Parisians would be reaping gold if picnicking was an Olympic sport. At the first glimmer of sunshine, they head outdoors with blankets, cutlery and a tote bag full of edibles. In the company of like-minded friends, they celebrate the arrival of les beaux jours and savour the unique sense of freedom that comes with eating en plein air in the heart of a bustling city.
When visiting Paris, you can easily emulate the locals, even without access to a kitchen, as the city is teeming with gourmet food shops that sell the makings of a glorious picnic spread, from crusty breads and oozy cheeses to fine charcuterie and voluptuous pastries. Not only will you experience one of the most beloved aspects of Parisian living, but also discover an economical way to (literally) dine out.
Our selection of picnic spots in Paris comes complete with nearby recommended places to pick up the makings of a French feast.
Jardin du Palais Royal
1st arrondissement, Métro Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre
The 17th-century Palais Royal was initially created for the Cardinal de Richelieu and was entirely rebuilt in the late 18th century, just in time for it to become a hot spot during the French Revolution. The palace’s manicured garden, the Jardin du Palais Royal is enclosed within the arcaded wings of the building, shielded from the agitation of Paris’s traffic. It’s a lovely place for a stroll – don’t miss Daniel Buren’s black-and-white columns – followed by a picnic on the grass or on the benches, if you’re lucky enough to snare one.
Start gathering your picnic lunch from Le Petit Vendôme, an endearingly gruff little bistro that specialises in cuisine from Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France, and makes one of the best jambon-beurre sandwiches in the city, assembled to order on a fresh baguette with butter, artisan ham and mustard.
Also drop by Aki Boulanger. At this bakery in Paris’s 'Little Japan’, the goods are a delicious fusion of Japanese and French specialities, such as the baguette sandwich garnished with tonkatsu (breaded pork) and the brioche with sweet red bean filling.
Square Tino Rossi
5th arrondissement, Métro Jussieu or Gare d’Austerlitz
Riverside on Quai Saint-Bernard, Square Tino Rossi offers great views of the Seine and the tip of Ile Saint-Louis. Named after a well-loved Corsican music hall singer and actor, the square has a string of small amphitheatres that are used by professional and amateur dancers in summer to practise their salsa, tango and samba moves.
If you’d prefer to join in the dancing than merely watch from the sidelines, fuel up with cheeses from the fromagerie of Laurent Dubois, a few blocks away. This talented cheesemonger has earned the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the highest distinction to which an artisan aspires. In addition to seasonal cheeses, he offers spécialités fromagères, such as Fourme d’Ambert doused with gewürztraminer, roquefort layered with quince paste, and brie stuffed with dried fruits.
To accompany the cheeses, buy some bread from the bakery of Eric Kayser, just around the corner. Though the successful baker now has franchises all around the city, the original location on the charming rue Monge remains the best for his tourte Monge, a large sourdough loaf. Ask for it to be sliced for you.
Picnicking is authorised in public parks and gardens in Paris, provided you don’t bring in or consume alcohol and you leave the area spotless. You may sit on the lawn, except in the areas marked 'pelouse au repos’ (lawn at rest), which means the grass is temporarily off limits to give it a chance to grow back.
Jardin du Luxembourg
6th arrondissement, Métro Luxembourg
Needing no introduction, the Jardin du Luxembourg is a must-see for any visitor. Commissioned by queen regent Marie de Medici in the 17th century, 'le Luco’ remains popular with local picnickers. The vicinity of the wide fountain is particularly pleasant, especially if you can gather some of the green metal chairs to recline on. If it gets too crowded, head west to find a quiet spot in the more remote, shaded areas of the garden.
An ideal provider for your picnic is Gilles Verot, a charcutier whose fromage de tête (head cheese) has won awards. He produces a remarkable range of artisan goods, including a daily selection of terrines and pâtés. These form a memorable meal when coupled with bread made from stone-milled grey flour from Poilâne bakery. For dessert, drop by the shop of chocolatier Jean-Charles Rochoux for his fresh fruit chocolate bars (Saturdays only).
Beyond Paris’s parks and gardens, you are permitted to drink alcohol in moderation along the river and canals or on street benches. Inebriated behaviour in public, however, could get you arrested.
10th arrondissement, Métro Jacques Bonsergent or Goncourt
Created by Napoleon to bring drinking water into the city and later used for freight, the Canal Saint-Martin is now chiefly a place of leisure. When the weather is good, its pretty banks are a popular destination for locals, who settle under the trees to chat, eat and drink.
A luxurious picnic can be assembled from the goods at La Tête dans les Olives, a diminutive shop run by Cédric Casanova. He specialises in artisan olive oils made on tiny family-run groves in Sicily and imports an array of top-quality Italian foods, including cheeses, olives, caperberries, dried wild figs and an extraordinary tuna bresaola.
All of these beg for a bread companion, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than Christophe Vasseur’s pain des amis (bread of friends), a crisp-crusted and creamy-crumbed loaf that’s baked and sold at his picture-perfect 1889 boulangerie, Du Pain et des Idées. Vasseur’s signature chausson aux pommes, a deliciously buttery turnover garnished with slices of freshly cooked apple, is an absolute treat.
You’d like a little wine with that, oui? Pick up a bottle from Le Verre Volé, a wine shop-cum-restaurant that focuses on biodynamic wines by artisan vintners. Don’t forget to bring a corkscrew with you, although borrowing one from a neighbouring picnic group is a great conversation starter.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
19th arrondissement, Métro Buttes Chaumont
Located at the top of one of Paris’s hills, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is the steepest park in the city. It is gorgeously landscaped, with a small lake at the bottom of a cliff on which a tiny temple is perched. Its many trees are home to a great variety of birds.
The sloping expanses of grass can make picnicking an interesting challenge, but Parisians remain undaunted. So should you if you want to enjoy the views.
Edibles can be procured at the bakery of Véronique Mauclerc. She operates one of the few remaining wood-burning bread ovens in France, baking her artisan loaves in a venerable century-old construction of brick and cast iron. All of the loaves are organic and naturally leavened, with the crust kissed by the intense heat of the oven. Mauclerc also offers a delicious selection of savoury tarts, such as quiche Lorraine and pissaladière. Any one of her pastries makes for a luscious dessert; for example, the pistachio swirl or the kouign amann, a caramelised, buttery, flaky confection that hails from Brittany.
Gated parks and gardens in Paris close at nightfall. The opening hours are displayed at the entrance. A garden keeper does the rounds before closing, blowing a whistle to let you know it’s time to pack up.
Maeve O’Meara’s Paris highlights
As featured in French Food Safari
Fabrice Le Bourdat worked in a three-Michelin-starred establishment before opening his jewel box of a patisserie, Blé Sucré. Buttery croissants, pain au chocolat and perfect baguettes start the day, then there are the exquisite cakes, including fragrant, 'lemony’ madeleines. Fabrice is a master. I’m in awe of his talent. He still gets goosebumps when he sees the cakes glistening in the glass cases. I do, too! I long to savour his orange-blossom marshmallow again. 7 rue Antoine Vollon, 12th arrondissement, Métro Ledru-Rollin, +33 1 43 40 77 73.
Pierre Hermé, the 'king of the macaron’ stocks a designer range in his chic boutiques. As Pierre’s devotees know, he is a genius; his flavour combinations are so clever. For something truly extraordinary, try Pierre’s ispahan, a combination of rose-flavoured cream with lychee and fresh raspberries, or his tarte infiniment vanille, which is the distillation of three types of vanilla from around the world. 185 rue de Vaugirard, 15th arrondissement, Métro Pasteur, +33 1 47 83 89 96, http://www.pierreherme.com/.
For a hit list of the food shops please refer to page 116 in Issue 1 of Feast magazine.
As seen in Feast magazine, Sept 2011, Issue 1. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.