There’s no denying that life in the city can be demanding. From overly crowded streets to the hectic pace ingrained in capitals all over the world, escaping the stress, pollution and traffic is on the majority of city dwellers’ minds.
Covering only three per cent of the planet’s surface, cities are home to more than half of the world’s population – a statistic that can make you feel claustrophobic all on its own. Fortunately, every city has secret places where you can transport yourself from the buzzing metropolis to a peaceful haven.
One thing that the people who live in big towns often have in common is their love of discovering new peaceful spaces.
Paris Tourist Office - Marc Bertrand
With researchers finding that nature not only helps us to relax, but also helps improve our memory and increase our attention span, city dwellers are tapping into the power of heading outdoors.
They are finding that they can boost their mental health and reap the benefits of being outside just like those living in rural areas by heading to the lush city parks, forests and gardens, as well as secret corners amid the chaos that offer a few moments of much-needed tranquillity.
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For many urbanites, it’s not just where you spend your time that counts, but what you do with it that can make a huge difference. In Singapore, locals like to head to the parks and gardens to practice tai chi, building their inner core strength while fostering a healthy mind in serene and overlooked settings such as Telok Blangah Hill Park.
For the Japanese, the natural environment is so beneficial that doctors prescribe the practice of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), to stressed or depressed patients. Even visitors to cities like Tokyo (one of the busiest in the world) can experience this healing therapy in tranquil retreats like Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park.
Moving towards the west, being active outdoors is an essential way of de-stressing in the city. In LA, Angelenos escape the buzz by seeking out a multitude of neighbourhoods that offer varied landscapes, from canyons to coasts. They make the most of their surroundings by hiking, stand-up paddleboarding and meditating in places only on the locals’ radar, including Marina del Rey, the Ballona Wetlands and the Kyoto Garden at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Los Angeles Downtown.
For Londoners, escaping the hubbub of the city can be as simple as indulging in a pub lunch along the canal or relaxing with a stroll in undiscovered, picturesque parks such as Kyoto Garden in Holland Park.
Meanwhile, Parisians are unlikely to be found queuing with the crowds to visit the Eiffel Tower to get their outdoor fix and instead love to stroll, or ‘flâner à Paris’, ambling along the banks of the Seine or enjoying little-known parks such as the beautiful Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured top).
Truly finding peace in the city is about avoiding the crowds and discovering the secret corners you don’t have to share with the hordes. While many natural spaces offer respite from the chaos, it’s always the ones favoured by the people who know their city that really allow you to escape and indulge in the quieter side.
Seeing a city through the eyes of its residents is vital to any mindful traveller who wishes to get under the skin of a place – it allows you to experience a different perspective on the city and its people.
With a little research before a trip, any traveller can discover the locals’ favourite places and get to experience these hidden sanctuaries – they are usually free and easily accessible.
Thanks to the internet, there is an ever-growing wealth of resources available to help travellers to delve into the hidden gems of any given city they might come across on their journey. Airbnb’s Experiences, for example, are tours led by natives that provide you with the chance to get a closer look at nature and try offbeat activities.
You could find yourself out exploring a forest in Oregon’s largest city, Portland, or hiking in Barcelona’s nature spots with those who live and breathe the air.
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Spotted by Locals, too, is an excellent source and app for insider information on the secret havens where urbanites spend their spare time, whether it’s calm places to relax or soothing spots to enjoy a coffee.
And for a real taste of culture in cities from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, the Like A Local Guide app can be downloaded to your phone for tips and bookable tours that show the alternative, lesser-known sides of your holiday destination.
10 city havens loved by locals
Wave Hill, New York
A splendid cultural centre and gardens in the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River, Wave Hill affords sweeping views west to the magnificent New Jersey Palisades. Offering visitors traditional gardens and a sanctuary in the Big Apple, there are also unexpected surprises, including paths that wind across bright wildflowers and a pool adorned with water lilies.
New Yorker Oliver Q writes on TripAdvisor that Wave Hill is his “family’s chill spot” and describes the gardens, which are kept beautifully, as “pure magic”. “We love this quiet, beautiful place,” he adds.
Like this? Try Washington DC’s Enid A. Haupt Garden or Milan’s Guastalla Garden.
Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
Bang in the middle of one of Tokyo’s biggest parks lies Harajuku’s unmissable Meiji Shrine, a local’s favourite dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and the Empress Dowager. Meiji Shrine is surrounded by hundreds of towering trees, giving it a rural feel.
Make like the locals and show respect by tossing some yen in the offering box, bowing your head twice, clapping twice and bowing once again, or visit on Sunday mornings to witness traditional weddings at the shrine.
