Guide Tour of Bois de Vincennes, Paris, France

The Bois de Vincennes located on the eastern edge of Paris, is the largest public park in the city. It was created between 1855 and 1866 by Emperor Napoleon III. The Bois de Vincennes can be considered one of the two “lungs” of the French capital with the Bois de Boulogne to the west. With an area of 995 hectares, half of which is wooded, it is the largest green space in Paris. Many infrastructures occupy the site, bordering the municipality of Vincennes.

The Bois de Vincennes is located immediately in the east of intramural Paris and forms a non-urbanized outgrowth of it, separated from the rest of the 12th arrondissement by the trench of the ring road. The Bois de Vincennes is the capital’s second largest ‘green lung’, after the Bois de Boulogne. The Bois is about three times larger than New York’s central park, and an essential green space of the Paris city. The neighboring town of Vincennes is also worth a visit.

The wood occupies a slightly overhanging plateau to the north of the confluence of the Seine and the Marne. Mainly wooded, it also has some lawns, as well as four lakes linked together by a system of streams. It contains an English landscape garden with four lakes; a zoo; an arboretum; a botanical garden; a hippodrome or horse-racing track; a velodrome for bicycle races; and the campus of the French national institute of sports and physical education.

The park is next to the Château de Vincennes, a former residence of the Kings of France. The Chateau de Vincennes, a magnificent example of medieval architecture, attests to hundreds of years of royal and military history, remains the wood’s most notable monument.

The Bois de Vincennes is an unmissable place to explore on foot, by bike, alone, as a couple, with friends or as a family. Stroll through miles of wooded paths, glide on human-made lakes in a paddleboat or rowboat, stage a lazy picnic on the vast lawns. There are plenty of chances to relax, have fun or play sport. The Parc Floral is a family paradise with its play areas, including 18-hole mini golf, slides and ping-pong tables.

The Parc Floral also offers many free events, especially in the summer; Paris Jazz Festival, the ‘Pestacles’ festival, Festival Classique au Vert… On one of the lakes, visitors can go for a boat ride, and fans of horse racing can bet at the racecourse.

Many organizations based in the Bois de Vincennes enable visitors to find out more about the wood and get a closer look at its wildlife; the École du Breuil and its arboretum, the Jardin d’agronomie tropicale, the Ferme de Paris, the Maison Paris Nature, ornithological reserves, etc.

Idyllic lakes, a world-class zoo, and a temple of love, Bois de Vincennes may be another legacy of Napoleon III, but it also boasts a 1,000-year history. The Bois, in its current form, was established under the reign of Emperor Napoléon III between 1855 and 1866.

The historic woods and wide lanes 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.

In about 1150 King Louis VII (1137–1180) built a hunting lodge at the site of the present chateau. King Philippe-Auguste (1180–1223) enclosed the forest with a wall, stocked it with game, and began building a castle. King Louis IX, or Saint Louis (1226–1270) built a chapel next to the castle to house an important religious relic, which he believed to be the crown of thorns from the Crucifixion of Jesus. He was also famous for holding a royal court of justice under an oak near the chateau.

In 1336 King Philip VI of France (1293–1350) began construction of the imposing donjon of the Château de Vincennes. The work was continued by his successor, Jean II of France (1319–1364), and finished by Charles V of France (1338–1380), who surrounded the donjon with a rectangular wall flanked by nine towers. He also began to rebuild the chapel founded by Saint Louis. The new chapel was called La-Sainte Chapelle, modeled after the Saint-Chapelle in the Palais de la Cité in Paris. It was not finished until the 16th century. A hunting party in the forest is shown as the December scene in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412–1416), with the towers of the chateau visible in the background. The forest was also the home of a community of monks of the order of the Minimes; their presence is remembered by the name of the Lac des Minimes within the park.

In 1654 Cardinal Mazarin commissioned the royal architect Louis Le Vau to build a new palace for King Louis XIV next to the chateau. The new palace featured a pavilion for the King and another for the Queen, separated by a portico and by a wall connected by arcades to the medieval section of the chateau. The donjon had been transformed into prison in the 15th century. The palace was popular with the King for a time, but once Louis XIV established his residence at Versailles, the château of Vincennes was rarely used.

