London is greener than you might imagine. There are 3,000 parks within its boundaries, as well as countless waterside areas around canals, reservoirs and the Thames. The Mayor of London is on a mission to make more than 50% of the city green by 2050. And all that fresh air encourages outdoorsy fun, from paddleboarding and wild swimming to art walks and alfresco feasting. Here are the best things to do outdoors in London this summer.
Take an urban paddle
SUP – stand-up paddleboarding – is one of the fastest growing watersports in the UK (The Times recently identified it as the hottest staycation trend for Brits this year). And where better to do it than on London’s historic man-made waterways? Paddleboarding London runs small group sessions in Camden Lock, taking a reduced maximum of five participants per session this summer. This urban section of Regent’s Canal is one of the capital’s most lively regeneration areas. 90-minute classes include waterside tuition before a paddle past London Zoo, skirting Regent’s Park and the area’s famed markets. In summer, the red-brick wharfs are transformed with vivid canopies of greenery – it’s wilder than you’d think. The same company also runs sunset yoga on paddleboards here.
Find a secret garden in the City
The City of London is the last place you’d expect to find a medieval ruin looking like it’s been reclaimed by nature, but that’s exactly the vibe you get at St Dunstan in the East. This Grade I-listed church shell was originally built around 1100. It suffered huge damage in the 1666 Great Fire of London, had a steeple and tower added by Sir Christopher Wren (the architect behind St Paul’s Cathedral) in 1695-1701, and then finally met its maker in the Blitz of WWII, when it got bombed. It became a garden in the 1960s and today its gaping windows are framed with vines and creepers. Manicured mops of leaves change with the seasons, and there are rose bushes and even a few palm trees. The steeple and tower remain, but they look down on strategically placed benches instead of pews and a pulpit. It’s between Monument and Tower Hill tube stations, a closely guarded office-workers’ secret in the heart of London.
Climb the 02
The London equivalent of the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb is a trek up the O2, the giant tent-like structure built for London’s millennium celebrations and now one of the capital’s premier performance spaces. It reopened on 4 July and has reduced its climb capacity from 30 to 10 per trip, in line with social distancing guidance. Buffeted by the elements, you’ll be guided by ropes and clips up a steep incline to 52 metres above the ground. The 360-degree view at the top takes in expansive views of Greenwich, the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf and the Docklands. The Twilight Climb takes in the city’s twinkly lights, while the Sunset Climb – on a good day – is timed to see the Thames horizon soaked in a purple-pastel haze. A circular inscribed plaque at the top helps pick out all the significant landmarks.
Browse Coal Drops Yard
In the 1990s, King’s Cross was a notorious down-and-out industrial area of central London. Its slow rebirth over the past 25 years has been nothing short of a revelation, and the opening of Coal Drops Yard in 2018 was the final flourish. What was originally a Victorian freight rail yard, later a film set and then 1990s rave venue, has been transformed into a canal-side complex of boutique shops, bars and restaurants mixing 19th-century and contemporary architecture. You’ll find everything from edgy young streetwear brands to established British designers like Paul Smith and Tom Dixon housed under the red-brick viaducts. Outdoor exhibitions and installations, markets and maker workshops are a feature, too. From July until the end of September, look out for the signature scrawls of artist in residence Andy Leek, who will be creating an evolving series of public artworks around the area, including a 40-metre-high installation.
Cycle the Thames Path
Not all of the 184-mile Thames Path can be cycled (it’s primarily a foot path), but Londoners know that there are a few bike-friendly stretches. The best coincides with Route 4 of the National Cycle Network, from Putney heading southwest to Hampton Court Palace, the opulent former residence of King Henry VIII on the capital’s fringes. Crossing Putney Bridge, you’ll hit the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes, a protected urban wildlife enclave with gardens, lakes and ponds. Then it’s onwards to Richmond Park, a 2500-acre protected Royal Park and National Nature Reserve. A healthy population of deer have romped here since 1637. You could splinter from the path at this point to explore the park’s many trails, or carry on through Kingston Upon Thames to finish at Hampton Court’s sumptuous rose gardens and outdoor trails.
Book a boat bolthole
Taking its cue from the moored beds of Amsterdam’s waterways, The Boathouse is a one-room floating hotel engineered with minimalist Scandi appeal to make guests feel immediately relaxed. Blankets are provided for evenings outdoors on the roof deck, there’s a breakfast hamper in the kitchen, and a complimentary rowing boat and bikes for pottering about on water or land by day. There’s even a roll-top bath. It’s in Paddington Basin, moored to a leafy floating ‘pocket park’, just 15 minutes from Heathrow Airport by express train and a 10-minute walk from Hyde Park. And if staying on your own private barge isn’t enough wow factor, tuck into the menu of extras ranging from Champagne on arrival to private dining, boat picnics and floating yoga sessions.
Join locals for an open-air dip
Believe it or not, you can go wild swimming in London. It’s often frigid, muddy and there are ducks at the ponds on Hampstead Heath, but it’s an institution with a legion of dedicated fans. These North London ponds, which are suitable for strong swimmers only because of the bracing conditions, have begun a phased reopening with online bookings available from mid-July. If the Hampstead Heath ponds feel too back-to-nature, there’s also the very civilised 1930s lido nearby on Parliament Hill, a 60-metre unheated pool that reopened mid-July. Or try open-water swimming at the Royal London Docks in East London. Check the websites for new booking regulations and social distancing guidance this summer.
Walk The Line
London’s first dedicated art walk celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2020 by extending its route into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. The beauty of The Line is that it crosses London’s developing eastern frontier, broadly following the Greenwich Meridian line northwards from the Greenwich Peninsula along meandering waterways that are likely to feel far quieter than other parts of London. You might even spy the odd seal basking on a Thames sandbank. Highlights include Gary Hume’s mischievous Liberty Grip, Laura Ford’s Bird Boy (without a tail) floating eerily on a pontoon at the Royal Docks, and Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, the UK’s tallest sculpture, which spirals almost 115m over the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. New commissions and community collaborations are expected to be aired from this year.
Pack a posh picnic
Outdoor feasting is all the rage this summer, as food businesses look for ways to claw back lost earnings, and no one does eating out of a hamper better than the British. Top billing must go to Fortnum & Mason, whose new £500 Reunion Hamper (for six people) delivers elevated British classics. That means creamy coronation chicken, ham hock and plump scotch eggs, along with lobster rolls, tipples and, of course, strawberries and clotted cream. The Sun Tavern in the East End is doing a £75 Garden Hamper with Prosecco and rosé, a selection of cheeses, olives, cornichons and sliced saucisson, with the option to add its award-winning cocktails (try the frozen Irish coffee). London Shell Co delivers fresh fishy fare every Friday from its floating restaurant base in Paddington. For £45, you’ll get a bottle of English sparkling wine and a weekly changing menu for two of, say, hot smoked rainbow trout, crevettes and house pickles with soda bread and farmhouse butter.