3 Feel-Good Reasons to Visit City Parks in Beijing and Beyond

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Written by Alison Gresik

Our family has a rule-of-thumb for travelling: If things are going badly, head to the nearest park. This little axiom has saved our sanity in New York, London, Brussels and it came in handy again during our three-month stay in Beijing last year.

On our fourth day of never-ending jet lag, we hopped in a taxi to Tiantan, known as the Temple of Heaven, where Ming and Qing emperors prayed for good harvest. Maybe if we exposed the kids to some sunshine and fresh air, we’d be rewarded with a full night’s sleep!

On a sunny afternoon in September the trees and lawns were thick with green. People gathered on the avenues, kicking shuttlecocks or singing in impromptu choral groups. The paving stones and curbs made great race tracks and balance beams for the kids.

I took a moment to lie on my back in the grass and remember why we came to China: to slow down, see the beauty, and live like Beijingers instead of tourists; the Temple of Heaven was the perfect place to do that.

Our rule-of-thumb seems obvious – don’t most parents know that parks are a great (usually free) place to entertain kids?

What Shawn and I forget is that parks make us feel human again, and that’s just the first of three reasons we visit parks while we’re on the road.

Parks restore our spirits

When we feel overwhelmed by a new culture and landscape, a place like the Temple of Heaven brings us back to familiar elements: grass, trees, water.

Starting with our arrival at the airport and our highway drives, the kids saw the side of Beijing that is crowded and gritty. We wanted to balance that picture.

Yes, we found pollution and congestion in Beijing, but we also found gorgeous green spaces and waterways.

A shady spot gives respite from busy streets, a cool place to eat a snack or picnic, and a vantage point for surreptitious people-watching.

After a morning of fighting the crowds and struggling to keep the kids close, we retreat to a park to unwind, stretch our legs, and let the kids run free. Even when the weather turns cold, the pathways offer a retreat from honking horns and exhaust fumes.

Our outing to the Temple of Heaven, like many of our international park visits, stands out as an emotional turning point. Before we were anxious and grumpy – afterward we felt refreshed and happy.

Parks help us attach to a new city

It’s easy to feel lost in a city of 20 million people. Kids especially have a hard time connecting with architecture, streetscapes, or apartment complexes.

A park, on the other hand, is human-sized.

Many of Beijing’s parks are quite large by western standards; we could cover them in an hour’s walk, and they had interesting features like sculptures, rock mounds, bridges and fish ponds to explore.

We often found an amusement area with ridiculously cheap thrills for kids who like carousels and spinny rides.

Parks became geographic landmarks for the children as they got to know the area. “Where’s Tiananmen Square?” “Remember, we drove through it on our way to Beihai Park.”

After visiting half-a-dozen city parks in Beijing, Lia decided on a favourite – Temple of the Sun, or Ritan Park – and begged to go back every chance she got.

Somehow spending time in a park and discovering its hidden delights makes the place more your own.

Parks connect us to people

On the street, folks are usually trying to get somewhere. They’re single-minded and self-absorbed.

But parks are for recreation, not commuting, so we saw families ambling around and elderly people out for a stroll or exercising on the public equipment.

We learned that many parks in Beijing serve as informal social clubs, and folks invited anyone to join them waltzing or playing jump-rope.

We had more conversations in parks than anywhere else: people seemed relaxed and ready to chat. Students came over to practice their English and older folks asked questions about us and our kids.

Lia and Nico struck up games with any children who were in range. Lia used the Mandarin she picked up at kindergarten to ask kids to “come here” or “play.”

We’d leave for home feeling warm and sociable instead of isolated.

We also visited the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, where we toured replica houses in villages representing China’s 56 nationalities. The exhibits were a hands-on way to see how people lived more traditionally, and Lia and Nico loved the singing and dancing demonstrations.

Our Temple of Heaven visit didn’t completely cure the jet lag woes, but it certainly cheered everyone up and made us feel great about our decision to live in Beijing. So the next time your family feels tired, lost, or overwhelmed in a new city, check out your map and head for the green!

Here’s a list of 10 great city parks around the world to get you started, feel free to share your recommendations for best parks with us!

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