Flowers growing at La Petite Ceinture railway (Photo: Calliope/Twitter)
Nobody thinks they’ve “gotten” French art just because they’ve seen the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. The same goes for the masterpiece gardens of Paris. Strolling through the famous green-and-gravel expanses like Luxembourg and Tuileries gives you a clear idea of how kings and queens once frolicked (as well as a horde of new less-appealing newcomers).
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The lush, quiet, intimate gardens of the city not only give you an undisturbed place to rest and read and picnic, but also show you the more dreamy, playful side of the elegant capital. Consider them the amuse-bouches of the decadent feast that is the City of Light.
The Elevated Garden
Back in the 19th century, a 17-mile-long steam railway known La Petite Ceinture Railway served as the public transportation system of Paris. Abandoned once the metro was built, the route was taken over by vines, trees, and wildflowers. Eventually the old rails and tunnels turned into a beloved — if illegal — spot for locals to take a stroll through different quarters of the city. In 2008, a section of it was reopened officially for walkers in the 16th arrondissement, and last summer, a mile-long section in the 15th was landscaped into forest, prairie, and woodland habitats, then opened to the public (on Rue St. Charles; look for the elevator). My favorite part of this historic greenway is not just its unforgettable and unexpected views of the city from its elevated sections (check out the Eiffel Tower from the section opened in the 15th) but also the outfits that the Parisians wear in the overgrown sections — many of them sporting backpacks and ski poles as if they were venturing into the wilderness.
The Jardin de Bambou (Photo: Wolfgang Grossman/Flickr)
The Bamboo Garden
Parc Villette has always been a favorite of artists and schoolchildren (both excellent judges of character, in my opinion). Designed and constructed in 1982, the park was designed to be a vision of the future, with an IMAX theater, a science museum, a symphony hall, a permanent circus, and a meadow where sheep now cut grass. The Jardin de Bambou is the most worth seeing — and hardest to find, as it spirals below ground in a snail-like maze lined with lush bamboo, only to spit you out into a zen-like sound sculpture where piped-in music plays. For architects, the garden is quite famous because of its designer, Alexandre Chemetoff, who won the National Grand Prize of Architecture in 1980. For the rest of us, it’s an unexpected green temple of calm.
The Alpine garden at the Jardin des Plantes (Photo: Jardin des Plantes/Facebook)
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The Alpine Garden
This is one of my favorite gardens, but one so tucked away in the 5th arrondissement that I frequently can’t find it and so end up in the nearby, clearly marked tropical greenhouses in the Jardin des Plantes. Like Parc Villette, the Jardin is a huge green space with 69 acres of walkways and botanical specimens, plus the Museum of Natural History, the Cabinet of Curiosities, and the Carousel of Extinct Animals (no joke; you can ride a dodo around and around and around for 1.5 euros). To get to the alpine garden, you have to take the tunnel leading to the zoo. The belowground location creates an artificial “valley” between higher “mountains,” and as soon as you walk in, you’ll feel the temperature drop a few degrees. Mosses and wildflowers peek out between rocky ledges. Most of the plants were imported from mountains as near as the Alps and Pyrenees and as far away as the Himalayas and Rockies. The rainbows are native, though — all products of the strategically placed waterfalls that create a light, omnipresent mist.
The exterior gardens of the Museum of Romantic Life (Photo: WikiCommons)
The Romantic Garden
The Museum of Romantic Life — or Musée de la Vie Romantique, which, let’s face it, sounds so much more romantic in its original language — was originally the home of a Dutch-born painter who used to throw artistic get-togethers in the then-wild 9th arrondissement with bohemian types like Chopin, Delacroix, Ingres, Liszt, and Dickens. Now it’s a lovely bauble of an art collection filled with mementos of George Sand and various sculptures, charming wallpapers, and objets d’art. The building is pure pink confection, usually found with its green shutters thrown wide open — the better for visitors to see the paintings inside as they sit in the delicate courtyard gardens. Large plane trees create green canopies, and flowers blaze along the stone walls. The old greenhouse — with a bubbling grotto at one end — has been turned into a tearoom. It’s a good thing, because this is the garden you want to sit in for hours.
The Paris Plages at night (Photo: SmarterParis/Twitter)
The Night Garden
For about one month (the two weeks of July, the first two of August), Paris gets dolled up with two massive pop-up gardens called the Paris Plages, or the Paris Beaches. One garden is on the banks of the Seine, the other on the Bassin de la Villette. Both feature everything from temporary swimming pools to misting showers, boules courts to kids’ amusement rides, and even quayside cafés. The crowds are huge, and the lines for all the activities are long. Last year, however, the city (quietly) opened a new year-round version of the Plages in the 7th arrondissement called the Bergs of Paris. This Seine-side park lets you relax in a free giant tepee, play paddle ball, doodle on massive chalk walls, view outdoor art exhibits, and borrow chess and checkers sets for playing on the permanent boards built into the quayside tables.
Leigh Newman is the author of the Alaskan memoir Still Points North (some of which takes place in Paris). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O the Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Condé Nast Brides, and other publications.