A leafy eastern suburb of Paris, Vincennes is on the edge of the 11th and 20th Arrondissements and is just five minutes from the Gare de Lyon on the RER. Until it was engulfed by the city, Vincennes was a town on the edge of a large forest and grew around a château favoured as a hunting lodge by medieval kings.
In Vincennes we don’t need to tell you that all of Paris is your oyster, and all of the attractions, shopping, nightlife and dining that come with it.
But with public transport, some places are quicker to get to than others from this district.
We’ll concentrate on the local attractions, and those that you can reach directly in mere minutes, either with the RER A commuter train or Paris Métro Line 1, both of which have stations in Vincennes.
Lets explore the best things to do in Vincennes:
1. Château de Vincennes
You may recognise this monument by its formidable 52-metre 14th-century donjon, which has four circular turrets, arrow loops and crenellations, all defended by an outer walled enclosure and a deep, impassable moat.
As a home for royalty, the building does have a more sophisticated side: Two medieval kings (Philippe III and Philippe IV) were married right in the fortress and three died here.
While from the 1600s onwards the donjon became a prison for high-profile figures like Nicolas Fouquet, Mirabeau, Diderot and the Marquis de Sade.
In all, the château is a tangible history lesson that will captivate anyone with an interest in the politics and intrigue of medieval and early modern France.
2. Bois de Vincennes
The château started as a hunting lodge, built by King Louis VII in the 12th century, and the Bois de Vincennes was where the kings came for their sport.
It wasn’t until the 18th century and the reign of Louis XV that the park was opened to the public; he laid out two long alleys through the park (Route de la Pyramide and Route du Champ de Manoeuvre), and the pyramid monument put up at their junction in 1731 is still standing.
In 1900 nearly all the events at the Paris Olympics happened in the Bois de Vincennes, and the velodrome is a reminder of the spectacle.
Bigger than the Bois de Boulogne, this park is the largest in Paris and many of the attractions that follow are inside its limits.
Not listed, but noteworthy is the Pagode de Vincenne, which has Europe’s largest Buddha, at nine metres high.
3. Parc Floral de Paris
The tourist trail in Paris can be exhausting in summer, which makes the city’s parks such a godsend.
The Parc Floral is in the Bois de Vincennes, and is still the fourth largest Paris park in its own right.
Coming from the château you’ll enter via a forest of oaks and cedars, which open out onto a tranquil space with flower gardens, ponds, a Japanese water garden, bonsai pavilion, bandstands with live music in summer, children’s’ playgrounds, all livened up with modern sculpture.
Botanically-minded visitors will be left giddy by the variety of small gardens, growing azaleas, medicinal plants, cactuses, rhododendrons, irises or ferns.
4. Palais de la Porte Dorée
You’ll have three motives for dropping by this outlandish building on the western side of the Bois de Vincennes: To drink in the otherworldly architecture, to reflect at the Immigration Museum and to appreciate the marine life at the aquarium in the basement.
The palace is an art deco treasure, created for the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, with all kinds of nods to the French territories at the time.
The fantastic relief behind the portico was shaped by Alfred Janniot and shows ships and exotic wildlife such as elephants and antelopes.
The Immigration Museum puts forward an even-handed study of immigration to France, while the huge cellars have tanks with 5,000 animals from 350 species.
5. La Coulée Verte
If you want you could leave the western edge of the Bois de Vincennes and walk in a straight line through landscaped parkland all the way to the Bastille, an easy five kilometres to the east.
What makes this possible is the La Coulée Verte, also known as the Promenade Plantée, which in 1993 turned a disused train viaduct into a remarkable linear park.
One of the many great things about it is that you can appreciate the city architecture from a fresh perspective, though you may have to fight the temptation to peer into people’s apartment windows!
6. Père Lachaise Cemetery
In the neighbouring 20th Arrondissement is the cemetery that gets more visitors per year than any other in the world.
You don’t need to be told that this is because of the multitude of cultural icons buried here.
The roll-call is staggering and includes Oscar Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Chopin, Édith Piaf and, maybe the most popular of all, Jim Morrison.
This is a drop in the ocean in terms of size, as there are 700,000 plots and the cemetery is almost 44 hectares.
Fortunately you’ll have a map to make your way.
7. Paris Zoological Park
A day out that will always be a hit with kids is the Zoo, and this compact one in the Bois de Vincennes has 180 different species.
The park is visible from a long way off because of its 65-metre “Grand Rocher”, artificial rock, created in the 1930s.
Animals are given the largest enclosures possible, allowing you to observe them in something resembling their natural environment.
