Compared to London, Madrid, and other European capitals, Paris isn’t an especially “green” city. Only 9.5% of the capital is currently consecrated to parks and other green spaces— against 33% for London and an astounding 45% for Vienna. Luckily, the Parisian government has been working hard to change all that, with ambitious plans in the works to add more ecologically friendly “corridors” and green spaces in the coming decade. And there are, of course, already several stunning, historic Paris parks that offer plenty of refuge from the urban bustle. Here are a few of the most beautiful gardens and parks to beeline to on your next trip– and a bit of history for each.
1. Jardin du Luxembourg
Nestled between the Latin Quarter and the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district on the left bank, the Jardin du Luxembourg reminds one less of the cold, tiny Northern European city with which it shares a name, and far more of a sun-drenched garden somewhere in Florence.
There’s a very good reason for this, too. The lush, Renaissance-style gardens and palace looming over them at the north end were both the brainchild of Italy-born Queen Marie de Medici, who commissioned their creation in 1612 following the death of her husband, French King Henri IV.
Today, the Palace is owned by the French Senate, while the vast gardens and wooded paths surrounding it are coveted by residents and tourists. The grounds of the Jardin de Luxembourg feature a central, low-lying area near the palace, studded with lawns, fountain, elaborate parterres and flowerbeds, and ponds on which children sail miniature boats.
This central area–a popular spot to pull up a green metal chair to read a book or devour a sandwich– offers interesting views over the Eiffel Tower. On the upper terrace overlooking the beds, pond, lawns and palace, statues of notable French women– including Queens, writers, and other famous figures– are punctuated by large earthenware pots filled with flowers.
Further beyond, you’ll find wooded lanes and pathways ideal for a stroll, large-scale sculptures, lawns designated for picnics (primarily at the southern end of the gardens), greenhouses, and more.
Beautiful in all seasons (in my humble opinion), the poetic lanes and meandering paths of the Luxembourg gardens are arresting in fall and winter, when autumnal colors give way to bare trees and sharp late winter light.
The Palais de Luxembourg, closest to the Odeon metro stop, now houses the Musee de Luxembourg, staging several popular modern-art exhibits each year.
A Bit of History
The newly widowed Queen (and Regent of France) Marie de Medici conceived the palace and garden in 1611, hoping for a final result that would resemble Pitti Palace in Florence. She hired an architect and landscape designer named Solomon de Brosse to construct the palace and the large fountain at the center of the garden to come.
A troupe of gardeners added greenery-lined terraces, balustrades, and parterres around the Palace, as well as a fountain named after the queen just east of it, complete with an artificial grotto surrounded by trees and shrubs.
This initial garden was tiny compared to what the Luxembourg would become in the later part of the 17th century. It was extended with more traditional French neoclassical elements, including rectangular parterres and basins. Later, an orangery and several greenhouses were added.
After the French Revolution, the gardens were again extended when the city acquired lands once belonging to a Carthusian monastery in the area. The gardens were soon opened to the general public.
In the 20th century, the Luxembourg gardens were a favorite stomping ground of noteworthy artists and writers, including the so-called “Lost Generation” of Americans (Gertrude Stein James Baldwin, and many others). Stein’s apartment and famous literary salon lay in close reach of the gardens, on Rue de Fleurus.
The main gates to the gardens face the Place du Panthéon on Boulevard Saint-Michel. For the Musée du Luxembourg, access is through the gates at 19 Rue de Vaugirard (Metro Saint-Sulpice) (buy priority entrance tickets via Tiqets).
- Address: Jardin du Luxembourg, 75006 Paris (6th arrondissement)
- Metro/RER: Luxembourg (RER B), Odéon (Metro Line 4), or Saint-Sulpice (Metro Line 4)
2. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Possibly the city’s most-overlooked park (at least by tourists), the vast, Romantic-style Buttes-Chaumont takes up a huge swathe of the northeastern area connecting the 19th and 20th arrondissements (districts). With its dramatic green slopes, artificial lakes and grottoes, thousands of trees (themselv es harboring numerous species of wild birds, including invasive colonies of green parrots!), and some 1.5 miles of meandering paths, this is simply one of the loveliest spots in the city for a relaxed stroll or picnic.
