Everyone loves a good park; oases of green that bring respite and joy to people all over the world. Not only do they beautify every location they’re in, but parks also promote wellness to all that frequent them.
In compiling our list of the best parks, we looked for those that went beyond lush landscaping and natural beauty. Instead, these parks showcase imagination, innovation and community stewardship, stretching the bounds of what a park can do to become a vital link between nature, aesthetics, touristic appeal and cultural preservation.
Park Güell, Barcelona
It’s not often that a park can take you on a journey into the mind of a genius, but that’s exactly what you’ll find at Park Güell, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A surreal dream covering 30 acres, Park Güell is the brainchild of Spain’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, who was responsible for the incomparable Sagrada Familia basilica, which has become synonymous with the city itself.
Originally meant to be a housing estate, “park for everyone” is an eccentric mix of colours and structures, set amidst trees and plants that burst out of every conceivable crevice. Inspired by natural shapes, everything here curves, climbs and bulges. Walls and parapets overlooking Barcelona are covered with colourful tiles and undulate through the park at various heights, while delightful grottoes, nooks and crannies are scattered everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.
Among the larger constructions is the Hall of 100 Columns and a walkway supported by twisting rock pillars that look like tree trunks sprouting from the ground. There are also sculptures of animals and alien-like figures, including a water-spouting turquoise lizard, a tiled dragon fountain, wavy ceramic columns reminiscent of stalactites and a long bench made to look like a serpent.
Parc de la Villette, Paris
Outside of central Paris, and often overlooked by tourists, is the eclectic Parc de la Villette. The first major landscape design to draw upon deconstructionist philosophy, it was designed by French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, who wanted to create ‘the largest discontinuous building in the world'.
Encouraged by the philosopher Jacques Derrida to consider form before function, this anti-modernist 55-hectare public complex was designed with three principles of organization, namely points, lines, and surfaces. Tschumi wanted a space for activity and interaction that would evoke a sense of freedom within a superimposed organisation that provided points of reference.
He scattered 12 themed gardens throughout the expansive site for people to stumble upon, such as the Mirror Garden, Garden of Shadows and Garden of Childhood Fears, reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy tales. Visitors, especially families, are entertained for hours, as they explore the feast for the senses on offer, from tactile surfaces and visual treats to strange soundscapes.
Parc de la Villette is also home to the Paris Philharmonic, a science and industry museum, an open-air cinema and a huge dome, which is part of the Garden of Flight. The dome is constructed from 6,400 triangular pieces of stainless steel and stands as high as a 12-storey building.
Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan
A popular hot springs getaway located 83km from Tokyo, Hakone has long inspired Japanese artists with its picturesque mountains and a large lake that frames Mount Fuji. In 1969, businessman and art collector Shikanai Nobutaka had the inspired idea to showcase natural beauty alongside some of the world’s best works of art.
Thus, the Hakone Open-Air Museum was born. Set in 70,000 square metres of stunning scenery, the idea of the museum-park is said to have come from the words of famed English artist, Henry Moore, who categorised sculpture as ‘an art of the open air’. The park houses a number of Moore’s sculptures, as well as a wealth of other sculptural works from Japanese and international artists – more than 120 in total. There is even a pavilion dedicated to Pablo Picasso, which displays more than 300 of his works.
Not content to simply be seen and untouched, the museum-park also has interactive pieces. One of the most popular is Symphonic Sculpture by Gabriel Loire, a tower enclosed by colourful stained glass. Inside, visitors can climb the 18-metre spiral staircase all the way to the viewing platform at the top to enjoy breath-taking views.
Another firm favourite is the fascinating crochet play ‘sculptures’ by artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam. The large spider web-like crochet playground of various colours is never free of delighted children who can freely explore the firm yet yielding structure, with bulbous woven balls to dangle from and climb, and trampoline-like surfaces to run, jump and roll.
Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve Park, Kuala Lumpur
One of KL’s best-kept secrets, the Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve (KDCFP) is a vital green lung that has become a popular spot for KLites to relax, have a picnic and take their exercise. KDCFP was established in 2011, and consists of an artificial lake, which is home to various aquatic flora and fauna, set within 800 acres of secondary forest, with remnants of primary rainforest still intact.
At the heart of the urban forest’s success is community consultation and voluntarism, which has stood steadfast in seeing off threats of development through the years. The park’s unique model of collaborative management involves the local community, nature conservationists, the state forestry department and indigenous communities. Ordinary people can join as members or volunteer for park maintenance and clean-up duties, while the park’s star attraction – 14km of forest trails so far – has been painstakingly constructed by both volunteers and members of the local Temuan indigenous people.
With varying difficulty levels, the trails are suitable for the most leisurely hiker, all the way to hardcore trail runners and mountain bikers. Highlights include the Unity Peak and Denai Tiga Puteri trails which have a 3.5 km hiking loop, offering a panorama over KL from the highest peak of KDCFP. The view is indeed a sight to behold, especially at night with the twinkling lights of the metropolis laid out below.