The coronavirus outbreak in 2020 had the entire world turned upside down; half the world’s population is in lockdown and traveling is almost impossible with flights suspended and visitors are subject to a 14-day quarantine.
So, I am going to post something outdoorsy – not that I am encouraging people to escape their house arrest, but it’s a virtual tour that reminds us how grateful we should be when we were able to be out and about, and have a breath of fresh air.
Yes, it is my list of the best urban parks in the world. Mind you, it is just my first 10 as I have 10 more up my sleeve. My picks here are parks that are located within or very close to a major city. It should function as “the lungs of the city”, and at the same time, should have an iconic feature or status, making it one of the best and a true “stand out” from the crowd.
I have reviewed my picks on the internet and they are also constantly popped up on the best park list. Yeah, I guess what I am trying to say is, this is not a list of the “biggest”, “most green”, or the “most visited”, as we all know it would be really hard to measure. You might find some of my picks obvious, and some are my own favorites. They are not exactly in rank because everyone may have their own preference, so do you have a pick for part 2? Which is your favorite urban park that may, or may not be on the list? Leave your ideas and insights in the comment below!
Central Park, New York
Manhattan’s centerpiece that featured in hundreds of Hollywood blockbusters
You would have guessed. So I am putting it first. Yes, it’s Central Park. The urban park is located in Manhattan, New York City, between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. In fact, it’s only the 5th largest park in New York City. Yet it is definitely the most iconic. Created in 1876, the park welcomes an average of 38 million visitors annually.
The park is so well known that it’s been the centerpiece of Manhattan and one of the most filmed locations in the world. God knows how many Hollywood blockbusters and TV Shows that the park is featured in (directly or indirectly) – from the never-ending Friends, Sex and the City, Home Alone, The Avengers, Gossip Girl, Cloverfield, Glee, John Wick… just to name a few).
The park is filled with famous spots like the Belvedere Castle, Central Park Zoo (see the snow leopard), Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, Conservatory Garden, Loeb Boathouse on the lake, Central Park Carousel, and so on. The park is also surrounded by numerous museums and landmarks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. If you found this amazing list is just too overwhelming, you could still just bring some food, have a picnic, row a boat and enjoy the lawn – for me, I recommend renting a bike and exploring the entire park with it!
Here you have a site that shares some useful information about bike rental and tours of Central Park.
Hyde Park, London
A royal park where numerous demonstrations, historic events, and rock concerts took place
The Royal Park is less than half the size of Central Park in New York (1.42 square kilometers), it has a much longer history. The park was established by Henry VIII in 1536 when he took the land from Westminster Abbey and used it as a hunting ground. The park is now located in the prime location of London, embraced by upscale districts including Kensington, Chelsea, May Fair, and Paddington.
Free speech and demonstrations have been a key feature of Hyde Park since the 19th century. Speakers’ Corner has been established as a point of free speech and debate, while the Chartists, the Reform League, the suffragettes, and the Stop the War Coalition have all held protests there. In the late 20th Century, this is the venue for various large-scale free Rock music concerts, featuring Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and Queen.
Highlights of the park include Kensington Palace, Serpentine Gallery, Peter Pan statue, and Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. To expand your exploration, I recommend the Royal Albert Hall, Wellington Arch, Victoria and Albert Museum and Natural History Museum.
Again, it’s very easy to rent a bike and journey through the park on West Carriage Drive (we headed to V&A from Lancaster Gate); More, row a boat in the Serpentine Lake during summer, or saddle up and ride a horse at the specialist horse-riding arena. Check out the Royal Parks website for more information about horseback riding.
Stanley Park, Vancouver
A historic natural reserve surrounded by dramatic waters, Sea Wall, and Vancouver Skyline
Stanley Park is a park surrounded by waters of Burrard Inlet and English Bay in Vancouver, Canada, with a long history since the British settlement and city development. Unlike other large urban parks, it is not a creation of a landscape architect, but rather the evolution of a forest and urban space over many years. Therefore, it is more like a natural reserve with man-made features added to the park between the years of 1911 and 1937 under the influence of then superintendent W.S. Rawlings.