Especially if you (like me) tend to prefer the more relaxed, sprawling, naturalistic landscaping of Romantic style parks, this is a green space to explore in the capital.
You can stumble on quiet little green corners, climb to high points (such as the famous “Temple of Sybille”), which is perched high on a cliffside above the artificial lake, and wander across a 12-meter footbridge, suspended 22 meters (over 70 ft) above the water. Not-so-incidentally, it was built by a certain Gustave Eiffel, who is also responsible for designing “some tower” elsewhere in the city– what was it called again?
After a stroll and exploration I recommend grabbing drink out on the terrace at the hip-yet-traditional “guinguette” (musical cafe), Rosa Bonheur (at the Botzaris metro entrance)– or at the Butte’s two other watering holes, spotlighted in our related piece on Parisian cafés haunted by a new generation of writers.
A word of warning about visiting in the summer: If you’re at all crowd-averse, or are simply after a contemplative nature walk, the Buttes-Chaumont isn’t ideal in the warmer months, when nearly every available nanometer of grass is snagged by picnic-goers and sunbathers.
The ambience is great, though, if you want to get a slice of authentic local life (again, few tourists bother to make the trek to this far edge of northeastern Paris.)
A Bit of History
The history of this particular park is a fascinating (and rather grim) one, wrapped up in the 19th-century project to create large green spaces in working-class areas that were all but deprived of them.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the area now comprising the 19th arrondissement (and the park’s grounds) lay outside the Paris city limits. The hilly area where the park now stands was an austere, barren place referred to as Chauve-Mont, or ‘bald hill’.
It was nearby that a place of execution for hanging and displaying the bodies of criminals, called the Gibbet of Montfaucon, stood. It had been dedicated to these gruseome acts for centuries, between roughly the 13th and mid-18th centuries.
Following the French Revolution, the area was used to dump refuses and animal carcasses, as well as for sewage disposal. As you can imagine, the area did not (from all reports) emit pleasant odors. Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, the public works director charged with building the later park, once said that the wind spread the “infectious emanations” over the whole city.
Another end of the hilly site was a limestone quarry, used to extract the raw materials that would be used to build much of Paris. But by the mid-19th century, its limestone had been badly depleted. Archaeologists found giant prehistoric mammal fossils in the site during a period of exploration.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the area’s reputation as one of both misery and waste, the city planner Baron Haussmann chose Chauve-Mont as the site for an enormous new public park. This followed the annexation of the area into Paris, and the creation of the 19th and 20th arrondissements– new working-class areas in Paris.
Construction on the park began in 1864 under the direction of Alphand, who had also designed the (Romantic-style) Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes (see below). A thousand workers were hired to complete the monumental project.
Explosives were employed to sculpt the park and quarry into a landscape that resembled a mountainous area complete with cliffsides and grotto complete with interior areas. Hydraulic pumps were brought in to fashion an artificial waterfall, transporting the waters from the Ourcq canal to the highest point in the park.
You might say this is the sort of park that preceded the modern-day amusement park; the simulation of natural forms are nothing short of uncanny. For me, it’s an intriguing testament to the history of park-building in the nineteenth century, which was conceived as one for the public good.
There are several entrances to the park, the most popular being the one at the Buttes-Chaumont metro station (line 7bis). You can also get off at Botzaris (also line 7bis), the best entrance to access the popular Rosa Bonheur bar and restaurant.
3. Jardin des Tuileries
The Tuileries– a vast green space adjoining the Louvre, is practically synonymous with Parisian grandeur and prestige. Pronounced twee-luh-rEEh, its name refers to the tile factories that once stood here, prior to the creation of the gardens by Queen Catherine de Medici in the 16th century.
The style of the gardens is resolutely formal and classical, like those at the Jardin de Luxembourg, they were inspired by Italian and Florentine design principles.
