The Perfect Picnic Adventure in Europe’s Parks With Family This Summer

Nothing spells summer like picnics, particularly in Europe. Thereʼs something magical about ambling through lush parks, lazing on the grass, eating out of a basket, and making new friends, all in the company of oneʼs most precious

MY MOST CHERISHED HOLIDAY memory is of an evening spent at the expansive Tuileries Garden in Paris in May of 2016. It was an unplanned stop post a long day of exploring the city’s glorious palaces and cathedrals. Yet a few hours here were more joyful than anything my family and I had experienced till then. And so began a tradition, where a picnic in a park became a non-negotiable part of our family’s European itineraries, especially when my husband and I travelled with our daughters. Over the years, we visited some breathtaking parks across cities in Europe, and each time, we returned with a heart full of memorable discoveries, exciting stories, and nostalgic smiles.


Visitors from different walks of life enjoying the colourful setting of the Tuileries Garden in the heart of Paris.

Paris may be known as the city of palaces, but its parks are equally elegant. In a city where hotel rooms are small and bus rides long, these open, green spaces give children ample opportunity to run around (and sleep better at night!). Among its many magnificent gardens, the afore-mentioned Tuileries Garden, or Jardin des Tuileries as the French call it, is particularly popular. Boasting an enviable location, it overlooks some of the city’s most significant monuments—the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Arc de Triomphe—on three sides, while the mighty Seine River flows by the fourth. Peppered with smaller monuments, water bodies, and numerous sculptures, Tuileries is an outing by itself. In summer, when colourful flowers bloom and food stalls, amusement rides, and its famous giant wheel open to public, Tuileries transforms into a large, happy carnival where the entire city descends to celebrate.

As I mentioned at the start, the evening we spent at Tuileries turned out to be the most delightful one in Paris. After a long day of sightseeing, just ahead of our allocated time slot at the Louvre, I had chosen to stay back at the garden on a whim—the girls were bored, I was tired, and sitting in a park seemed far more appealing than gazing at paintings in a 250-year-old palace. And I was duly rewarded. In the park, I saw a side of Paris that I would have missed in my touristy itinerary—its everyday life, with parents out with their children, young men and women catching up after work, and senior citizens walking their dogs. We, on the other hand, spent our time playing with newly bought toys, looking at the gigantic poster of the Mona Lisa that hung like a curtain over a wing of the Louvre under renovation, and discussing why art is so important for the world (children need to know that!). Later, I still remember the expression on my daughters’ faces when the sun went down, turning the entire sky orange. It was a spectacle no museum could have shown them.


Picnic in Amsterdam
A couple on a boat ride along a canal in De Bolwerken, Amsterdam.

There are probably more canals in Holland than there are parks. And wherever there are parks, canals are sure to fi nd their way into them! In summer, with hundreds of tulips, daffodils, irises, and lilies blossoming, most Dutch gardens resemble lifesized artworks. How else would you describe a setting that has everything in one place—little boats lined up by a quaint water channel, windmills rotating leisurely to the gentle breeze, and beds of colourful fl owers juxtaposed against a deep-blue sky. Haarlem’s De Bolwerken Park has all this and more in abundance!

Designed by landscape architect Jan David Zocher Jr, known for creating the Vondelpark, arguably Amsterdam’s most famous public garden, De Bolwerken is the loveliest (and most uncharted) part of the medieval city, otherwise known for its Gothic cathedrals
and gabled townhouses.

Meandering through the length of the park, lined with seasonal flowers and peppered with small footbridges, the canal seems straight out of a fairy tale—glistening in the golden rays of the bright Dutch sun, it made my girls wonder if someone had sprinkled gold dust on it! And then there are the boats. Resting by the side of the water, swaying gently in the summer breeze, they were so inviting that we made the children sit in one for some pictures. We also found something else in the park we hadn’t seen elsewhere: tiny gnome houses in tree stumps for children to play with. These were even furnished with little tables, chairs, beds, a kitchen, and gnome-shaped dolls with which the local kids were playing. Clearly delighted by the discovery, my girls enjoyed the toys, and also made some Dutch friends in the process, even though they didn’t know the language. The highlight of our day, however, was watching the bridge at the end of the canal open to let a tall yacht pass by, as we waved vigorously at the people on board. Did they wave back at us? Yes, of course!


Picnic in Brussels
People relaxing in the gardens against the backdrop of historic monuments in Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels.

Our trip to Parc du Cinquantenaire was not quite planned. As usual! We just happened to end up there after getting lost on our way to the European Union (EU) Parliament, and were instantly drawn inside to its dense, tree-lined path that led to a large gateway. The central arches of the gate reminded us of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and we were certain it was an important monument (both my husband and I are suckers for history). While just a street away from the chic Central Business District of Brussels, Parc du Cinquantenaire seemed like it was from another era—which it turned out to be! A signage told us that it was built in 1880 to commemorate the 50th year of Belgian independence. My heart, however, was stolen by the gigantic trees lining the wide walkways. As I strolled in the verdant shadows of Norway maples and Common Ash on a cloudy day, I remember feeling as if I had stepped into a Jane Austen novel. My daughters were not amused by my daydreaming though. We had promised the little ones a picnic with ducks and daisies and now they wanted only that! The younger one, convinced we were spoiling their plans, refused to walk and, despite all our  efforts, had to be carried on her father’s
shoulders across the park.

The picnic finally took place at the Leopold Park, right outside the EU Parliament. A bright, cheerful space brimming with gushing fountains, ornate sculptures, beds of lavender, and views of heritage buildings that surround the park, this is where students, office goers, and young mothers with babies—all seem to come together to soak in the bright summer sun. The large pond occupied by playful ducks is immensely popular with children and turned out to be the favourite spot for our girls, too, who fed half their lunch to the birds. As for my husband and I, after the eventful morning, all we wanted to do was lay in the grass amidst daisies and dandelions and watch the clouds make shapes in the bright Belgian sky. The parliament of the EU could wait.


Picnic in Madrid
The magical Crystal Palace in El Retiro, Madrid.

It is said that back in the 1700s, this newly opened park was frequented by fairies and elves, who would appear at night and plant unknown varieties of plants and flowers in different parts of the garden. Elves or not, Madrid’s El Retiro Park continues to be a wonderful place with a larger variety of plant, bird, and animal life than in any other city park I’ve ever seen. Located in the heart of the city, the 125-hectare park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to several stunning monuments—The Glass Palace, designed on the lines of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park London; Monument to King Alfonso XII, located at the edge of the central lake; the neoclassical Palacio de Velázquez, which now functions as an art gallery; and Aseo de las Palacio de Velázquez, a charming promenade lined with statues of royals, paying homage to Spanish monarchs.
Talk of one place having it all!

With little time at hand in Madrid, we decided to visit El Retiro early in the morning. We had a train to catch at noon and I had had no time to arrange for our customary picnic basket, but there was no way I was going to miss visiting the legendary park and all those monuments. Thankfully, the place turned out to be a picnicker’s delight, and we found carts selling snacks even at that hour. Equipped with our little breakfast, we began to settle on the grass when the girls spotted some kayakers walking towards the lake. What started as a casual chit-chat in their broken Spanish turned out to be a great adventure as the young men offered to take them kayaking! As I watched (and heard!) them shrieking with delight, waving frantically at us from the water, my resolve to continue coming back to Europe and discovering more of its parks before they grew up become even stronger.

Related: 3 Outdoor Activities You Need To Experience During The Summers In Switzerland