If there’s a downside to this it’s that you’ll need to be eagle-eyed to make out the big cats like lions pumas and panthers, which are often sleeping in the distance.
More gregarious and active are the penguins, rhinos, seals, wolves and baboons, and these will make the day for little guys.
8. La Ferme de Paris
Another fun and educational idea for people with younger children is an urban farm, spread over five hectares, also in the Bois de Vincennes.
All of the traditional crops and livestock of the Île-de-France region are cultivated and reared here, and as it’s a working farm there will be something different to see depending the season you visit.
There are sheep, chickens and Parisian cows, and the farm is operated according to stringent ecological and organic standards.
9. Hippodrome de Vincennes
You may not have horseracing in mind when you travel to Paris, but there’s a prominent track in the Bois de Vincennes.
There are 153 meetings a year at the Hippodrome, but its lofty reputation comes from the Prix d’Amérique, which is run every January, and is the biggest harness race in the world.
Harness racing is done with the jockey riding behind the horse in a two-wheeled cart, and the horses race at a with a trotting motion.
The Prix d’Amérique has been going since 1920, while the Hippodrome, which can seat 35,000, opened in 1863.
Get to the Louvre on Line 1 without needing to change.
If you leave Paris without doing this one, it might be hard to escape the feeling that you’ve missed out.
But it’s also true that you can’t come to the largest museum in the world on a whim.
To avoid getting serious museum fatigue you need to be methodical and plot your route around the vast galleries beforehand.
And if you have a certain interest, be it classical sculpture, painting or decorative arts, you can follow it to your heart’s content.
There are a few universal musts of course, like Delaxroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Madonna on the Rocks by Caravaggio and not to forget da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
11. Musée des Arts Décoratifs
This museum faces those venerable arcades on Rue de Rivoli and the upper floors command far-reaching views over the Tuileries.
It’s a great one to do after the Louvre, and even though it only has a fraction of the visitors this museum presents a satisfying overview of French tastes down the years.
Over seven floors you can peruse furniture, tapestries, interior fittings, glassware ceramics, all arranged by their period.
Fans of art deco and art nouveau will roam awestruck through room after room of pieces entered into those international fairs and expositions at the turn of the century.
12. Jardin des Plantes
On the left bank of the Seine, across the water from the Gare de Lyon, is the 28-hectare national botanical garden which is free to enter.
The garden was founded in 1626 and still has a botany school, as well as four wings of the National Natural History Museum.
The south side has the regimented avenues and hedges of a French formal garden while the north part is more free-flowing in the English style, and also contains the park’s small zoo.
There are greenhouses with plants native to Australia and Mexico and an Alpine garden containing more than 3,000 high-altitude species from around the world.
13. Église Saint-Eustache
Also just 10 minutes on the RER is this church with vast historical significance, built in the flamboyant gothic style in the 16th century.
The list of important things that have happened at Saint-Eustache goes on forever, but to sum up: Louis XIV received communion here, the funeral of Mozart’s mother took place in the sanctuary, and fabled historical personalities like Richelieu and Madame de Pompadour were baptized in the church as children.
As for the architecture, it’s a gothic structure with renaissance embellishments.
There’s loads to see, but you should make time for the 17th-century tomb of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances who had the difficult job of balancing the books during the reign of Louis XIV.
14. Musée de l’Orangerie
Where the Tuileries joins Place de la Concorde, the Musée de l’Orangerie was literally the orangery for the Tuilieries Palace, and was built in 1852. The museum is as indispensable for art-lovers as the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay and like the latter has an accent on the impressionist and post-impressionist movements.
The showpiece is the pair of ovular rooms for eight of Monet’s water lily murals, which have been here since 1920. This is the pinnacle, but also just the tip of the iceberg, as the museum has numerous works for each of Henri Rousseau, Sisley, Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Derain and Matisse.
Allow several hours if you’re into this period of art.
15. Place des Vosges
Near the eastern terminal of the Coulée Verte is a historic piece of urban planning from the start of the 1600s.
In a sense, all of the grand boulevards, esplanades and squares in French cities are indebted to Place des Vosges.
All of the buildings around it were part of the same project during the reign of Henri IV and have a uniform design.
Considering its age the precision is phenomenal, and dimensions are surprisingly grand, as it measures 140 by 140 metres and has an almost unbroken series of arcades on the ground floor.
Show up early in the morning if you want the elegant gardens to yourself, or bring a baguette, ham and cheese if you’d like to take a spring or summer picnic in a lively atmosphere at lunch.