The impeccably maintained lawns, parterres, tree-lined paths, shrubs, ponds, ornate statues, and elaborate floral beds at the Tuileries are preferred stomping grounds for Parisians and visitors alike, and a welcome reprieve from the pollution and noise of the city center.
Around 35 species of trees and dozens of varieties of blooms can be admired at the garden, making it ideal for a spring stroll.
Perch on a bench to enjoy a picnic, sail boats on the ponds, and, in the summer, enjoy the old-school fair that springs up on the northern edge, adjacent to the Rue de Rivoli. Complete with rides, treats and games, it’s an ideal way to enjoy the space with younger visitors.
The sculptures scattered throughout the garden are also impressive, and include moving, sensuous figures from the likes of Rodin, Maillol, and Giacometti. Finally, the Musée de l’Orangerie, at the western edge, is a fantastic small museum housing Monet’s stunning mural series Nymphéas (Waterlilies), as well as a basement collection of impressionist and expressionist masterpieces.
A Bit of History
Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the area was mostly occupied by tile-making artisans, before Catherine de Medici built the Palais de Tuileries there, and commissioned gardens in the style typical to ones in her native Florence.
To achieve this, she entrusted the famous landscape architect André le Nôtre with the design of lavish green grounds. Henri IV added hunting grounds and equestrian paths. Under the reign of Louis XV, in the early 18th century, the gardens were given even more opulent details, including statues.
During the pre-revolutionary period, the gardens remained closed to the general public, and were strictly reserved for royal strolls and affairs. But following the French Revolution of 1789, the Tuileries were made into public gardens.
Then, in the revolt of 1871 of known as the Paris Commune, a fire broke out at the Tuileries, destroying the Palais de Tuileries where Catherine de Medici and other royals had taken up residence.
- Address: Jardin des Tuileries, 75001 Paris (1st arrondissement)/entrances at Rue de Rivoli or Place de la Concorde
- Metro: Tuileries or Concorde (Lines 1, 8, 14)
- See more practical info at this page (Tourist Office)
4. Bois de Boulogne
One of two enormous forested parks situated just outside the city limits (and forming “the lungs of Paris ” as a local saying goes), the Bois de Boulogne lies at the western edge of the city, adjoining some of its most affluent neighborhoods.
Boasting hundreds of thousands of trees, four artificial lakes connected by footbridges, islands occupied by thematic kiosks, as well as grottos and waterfalls, old-fashioned pavilions, enormous lawns perfect for picnics, and ambling footpaths bordered by woodlands, it’s a true green haven. Occupying over 2,000 acres, it’s some two-and-a-half times bigger than New York’s Central Park.
Parisians come in droves for boating on the lakes, lazy picnics in the sun, bike rides, or to bet on horses at the races taking place at the Hippodrome de Longchamp.
The site is also, more recently, home to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a new contemporary art museum with an avant-garde design from architect Frank Gehry.
A Bit of History
The history of the enormous, English Romantic-style Bois de Boulogne goes back hundreds of years. A forest called the Forêt de Rouvray, mentioned in medieval texts as early as the 8th century, formed the far western, wooded border of what were then farmlands outside of the Parisian city walls.
First occupied by monks at long-since-defunct monasteries in the area, most of the forest grounds were later appropriated by the French monarchy and made into hunting terrain. In 1256, a new Abbey, the Abbaye de Longchamp, was established here by Isabel of France, daughter of King Louis VIII.
In the early 14th century, a church was erected in the wood on the order of Philippe le Bel. It’s nnamed Notre-Dame-des-Menus de Boulogne-Billancourt. It became an important site during the high medieval period.
But in subsequent centuries the wood became a place of disrepute, notorious for its bandits, prostitutions, and even murders. It was re-planted many times after falling into ruin.
It was only under the Emperor Napoleon III, in the mid-19th century, that the grand wood so beloved today by Parisians gained its current shape and look. The Romantic-style English park complete with artificial natural features– waterfalls, lakes, grottos, etc, was very much en vogue at the time, and Napoleon III approved the construction of vast new green space in the old wood in 1852.
