What would become Hyde Park was purchased by Henry VIII in 1536 from Westminster Abbey (who had held the land since before the Norman Conquest). It was initially used as a private hunting ground until James I opened it up to British nobility. In 1637, Charles I opened it up to everybody, making it the first public park in London. The most prominent feature is the Serpentine, a curving reservoir. It was designed by landscape architect Charles Bridgeman in the 1730s under the eyes of Queen Caroline. Hyde Park was the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair. It was held in the Crystal Palace, which had more than 92,000m² of exhibition space. The Crystal Palace was dismantled after the fair, and later destroyed in a fire.
Despite the loss of the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park has a lot to offer tourists. In the northwest corner of the park is the Speaker’s Corner, a space where public debate and discussion are encouraged. It is often home to colorful preachers, and in the past Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin among others were regulars. During the summer, the park regularly hosts concerts. Paddleboats are available for rent on the Serpentine. There is also a restaurant and refreshment stands.
The Kensington Gardens take up the western end of Hyde Park near the Serpentine. They were formally the private gardens of Kensington Palace. The Italian Garden was the brainchild of Prince Albert and features a statue of Edward Jenner, the inventor of the smallpox vaccine. The Elfen Oak is a 900 year old tree stump with elves, gnomes and other forest creatures carved into it. Kensington Gardens are more immaculately landscaped than Hyde Park, other than that the difference between the two is in name only.
If you’re into parks, Hyde Park is probably London’s best. There is a lot to do here and the scenery is beautiful. There is always a lot going on, between the Speaker’s corner, football games, joggers, and ordinary Londoners on their lunch breaks. It is a great place to relax and absorb some culture, and is easily accessible via the Underground.
Metro: Lancaster Gate (Central), Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly)
Hours: Hyde Park open 05:00-24:00; Kensington Gardens close at dusk