Often described as the lungs of their cities, parks and gardens are irreplaceable. They're also easily overlooked by visitors intent on sightseeing, shopping or eating out. However, making time to explore a city's green spaces adds a valuable extra dimension to any trip. Whether it's relaxing in the locals' favourite hangout, taking out a pedal boat on a lake, wildlife-spotting within sight of the city, or enjoying a rose garden, time spent in a park or garden is never wasted. What's more, from artwork to rare animals, parks can hide some of a city's most interesting and unusual attractions.
As well as bars, beaches and Gaudi-designed buildings, Barcelona has some enchanting green spaces to explore. Occupying the site of a former citadel, the live music, historic buildings, shady avenues of trees and fountains in Parc de la Ciutadella make it the perfect downtown retreat. The 12 hectares of Parque de Torreblanca include a lake that’s home to turtles and waterfowl, as well as caves, waterfalls and man-made islands. Alternatively, why not brave the cypress tree labyrinth at the Parc de Laberint d’Horta, Barcelona’s oldest park.
When you think of Amsterdam you probably think of canals but don’t miss out on the city’s parks. Known for its bars and cafes, its Picasso fish sculpture and its flocks of parakeets, the Vondelpark is deservedly popular. Catch one of its summertime open-air concerts or, if you’re there during the winter and the lake is frozen, strap on some skates and join the crowds on the ice. If you’re a keen cyclist, the Het Amsterdamse Bos offers cycle hire and a network of bike trails through its meadows and forests. You can also hire canoes and pedal boats or watch competitive rowing. Garden enthusiasts are sure to enjoy a visit to the Hortus Botanicus, one of the world’s oldest botanic gardens that also houses thousands of tropical butterflies in a glasshouse.
If you know Paris well, you'll be familiar with the Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg. However, what about the Jardins des Plantes? This botanic garden has over 10,000 species of plants, a rose garden, an Alpine garden and tropical greenhouses that are a particular delight on a chilly afternoon. The cliffs, trees and waterfalls at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont are well worth the half hour walk from the Gare du Nord. Once in the park, make the climb up to the Temple de la Sybille to gaze over the 19th arrondissement. For a real locals’ park, try one of Monet’s favourite places, Parc Monceau. Originally laid out in the English style, this park also includes follies such as a Corinthian colonnade and an Egyptian pyramid that’ll have you reaching for your camera.
In a country famous for its greenness, Dublin's parks and gardens don't disappoint. Originally landscaped as a deer park for 17th century British royals fond of hunting, the vast Phoenix Park is still home to around 600 fallow deer. Other attractions include a large flower garden and a tower house known as Ashtown Castle. At the other end of the size scale, Iveagh Gardens next to St Stephen’s Green is an ideal spot for a picnic in the city. There’s a rose garden, a maze, a waterfall and, during the summer, the gardens play host to a variety of concerts, shows and foodie events. Alternatively, what about seeking out the ‘fairy tree’ in Marlay Park? This 300-acre park in the south of the city is an eclectic mix of a well-tended golf course, woodland and a walled garden.
Why not intersperse your historical sightseeing with a ‘passeggiata’ through one of Rome’s exquisite parks and gardens? At the very centre of the city, the heart-shaped Villa Borghese is home to the Galleria Borghese. However, as well as works by Titian, Caravaggio and the like, the park also has English-style gardens, lakes and a horse racing track. Don’t miss the Pincio terrace for views that encompass the Vatican. Once home to one of the Papal families, the central point of the huge Villa Doria Pamphili is still the 17th century house and its parterre gardens. Popular with locals, it’s a great park for people-watching. Perched on Aventine Hill, the Giardino degli Aranci is a small gated garden. Known for the orange trees after which it is named, the garden has some of the best views across Rome.
For such a fast-paced and lively city, Berlin also has plenty of green spaces for outdoor relaxation. Perhaps the Tiergarten and Botanical Garden need no introduction but what about the Gärten der Welt? Situated close to former East German apartment blocks in Marzahn, the gardens opened in 1987 to mark Berlin’s 750th anniversary. Several themed areas allow visitors to experience the world through different styles of garden from an English rose garden to a Chinese waterside garden complete with a pavilion. James-Simon Park is a popular spot for sightseers taking a break from the museums of the Mitte District. Often busy with people during the day, keep an eye out for the rabbits that emerge as dusk approaches. Volkspark Friedrichshain is Berlin’s oldest park. As well as sportsgrounds, playgrounds and a beer garden, its attractions include the Märchenbrunnen, or fountain of fairy tales.
Parks might not be top of your Madrid sightseeing list but they’re worth including. Take El Retiro. Once a royal park, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s perfect for everything from rollerblading to a quiet stroll in a rose garden. It’s also home to a Mexican conifer that’s believed to be Madrid’s oldest tree. And, if you like trees, Madrid’s largest park, Casa de Campo, is spectacular when the foliage changes colour in the autumn, particularly when viewed from the Teleferico, the local gondola system. One of the city’s least well-known gardens is the Jardines del Principe de Anglona. Once belonging to the adjoining palace, this walled garden dates to the days of Goya and retains its original design.
While relaxing on the beach is always an option in Lisbon, the city also has several beautiful parks. Named after the British King, Parque Eduardo VII is central Lisbon’s largest park. Photogenic mosaic paths hem lush green lawns and lead to two hothouses filled with exotic plants. Harder to find, the Jardim do Torel is perched on one of the city’s seven hills. It offers impressive views of the Baixa district. If you like hiking, try the wooded trails of the Parque Florestal de Monsanto, a park that also stages regular concerts and fairs.
Copenhagen is a city ringed with green thanks to the fact that its fortifications became parks and other green spaces during the 19th century. However, far older than this, is the King’s Garden in the centre of the city, which is where you’ll find the well-known statue of Hans Christian Andersen. The Botanical Garden is another long-established gem in the city. Its glasshouses include a Butterfly House and a Palm House with a cast-iron spiral staircase. If boating appeals, there’s no better place than the huge Frederiksberg Gardens, where a boat tour is the ideal way to glimpse the hilltop Frederiksberg Palace and a Chinese pavilion. Believe it or not, you'll also find a beautiful lake and gorgeous flowers in Tivoli Gardens, Denmark’s most famous amusement park.
Whatever the season, Stockholm has a park to suit. At any time of year, the sculpture park at Millesgården Museum is a mesmerising evocation of the Mediterranean. The beaches of Rålambshovsparken are crowd-pleasers during Sweden’s long summer days, and the park also offers some urban grit in the form of a skatepark tucked beneath a bridge. If you fancy spotting deer, foxes or even moose, make time for the Royal National City Park, which stretches for over six miles and adjoins the forests that surround the city.
One of Europe’s greenest cities, around half of Vienna consists of green spaces. This means there’s plenty of room for wildlife: for instance, the public nature reserve of Lainzer Tiergarten provides habitat for wild boar and roe deer. For a more formal park, it’s hard to beat the French Baroque part of the Volksgarten. Meanwhile, sightseers in central Vienna can retreat to the Burggarten to relax beside its pond or enjoy drinks on the terrace of its grand Palm House.