The cluster of attractions are located in the east part of the park. From the Stanley Park Pavilion, Vancouver Aquarium, Nine O’Clock Gun, Brockton Point Lighthouse, to the Totem Poles. If you have more time, take a walk in one of the hiking trails and there are many breathtaking lookouts that offer unobstructed views to the Lion Gate Bridge.
Of course, there’s no better way to enjoy the park than strolling, jogging, or biking along the famous Sea Wall with the glorious Vancouver waterfront and skyline as a backdrop, especially in the fall.
Park Guell, Barcelona
A park that is a masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi filled with his architecture, arts, and of course, mosaic
Park Guell is a public park and it’s Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece. It was built from 1900 to 1914, and was officially opened as a public park in 1926. Visitors can instantly recognize the park’s entrance from the two cupcake-like buildings; yet, there are even more surprises once you enter. The park is filled with multicolored mosaic work on the staircase, sculpture, and walls. The mosaic salamander is one of the most photographed pieces on the staircase. Once you walk up to the upper deck of the terrace, visitors can enjoy an unobstructed view of the city of Barcelona.
If you know Gaudi’s work, you will notice that the park kept his integrity that none of his architectural work has a straight line, from the bench, fences, pillars, to tile work. All elements in the park are mindfully designed with the aim to keep visitors engaged and relaxed. Like the unique shape of the serpentine bench enables visitors sitting on it with some privacy in an open area. The bench is tiled and in order to dry up quickly after the train, Gaudi installed small bumps to promote drainage.
Gaudi also took inspiration from nature as various fruits, plants or animals could be found as a pattern on fences and mosaic work. There are so many things to discover and appreciate in one park and it’s definitely one of the best urban parks in the world. Imagine how awesome it would be to be able to have a walk or take a breather in a Park-like Park Guell every day? (Given that once in a while that park is not flooded by tourists).
Golden Gate Park and Presidio, San Francisco
A central park rival that is also on-route of one of the city’s best-kept secrets
Similar to Manhattan’s Central Park, the Golden Gate Park is also a rectangular-shaped urban park wrapped by one of the American big cities. In fact, it’s even 20% larger than the Central Park. The administration work began in 1871, (almost the same time with Central Park), and now, it’s the third most visited city park in the United States after Central Park and the Lincoln Memorial.
One thing that I think the Golden Gate Park is different from the Central Park, is that it’s a bit off from the city’s commercial district; instead, it’s surrounded by a residential area, and so to me, the park is truly dedicated to the well-being and recreation of the locals.
The park features a De Young Museum (I love the sculpture garden), Academy of Sciences, and a Japanese Tea Garden. At this point, I would also like to include the Presidio of San Francisco as the park is merely 5 minutes away through the Richmond district. The park is a former U.S. Army military fort and it’s part of the Golden Gate National Area. The park features a golf course, and don’t miss out on The Palace Of Fine Arts, an impressive monumental structure originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit art.
All of these sites are listed as part of the Scenic 49 Mile Drive, and if you don’t know about it, you could easily miss some of the most important places in San Francisco!
Kings Park, Perth
A city park features over 300 species of native Western Australian plants, dozen of bird species and more
Another impressive urban park located in one of the cities in the British Commonwealth Nations, but who would have thought that it’s in Perth, Western Australia, but not Sydney or Melbourne? Overlooking Perth water and the central business district, Kings Park is a 4-square kilometers green area, grassland, botanical gardens and natural bushland right in the heart of Perth. Yes, it’s larger than New York’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park, Vancouver’s Stanley Park, or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The Park has an incredible flora and fauna where visitors could see over 300 species of native Western Australian plants, dozens of bird species and miles of manicured gardens and untamed bushland. Another highlight of the park is the State War Memorial, a memorial dedicated to Western Australian servicemen and women who died in World War I and World War II.
