At street level, Paris appears a city coloured in shades of beige, from the centuries-old limestone buildings to the grey cobblestone streets. But a bird’s eye view – seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower, say, or the almost-as-high Tour Montparnasse – reveals the city to be overwhelmingly green. Giant rectangular parks, neat corridors of trees, hidden squares tucked behind hotel gates: natural oases abound in the City of Light.
More than 400 parks and gardens are spread across the city’s 20 arrondissements, many of them hundreds of years old. There are the sprawling and the petite; the legendary and the discrete. And while it’s impossible to miss the massive Jardin du Luxembourg, which covers 23 hectares, or the magnificent Tuileries, nestled between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde, other Paris gardens aren’t so easy to discover. As is often the case in the history-filled city, many are located behind a formidable set of gates, down a secret flight of stairs, or even on a rooftop. Here are a few to seek out and explore...
Square René Viviani
This seemingly nondescript little park is actually one of the best places in Paris to soak up the history of the city. Perched on the left bank of the Seine, it has one of the finest views of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which is directly across the river on the Îsle de la Cité. Behind it is the Church of Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre, less well-known than the spectacular cathedral, but built around the same (construction was done in stages between the 12th and the 19th centuries). Just around the corner from beloved bookshop Shakespeare and Company, the park is also home to the city’s oldest tree, a locust tree planted in 1601. Now with a serious lean, the tree is propped up on a pair of concrete crutches and its annual blooming is cause for celebration.
Le Jardin Sauvage Saint-Vincent
The name translates as “wild garden”, which is exactly what this small patch in Montmartre is all about. Revived in 1985 after the plot had been abandoned for decades, it’s a place where plants and trees grow wild, where insecticides and artificial watering are banned, and where the city’s natural biodiversity can flourish untethered. The only signs of human intervention are a pathway and a shaded pond. The garden may be wild and spontaneous but visiting it is less so – it’s open to the public only as part of a tour, which takes place on the first Sunday and the third Wednesday each month, between April and October.
Le Jardin Sur le Toit
Perhaps the most exclusive garden in Paris is the one perched on the rooftop of the Hermès headquarters at 24 rue Faubourg Saint-Honorée, which is reserved for the atelier’s employees and invited guests. The garden was actually started by the Hermès family out of necessity – it yielded essential food supplies during World War II – but today it’s a paradise of rose bushes, apple trees, herbs and more, all tended by a dedicated gardener. The garden itself may be off limits to the public, but it’s possible to experience some of its olfactory splendour in the Hermès fragrance Le Jardin Sur le Toit.
Should you be denied access to the Hermès garden, it’s still possible to visit another parkland high above street level. The Promenade Plantée stretches almost five kilometres along a disused railway bed, and was the world’s first elevated park walkway when it opened in 1993 (it was the inspiration for New York City’s High Line). Some sections are leafy corridors, some brush past Parisian apartment blocks, and others dip down to street level and take you through tunnels filled with tiny bats. Walk the length of the park to discover a spectrum of scenery fit for an urban adventure.
Jardin des Plantes
Learn among the leaves could be the motto of this garden in the 5th arrondissement, adjacent to the Museum of Natural History and just around the corner from that other seat of learning, the Sorbonne. With an on-site botanical school, it’s dedicated to sharing knowledge about the secret world of plants. Of the thousands of botanical species, there are hothouses dedicated to Australian and Mexican natives, hundreds of species of rose in the rose garden and an entire section dedicated to botanicals from mountain regions around the world. But it’s not all serious: simply pick and spot to relax, or try your luck in the giant labyrinth.
Written by Michelle Bateman