An enormous green belt located at the western border of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne is a beloved local park where Parisians regularly head for fresh air, picnics, strolls, and even open-air theater performances during the summer. Boasting some 2,100 acres of trees, walking paths, man-made lakes, cooling waterfalls, streams, and sprawling lawns, this is the second-largest park in Paris (it's more than twice the size of New York City's Central Park).
No wonder it's such an essential space for stressed city denizens to retreat to. Read on to learn how to make the most of your visit, including what to see and do and seasonal ways to enjoy the park.
History of the Park
What is now a park open to the general public was once reserved as hunting grounds for French monarchs. An old-growth oak forest was developed and manicured into neat lanes where kings Dagobert, Philip Augustus, and Philip IV hunted boar, deer, and other game.
Several medieval abbeys also once stood on the grounds, and during the reign of Henri II and Henry III, the forest was surrounding by thick walls. Louis XVI, the ill-fated king who would be executed by guillotine during the French Revolution of 1789, was the first to open the gates to allow the public to access the grounds.
The forest was known for centuries as a dangerous place to roam; it had a reputation for being frequented by bandits and thieves, and numerous murders were recorded there.
Prostitution was frequent and still exists in the area to this day (after dark, at least).
In 1852, the Emperor Napoleon III decided to cede the lands in order to create an expansive public park, which took about six years to complete. This was part of larger efforts during the mid- to late 19th century to offer ordinary Parisians more green spaces, including the Bois de Vincennes to the city's east, developed from 1855.
Together, the parks situated directly east and west of the city are referred to as "the lungs of Paris." Since the city center isn't especially green, and trees are somewhat sparse, these "lungs" are considered essential to local ecology and well-being.
An immediate success with the general public, the Bois de Boulogne became an emblem of a new sort of Parisian citizenry and one associated with leisure and free time. It is referenced in numerous works of French literature from the 19th century onward, including by Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and other authors of note. It also appears in several paintings, including "The Races in the Bois de Boulogne "by impressionist painter Edouard Manet.
What to See and Do at the Bois de Boulogne
While roaming around in the "wood" at night isn't advised, during the day it's a pleasant place for a stroll, picnic, lazy boat ride on the ponds, and general escape from the city grounds.
Walking Paths, Trees, and Plants: If you're in need of some fresh air and a moderate walk, taking a couple of hours to explore the numerous wooded paths at the Bois de Boulogne can be a good option. A total of over 17 miles of trails are lined with trees, including oak, cedar, and even ginkgo biloba and plantain trees.
If you enjoy bicycling, rent a bike and ride through the more than nine miles of dedicated paths around the park. Do make sure to watch out for pedestrians, though. They occasionally wander on to the bike paths.
Also make sure to visit the Jardin Bagatelle, an English-style landscaped garden famous for its collection of roses and the pond filled with water-lilies. It also boasts picturesque grottoes, a pagoda, artificial waterfalls, a small historic chateau with peacocks roaming around the grounds and other charming features. Meanwhile, the Parc Floral offers the spectacle of numerous species of flowering plants and hybrids. It's a wonderful place to enjoy open-air jazz concerts during the summer. There's also an Arboretum and greenhouses (Serres d'Auteuil) to explore within the Bois de Boulogne.
(Note that there is an entrance fee to the botanical gardens between late May and the end of October.)
Man-Made Lakes, Streams, Waterfalls, and Grottoes: The Bois is world-famous for its numerous artificial lakes, murmuring streams, waterfalls, and grottoes. These are populated with ducks, geese, swans, moor hens and other fowl, as well as humans enjoying lazy boat rides in the sun.
In total, there are two artificial lakes and eight smaller ponds to enjoy. The Lac Inférieur is the largest in the Bois, popular with picnickers, boaters, and joggers, as well as home to many waterfowl. It can be reached most easily from the Muette lawns; the closest RER (commuter train) station is Avenue Henri Martin and the closest metro stops are Porte Dauphine or Ranelagh.
Sports Events Around the Bois: In addition to being one of the city's most popular green spaces, the Bois is also a center of sports events in the French capital. The Stade Roland-Garros hosts the exciting French Open tennis tournament on its red clay courts every year, and the Hippodrome de Longchamp has regular horseracing events. The Auteuil Hippodrome, meanwhile, is still used for steeplechase racing events.
Open-Air Theater Performances: Every year, outdoor plays and performances are held in the lovely Jardin Shakespeare during the summer months (excluding days with thunderstorms). While most performances are in French, a few are in English.
Eating and Drinking at the Park
There are numerous restaurants in and around the park, including the three-star Michelin restaurant Le Pré Catalan, a coveted spot for anyone looking for a gourmet experience in the area. The one-Michelin starred La Grande Cascade is a picturesque place for a formal meal, housed in a historic 19th-century building with opulent Empire and Belle-Epoque design details.
See this page (in English) for information on other places to enjoy snacks, drinks and/or a light meal.
Alternatively (and especially if you're on a budget), have a Parisian picnic with baguette, cheese, fruit, and nuts, and sprawl out on the lawns.
How to Get There
The main entrances to the Bois are situated at the edge of the 16th arrondissement in west Paris, on the right bank of the Seine. The easiest way to get to the park is via metro or RER (Commuter line trains). The nearest stations are Jasmin (line 9); peripheral stations include Les Sablons and Porte Maillot (both line 1), Porte Dauphine (line 2), Ranelagh and Porte d'Auteuil.
The nearest RER stations with access to the main areas of the park on the eastern end include Avenue Foch and Avenue Henri-Martin (both Line C).
Alternatively, you can take the following bus lines to the Bois: 32, 43, 52, 63, 93, 123, 241, 244 or PC1.
Accessibility: Many of the walking paths at the Bois are wheelchair-accessible, but some areas have stairs or narrow paths that may not be suitable for visitors with limited mobility.
What to See and Do Nearby
Make sure to take the kids to the Jardin d'Acclimation, technically part of the Bois itself and a fun old-world amusement park complete with rides, puppet theater, and games.
Other sights and attractions nearby include the Musee Marmottan-Monet, boasting a lovely collection of the impressionist artist's paintings; the Musee Baccarat, displaying an eye-catching collection of fine crystals and crystalware; and the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a newer contemporary arts museum that's a work of art in its own right and hosts numerous temporary exhibits worth seeing.