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Rolling out like an exotic Oriental carpet before the Italianate Palais du Luxembourg, this vast expanse of fountains, flowers, lush lawns, and shaded glens is the perfect setting for a leisurely stroll, a relaxed picnic, or a serious make-out session, depending on who you’re with. At the center of everything is a fountain with a huge basin, where kids can sail toy wooden sailboats (2.50€ for a half-hour) and adults can sun themselves in the green metal chairs at the pond’s edge. Sculptures abound: At every turn there is a god, goddess, artist, or monarch peering down at you from their pedestal. The most splendid waterworks is probably the Medici Fountain (reached via the entrance at place Paul Claudel behind the Odéon), draped with lithe Roman gods and topped with the Medici coat of arms, in honor of the palace’s first resident, Marie de Medicis.

In 1621, the Italian-born French queen, homesick for the Pitti Palace of her youth, bought up the grounds and existing buildings and had a Pitti-inspired palace built for herself as well as a smaller version of the sumptuous gardens. During the Revolution, it was turned into a prison. American writer Thomas Paine was incarcerated there in 1793 after he fell out of favor with Robespierre; he narrowly escaped execution. On the plus side, the Revolutionaries increased the size of the garden and made it a public institution. Visitors can visit a horticulture school where pear trees have been trained into formal, geometric shapes, as well as beehives (yes, beehives) that are maintained by a local apiculture association.

Frazzled parents take note: There are lots of activities in the Jardin de Luxembourg for kids who need to blow off steam. First off, there is the extra-large playground (1.20€ adults, 2.50€ under 12) filled with all kinds of things to climb on and play in. Then there are the wonderful wooden sailboats (2.50€ per half-hour) to float in the main fountain, as well as an ancient carousel (1.50€, next to the playground). At the marionette theater (4.70€ each for parents and children; Wed, Sat, Sun, and school vacation days; shows usually start after 3pm, Sat–Sun additional shows at 11am), you can see Guignol himself (the French version of Punch) in a variety of puppet shows.