The French style of gardening started off by essentially mimicking the early 18th century English gardens but in the late 18th century and early 19th century, the style changed to a more formal garden, using symmetry as an extension of the architecture. Most of the significant gardens in France are attached to a royal chateau or palace, with large swaths of land.
There are great gardens with a wide variety of styles and plantings throughout every region of France. Here’s a list of our favorite, unmissable gardens in France.
Monet’s Garden In Giverny
In just an hour’s time, you can be whisked to the bucolic French countryside to discover a beloved artist’s home and garden. After painting all over Europe and France, Claude Monet stumbled upon a tiny hamlet in Normandy while taking a train to Paris. In 1883, Monet moved to Giverny permanently with his wife and family and lived there for the next 43 years, until he died in 1926. The garden landscape of Giverny was Monet’s muse and inspiration for his most iconic and important paintings.
Monet was consumed with his garden and at one point, he had 12 full-time gardeners to plant and manage the extensive gardens. A few years after Monet settled in Giverny, he purchased the land adjacent to the existing property and had a Japanese-style garden built from scratch. (Monet’s work was very much influenced by Japanese art and he had a collection of over 150 Japanese prints, some of which are still hanging in the house). He imported plants and flowers from Japan, including the famous water lilies, which he painted obsessively, and also created an authentic, green wood, Japanese bridge.
The charming house includes the cheerfully painted yellow dining room, the handsome kitchen, Monet’s bedroom, and his original studio, which was transformed into a study with copies of his paintings hung on the walls.
Pro Tips: Trains leave Paris almost hourly for Vernon from the Gare Saint Lazare train station, which is the closest train station. You can take a taxi or bus to Giverny, which is eight minutes away. Make sure to leave an extra hour or 2 to walk through the charming village of Giverny and to also visit the Giverny Museum of Impressionism, which celebrates the distinct painting style Monet created.
The Etretat Gardens
The stunning landscape of Etretat, in Normandy, with its high, chalk cliffs overlooking the sea and a rock and boulder-lined beach, was an inspiration for painters such as Monet, Eugene Boudin, and Henri Matisse. Today, Etretat is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was recently the backdrop for the hit, French television show, Lupin, on Netflix.
On the crest of one of the cliffs is a special, newly planted garden. The Villa Roxelane
was owned by a French actress Madame Thébault (named after a character she played) in the late 20th century. She was close friends with Monet and was so enamored with his work, she created a garden to reflect it. The magnificent view of the cliffs and beach from the gardens was subsequently painted by artists such as Gustave Courbet, Eugène Delacroix, and Edouard Manet.
In 2017, the gardens were completely replanted by landscape artist Alexandre Grivko, whose vision was to combine the former classic style garden with contemporary architecture and also include art and sculpture works interspersed throughout. The result is magical as you stroll through the narrow, gravel paths of the gardens and discover its delights such as sculpted shrubs, tantalizing topiaries, mazes, and cascading rows of bushes. Two of the highlights of the gardens include the hanging wind chimes and the tremendous faces sculpted in black resin by artist Samuel Salcedo, which are encompassed by round, sculpted hedges. The Etretat Gardens has garnered enormous accolades and has won international awards including The European Garden Award and listed as one of The Great Gardens of the World.
Pro Tip: You must either climb multiple sets of stairs or a steep road to get to the gardens, but once you are on top, it’s absolutely worth it. There’s also a historic church and monument close to the gardens.
Vaux Le Vicomte
The fascinating history of the Vaux Le Vicomte palace begins in 1658 when Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances under King Louis XV, at just age 26, constructed the most beautiful palace in France, an architectural masterpiece, along with breathtaking formal gardens. Fouquet was the envy of his noble peers and so jealous and outraged was King Louis XV that Fouquet would surpass his own palace in its beauty; he had Fouquet arrested and sent to jail for life. The king confiscated the treasures of the palace, including the furniture, paintings, tapestries, and books and installed them at the palace of Versailles. Going even further, the king later hired the same architect — Louis Le Vau, to rebuild Versailles, and the same gardener, Andre Le Notre, to landscape the gardens. Vaux Le Vicomte is still privately owned and has been in the same family since 1875. Today Jean-Charles and Alexandre de Vogüé are the fifth generation to own and operate the grand chateau and estate.