In the 18th century Louis XV (1710–1774) opened the park to the public, excepting servants in livery. He had hundreds of trees planted and laid out long straight alleys through the forest in the form of intersecting stars. In 1731 he constructed a pyramid-shaped monument to mark the meeting point of the two main alleys, which can still be seen.

In 1854 the Emperor Louis Napoleon, and his new Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, decided to transform the Bois de Vincennes into a public park. Haussmann had three major projects for Paris; to improve the traffic circulation of the city, for both practical and military reasons; to build a new system to distribute water and take away sewage; and to create a network of parks and gardens all over the city. The purpose of the park was to provide green space and recreation to the large working-class population of eastern Paris.

To build the parks, in 1855 Haussmann created a new Service of Promenades and Plantations, led by an engineer, Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, who was already at work on the Bois de Boulogne. Alphand was a master organizer, the builder of the most famous Paris parks of the 19th century; besides the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes, he built the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, the boulevard of the Paris Observatory, Parc Monceau and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

Alphand annexing addition sections of land at the edges of the park, and by creating three smaller parks around the Bois, each with its own artificial lake and picturesque landscape. Lake Daumesnil, designed like a romantic landscape painting, had two islands, and sloping green lawns. The Lac des Minimes to the north included some of the ruins of the original Medieval monastery that once stood there; and the Lac de Saint-Mandė in the northwest completed the park. A fourth lake, the Lac de Gravelle in the south-east, was higher in elevation than the others, on the Plateau de Gravelle, and therefore provided water to the other lakes through artificial streams. Trees, lawns and flower beds were planted by Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, the chief horticulturist of the city, who had landscaped the Bois de Boulogne.

Alphand saw that the park had popular attractions and concessions to attract visitors and to help pay for the park. A large hippodrome, or horse-racing track, was built in the southeastern corner of the park, similar to the Longchamps hippodrome at the Bois de Boulogne. There were cafe-restaurants at the different lakes. The park was also decorated with picturesque architecture, mostly designed by Gabriel Davioud, the city architect. His works included the grandstands of the hippodrome and the Temple of Love, a round doric temple which was placed on a promontory on the Isle de Reuilly in Lac Daumesnil, above an artificial grotto. On the same island was a Swiss chalet (taken from the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867), a cafe, a bandstand, and buildings for vendors and game concessions. A swinging suspension bridge connected the two islands in the lake.

At the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, most of events took place in the Bois de Vincennes. The Velodrome, which seats forty thousand spectators, was built for the cycling events.

In 1899, an experimental tropical garden had been established in the far eastern end of the park, where rubber trees, coffee trees, banana trees and other tropical plants were scientifically studied. In 1907, this garden became the site of the first Colonial Exposition held in Paris, designed to showcase the cultures and products of the French colonies. The exposition featured six villages, complete with inhabitants, from the different parts of the French Empire; an emcampment of Tuaregs from North Africa; a farm from Sudan; a village of Kanaks from New Caledonia; and villages from Madagascar, French Indochina, and the Congo. The Exposition was seen by two million visitors.

For six months in 1931, the Paris Colonial Exposition took place in the Bois de Vincennes. Like the earlier 1907 exposition, It was designed to showcase the culture, products and resources of the French empire, but it was much larger. It occupied the side of the park along the length of the Avenue Daumesnil. The features of the exhibit included the Palace of the Colonies. In front of the palace was a large gilded bronze statue by Leon Drivier entitled France bringing peace and prosperity to the colonies. It had pavilions from each colony and from other nations, cafes and theaters, a Senagalese village complete with inhabitants, and a zoo.

The exposition featured eight spectacular fountains, fed with water from Lake Daumesnil. The Grand Signal was a centerpiece of the exposition, a tower forty-five meters high, which spouted water from the top and from jets at nineteen different levels. Two other fountains created a bridge of water forty meters long between the two islands in the lake. A third fountain, called the Theater of Water, was an arc of towers and spouts eighty meters long, which in evening performances produced cascades, jets and curtains of water colored with electric lights. These were early ancestors of today’s musical fountains in Dubai and Las Vegas.

