Winter in Paris is often damp and chilly – not great when you’re queuing for the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. Summers, in contrast, can be scorching (40°C-plus isn’t uncommon), leaving you seeking the shade more often than not. That’s why the shoulder seasons are the best time to visit the French capital. And spring – roughly April to June – is my favourite time of the year.
Temperatures then tend to hover in the late-teens, early-to-mid 20°Cs – perfect for pottering around the city on foot like the 19th-century Parisian poet and legendary flaneur, Charles Baudelaire, who loved to dawdle around his home city, observing snippets of daily life. Follow in his footsteps – or go on two wheels using the Velib’ bike-hire scheme – and admire classic Parisian sights, explore atmospheric districts Le Marais and Montmartre, and enjoy alfresco dining or drinks at cafes, bistros and brasseries that spill out onto the pavements.
As a bonus, you’ll find these months relatively quiet tourist-wise – with the biggest overseas crowds flocking here from July to September – while Parisians, buoyed by the milder weather, having swapped their winter coats for spring fashions, are generally in a pretty good mood. You’ll see them, young and old, ambling along – or playing petanque – on the newly car-free promenades on the banks of the River Seine and by the paths of the Canal St-Martin. They also gravitate to the city’s historic green spaces, where colourful spring blooms enhance the scenery (although Paris is very built-up, there are over 500 public parks and gardens scattered across the 20 arrondissements).
If you’re lucky, it might be picnic weather. You can stock up on baguettes and cheese, wine and charcuterie from neighbourhood boulangeries, boutiques and open-air markets (Marche Bastille and Marche d’Aligre are vibrant standouts, their stalls teeming with seasonal produce, and there are always supermarkets – such as Carrefour – if you’d prefer to gather all your ingredients in one place).
Picnicking became popular in France after the 1789 Revolution, when ordinary folk started to mingle in the former royal parks. Some famous spots, however – such as Jardin des Tuileries, near the Louvre, and Jardin du Luxembourg, west of the Latin Quarter – aren’t particularly picnic-friendly as you’re not allowed to sit on the grass, and must make do with the chairs and benches dotted about the tree-lined gravel paths, and next to the ponds and fountains.
A better bet for a picnic at the heart of the city is Place des Vosges, where lounging on the lawns is permitted in spring and summer. Located between Le Marais and Bastille, this is said to be Paris’ oldest square (it dates from the early 17th century), and its grassy core is framed by grand red-brick townhouses and arcades. You’ll find smart shops, eateries and galleries here – and Victor Hugo’s old apartment, now a museum dedicated to the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
There’s fresher air – and more room to breathe – at the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, the two giant ex-royal hunting grounds that sprawl across Paris’ western and eastern limits respectively. Both are more than double the size of New York’s Central Park and boast vast expanses of grass (that you can lie on), wood-fringed jogging and cycling trails, landscaped botanical gardens (look out for the blossoming cherry trees), as well as boating lakes and quirky cultural and culinary draws set in eye-catching venues.
In the Bois de Boulogne, you can dine on foie gras and langoustine at Le Pre Catelan, a chic three Michelin-star restaurant in an opulent pavilion built for Emperor Napoleon III. A more laid-back option in the park, near the storied Longchamp racecourse, where the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race is staged, is Auberge du bonheur, where a Thai-born chef gives French classics a modern Asian twist.
The park is also home to Fondation Louis Vuitton, a new contemporary art gallery set in a jaw-dropping building designed by Frank Gehry (it looks like a fusion between a huge glass handbag and a sailing vessel). The Bois de Vincennes, meanwhile, has a Buddhist pagoda with African architectural influences, a zoo and the medieval Chateau de Vincennes (Paris’ only fortified castle).
Both parks are accessible by Metro line 1. For Bois de Boulogne, alight at Les Sablons; Chateau de Vincennes has its own stop, although a more intriguing way to get there is via the Promenade Plantee, a “floating park” built on an old railway line in eastern Paris. Also known as Coulee verte (French for green course), this partially-elevated, plant-fringed pathway inspired New York’s buzzing High Line and threads about five kilometres, passing through – and over – a patchwork of districts, giving you absorbing vistas of Paris and its residents (depending on how nosy you feel, you can even peek through the windows of people’s apartments). The promenade can be accessed at several points, including the stairways on Avenue Daumesnil near Bastille, and it ends just before the Peripherique, the ring-road that surrounds Paris. Cross a bridge and you’ll soon be in the Bois de Vincennes.
Another relatively hidden Parisian gem that’s a delight in spring is Parc Monceau. Tucked away in the 8th arrondissement, just one kilometre north of the Champs-Elysees, it made a big impression on Claude Monet, who depicted its beauty in six paintings between 1876 and 1878. Next door to Monceau Metro station, this eight-hectare park has idyllic green spaces, peppered with statues, follies and water features, and is surrounded by tranquil, elegant streets and boulevards graced with Belle Epoque-era mansions and Haussmannian apartments – the multi-storey creamy limestone buildings that mushroomed across the city in the mid-19th century.
Some of these lovely properties now house fine art museums and galleries and there’s a sprinkling of enticing eateries, too, where you can indulge in one of Paris’ timeless spring pleasures: lunch on a sun-kissed terrace, with a glass of wine, while watching the world go by.
Paris in spring must-sees
* Another verdant spot to savour the joys of spring is Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a hilly, leafy retreat built over a disused quarry in Paris’ north-east.
* Jardin des Plantes, near Gare d’Austerlitz, is famed for its diverse array of plants and rose garden.
* Cherry blossoms make the Pere Lachaise Cemetery extra-picturesque in spring. It’s the resting place of the likes of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.
* The European Night of Museums is on May 16, with many museums in Paris – and other cities across Europe – offering admission-free entry from nightfall until midnight.
Take me there
Fly: Flight Centre has return fares to Paris from $1168 (ex-Melb), $1199 (ex-Syd) and $1258 (ex-Bris).
Stay: Courtyard by Marriott Paris Gare de Lyon is a new four-star hotel in the 12th arr, near Jardin des Plantes and the Promenade Plantee. Low-season doubles from 169 euro ($277). See marriott.com
Tours: Themed English-speaking walking tours of Paris run daily, priced at 20 euro ($33) per adult, 10 euro for children under 15. See paris-walks.com
Explore more: en.parisinfo.com