Sprawling Hampstead Heath, with its rolling woodlands and meadows, feels a million miles away from the city – despite being about 3.5 miles from Trafalgar Square. It covers 320 hectares, most of it woods, hills and meadows, and is home to about 180 bird species, 25 species of butterflies, grass snakes, bats and a rich array of flora.
It's a wonderful place for a ramble, especially to the top of Parliament Hill, which offers expansive views across flat-as-a-pancake London. You could visit Kenwood House, a grand 18th-century house with lovely landscaped gardens, or lose yourself in the West Heath. Signage is limited, but getting a little lost is part of the experience. The Heath is also home to three swimming ponds, which are among the capital's best open-air swimming spots.
Hampstead Heath Ponds
The Heath's three bathing ponds (men's, women's and mixed) offer a cooling dip in murky brown water. Despite what you might think from its appearance, the water is tested daily and meets stringent quality guidelines.
The men’s and women’s ponds are open year-round and are supervised by a lifeguard. Opening times vary with the seasons; check online in advance. Swimming slots are limited and, at peak times, you will need to book in advance.
The men's pond is popular with gay men and the surrounding lawns are a prime sunbathing and posing spot whenever the sun's out. There's also a nude sunbathing area within the changing-room enclosure. The women's pond is the most tucked away and has a particularly rural feel. The mixed pond closes in winter; it's the least secluded of the three and can sometimes get crowded in summer.
Places to eat nearby
Once you’ve had your fill of fresh air and/or culture, do as Londoners do and head to one of the wonderful pubs around the Heath for a restorative pint. The Garden Gate has an atmospheric beer garden for summer tipples and a working fireplace in winter to warm you up. The Stag is famous up and down the heath for its Sunday roasts and pies.
If you're watching your budget, Hampstead is the perfect place for a picnic. You'll find plenty of shops to buy supplies around Hampstead Heath station.
The best transport links are in the southwest corner; the northeast corner is poorly served. Gospel Oak and Hampstead Heath stations, located at the bottom of the heath, are on the Overground.
Hampstead Heath is steep, and huge, so to optimize your energy, make sure you plan where you want to exit and what transport options you'll have there.