Adolphe Alphand, who also created the Bois de Vincennes and the aforementioned Buttes-Chaumont, was commissioned to help design the space.
Some 200,000 trees were planted, the grounds and contours were shaped to resemble a natural, semi-hilly landscape punctuated with lakes, waterfalls, and small rivers, and two artificial islands were formed, joined by footbridges.
Painted by impressionists and other artists during the nineteenth ce, the Bois de Boulogne soon became a fashionable place for the upper-classes to stroll, attend horse races at the new Hippodrome, and dine at expensive restaurants (it’s still notably home to Michelin-starred tables such as Le Pré-Catelan.)
Nevertheless, the Bois’ seedy legacy remains visible after dark to this day (it’s a well-known spot for prostitution and drug deals after the sun sets).
The easiest way to reach the Bois de Boulogne is via Metro Line 1 (direction La Defense). Get off at Porte Maillot and follow the directions to the par entrance. You can also access from the Porte Dauphine station (Metro Line 2) or Porte d’Auteuil (line 10).
5. Jardin des Plantes
This classic Parisian green space at the edge of the Latin Quarter is also an immense scientific and educational resource. Established in the 17th century as a royal botanical garden, it’s in reality a collection of eleven different gardens and open-air botanical laboratories, where specialists continue to cultivate and study rare, eye-catching flowers, trees, and other plants. The grounds are home to roughly 8,500 different species and varieties of plants and flowers, including rare hybrid varieties.
Roaming the main gardens, spread across some 69 acres, is free for all– and a wonderful way to both get some fresh air and potentially learn something about plant biology and botany.
There’s an Alpine garden, rose and rock garden featuring numerous, breathtaking varieties of roses in the late spring months, botanical school, ecological garden, large hothouses where you can see rare tropical plant species, peony and iris gardens, bees and birds garden, maze/labyrinth (a fun activity for younger visitors, and a “Perspective Squares” garden whose fine geometric beds lead you on a path to the buildings of the Museum of Natural History.
Entry to the gardens is free, with the exception of certain greenhouses and temporary exhibits. See more below for information on tickets.
This is also an excellent park for a family outing, not least because the Jardin des Plantes is also home to a zoo (Ménagerie), where zoologists tend to species from monkeys to leopards and kangaroos, and which is managed as a refuge for engangered species. Overall, visitors of all ages can view and interact with some 1,200 animals at the zoo, which is manageable in a couple of hours.
Unlike the main gardens at the Jardin, entrance to the Ménagerie is ticketed; you can find more info here.
Meanwhile, The onsite National Museum of Natural History is also fascinating and educational, with its iconic “Grande Galerie de l’Evolution” (Grand Evolutionary Gallery) making jaws regularly drop with enormous models and/or genuine skeletons of wooly mammoths, giraffes and elephants, and dinosaurs.
The permanent exhibit at the museum is fun, interactive, and educational, combining old-world “curiosity cabinet” charm with newer, high-tech displays that encourage visitors to interact.
A Bit of History
First opened in around 1635 as a medicinal and royal garden, the Jardin des Plantes was taken over by the state (and fully opened to the public) in 1793, a few years after the French Revolution of 1789.
It was in 1793 that the gardens, natural history museum, and Ménagerie opened to the public. Later, from the 19th century, botanists and other scientists working at the Jardin established new gardens, collections and research areas. It was during this “golden period” in state-run museums that the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution opened, alongside the zoology and paleontology galleries.
New interest in and knowledge around tropical plants led to the opening of the hothouses, while discoveries around the medicinal properties of Alpine botanical ingredients in part spurred the creation of an Alpine garden.
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen growing concerns for sustainability and conservation, leading the Jardin and the Ménagerie to adopt practices aiming to protect and safeguard rare species of plants and animals. These days, it’s less about “displays”, and more about ecological responsibility and protection.
Approaches to research and curation at the Jardin, zoo and Natural History Museum have evolved quite a bit from their early days, when the notion of “Man” dominating and controlling “Nature” was the reigning philosophy of the period.
