Bois de Vincennes
Address75012 Paris, France
The sprawling Bois de Vincennes is the largest public park in greater Paris, located at the city's eastern edge and easily accessible by metro or bus. Parisians and tourists flock here to stroll through miles of wooded paths, glide on human-made lakes in a paddleboat or rowboat, take in summer jazz concerts in the open air or stage a lazy picnic on the vast lawns. The Bois is about three times larger than New York's central park, and an essential space in a city that seemingly lacks green space in certain areas. Meanwhile, the impressive medieval chateau and fortress known as the Chateau de Vincennes at the park's edge attests to hundreds of years of royal and military history, and the neighboring town of Vincennes is also worth a visit.
History of the Park
The Bois, in its current form, was established under the reign of Emperor Napoléon III between 1855 and 1866. Spanning nearly 2,500 acres, it is even larger than its "twin" park at Paris' western border, the Bois de Boulogne.
The historic woods and wide lanes still found today within the park were initially developed as royal hunting grounds during the medieval period, when the Kings of France used the Chateau de Vincennes as a residence and military defense site. The forest itself has been present since at least Gallo-Roman times when Paris was called "Lutetia." Romans referred to the forest as "Vilcena"—the origin of the area's current name.
King Louis VII established a hunting lodge outside the forest in around 1150, and during the 13th century, King Philippe-Auguste created a wall to enclose it, then stocked it with game to hunt.
What to See and Do at Bois de Vincennes
During daylight hours, the park offers numerous outdoor activities, from the relaxed to the sporty. We don't advise you venture into the Bois de Vincennes after dusk; it's been known to harbor prostitution and other criminal activities.
Man-Made Lakes, Grottoes and Other Features
The Bois de Vincennes boasts numerous human-made structures that were designed in the Romantic style and are meant to both soothe the nerves and inspire aesthetic appreciation. There are four large artificial lakes and ponds within the Bois, some with islands where you can see flocks of wild birds and fowl. Ducks, geese, moorhens, swans, magpies, and blackbirds are among the birds that have made a habitat of the park's water features.
The largest of these, the Lac Daumesnil, boasts two islands connected to the central park and is bordered by lush green lawns. It also features a sizeable Doric-style monument called the "Temple of Love," a feature typical of Romantic-style parks in Paris and elsewhere. It stands above an artificial cave.
To the north of the park, the Lac des Minimes still harbors the ruins of a medieval monastery, making it an intriguing site for anyone interested in the history of the Middle Ages. The Lac de Saint-Mandé is situated in the northwest, while the smallest lake, Lac De Gravelle, lies in the southwest. The latter is connected to artificial streams that feed into the other lakes.
Take a paddleboat or rowboat out on one of the lakes for a relaxed, inspired afternoon of greenery and fresh air.
Walking Paths and Gardens
If you're looking to get out of the city for a day trip and some fresh air, an hour or two on the numerous wooded walking paths at the Bois de Vincennes can do the trick. You can explore the park's more than 50 miles of crisscrossed walking paths and wide lanes, as well as its extensive bike paths. The paths lead around the man-made lakes mentioned above, as well as to the park's numerous gardens.
The Parc Floral is an enormous botanical garden constructed on the grounds of a former military training site. It harbors hundreds of varieties of flowers and is especially noted for its hybrid iris species. Also, you'll find elegant Japanese-style architectural features, lawns for picnicking, a miniature golf course, ping-pong tables, and a sculpture garden with works from Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti.
To the southwest of the Bois, the Arboretum is the place to head if you're a tree-lover. Here, admire some 2,000 trees, including hundreds of heritage pear and apple trees and numerous shrub and lilac species.
The Jardin Tropical de Paris, meanwhile, was founded as a "colonial experimental garden" in 1899 as a site for the scientific study of tropical plants. It was also the site of the first Colonial Exposition to be held in France and carries its remnants in the form of pavilions for French Congo, French Indochina, Tunisia, and other former colonies. It is currently in the process of being redesigned and refurbished.
Zoological Park and Hippodrome
Take the kids for a stroll through the onsite Zoological Park to see some 2,000 animals (harbored today as protected or threatened species). Manatees, giraffes, zebras, hippos, and monkeys are among the animals that live within five specially curated "biozones" at the park.
For a bit of old-world fun, sit in the bleachers and watch the horse races at the Hippodrome. It's an inexpensive way to spend an afternoon doing something unusual.
Open-Air Jazz Concerts at the Parc Floral
During the summer months, crowds gather on the lawns of the pretty Parc Floral to enjoy inexpensive jazz concerts. Running for around a month in mid-summer (generally July), the jazz festival offers visitors an ideal way to take in an afternoon of music in the open air, against the backdrop of lush botanical gardens. Packing a picnic is always an excellent way to plan an afternoon at the park. You'll pay only a small entrance fee to the Parc Floral itself to enjoy the concerts.
Chateau de Vincennes
If time allows, explore the imposing fortified chateau located right near the entrance to the park. From as early as the 12th century, French monarchs took up residence within its impressive walls, and it served to protect Paris from invasions at its eastern border. It features a stunning 170-foot donjon, or keep, nine towers, moat, and other typical architectural features common to medieval fortresses.
Eating and Drinking at the Park
There are several good places to eat and drink at the Bois de Vincennes. For a gourmet experience, try L'Ours, the one-Michelin starred restaurant from star chef Jacky Ribault located in close reach of the Chateau de Vincennes. Le Bosquet is another decent French restaurant, situated within the Parc Floral and offering outdoor seating that's very pleasant during the summer months. The self-service dining style here is much more informal.
You'll find plenty of snack bars, ice-cream stands and more inexpensive options for a light meal around the park, as well as nearby the park's main access points and metro stops.
On a tight budget? The best way to enjoy the park on a sunny and warm day is to stock up on bread, fruit, cheeses, nuts, and other fresh goodies and have a Parisian-style picnic on one of the sprawling lawns at the park. There are plenty of places to shop on the main street in the town of Vincennes.
How to Get There
The main entrances to the Bois de Vincennes are located at the edge of the 12th arrondissement in Eastern Paris, on the right bank of the Seine.
The easiest way to get to the park is via the metro or RER (the city's commuter-line train system). Get off at Chateau de Vincennes (Metro line 1/RER Line A) and follow the signs to the park entrance, up a long wooded path, and past the Chateau on your right. Other entrances can be accessed from the Porte Dorée, Porte de Charenton, or Liberté stations, all on Metro line 8. Alternatively, the following bus lines serve the Bois de Vincennes: 46, 56, 112, 114, 115, 118, 124, 210, 215, 318 and 325. Some of the walking paths at the Bois de Vincennes are wheelchair-accessible, but some areas of the park and garden will not be easy to navigate, featuring stairs or narrow paths.
What to See and Do Nearby
The town of Vincennes is charming as part of a full day trip to the wood, gardens, and castle. Although it lies right at the edge of Paris, it has a quieter, almost village-like vibe about it. Visit the central town square and city hall, browse the shops along the main street, and stroll through the open-air market on Rue de Fontenay. Open on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, the market stalls generally sell fruit, vegetables, flowers, and other goods from early morning until around 1 p.m.
For a long and interesting walk from the Bois de Vincennes to northeastern Paris, take the path known as the Promenade Plantée, which traverses the open lawns of the Jardin de Reuilly, heads above-ground through gardens built along a former railway line, and spills you out nearby Bastille. This is an offbeat—and picturesque—way to see a stretch of the city that tourists rarely venture to explore.