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Make like a Parisian, go to a Paris park
Paris parks and gardens are the ideal way for overtaxed travelers to “make like Parisians” by observing “real Parisians” at play while seated in one of the iconic green chairs so thoughtfully scattered throughout Paris parks. Let’s start with Bois de Boulogne, Bois de Vincennes, Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc Monceau and Parc André Citroën.
Paris is almost as well-known for its parks and gardens as for its food and architecture. One of the great treats of walking around this city is to discover these leafy retreats, grand to miniature, that provide a moment of pastoral pleasure or rest for the weary.
For a diversion from museum studies or a place to walk off a major meal, head for one of these parks or gardens for a couple of hours. You’ll find a fascinating mix of activity and options, nature and design, formality and spontaneity.
If you’re a serious gardener or just like to get your hands dirty once in a while, you’ll find the variety of plantings and the interspersing of colors and shapes inspiring. You’ll be inspired with ideas for livening up your backyard or terrace.
Birdwatching in Paris parks is popular and you’ll find innumerable species. Some are common and can be observed everywhere. Others are rare and a French bird guidebook may be required to identify them.
We’ve picked some of the best-known as well as our personal favorites to share with you, but there are many lesser-known, wonderful green spaces throughout the city, in the public squares and places, in church yards and apartment blocks, that delight the eye and provide relief from the stone facades and city streets. We welcome your comments and suggestions through the message boards about the discoveries you make.
Within walking distance of the Arc de Triomphe, this lovely gem of a park is filled with magnificent trees and plantings, arranged in the natural English style, with little grottoes, a quiet water garden, scattered sculptures of famous French figures and even free WI-FI. Métro: Monceau.
Bois de Boulogne
The Bois (Woods) makes New York’s Central Park seem like a small-town playground. The 2,000 acres on the western edge of the city bordering the Seine is vast, with restaurants, gardens, museums, race tracks, lakes, sports grounds, a zoo and children’s amusement park plus wide-open spaces and dense woods interspersed with bike, walking, and horse trails.
During weekdays, you can glimpse tableaux in the Bois that make you shiver with recognition at this real-life composition of lovers wrapped together on the grassy bank, a scene you thought existed only on Impressionist canvases. And then there are Sunday afternoons, when the roads turn into speedways and the traffic on the bike trails suggests the Champs-Elysées.
Parc Bagatelle is an exquisite garden created on a dare when Marie-Antoinette bet its owner, Count of Artois, that it could not be turned into a park in 64 days. She lost the bet. Today the City of Paris has restored the botanical gardens that showcase roses, irises and other flowers.
If you simply want to get some exercise, the best way to sample the Bois may be to rent a bike and follow the trails. In an hour or two, you can make your way around the layout and get a sense of what most intrigues you, whether it’s harness racing, miniature sail boating, sporting in the woods or eating a two-star meal.
You may arrive at the Bois on a rented Vélib’ bike or you can get one at the nearby Métro: Port Muette. The Bois also has two bike rental stations open during the day: one station is located at the northern edge of Lac Inférieur, on the east side of the Bois, across from the boat rental shed. The other is across from the entrance to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a small zoo and amusement park for kids.
There are men’s and women’s bikes, some for small children with training wheels and others with children’s seats on the back. You may gulp when they ask for your credit card, but in the couple of times we’ve tried this, we’ve always gotten it back.
You may also rent rowboats for a leisurely (and on the weekends crowded) row around the lake, with the lovely island gardens as your vista. Boats accomodate up to five people.
Like many large parks in big cities, the Bois gets seedy night, so plan to head out before sunset.
The Bois has two top restaurants, the Pré Catalan and La Grande Cascade, both of which are architecturally beautiful and very pricey. A more reasonable choice is L’Auberge du Bonheur, which is in an old coach house tucked away behind the glamorous Grande Cascade.
You can reserve Sunday lunch or dinner at a lovely outdoor pavilion that offers simple grilled dishes. Tel: 01 42 24 10 17
Another romantic evening possibility is the Chalet des Iles on the island in the Lac Inférieur, with a small ferry to take you across. Reservations suggested.
Bois de Vincennes
This woods on Paris’s eastern edge is, like the Bois de Boulogne, a huge expanse of woodland punctuated by a variety of attractions. Among them is the 15th-century Château de Vincennes. There’s a horse-racing track here, along with a wide range of sports facilities and Paris’s biggest zoo. Various fairs are held here periodically. Métro: Porte Dorée. The Château, dating from the 15th century, is best reached at the Métro: Château de Vincennes.
Jardin des Tuileries
Another creation by André Le Nôtre, the famed landscape architect who designed the Versailles gardens and many other historic gardens. Flanked by terraces on the north and south, there are geometrical arrangements of trees and paths leading from the Carrousel of the Louvre on the east, to the main gate at Place de la Concorde on the west. The gate is flanked by the Jeu de Paume museum on the north and l’Orangerie on the south. There’s the usual merry-go-round, puppet shows and pond for toy sailboat rentals, but this is a park for resting tired feet after the Louvre or trek down the Champs-Elysées.
Jardin du Luxembourg
The premier people-watching park of Paris, dominated by the pond and its circles of chairs, perfect for seeing and being seen by the hordes of strollers who make their way to the tennis courts, chess tables, puppet shows, and boule games which make this such a lively spot. Métro: Luxembourg.
Parc André Citroën
Opened in 1992, Parc André Citroën is a truly post-modern park, integrating a series of lovely glass structures with indoor plants, outdoor gardens with single color schemes relating to the five senses, and a lush, secretive wild garden. It’s punctuated with fascinating moving waters—little rushing water troughs, a great fountain of alternating water jet fountains that kids can’t resist, a canal and vista to the Seine. If you have the time to explore this very conceptual and sensual place, you’ll come away refreshed and excited about the future of parks. It is located on the Left Bank near Beaugrenelle, an ugly clump of out-of-place skyscrapers that are as depressing as the Parc is refreshing. Métro: Javel.
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