Green spaces are often at the heart of a great city – but in Paris they come with cultural experiences, from art galleries to outdoor sculpture. Here, our correspondant shows you where the Parisians go
The outdoor area adjoining Bar 8 at Mandarin Oriental, Paris
Walk through the entrance of Mandarin Oriental, Paris and almost the first thing you see is the garden. The six-year-old hotel, inside the former Ministry of Justice building, flanks a 500-square-metre inner courtyard planted with around 100 trees and shrubs. It has outside tables for Bar 8 on one side and all-day dining restaurant Camélia on the other (the hotel's third dining option, the two-Michelin-starred Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx, is tucked away to the left of Bar 8). There's also a water feature, a towering white birdcage with a cluster of pink flower-shaped lights – where a single table can be set up for dinner – and a vertical living wall. As a sanctuary at the city's heart, it's pretty impressive.
The hotel's inner courtyard garden with alfresco dining at Camélia restaurant
'Mandarin Oriental, Paris was built around the garden and it's one of the things that makes us unique,' says General Manager Philippe Leboeuf. 'The idea is that the garden is an oasis and our symbol is the butterfly, which you can see throughout the hotel.'
The garden is used all year round: in winter, a clear cover encases Bar 8 like an elegant greenhouse, and the tables have overhead heaters so guests can enjoy alfresco after-dinner drinks. It blurs the lines between indoor and outdoor living, as does a curtain of crystals inside that resembles a forest of trees. Elsewhere, a kaleidoscope of butterflies creates a pattern on the carpet outside each guest room, and they are projected fluttering across the swimming-pool wall in The Spa; while camellia petals decorate the eponymous restaurant and appear in an exquisite velvet fan made by the Chanel-owned, Parisian atelier Maison Lesage (book the hotel's So Couture by Ecole Lesage package for a rare peek at the Lesage archives and to try embroidery with the house's seamstresses).
In the past year, the hotel has created two new outdoor terraces, for the Royale Orientale and the Panoramic Suites. 'For both terraces, it was necessary to create a Parisian identity with a feel of the Orient, as these are important elements of the Mandarin Oriental culture,' says landscape designer Christophe Gautrand, who also worked on the main courtyard garden. 'For the Royale Orientale Suite, the biggest of the two terraces, I used tropical wood for the floor, carved by a local cabinetmaker, and put small rivets on metal plant pots to echo those on the Eiffel Tower.' The space is divided into an outdoor dining area and living room, with a retractable pergola, red cedar screens for privacy, and plantings of ivy, ferns, evergreen perennials and maple trees.
In the same way that green spaces are essential to the design of Mandarin Oriental, Paris, so they are to life in any city – these are the places where locals go running at weekends, walk their dogs, take their children to play, and hang out when the sun shines. And the hotel is perfectly positioned for guests to easily visit the best of the French capital's. The closest is the Jardin des Tuileries, a few minutes' walk away and named after the tile factories that previously stood on the site of Queen Catherine de' Medici's Palais des Tuileries, built in 1564.
These are the places where locals hang out in the sun
One of two oval galleries at Musée de l'Orangerie holding a permanent collection of Monet's Water Lilies
Designed in a French formal style, the gardens are bookended by the Monet-filled Musée de l'Orangerie at one end and the Louvre at the other (avoid the long queues and buy tickets for these, and many other museums in the city, from the Mandarin Oriental, Paris concierge). Sculptures by Maillol add a touch of artistic flair, and in the summer the slatted green chairs scattered around the two ponds are snapped up by locals and tourists alike, mostly resting between gallery-hopping or browsing the designer boutiques on the famous rue Saint-Honoré.
Jardin du Luxembourg
On the Left Bank, the Jardin du Luxembourg, which sits between Saint-Germain-des-Près and the Latin Quarter, was also created on the instruction of Queen Catherine. Inspired by the Giardino di Boboli in Florence, it is layed out around the Luxembourg Palace (which houses an art museum in one wing) and is split into French and English gardens, with a large pond, tennis and boules courts, and a bandstand for summer concerts. An orangery, dating from 1830, houses more than two hundred oleanders, orange, pomegranate and palm trees. There's also a fruit garden (a legacy of the Carthusian monks) and hothouses of orchids, which are occasionally open to the public.
Sculpture in the botanical Jardin des Plantes
Even more popular with Parisian families is the nearby Jardin des Plantes, a 28-hectare botanical garden (an easy walk from the Jardin du Luxembourg via the neoclassical Panthéon, now a mausoleum), which was originally planted as a medicinal herb garden for Louis XIII. The green-fingered could easily spend a day wandering along the double alley of plane trees that runs its length and through the various sections, which include alpine and rose gardens. Alternatively, visit the garden's three natural history museums, which are stuffed with taxidermy animals, fossils and dinosaur skeletons (great for children), and the series of greenhouses with exotic Mexican and Australian plant species.
Hire a rowboat on Lac Daumesnil in Bois de Vincennes
For green spaces on a larger scale, choose from either Bois de Vincennes in the east or Bois de Boulogne in the west. The best way to reach the former is by hopping onto the Métro (Line One) to Bastille and joining the start of the Promenade Plantée. Although the staircase to the entrance of the 19th-century railway viaduct looks unpromising, it leads to a 4.5-kilometre walkway planted with roses, cherry trees, maples and lavender. The walk begins elevated above ground (much like the High Line in New York), offering visitors a unique aerial view of the city, before it gradually lowers to street level. Bois de Vincennes, at the end, is best known for its zoo, but it's also home to attractions including an arboretum, a cycling velodrome and four lakes. Held here in June and July, the annual Paris Jazz Festival is a must.
Art gallery Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, in Bois de Boulogne
The forested Bois de Boulogne, the former ancient hunting ground of the kings of France, features 15 kilometres of cycling routes, the Jardin d'Acclimatation (a children's amusement park) and – the biggest draw for many – the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Designed by Frank Gehry, this magnificent contemporary art museum has 12 colourful glass sails, so it resembles a futuristic ship in a sea of trees (inside, the permanent exhibition details Gehry's architectural journey).
Finally, save some time before you leave for a quick stop-off at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the north-east near Gare du Nord. Winding paths climb to the top of several steep hills, affording you one last look across the rooftops of this great capital city.