Andre Le Notre designed the formal gardens reflecting the symmetrical architecture of the palace. The enormous garden stretches almost 1.5 miles in area, and Le Notre installed water basins, canals, fountains, gravel paths, open lawns, and patterned parterres (plant beds). Descending the main staircase, you will be greeted by immaculate, symmetrical rows of shrubs, avenues, flowerbeds, pools, grottos, and statues.
Vaux Le Vicomte is open year round and celebrates the seasons and holidays with special events and activities. In the summer, there are candlelight nights, laser light shows shown on the exterior, and fireworks, and during the Christmas season, Vaux Vicomte goes all out with holiday decorations, activities, and festivities.
Pro Tip: Vaux Le Vicomte is about 35 minutes by train from the Gare de l’Est station. Once you arrive at the Verneuil l’Etang station, there’s a shuttle bus to take you to the palace. Trains leave almost every hour.
Of course, we had to list at least one garden in Paris, and we chose the local’s favorite, the beloved Luxembourg Gardens. Located on the Left Bank, near the Saint Germain des Pres neighborhood, the Luxembourg Gardens is a public park covering close to 60 acres. In 1612, Queen Marie de Medici, the widow of King Henri IV, missed living in her home in Florence, Italy, the Pitti Palace, and the new Luxembourg Palace was built. She instructed her architect, Salamon Brosse, to design the new home to resemble her former palace as closely as he could.
The queen also brought in a landscape artist from Florence, Tommaso Francini, to design a substantial garden. He installed 2,000 elm trees, plus parterres, and balustrades, and a circular water basin. One of the singularly special features was the Medici Fountain, a grotto and fountain, which still stands today. The gardens were later expanded to 75 acres but were then reduced to 60 acres when it became a public park. The Luxembourg Palace and Gardens is now owned and managed by the Senat, the French senate.
The Luxembourg Gardens has many features and activities including statuary with notable figures who lived in the area, running paths, flower gardens, mini sailboat rentals for the basin, a playground, a bandstand for concerts, a bee apiary, a museum, basketball, and tennis courts, boule courts, cafes, a puppet theater, pony rides, and food and drink kiosks.
Villandry Chateau And Gardens
Villandry is one of the grand chatệaux of the Loire Valley, just 2.5 hours from Paris. Jean Le Breton, the former Minister of Finance for King François I, bought a fortress and had it torn down to make way for a new chatệau. Breton was quite familiar with the design of chatệaux, having overseen the building of Loire Valley royal chatệau, Chambord, for many years. The architectural style of the Villandry is an unusual mix of Italian Renaissance style and medieval, with features objects such as turrets and pinnacles. Gardening was a passion of Breton’s and he studied gardening when he was an ambassador in Rome.
After 1791, there were numerous owners, including Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s younger brother. In 1906, Villandry was purchased by Joachim Carvallo, and he found the original garden design replaced by English gardens. He desired to have the gardens match the Renaissance style of the chatệau again, and starting in 1908, he spent the next 10 years painstakingly having the gardens reconstructed to their former glory. In the late 1900s and early 2000s, various gardens were redone and in 2008, they went organic. Currently, there are six specific gardens on the grounds of Villandry, including a vegetable garden, water garden, herb garden, a maze, and the Sun Garden.
Pro Tip: During July and August, Villandry hosts Nights of a Thousand Lights, where the chatệau and gardens are illuminated by 2,000 candles. Villandry also sponsors Bat Night on August 25th, where guests can discover the fascinating creatures.
Visitors to France and Europe will find a wealth of different attractions to satisfy every interest: