Think of Paris and your touristic checklist would undoubtedly include the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysées, Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. A trip to Rome meanwhile would undoubtedly incorporate the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Vatican. Yet, the cities of Europe play host to some truly beautiful and often overlooked parks, hidden gems which provide an often welcome and tranquil contrast to the hustle and bustle of the main tourist haunts and a spot in which to truly appreciate the city from a different perspective. Here are a few of our European favourites…
Parque del Retiro, Madrid
Just a stone’s throw from the Prado Museum, the Buen Retiro Park serves as a beautifully landscaped recreation spot for the city’s workers during the week, yet comes to life at the weekend when madrileños and tourists come together to enjoy its many façades. Centred round the majestic imperial monument to Alfonso XII, in turn overlooking a lake replete with paddleboats and rowing boats, the park is brought to life with buskers, masseurs and tarot readers, not to mention some fine examples of architectural splendour including the Palacios de Cristal and de Velázquez, often used for temporary exhibitions. You’ll also find La Rosaleda (Rose Garden), Fuente Egipcia (Egyptian Fountain), a statue of El Angel Caído (The Fallen Angel), a carved mural of Dantés Inferno and a moving memorial forest dedicated to the victims of the 2004 train bombings.
Villa Borghese, Rome
Just north of Rome’s symbolic Spanish Steps, the Villa Borghese dates back to the early 17th century when Cardinal Scipione Borghese transformed the former vineyards of his estate into formal gardens. Today, the park resembles a landscape painting, interspersing neoclassical temples with beautiful fountains, ponds and statues. Dubbed the park of museums, the Borghese Gardens play host to a number of cultural establishments, among them the Galleria Borghese, home to a collection of sculptures and paintings by veritable artistic masters including Titian, Raphael and Bernini. There’s also a modern art museum, a museum devoted to pre-Roman artefacts, an amphitheatre, botanical garden and even the world’s smallest cinema.
Parc Güell, Barcelona
Just a short distance outside the city centre, the iconic and truly individual Parc Güell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is well worth a visit. Firmly stamped with Gaudí’s flamboyant flair, the park is enchantingly colourful and visually surreal in equal measure, from the mosaic dragon lizard guarding the staircase entrance to the Sala Hipóstila and the Serpentine Bench to the curved roofs with kaleidoscopic ornamental spires giving way to the Mediterranean Sea beyond.
Englischer Garten, Munich
Bigger than London’s Hyde Park and New York’s Central Park, Munich’s Englischer Garten (English Garden) is considered Europe’s largest public park. Amongst its many attractions, you’ll find the Kleinhesseloher See (lake) at the centre of the park, a Chinese pagoda standing amidst Munich’s oldest beer garden (one of many in the park), a Japanese teahouse built for the 1972 Olympics, a Greek temple and open-air theatre, between which you’ll find the Schönfeldwiese meadow, a popular (and legal) spot for nudist sunbathers!
Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
A visually stunning backdrop to the equally gorgeous Palais du Luxembourg, venue for a number of prestigious art exhibitions, headquarters of the Luftwaffe during World War II and currently home to the French Senate, the Jardin du Luxembourg was given to the children of Paris by Napoleon and provides a serene setting in which to truly appreciate Paris in more than just its architectural and cultural glory. This is a must if you are travelling with children, with playgrounds, pony rides and puppet shows, toy boats for rent and merry-go-rounds providing a rather charming and nostalgic air.