Tokyo local and TripAdvisor reviewer casualobserv says the site offers “amazing serenity in the concrete jungle” and it is “hard to believe you are in one of the busiest cities in the world.”
Like this? Try Tsz Shan Monastery in Hong Kong or Wat Sakithaka in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
St Dunstan In The East, London
A true hidden gem in the city, this secluded spot features plants that wind their way around the ruins of the 12th century Church of St Dunstan that was bombed in the Blitz of 1941.
Londoner Marina Thomas tells us: “One of my favourite things to do is run across Tower Bridge after work and through the busy streets, then end up at St Dunstan in the East. The gardens are often deserted and give you a chance to reflect on all the history that has passed on that church site.”
Like this? Try Paddington Reservoir Gardens in Sydney or the Franciscan Monastery in Berlin.
Rue Des Thermopyles, Paris
Step into the countryside without even leaving the city in this picture-perfect street in Paris’ 14th arrondissement. Rue des Thermopyles is a wonderful place for a stroll as you browse the characterful houses with their colourful doors and climbing plants. Spotted by Locals’ Yuko Ogino says: “Keep on walking to the end of the street and across to Cité Bauer to admire an ornate, painted gate to a private residence with a wired heart-shaped peephole.”
Like this? Try Sogukçesme Sokagi in Istanbul or Pomander Walk in New York.
Pacific Spirit Park, Vancouver
This stunning paradise on the western edge of Vancouver, Canada was made for walkers. There are over 34 miles of hiking trails, with forests, beaches, creeks and cliffs to explore. Pacific Spirit Park is a year-round haven – even in the snow – and is a wonderful place to connect with nature. Spotted by Locals author Maya Korbynn says: “The whole park has been created in part to preserve Vancouver’s ecological history, and walking through it you certainly feel as if you are in a time before modern civilization.”
Fryman Canyon Park, Los Angeles
An easy hiking spot for those looking to get out and about while taking in the glorious surroundings of Los Angeles, Fryman Canyon park is adored by residents for its convenient location and spectacular view of the valley below. For something that’s a little harder to find, the Rainforest Trail inside the park is a one-mile footpath that leads to a gully covered in lush foliage. Spotted by Locals author Rachel Kossman says: “If you’re looking for a great workout with beautiful vistas that is a less crowded and overdone hike, Fryman Canyon in Studio City is an amazing option.”
Like this? Try Barcelona’s Bunkers del Carmel or Lynn Canyon Park in Vancouver.
Cockatoo Island, Sydney
Right in the centre of Sydney Harbour sits Cockatoo Island. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where locals come for art exhibitions, events and camping. Hop on a ferry and spend the day exploring, picnicing on the grass and delving into its fascinating history. Sydney local and TripAdvisor reviewer happydips says: “I love this place. It’s very close to the city yet so peaceful and beautiful.”
Like this? Try London’s Eel Pie Island or La Certosa in Venice.
Dunbar’s Close Garden, Edinburgh
Located on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, Dunbar’s Close is the secret city garden of dreams. It’s been landscaped in the style of a 17th-century garden and to enter, visitors walk through a narrow, cobbled close, which opens out into the elegant space. It is at its most delightful when the trees are in full leaf and always makes you feel as though you are first to have discovered it. Spotted by Locals author Anson Clark says that you are almost guaranteed to have it all to yourself, and the best way to enjoy it is to “grab a coffee from one of the Royal Mile coffee shops and enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet”.
Like this? Try Wendy’s Secret Garden in Sydney or Paris’ Jardin Saint-Gilles-Grand-Veneur.
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Pipe Track, Cape Town
One of Cape Town’s best-kept secrets, Pipe Track offers incredible views of Camps Bay, Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles, with little foot traffic to boot. It’s filled with beautiful varieties of unique heathland vegetation, known as fynbos, with benches along the way to take in the view. Michelle Lewis-Loubser, who works for tour operator Acacia Africa and lives in the vibrant city tells us: “While I enjoy the buzz of city life, I also like to escape into nature and love to trek along the Pipe Track as the views over Camps Bay are nothing short of breathtaking. It’s off the tourist trail and a great place to get away from it all and recharge your batteries.”
Like this? Try Hong Kong’s Sai Kung Peninsula Hike or Tank Hill in San Francisco.
Parrochietta Cemetery, Rome
This tiny cemetery beneath the huge concrete pillars of the Via Portuense viaduct was built in 1855 when the cholera epidemic forced a nearby graveyard to be extended. It has just a few tombs and is the epitome of peace in the city. Spotted by Locals author Giulia Riva says it looks more like a private garden than a burial site. “The cemetery hasn’t allowed new burials since the 1990s, and so it is pretty rare to find someone else around.”
Photos by Etienne Boulanger and Dan Freeman on Unsplash.