Several vestiges of the fair can still be seen. The entrance gate is still standing. After the Fair closed, the Palace of the Colonies became the Museum of the Arts of Africa and the Oceania. In 1934 the zoo was moved to its present location, and embellished with a sixty-five meter high artificial mountain, which became the home of a collection of mountain goats and sheep. The pavilion of Cameroon was preserved and turned into a Buddhist temple and religious center.

Bois de Vincennes, the historic hunting wood for French kings, today is a perfect place to get some fresh air or to do some sport. Extensive trails, bicycles to hire, lakes & boat rentals, a castle to explore, a children’s farm, a mini-golf and a historic garden. And that’s not to mention one of Europe’s major zoos. Children are made very welcome in the woods, with pony rides and play areas. The Ferme de Paris allows them to discover the world of a small farm. The Parc Floral hosts various events for families and keen gardeners.

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. Each of the park’s four lakes was designed to reflect the era of Romanticism. The three artificial lakes, and one natural lake, were carefully designed to include islands, waterfalls, suspension bridges, grassy knolls, and faux ruins like the Temple of Love.

Lac Daumesnil resembles a Romantic landscape painting with its two islands and sloping green lawns. Lac des Minimes put the original ruins from a Medieval monastery to a new use, and also has a magical cascade (waterfall) tumbling into the lake. Lac de Gravelle in the southwest corner, is the smallest lake in the park. And Lac de Saint-Mandé, the highest in elevation, supplies water from the River Marne to the other lakes through artificial streams.

Parc Floral de Paris was created in 1969, drawing inspiration from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The 69-acre garden features hundreds of iris varietals, a sculpture garden, and a monumental fountain. There’s a greenhouse dedicated to bonsai. It’s also a popular venue for a number of free special events during the year, including the Paris Jazz Festival, the Peacock Festival, and Festival Classique au Vert. This is also where you’ll find a parcours course and a 18-hole mini-golf course designed as a miniature version of Paris, replete with all the famous monuments.

Paris Zoo
Paris Zoological Park, is a 14.5- hectare French zoo, part of the National Museum of Natural History, located in the west of the Bois de Vincennes, adjoining the 12th arrondissement of Paris. The Paris Zoological Park opened in 1934. The most popular and enduring feature is the 215-foot high artificial mountain, in addition to the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes, this zoo aims to observe animal behavior in captivity and reproduce endangered species to be reintroduced into their original habitats.

The zoo has recently undergone a multi-year, 200-million Euro transformation, reopening in 2014. Today, it’s a state-of-the-art zoo with five realistic biozones where animals live as near to their natural habitats as possible. In 2021 the park presents around 2,500 animals of 234 species: vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) or not (arthropods, molluscs, etc.). In particular, it includes a 4,000 m2 greenhouse housing an equatorial environment.

Vincennes castle
The Château de Vincennes is a fortress located in Vincennes, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, whose construction lasted from the 14th to the 17th century. It is the largest royal fortified castle remaining in France and, because of the height of its keep (52 meters), one of the highest plain fortresses in Europe.

It was largely built between 1361 and 1369, and was a preferred residence, after the Palais de la Cité, of French Kings in the 14th to 16th century. Because of its fortifications, the château was often used as a royal sanctuary in times of trouble, and later as a prison and military headquarters.

It is particularly known for its “donjon” or keep, a fortified central tower, the tallest in Europe, built in the 14th century, and for the chapel, Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, begun in 1379 but not completed until 1552, which is an exceptional example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. The chapel was listed as an historic monument in 1853, and the keep was listed in 1913. Most of the building is now open to the public.

There are four large artificial lakes and ponds within the Bois, some with islands where you can see flocks of wild birds and fowl. Take a paddleboat or rowboat out on one of the lakes for a relaxed, inspired afternoon of greenery and fresh air. 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.