- Address: Jardin des Plantes, 57 Rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris (5th arrondissement)
- Metro: Paris Austerlitz or Quai de la Rapée (Lines 5,10 )
- See more practical info at the official website
6. Bois de Vincennes
Less frequented by tourists than the Bois de Boulogne, its counterpart to the east is arguably just as beautiful– and even more sprawling.
The Bois de Vincennes stretches for some 995 hectares (almost 2,500 acres), forming the eastern “lungs” of Paris and adjoining the charming suburb of Vincennes (side note: it’s worth a look). This makes it the largest public park in the greater Paris area.
Boasting enormous grassy spaces, four lakes connected in places by small streams and ideal for boating, verdant walking trails, grottoes, gazebos, snack bars and restaurants, and a “floral garden” where jazz concerts are staged on the lawns every summer, it’s an idyllic space that’s popular with locals.
This is especially the case since, like the Bois de Boulogne to the west, the Bois de Vincennes is so easily accessible by metro or bus from the city center.
The park also houses a zoo ideal for family visits, a recently opened nature trail (espace naturaliste), Buddhist-style pagoda (on the Lac Daumesnil), and tropical garden (located in the area of the park closest to the Nogent-sur-Marne RER station).
A Bit of History
The public park grounds that you see today were created on the order of Emperor Napoléon III in the mid 19th-century, and completed around 1866.
But, true to its name which suggests an older “Wood”, the Bois de Vincennes has been in use as woodlands since the Gallo-Roman period, when Paris was a humble settlement called Lutetia. Interestingly, the Romans referred to the woodlands as Vilcena— from which its name evolved to Vincennes in French.
During the Middle Ages, French monarchs established formidable military defenses by building the Chateau de Vincennes (the mighty premises of which are still well-preserved today). Wide lanes were cut through the old forests to create royal hunting grounds in the Bois in around 1150, by King Louis VII. By the 13th century, a fortified wall was built around its grounds.
The Chateau de Vincennes, a 14th-16th century castle and fortress, is well worth a look in its own right. Curiously overlooked by most visitors, it’s the most impressive intact castle (aside from the Palais du Louvre, of course) in close reach of the city limits.
Especially remarkable is its donjon (keep) which rises to 52 meters/170 feet, and its well-preserved fortifications.
In sum, if time allows, consider paying a visit to the Chateau and learning about its remarkable history as part of a day out to Vincennes. You can book priority entrance tickets here (via Tiqets).
The easiest way to get to the Bois de Vincennes is to take Metro Line 1 (Direction Chateau de Vincennes) and exit at the Chateau de Vincennes station. The entrance to the park (and the Chateau, if desired) is easily accessible on foot.
You can also take Metro Line 8 to the Porte Dorée or Porte de Charenton stations, then walk to the nearest entrances (around 10 minutes). Porte Dorée is the best stop for access to the zoo (Parc Zoologique de Paris).
7. Parc de la Villette
The most recent (and postmodern) of Paris’ main parks and gardens, the Parc de la Villette is less a traditional park and more a complex network of green spaces and thematic gardens, elaborate playgrounds, architectural “follies” from the 20th century– think awe-inspiring geodesic domes and brightly colored towers connected by bridges– museums and cultural venues.
I’d be tempted to call it an “amusement park”, but that somehow doesn’t quite capture the arty, open spirit of the place. Nor would it accurately describe how its (mostly free) grounds have successfully “grafted on” to surrounding neighborhoods, becoming as much a part of public space in Paris’ 19th arrondissement as ordinary streets and squares.
Like the Centre Georges Pompidou, La Villette is (in my sense, anyway) wildly successful as a democratic cultural space, open and accessible to all. It stages summer concerts and open-air cinema on its wide lawns. Its numerous thematic gardens, each created with an artistic and sometimes whimsical spirit, offer both havens of greenery and architectural interest.
Kids will scramble to take advantage of the bright, engaging playgrounds and fairground-style rides. And the onsite Science and Industry Museum (Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie) is one of the best spots in the city for a family outing.