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
A park that rapidly becomes a Singapore “must-see” within a decade
Among the other parks on this list, this pick is relatively new to the world. Officially opened in 2012, Gardens by the Bay just opened for about 7 years. Yet, the park has achieved so many that it can easily become a Singapore must-see within a decade, with over 50 million visitors as of October 2018.
The park spans over 1 square kilometer consisting of three waterfront gardens: Bay South Garden, Bay East Garden, and Bay Central Garden. The largest of the gardens is the Bay South Garden designed by Grant Associates. There are so many impressive facilities and attractions in place – its star features include the Supertree Grove (which is also a film set of Hollywood movie: Crazy Rich Asian), the Flower Dome (The largest glass greenhouse in the world), and the Cloud Forest.
Personally, the Cloud Forest is my favorite as it replicates the cool moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions between 1,000 meters and 3000 meters above sea level. This is an impressive feature considering Singapore is a coastal city that is mainly flat.
There are lots of awesome attractions and structures around the Marina Bay: Explore Marina Bay Sands, visit the Merlion, and hop on the Singapore Flyer to have a panoramic view of Singapore’s waterfront.
Frogner Park, Oslo
An open-air showcase of modern art sculptures created by notable Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland
Frogner is historically part of Frogner Manor, and it is an impressive urban park in Oslo with an impressive collection of Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland’s installation created between 1924 and 1943. The Vigeland Sculpture Park is a park within Frogner Park that displays over 600 pieces of bronze and granite sculptures that depict different faces of human life.
The showcase consists of three areas: The Bridge, the fountain, and the monolith Plateau.
The work of Vigeland is deeply influenced by Robin and it could be seen by the modern and clean surface and vivid manifestation of emotions. While it may not be a big name to the world compared to Central Park or Hyde Park, it is for sure one of my favorite urban parks in an intimate and artistic setting.
El Retiro, Madrid
Another royal park of long history, monuments, green space and next to one of the most prestigious art clusters in Europe
Another impressive urban park in the heart of a major capital city. El Retiro literally means “Park of the Pleasant Retreat”, belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century.
Today, it’s a public green space and a popular spot for locals to unwind and practice sports. The park is filled with classic structures and landmarks like Palacio de Velázquez and Palacio de Cristal; The Monument to Alfonso XII is the park’s signature – row a boat in the pond, have a walk or just sit down on a bench and soak up the tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of Madrid city life. The park looks quite different on Sundays where music lovers would gather and practice their music playing.
The park is also located next to the Golden Triangle of Art, where three major classical and modern art institutions – Museo Nacional del Prado, Queen Sofia Museum (MNCARS), and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum are located.
The largest Tulip Garden in the world with over 800 species of Tulips
If you like flower viewing, you must think of the rainbow-hued Netherlands tulip fields in bloom, with windmills and canals in the background. For decades, this is the image of most people about the Netherlands. Keukenhof, which is not far from the City of Amsterdam (even closer to the Schiphol Airport) is claimed to be the largest Tulip Garden in the world.
The garden is about 32 hectares (so small compared with the other parks), yet the park attracts a lot of visitors during the blooming season from Mid-March to Mid-May.
The park has it all, over 800 species of Tulips are arranged mindfully with many other flowers like daffodils, hyacinth, saffron to roses. Some of them are grown in greenhouses and many of them are showcased outdoors. Again, I recommend renting a bike and take a quick spin along the trails between the colorful flower fields in the area – the part has cafes and restaurants that you could easily spend a day in there just take beautiful photographs. A tip from me is that the park is located closer to Schiphol than the city of Amsterdam, and there are shuttle bus services connecting the airport to the park, check out the Keukenhof Express website for more about their shuttle bus services.