Lac Daumesnil (12 hectares), is located in the western end of the park, and has two islands. Its attractions include the Temple d’Amour and the Swiss Chalet on the Isle de Reuilly, and an artificial grotto.
Lac des Minimes (6 hectares), in the north-east, has three small islands. Its length is 500 meters and its width is 200 meters. Its attractions include the vestiges of a Medieval monastery.
Lac de Saint-Mandé, in the northwest.
Lac de Gravelle (1 hectare), in the south-east, is the smallest lake in the park. At a higher elevation than the other lakes, it provides water to the other lakes through an artificial stream.

The Parc floral de Paris, or Paris floral park, was established in 1969 on the former military training grounds in the park. It occupies 31 hectares, and is the largest garden built in Paris since the French Empire of Louis Napoleon. It is one of the four parts of the Botanical Garden of Paris, the others being the gardens of the Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne; the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil or greenhouses of Auteuil, and the Arboretum de l’École du Breuil, located in another part of Bois de Vincennes. The Japanese architecture within the garden was inspired by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The garden features hundreds of varieties of flowers, including 650 varieties of iris; twenty-pavilions and an exhibit hall; a sculpture garden with works of Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti and other international artists; a monumental fountain created by Francois Stahly; and an avenue of pines preserved from the early days of the park.
The Arboretum de l’École du Breuil, in the park’s southeast corner, is a municipal arboretum established at this location in 1936. It was created in 1867 by Baron Haussmann as the city’s school of horticulture and arboriculture. Today the arboretum contains about 2000 trees, as well as notable collections of shrubs, four hundred varieties of heritage apple and pear trees, and three hundred varieties of lilac.
The Jardin tropical de Paris, of 4.5 hectares, was originally the Colonial Experimental Garden, opened in 1899 to study tropical plants. In 1907 it was the site of the first French Colonial Exposition, with pavilions and villages, complete with inhabitants, from different parts of the Empire. (See history above). The garden gradually fell into disrepair; the tropical plants were largely replaced by French plants, though bamboo, rubber trees and a few other exotic plants can still be found. The pavilions of the French Congo, French Guiana, French Indochina, Réunion, and Tunisia, mostly vandalized and in ruins, can still be seen, as well as vestiges of the old Indochinese garden. In 1916, the first-ever mosque built in France in more than a millennium was erected in the jardin tropical as part of a hospital complex that served Muslim soldiers. It was disaffected and demolished in 1919. The garden was taken over by the City of Paris in 2003, and it is gradually being redesigned and replanted.

Other facilities
The Cartoucherie de Vincennes is a former ammunition factory which has been turned into a theater center, which hosts many small theater companies. It was converted in 1970 by the Théâtre du Soleil, led by stage director Ariane Mnouchkine and actor Philippe Léotard.
The Hippodrome of Vincennes was opened on 29 March 1863, and is devoted largely to harness racing. it was badly damaged during the French-German War of 1870–71, and was rebuilt in 1983. The tribunes today hold 35,000 spectators. Between 1970 and 1992, it was a concert venue for performers including the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Michael Jackson.
The Vélodrome Jacques-Anquetil is a cycling stadium, built in 1896 and used in the 1900 Summer Olympics and 1924 Summer Olympics. It can hold forty thousand spectators. It is popularly called La Cipale, short for Piste Municipale.
The Ferme Georges-Ville, also known as the Farm of Paris, is a small farm located next to the Hippodrome of Vincennes, designed to show schoolchildren a real working farm. It features cows, pigs, sheep and other farm animals, and small fields of corn, wheat and other crops. It is named for the French agronomist George Ville (1824–1897), who, with the support of the Emperor Louis Napoleon, introduced the use of chemical fertilizer to French farming.
The Fort neuf de Vincennes (New fort of Vincennes, located in the north of the park near the Chateau de Vincennes, is a military installation serving as a training center and the headquarters of the medical services of the French military and other military detachments. It was one of ring of fifteen forts built in a circle around Paris by King Louis Philippe I between 1841 and 1843. It is not open to the public.
The Institut national du sport, de l’expertise et de la performance (National Institute of sport, expertise, and performance), or INSEP, is the national training school for physical education and sports, under the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education. Established in 1975, it includes facilities for training in swimming, gymnastics, tennis, shooting, archery, gymnastics, fencing, cycling and other sports, and has trained many French Olympic athletes.