The 10 Best European Ports for Garden Lovers

by Donna Heiderstadt

The 10 Best European Ports for Garden Lovers

by Donna Heiderstadt

A river cruise can be the ultimate way to slow down and stop and smell the flowers — and we mean that literally. Choose your cruise wisely and you can wander amid vibrant tulips and hyacinths in late March and April, take in the aroma of roses in June, and spot the bold beauty of chrysanthemums and dahlias well into September. Here are 10 don’t-miss European river ports for botanically inclined cruisers — including the best time to see them in bloom.

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Château de Villandry / Jean-Claude Mouton
Château de Versailles
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1. Paris, France

You can hit the garden trifecta in and around the French capital. Jardin du Luxembourg on the Left Bank was created in 1612 in the style of the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and it’s here you’ll find children racing miniature boats as well as manicured lawns leading up to a stunning palace. Or, if it’s reflecting pools and sculptures you’re after, head to the expansive Jardin des Tuileries set between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. You can pop into the nearby Musée de l’Orangerie to see Monet’s “Water Lilies” while here. Adding on some extra time after your trip? Just a short train ride from Paris, you’ll find the 1,977-acre Versailles being restored to its original plan with 600 fountains and pools and miles of manicured hedges.

In Bloom: A great variety of flowers bloom in the City of Light, including cherry blossoms in April, plus roses and irises throughout the summer.

You can hit the garden trifecta in and around the French capital. Jardin du Luxembourg on the Left Bank was created in 1612 in the style of the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and it’s here you’ll find children racing miniature boats as well as manicured lawns leading up to a stunning palace. Or, if it’s reflecting pools and sculptures you’re after, head to the expansive Jardin des Tuileries set between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. You can pop into the nearby Musée de l’Orangerie to see Monet’s “Water Lilies” while here. Adding on some extra time after your trip? Just a short train ride from Paris, you’ll find the 1,977-acre Versailles being restored to its original plan with 600 fountains and pools and miles of manicured hedges.

In Bloom: A great variety of flowers bloom in the City of Light, including cherry blossoms in April, plus roses and irises throughout the summer.

Keukenhof Garden
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2. Amsterdam, the Netherlands

The best place to see the Netherlands’ famous tulips is Keukenhof Gardens — a 79-acre manicured park located in Lisse, about a 45-minute drive from Amsterdam. The park becomes a kaleidoscope of seven million artfully planted flowers, including 800 tulip varieties.

In Bloom: You can catch the breathtaking sea of flowers for six weeks in April and May.

The best place to see the Netherlands’ famous tulips is Keukenhof Gardens — a 79-acre manicured park located in Lisse, about a 45-minute drive from Amsterdam. The park becomes a kaleidoscope of seven million artfully planted flowers, including 800 tulip varieties.

In Bloom: You can catch the breathtaking sea of flowers for six weeks in April and May.

Palmenhaus Schönbrunn
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3. Vienna, Austria

Schönbrunn Palace is the capital city’s show-stopper with its 395-acre park featuring photogenic fountains, hedges, flowerbeds, and even a 17th-century maze. But don’t overlook the circa-1700 Belvedere Palace either, home to a 200-year-old garden featuring 4,000 species of alpine plants.

In Bloom: You can catch colorful blooms and manicured shrubs at Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace from March to August, while the Belvedere Palace’s rhododendrons and sempervivum start blooming in April.

Schönbrunn Palace is the capital city’s show-stopper with its 395-acre park featuring photogenic fountains, hedges, flowerbeds, and even a 17th-century maze. But don’t overlook the circa-1700 Belvedere Palace either, home to a 200-year-old garden featuring 4,000 species of alpine plants.

In Bloom: You can catch colorful blooms and manicured shrubs at Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace from March to August, while the Belvedere Palace’s rhododendrons and sempervivum start blooming in April.

Claude Monet's lily pond in Giverny
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4. Vernon/Giverny, France

Seine River cruises typically include a stop in Vernon, where you can take an excursion to see the legendary gardens of Giverny. You’ll recognize them from the iconic "Water Lilies" paintings by Claude Monet, who lived here from 1883 to 1926. It’s amazing to see that not much has changed in the last century.

In Bloom: The lilies, wisteria, and azaleas unfold in a living canvas for seven months, from April to October.

Seine River cruises typically include a stop in Vernon, where you can take an excursion to see the legendary gardens of Giverny. You’ll recognize them from the iconic "Water Lilies" paintings by Claude Monet, who lived here from 1883 to 1926. It’s amazing to see that not much has changed in the last century.

In Bloom: The lilies, wisteria, and azaleas unfold in a living canvas for seven months, from April to October.

Merian Gärten
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5. Basel, Switzerland

This pretty Swiss city blooms in springtime with serene beds of iris, peony, and rhododendron. The Merian Gärten, once the estate of 19th-century agriculturalist Christoph Merian, is more modest than the palatial gardens in neighboring France and Germany, but just as beautiful. 

