This piece was originally featured in the Spring 2008 issue of Baedeker, NYU’s travel magazine.
In any metropolis, green spaces are a scarce and thus valuable commodity. Even the most urbanite New Yorkers are grateful to Frederick Law Olmsted for Central Park, that saving grace of a green expanse uptown. Still, stark differences remain between our clean, flat lawns stretching from Columbus Circle to 110th Street, and the tranquil, organically beautiful gardens celebrated in stories from Rapunzel to Romeo and Juliet. Thankfully, this idyllic view of nature, like so many other nostalgic ideas, is alive and well in Paris. In a city synonymous with romance, these gardens are more magic than logic. I describe three of the best below.
Jardin de la Vallée Suisse
Intersection of Cours de la Reine, Cours Albert 1er and Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, 8e arrondissement.
You wouldn’t notice the Jardin de la Vallée Suisse if you didn’t already know it was there. Located just off the Pont des Invalides, this tiny garden is completely hidden from three intersecting avenues by towering emerald hedges. To gain access, you can walk around to the back, past a mournful marble statue flanked by Corinthian columns, overlooking a reflecting pool. Your best choice, though, is to descend the flight of stone steps, nestled into the hedges near busts of Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain. The stairs are weatherworn and lead to a cavernous stone archway, perfect for a romantic rendezvous. This opens onto the lower, more sheltered level of the garden, overlooked by the rustic wooden cross-hatch fencing of the upper level. Peaceful seclusion, rather than botanical variety, is the draw here, with a tumbling waterfall and stream providing a picturesque backdrop for the draping greenery and tall roses, worthy of a Waterhouse painting. Ideal for intimate conversation, it’s popular with nannies from the surrounding neighborhoods and their dozing charges. Somewhat anachronistically, free wi-fi is available. Although this is a very romantic spot, don’t go too late in the evening; the waterfall can get buggy.
57, rue Cuvier, 5e arrondissement.
The Jardin des Plantes is France’s primary botanical garden. A teacher’s paradise, the garden houses not only traditional flower and vegetable plots, but also an aquarium, a zoo, a hilltop labyrinth, and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. On sunny days, the complex is packed with herds of tiny French schoolchildren, all wearing sunhats. To escape their shrieking chatter, take the flight of stairs down under the vine-covered arbor and through the concrete tunnel to the other side. You’re now in the Jardin Alpin, a small enclosed enclave showcasing a myriad of some 3,000 plants, all categorized, well-kept, and meticulously labeled in both French and Latin. Winding yet clearly demarcated paths are trodden out between the various beds, which run the gamut from cacti to carnivorous plants. Take the many smaller improvised paths branching off the main routes for a more adventurous experience, but be careful not to let one of the many sprinklers surprise you. Gardeners tending the various beds are more than willing to discuss their work if asked. Don’t come here looking for a place to have a picnic or read a book; this is a true garden, not a park, and benches are scarce. The one stone bench hewn into the side of a rock wall and shaded by various draping trees, however, is worth the wait.
Parc André Citroën
Quai André-Citroën, Ile-de-France, 15e arrondissement.
Sprawling over 35 acres, the Parc André Citroën is the ultimate public park experience, truly embodying the phrase “something for everyone.” Here, you will find bamboo forests and deeply shadowed groves alongside brightly colored pops of flowerbeds straining the bounds of their wire fences. Straight, wide pathways of tan pebbles, lined with meticulously groomed shrubs on pedestals, are reminiscent of the grandeur of Versailles, while the winding, overgrown trails which branch off from these boulevards belong more in Cocteau’s La Belle et Le Bête. An expansive lawn is reminiscent of Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, with couples sunning themselves and shirtless young men practicing their break dance moves. Families with shrieking children play in the skyward sprays of fountains which dot the concrete slab at the end of the main lawn, nestled between soaring glass houses that replicate the ecosystems of other continents. The sunken flower gardens along the canal are categorized creatively: the Green, Orange, White and Purple Gardens lie alongside one another, while the Winter Garden and Shade Gardens slumber within the rambling expanses of trees and underbrush. End your day with a trip up in the park’s hot air balloon and take in the whole city with a view not to be had anywhere else.