Like the Bois de Boulogne to the west, this much-loved retreat on the city's eastern border was landscaped by Napoléon III. Its roots, however, reach back to the 13th century, when Philippe Auguste created a hunting preserve in the shadow of the royal Château de Vincennes, which once ranked as the largest château in Europe (below). In 1731 Louis XV created a public park here, and the bois (or wood) now features lush lawns, a flower garden, and summertime jazz
concerts. Rowboats are for hire at a pair of lakes: Lac Daumesnil, which has two islands, and Lac des Minimes, which has three. There's also a Parc Zoologique, a racetrack (the Hippodrome de Vincennes), two cafés, and, in spring, an amusement park. You can rent a bike at the Château de Vincennes métro stop. To reach the park, use the Château de Vincennes stop (Line 1) or Porte Dorée (Line 8).
Château de Vincennes. The imposing high-walled Château de Vincennes, on the northern edge of the Bois, was France's medieval answer to Versailles. Built and expanded by various kings between the 12th and 14th centuries, it is now surrounded by a dry moat and dominated by a 170-foot keep (the last of nine original towers). The royal residence eventually became a prison holding convicts, notably of both sexes—and "the doors did not always remain closed between them," as one tour guide coyly put it. Inmates included the philosopher Diderot and the Marquis de Sade. Both the château and its cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle (designed in the style of the Paris church of the same name) have undergone a spectacular restoration, returning them to their previous glory. If you speak French, the free 90-minute tour is worthwhile. Av. de Paris, 94300. 01–48–08–31–20. www.chateau-vincennes.fr. €8.50. Mid-May–mid-Sept., daily 10–6; mid-Sept.–mid-May, daily 10–5. Château de Vincennes.
Parc Floral de Paris. A lake, a butterfly garden, and seasonal displays of blooms make the Bois de Vincennes's 70-acre floral park a lovely place to spend a summer afternoon. Kids will also enjoy the miniature train, paddleboats, ponies, pool, and game area, among other attractions (most of which cost extra). The park hosts jazz concerts most weekends from April to October, but other months many attractions are closed. Rte. de la Pyramide, 75012. €5.50 Wed. and weekends, June–Sept.; free other days in season and every day off-season. Daily 9:30–8 Apr.–Sept., 9:30–5 other months. Château de Vincennes.
Parc Zoologique. The 35-acre Parc Zoologique is France's largest zoo and, thanks to a major renovation, now promises a more hands-on experience. Its 1,000 animals are housed in newly-designed environments (aka "biozones") that mix species as Mother Nature intended: these include a free-range aviary you can walk through and a greenhouse that re-creates a slice of the rain forest. Entrance at intersection of Av. Daumesnil and Rte. de Ceinture du Lac Daumesnil, 53 av. de St-Maurice, 75012. 01–44–75–20–00. www.parczoologiquedeparis.fr. €22; €14 children 3–11. Mid-Mar.–mid-Oct., Mon–Fri. 10–6, Sat.–Sun. 9:30–7:30; mid-Oct.–mid-Mar. daily 10–5. Porte Dorée.
Palais de la Porte Dorée & Tropical Aquarium. One of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in Paris, this stunning building is home to an immigration museum and a tropical aquarium. It's worth a visit just to see the Palais, built for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition (entry to the ground floor is free.) The ornate facade features bas-relief sculptures representing France's erstwhile empire. Inside, the elaborate marble, ornate metal work, and original lighting are all beautifully maintained. On either end of the ground floor are furnished salons, one representing Asia, the other Africa (a Gucci commercial was filmed in the latter). Peek into the central room, called the Forum, where restored Africa-inspired mosaics line the walls. The upper floors are occupied by the Cité Nationale de l'Historie de l'Immigration, a well-executed modern museum tracing the history of immigration in France. There are usually similarly themed temporary exhibitions. The basement contains L'Aquarium Tropical, an aquarium with a pair of alligators from Mississippi. There is little information available in English. 293 av. Daumesnil, 75012. 01–53–59–58–60. www.histoire-immigration.fr; www.aquarium-portedoree.fr. €4.50 museum; €5 aquarium; €8 combined ticket; prices vary during special exhibitions. Tues.–Fri. 10–5 :30, Sat.–Sun. 10–7; closed Mon. Porte Dorée.
Paris, 75012, France