Europe’s Most Picturesque Gardens
On a holiday to Prague this June, I took a funicular ride up to the top of Petrin Hill to see the Petrin Tower—a steel structure that resembles a shorter version of the Eiffel Tower—though I wound up spending little time in and around the tower. Instead, I passed hours roaming the gorgeous gardens surrounding it, breathing in the heady scent of the roses, and marvelling at the miles of terracotta-tiled roofs that spread as though from the hill’s feet. The gardens offered the perfect respite from the Czech capital while still being a part of it.
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Inspired by the beauty of the Petrin Gardens, here are 15 of Europe’s most beautiful gardens that blend nature, history, art, and architecture, and boast everything from spiral-shaped hedges and crumbling grottos to grandiose fountains and waterfalls.
Gardens of Versailles: Versailles, France
Tourists may flock to Versailles to see the infamously opulent palace and former estate of Marie Antoinette, but the grounds to the west of the chateau are just as expansive and intricate. Commissioned by King Louis XIV to design the gardens in 1662, landscape architect André Le Nôtre shaped the land into the French formal garden-style that would make him famous throughout Europe. Today, the gardens stay true to their 17th-century design: immaculate lawns embellished with vibrant flowerbeds, statues, an orangerie, and even a Grand Canal. The garden's many fountains are its most prized attributes, celebrated every weekend between April and October in the Grandes Eaux fountain show—a tradition started by Louis XIV in 1666.
Vigeland Park: Frogner, Oslo, Norway
A testament to Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), Oslo’s Vigeland Park is the world’s largest sculpture garden dedicated to one artist, and is home to more than 200 of his works. Chiselled out of granite, bronze, and wrought iron, Vigeland’s statues preside over the 80-acre park like stone-faced custodians, and they’re seamlessly incorporated into its infrastructure. Figures of men and women embracing, and of children at play, are installed atop an old bridge, representing the spirit of family life, while statues of muscular men prop up the basin of a fountain. A museum displaying more of Vigeland’s work, as well as temporary exhibitions of other artist's work, is also located on the grounds.
Benmore Botanic Garden: Argyll, Scotland
Botany geeks are likely to have heard of Benmore Botanic Garden, renowned for its ample collection of plants from all over the world. The garden boasts a comprehensive assortment of flowering trees and shrubs—including over 300 rhododendron species and more than 33 percent of the world’s hardy conifer species—from Chile, Japan, Bhutan, Tasmania, and other faraway countries. All of them grow harmoniously on the side of a mountain, tucked in the Scottish Highlands. In addition to its varied plant life and glorious mountain views, the garden’s Redwood Avenue—a lush corridor of 50 sierra redwood trees planted there in 1863—is a favorite among visitors and makes for a grand entrance on arrival.
Keukenhof Garden: Lisse, Netherlands
Any self-respecting tulip enthusiast visiting the Netherlands should make a stop at Keukenhof. It's ideal to visit in the spring, when the garden boasts a colorful display of more than 7 million bulbs of 800 tulip varieties laid across 79 acres of land. That’s a lot of tulips. But of course, tulips aren’t the only flowers on display: there are also plenty of dahlias, daffodils, and other spring flowers planted according to their shape, height, and flowering time to ensure the perfect arrangement every year.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Richmond, Surrey, UK
Set upon 300 acres of land, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest green spaces, and it’s not hard to see why. Home to more than 30,000 types of plants and over 14,000 trees, Kew offers visitors an abundance of plant life to feast their eyes on. Of the gardens’ glasshouses, the Waterlily House—where some of the world's largest (and tiniest) water lilies can be found—is a must-see, as is the Palm House, one of the largest remaining Victorian glasshouses on Earth (and the most iconic structure at the heart of Kew). The oldest potted plant alive is growing inside its glass walls. Another highlight is the Tree Top Walkway, a series of paths that weave just above the Arboretum and yields terrific views of Southwest London.
Claude Monet's Garden: Giverny, France
Like many artists, Claude Monet was inspired by the outdoors. But unlike most professional artists, he was also a keen—and active—gardener. On moving to Giverny from Paris in 1883, Monet redesigned the garden at the front of his home, planting vibrant flowerbeds of lilies, poppies, and other more exotic flowers to achieve a wild look. More famously, on the property adjacent to his home, Monet set up a water garden—“for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants”—complete with a Japanese-inspired arch-shaped bridge. The scene later inspired one of his most prolific masterpieces, The Water-Lily Pond (1899).
Petrin Gardens: Prague, Czech Republic
Perched atop Prague’s Petrin Hill and accessible via funicular, the steep ride to the Petrin Gardens yields sweeping views of the city’s unique architecture, including Prague Castle. But visitors will feel far removed from the bustle of the Czech capital on arrival, with five tranquil gardens at their disposal. The fragrant rose garden, bursting with roses and lavender, is arguably the most beautiful area, while the park surrounding the Petrin Tower—a 210 foot-tall steel tower built in 1891 and often dubbed Prague’s “little” Eiffel Tower—makes visitors feel as though they have stepped back in time. The magic continues in the garden's mirror maze (where you are likely to bump into your ow reflection, and perhaps snap a trippy selfie) and at Stefanik observatory, where astronomer types can gaze at the stars.
