Even in a city so well endowed with parks, Hampstead Heath is pretty extraordinary. For these 790 acres of woods, meadow and heathland – under two miles from Camden High Street – are so off the urban track that you can actually get lost. You can also – as Londoners have been doing for the century since the Heath was protected for public enjoyment – walk, jog, swim, fly a kite, fish, watch birds (there are whole flocks of parakeets, and occasional kestrels, as well as the usual London varieties), exercise your dog or kids, and get a legendary view over London.
The viewpoint – Parliament Hill – is a good place to start. You can walk there in five minutes from Hampstead Heath overground station, or ten from Belsize Park tube and on a clear day you can see south to the mini Eiffel Tower of Crystal Palace, while down below you is Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. It's also the place for kite-flying, too, and for great sledging whenever there’s snow. From there, it’s downhill to a decent kids’ playground (with summer paddling pool), a nice Italian-run café, tennis courts, and a pitch with boules for hire. Or you can strike north towards Kenwood House – which is currently closed to visitors, though its lovely daytime café remains open. Other good walks could take you to the Vale of Health (where Keats sailed paper boats in the pond), flanked by its gypsy fairground camp, or over to Golders Hill Park with its water garden, deer enclosure and little zoo. In the summer – or year-round if you’re a hard nut – you can swim in one of three ‘Bathing Ponds’ (mixed, men’s and women’s). Or, as noted, you can just wander off and get lost.
The Heath is also a long-established gay locale (this is almost exclusively concentrated in the West Heath at night, though the slope outside the Men’s Pond is cruisey on summer weekends).
On summer nights, the Heath around Parliament Hill becomes an all-round party venue, with groups of picnickers of all ages. It’s usually a very easygoing atmosphere. Most bank holidays, the Heath also hosts a fairground or a circus, close by the car park on South End Road.
The Heath can be a bit confusing but you can view or download a useful detailed map here.