And music lovers (whether classical, rock or jazz is your preferred genre) have plenty to do here, from exhibits to philharmonic concerts.
A Bit of History
The Parc de la Villette opened to the public in 1987, as part of a bid to revamp, green, and inject more cultural vibrancy into northeastern Paris and the 19th arrondissement, traditionally a bit neglected and underprivileged.
It was built on a site that formerly housed numerous slaughterhouses, moved to northeast Paris from the city center as part of 19th-century renovation and modernization plans from the Baron Haussmann. The cattle markets held here only closed in 1974, and it would take over a decade for an enormous park and cultural complex to replace them– and revitalize the whole area.
Prior to the park fully opening, the enormous geodesic dome known as “La Géode” was inaugurated in 1985, generating considerable excitement around the futuristic new space.
The Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1986 with the larger complex inaugurated the following year.
From the 1990s to the present day, La Villette has continued adding new features and attractions, from the Cité de la Musique (comprising a music museum and exhibition space) in 1995 to the Philharmonie de Paris opening its doors in 2015.
Best Metro Stops and Entrances: The easiest way to reach the park from Paris’ city center is to take Metro Line 7 from the Châtelet-les-Halles station to the Porte de la Villette stop. Follow directions to the park entrance from the Metro.
There’s another popular entrance point not far from the Porte de Pantin metro stop (line 5), which may be more practical if you plan to first visit the Cité de la Musique or the Paris Philharmonic.
8. Parc Monceau
Last but not least, this green oasis in west Paris is a welcome source of fresh air, birdsong, shade and poetic perspectives in a neighborhood that can often feel a bit staid and grey.
Boasting lawns ideal for a picnic or break from sightseeing, walking and jogging paths lined with flowers and trees, ornate architectural details (handsome gates and rotunda around the main entrance, dainty footbridges, statuary and sculptures), Parc Monceau is an ideal stop after exploring areas such as the Champs-Elysées and “Madeleine”.
The park, stretching over 20 acres, blends romantic and classical elements to charming effect. Meandering, English-style paths, flowerbeds and bridges overlooking water features, and faux “ruins” or “follies” (including a mini Egyptian pyramid and Dutch-style windmill) share space with statues and stately mansions in and surrounding the park.
Countless species of trees, flowers, and wild birds can be spotted on a stroll or picnic in this smaller, but enchanting, green space. And literary types will enjoy spotting busts and statues of French luminaries including author Guy de Maupaussant, composer Frédéric Chopin, poet Alfred de Musset, and many others.
A Bit of History
Parc Monceau was conceived in the late 18th century by Philippe d’Orléans, the Duke of Chartres and cousin to King Louis XVI. In 1778, the Duke decided to open a public park (rare at the time), and hired the writer and artists Louis Carrogis Carmontelle to design gardens on the premises, hoping for a hybrid space that would blend English and Asian elements.
Architectural “follies” were popular at the time, so Carmontelle planned to fill the garden with several of these. Completed in 1779′, Carmontelle’s design featured a Roman-style colonnade, water lily ponds, a Dutch windmill, mini Egyptian pyramid, temple of Mars, an Italin “vineyard” an an “enchanted grotto”. More amusement park than public space, this initial space was staffed by servants donning “exotic” costumes, as well as harboring a small zoo with non-native animals like camels.
By 1781, the garden was redesigned to reflect changing aesthetic preferences, and traditional English-style elements were added. A classical rotunda, modelled on a Doric temple from Greece, was added in 1787. It housed a small apartment reserved for the Duke.
Following the French Revolution of 1789– an event that saw the Duke perish at the guillotine– the park was taken over by the state. In the 19th century, the Baron Haussmann renovated its grounds almost entirely, adding more typical elements from the period, including wide walking paths and alleyways, new trees and beds, statues and busts. The park we see today far more closely resembled Haussmann’s version.
- Address: 35 Boulevard de Courcelles, 75008 Paris (8th arrondissement)
- Metro: Monceau, Courcelles or Villiers (Lines 2,3 )
- See more practical info at this page (Paris Tourist Office)
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