It’s not easy for travelers to tell where Kensington Gardens begins and Hyde Park ends. On the other hand, why care? You’re in green territory, open meadows, and in the center of London, a city that is made for walking, where its “Royal Garden” paths can lead you to or near most of its best tourist sites. Hey, I love cities; I thrive on their vibrancy and closeness and the scrum of life moving elbow-to-elbow along sidewalks and in the subways. But when the inevitable “I need a rest” attitude creeps in, a green (or autumnal, or snow-white) park beckons. That being the case, Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are ideal day-long chill-out spots on a week’s visit to this vibrant megalopolis. You’ll find no ennui in these parks; there’s too much to do and see, from sight lines across open water to the great architecture that sprouts up behind the trees.
Kensington Gardens spreads across 275 acres of open lawns, shady lanes, and walking paths from Kensington Palace on the west to the grand, tree-lined Broad Walk on the east (believe me, you can’t miss it). The south end of this avenue displays the classical-style Queen’s Temple. The Round Pond dominates the park’s center, where you’ll see kids and adults maneuvering sailboats among the waterfowl attracted to this giant birdbath. And from April through September you may rent a deck chair or two (they always seem to be set in pairs) for about 1 pound each 45 minutes. Otherwise, benches are interspersed around the pond and usually filled on sunny days.
In 1689, Queen Mary (of William & Mary fame) bought Nottingham House and renamed it Kensington Palace. They used the palace as their London home. Mary helped design and create the formal palace garden, using Dutch garden influences to make William, a Hollander, feel more at home. Queen Caroline, wife of George II, helped to inspire in 1728 what people see of the park today. She hired Charles Bridgeman to re-design the gardens. His focus became Kensington Palace, its formal gardens, and the Round Pond. Intrinsic to his design were the pathways radiating from the pond. Each of the tree-lined avenues gives a different view of Kensington Palace.
Wildlife in the park include bird watching, where over the years 178 species have been spotted. The Green Woodpecker nests here, but is a rare site. The Round Pond holds a variety of fish, including the three-spined stickleback, the roach, gudgeon, and eels.
Many paths crisscross the park, actually, but you can always find a good picnic spot completely away from other groups, either under one of Kensington Gardens’ grand trees or out in the sun on the lush grass. Londoners use the footpaths as healthful walking routes to and from work, or to catch a more convenient Tube station (don’t forget: Mind the Gap). You’ll be happy to know that the paths are for walking; bicyclists have their own path along the south road and on the wide boulevards.
In springtime the flowers along the paths and in patches on the open meadows dazzle your senses. The formal Italian Gardens near Kensington Palace are yet another quiet spot to enjoy a rest and absorb the history of this hundreds-years-old park.
A popular feature in Kensington Gardens is the Peter Pan statue, a bronze figure on a pedestal with climbing rabbits, mice, and squirrels. The gardens have become a place of remembrance over the years—the Albert Memorial sits at the park’s edge; statues commemorating explorer John Hanning Speke and smallpox vaccine developer Edward Jenner are focal points—and in 2000 the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground and the seven-mile Memorial Walk opened to the public. I walked the entire route, which takes you through Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, and St James’s Park, a splendid stroll completely quicker than you would imagine, even as you stop along the way to admire flowerbeds and statues, find sunny ramparts, and roam through formal gardens. The Memorial Walk is a nice introduction to London and its three major parks.
Family Activities in Kensington Gardens
Informal sport is played in the park, but as it is a royal garden of historical import, people respect its space as a treat to solace and slow play. Nonetheless, you have found a recreation park in Ken Gardens. Cycling and skating are allowed on designated paths (along the south end running east-west, and the Broad Walk from Black Lion Gate to Palace Gate). Model sailing boats are popular on the Round Pond, and in warm months you can rent a sailboat.
(read more about Kensington Gardens highlights here)