In Bloom: To see the rhododendrons and English gardens, plus the largest collection of iris in Europe, head to Basel's Merian Gärten in the summer — blooms peak in June.

This pretty Swiss city blooms in springtime with serene beds of iris, peony, and rhododendron. The Merian Gärten, once the estate of 19th-century agriculturalist Christoph Merian, is more modest than the palatial gardens in neighboring France and Germany, but just as beautiful. 

In Bloom: To see the rhododendrons and English gardens, plus the largest collection of iris in Europe, head to Basel's Merian Gärten in the summer — blooms peak in June.

Sanssouci Palace
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6. Potsdam, Germany

Frederick the Great first designed the terraced gardens of Sanssouci Park in 1744 in order to bring plums, figs, and grapes to Potsdam. It was only after he commissioned the gardens that he decided to build his famous Sanssouci Palace overlooking their beauty. You can climb the stairway that cuts through the manicured terraces from a splashing fountain to the yellow-hued rococo palace.

In Bloom: The manicured shrubs and rose gardens are best seen from April to October.

Frederick the Great first designed the terraced gardens of Sanssouci Park in 1744 in order to bring plums, figs, and grapes to Potsdam. It was only after he commissioned the gardens that he decided to build his famous Sanssouci Palace overlooking their beauty. You can climb the stairway that cuts through the manicured terraces from a splashing fountain to the yellow-hued rococo palace.

In Bloom: The manicured shrubs and rose gardens are best seen from April to October.

Groot-Bijgaarden
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7. Brussels, Belgium

Sure, the Netherlands may be the most well known for tulips, but Belgians take pride in them, too. Visit the country’s capital and you can catch sight of colorful Floralia Brussels at the charming Groot-Bijgaarden, a castle estate where gardeners have planted more than one million bulbs.

In Bloom: Brussel's tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths bloom from early April to early May, when you can attend the estate’s annual flower exhibition.

Sure, the Netherlands may be the most well known for tulips, but Belgians take pride in them, too. Visit the country’s capital and you can catch sight of colorful Floralia Brussels at the charming Groot-Bijgaarden, a castle estate where gardeners have planted more than one million bulbs.

In Bloom: Brussel's tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths bloom from early April to early May, when you can attend the estate’s annual flower exhibition.

Peterhof Palace
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8. St. Petersburg, Russia

Imperial gardens are synonymous with fountains and nowhere is that more evident than at St. Petersburg's Peterhof Palace, the over-the-top residence of Peter the Great that has been nicknamed the “Russian Versailles.” The Grand Cascade, a synchronized torrent of arcing water, frames one side of the circa-1703 palace, which is surrounded by acres of formal gardens, orchards, and tree-shaded paths.

In Bloom: The palace’s daffodils and tulips are best seen in the spring months.

Imperial gardens are synonymous with fountains and nowhere is that more evident than at St. Petersburg's Peterhof Palace, the over-the-top residence of Peter the Great that has been nicknamed the “Russian Versailles.” The Grand Cascade, a synchronized torrent of arcing water, frames one side of the circa-1703 palace, which is surrounded by acres of formal gardens, orchards, and tree-shaded paths.

In Bloom: The palace’s daffodils and tulips are best seen in the spring months.

Mateus Palace
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9. Régua, Portugal

Located near the Douro River, the 18th-century Casa de Mateus features a garden famous for its maze-like hedges and 115-foot-long tunnel of cedar trees. The ornate Baroque palace and its grounds are so well-loved they even appear on the label of one of the region's popular wines, Mateus Rosé.

In Bloom: Régua's gardens, palace, and winery are open year-round, though peak time for the garden’s camellias runs from late spring to summer.

Located near the Douro River, the 18th-century Casa de Mateus features a garden famous for its maze-like hedges and 115-foot-long tunnel of cedar trees. The ornate Baroque palace and its grounds are so well-loved they even appear on the label of one of the region's popular wines, Mateus Rosé.

In Bloom: Régua's gardens, palace, and winery are open year-round, though peak time for the garden’s camellias runs from late spring to summer.

Château de Villandry
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10. Chissay-en-Touraine, France

Smaller barge cruises, which can navigate the shallow Loire River, can call on this charming town for excursions to the most impressive Loire Valley Châteaux and gardens, among them Château de Chenonceau, Château de la Bourdaisière, Château et Jardins de Villandry, and Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire.

In Bloom: The gardens of the Loire are best seen from May to July, when you’ll spot everything from vegetable gardens in Villandry to dahlias at la Bourdaisière.

Smaller barge cruises, which can navigate the shallow Loire River, can call on this charming town for excursions to the most impressive Loire Valley Châteaux and gardens, among them Château de Chenonceau, Château de la Bourdaisière, Château et Jardins de Villandry, and Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire.

In Bloom: The gardens of the Loire are best seen from May to July, when you’ll spot everything from vegetable gardens in Villandry to dahlias at la Bourdaisière.

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