountains, families with picnics and grills, couples young and old, and plenty of spaces for children and adults to play.

Here a sampling of some of my favorite urban strolls.

Autumn leaves in Hampstead Heath. Photo: Lenoz

Tiergarten, Berlin

I would be remiss if I didn’t start with *the* park of my hometown’s parks.  Many tourists in Berlin skirt the edges of this green space, which neighbors major central sites such as the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, and Holocaust Memorial, without so much as dipping in a toe — to their loss!

The park’s vast expanse makes it a great detour to Potsdamer Platz, the Kulturforum (including the Philharmonic Hall), the Soviet Memorial, the Victory Column, even the main train station! With vast areas of lush grass, the park has plenty of both sunny and shady spots, depending on your preference.

Hampstead Heath, London

Once you’ve passed through the recreational areas on the Eastern side of the park and taken in the views of the city from Parliament Hill, it’s entirely possible to forget where you are while crossing this expansive natural space.

Ponds, high grasses and wooded areas make this a pleasant and varied walk.  If you wish, take time to stop in the Heritage site Kenwood Estate, or watch the kite flyers paint the sky in long, colorful strokes.

Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid

The scruffiest of the bunch, Retiro Park is loved by locals and a great stop for people watching. Let yourself be drawn into a musical performance or two. Shade is at a premium here, and if you don’t have a blanket, be prepared to get a little dusty.

To avoid these issues, simply join the crowd lounging on the stones around the lake while enjoying an ice cream. The park’s Crystal Palace offers free rotating displays of art.

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

From the entrance nearest Gare d’Austerlitz, the park’s shady grande allée may remind you of many of Paris’ other, more formal parks, beloved by joggers and stroller-pushers alike. Perseverance leads to a long promenade of beautifully maintained and varied flower beds, inviting (rather than forbidding) you to walk on the grass and take a closer look.

Exploration of the side allées yields a formally structured and educational botanical garden and even a small zoo.  It’s possible to end your adventure in the adjacent Natural History Museum.

Where do you park it?

Which parks have you fallen in love with, sought refuge from crowds and heat in, or simply stumbled into while traveling?  Share your favorites in the comments.

About the author

Hilary Bown
An academic by training, a writer by day, and a Cheapo by heritage, Hilary Bown's meagre means and insatiable travel appetite have helped her sharpen her "no-budget travel" skills across the European continent over the past decade. At home in Berlin or on an adventure abroad, you'll find her in sandals, riding the bus, reading novels while walking, drinking the local wine, writing out postcards with a felt-tip pen, and browsing the shelves of the supermarket and hardware store. Find her unique blend of travel adventure and tested advice at Less Than a Shoestring.
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