Alhambra Gardens: Granada, Spain
Andalusia’s Moorish past comes to life at Alhambra, where the palace and gardens—set amid the scenic Sierra Nevada mountains—remain masterpieces of Islamic art. The focal point of the gardens, the Court of Lions, blends architecture and landscape seamlessly, with the iconic Lion Fountain (a circle of lion sculptures facing outward, lifting a basin of water with their backs) at the courtyard’s center, framed by a border of white marble pillars and arcs. The simply beautiful and modestly-embellished aesthetic continues throughout the gardens, especially in the Court of the Pool, which offers a space for reflection.
Powerscourt Gardens: Enniskerry, County Wicklow, Ireland
Walking enthusiasts on the lookout for stunning countryside views will find them at Powerscourt Gardens. Set upon an 18th-century estate amid the Wicklow mountains, Powerscourt’s 47 acres offer everything from a walled garden and fish pond to grottos and a statuary. The gardens also have an extravagant entrance in the form of a corridor of beech trees, which set the tone of their woodland surrounding. It’s worth noting that just 6km away from Powerscourt Estate is Ireland’s tallest waterfall (398ft). It's a popular attraction, often drawing picnic-toting hikers and tour groups.
Boboli Gardens: Florence, Italy
Visitors looking for history and art will find an abundance of both at Boboli Gardens. Largely developed between the 15th and 19th centuries, Boboli is known for its vast sculpture collection, with pieces dating back to the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries—the best of which are on display inside the Grotta Grande (or the Buontalenti Grotto), where Giambologna’s “Bathing Venus” and Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s “Paris and Helen” stand among decorative stalactites. The rest of Boboli is just as finely fashioned. For instance, the Viottolone—a steep avenue lined with Cypress trees, stone seats, and nature-made tunnels—is beautifully landscaped, and makes for one of the garden's most pleasant strolls.
Bodnant Garden: Conwy, Wales
This 80-acre garden is known for its glorious views of the Carneddau and Snowdonia mountains, and for its extensive plant collections, seeded from around the world. Bodnant has it all—shaded woodlands, open spaces, magnificent architecture (head to the Poem at the garden’s center to see a seriously impressive mausoleum)—even a waterfall. The latter visitors can find at the Dell, tucked in the valley of the River Hiraethlyn, which threads through the garden and into the River Conwy. This is the most serene spot in the garden, and it can also often be the most exciting, as glimpses of wildlife are common here.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden: Kent, UK
Situated on the 450-acre estate of a historic castle, Sissinghurst Castle Garden was impeccably planned by poet, writer, and former resident Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s. As well as a quintessential rose garden, there’s the White Garden (brimming with white dahlias, roses, irises, anemones, and gladioli), the Purple Border (a kaleidoscope of pink, blue, and lilac flowers), and the Herb Garden (a feast of sights and smells fronted by the Thyme Lawn). Wildflowers are encouraged to grow throughout the garden to promote biodiversity, giving the space has a delightfully haphazard feel: especially the Cottage Garden where vibrant orange, red, and golden flowers grow. This place is perfect for exploration in autumn.
Eyrignac Manor Gardens: Dordogne, France
Topiary enthusiasts are drawn to Eyrignac for its marvellous greenery sculptures. Throughout the gardens, finely-pruned hedges can be found in an assortment of shapes—box cones, spirals, arabesques—and styled in harmony with one another, as though in a static, synchronized dance. Inspired by the 18th-century and the Italian Renaissance, Eyrignac is a testament to reserved decadence. The French Garden, where hedges are fashioned in decorative patterns and adorned with coloured sand and seasonal flowers (best appreciated from above), is especially ornate, and makes for the ultimate aerial garden show. For those who prefer a more natural look, the Kitchen and Flower Gardens follow a looser structure; bunches of fruit and vegetables—tomatoes, squashes, and cabbage among others—take over the Kitchen Garden, while the Flower Garden is packed with beds of dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, and roses.
New Garden: Potsdam, Germany
Less than an hour’s drive from Berlin, New Garden (or Neuer Garten in German) makes a pleasant day trip for those visiting the capital. Flanked by the idyllic Heiliger See and Jungfernsee lakes, the garden’s proximity to water lends it an air of tranquillity, while its 253-acres of open green space are perfect for aimless strolling. New Garden also stands in the midst of an architecturally rich area, with the Gothic Library, an orangery, a pyramid structure (that was once an ice-house used for refrigerating food), and the elaborate Marble Palace all up for exploration.
Villa D’Este Gardens: Tivoli, Rome, Italy
Italians are known for doing things big, and the gardens at Villa D’Este are no exception. Landscaped in a fanciful Italian Renaissance style, the gardens boast manicured lawns, sculptures, and a grotto adorned with a mosaic design. But the water features at Villa D’Este are what really steal the show. The garden’s most triumphant water display is undoubtedly the Neptune Fountain—where water cascades down a series of platforms into a pool while flumes of water dance in the air behind—set against the Water Organ, which resembles a waterfall more than it does a fountain. For a more peaceful experience, the Hundred Fountains structure is particularly calming, with a row of gargoyles pouring water from their mouths into a narrow trough, as water trickles from stones and jumps into the air above.