Les Passages de la Bastille

The area east of the Bastille was originally outside city limits and under the control of the nearby Abbey de Saint-Antoine (now the St-Antoine Hospital). In 1471, King Louis XI granted the abbey an unusual privilege: craftsmen living on the abbey’s land were granted exemption from city taxes and, more importantly, from the stringent guild regulations that stifled innovation. Cabinetmakers, gilders, varnishers and others flocked here, and the result was a flurry of creativity that resulted in the introduction of prized new furniture styles over the centuries, such as Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.

The passages and courtyards once inhabited by artisans still exist – you’ll find plenty if you look closely while walking along rue du Faubourg St-Antoine – but the sounds of hammer and saw have largely been replaced by the secluded live-work spaces of architects and graphic designers.

Bois de Vincennes

Originally royal hunting grounds, Paris' eastern woodlands, Bois de Vincennes, were annexed by the army following the Revolution and then donated to the city in 1860 by Napoléon III. A fabulous place to escape the endless stretches of Parisian concrete, the woods also contain a handful of notable sights, and are close to the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration and Aquarium Tropical. Metro lines 1 (St-Mandé, Château de Vincennes) and 8 (Porte Dorée, Porte de Charenton) will get you to the edges of the park. Pick up picnic supplies on rue de Midi, Vincennes' main shopping street.

  • Château de Vincennes This fortified royal residence on Paris' fringe, originally a 12th-century hunting lodge, was expanded several times throughout the centuries until it reached its present size under Louis XIV. Notable features of the striking medieval château include the beautiful 52m-high keep (1370) and royal chapel (1552). Note that the chapel is only open between 10.30am and 1pm, and 2pm and 5.30pm mid-May to mid-September (until 4.30pm mid-September to mid-May).
  • Parc Zoologique de Paris Paris' largest, state-of-the-art zoo focuses on the conservation of species and habitats, with camouflaged vantage points (no peering through fences). Its biozones include Patagonia (sea lions, pumas); the Sahel-Sudan savannah (lions, white rhinos, giraffes); forested Europe (wolves, lynxes, wolverines); rainforested Amazon-Guyana (jaguars, monkeys, anacondas); and Madagascar (lemurs). Tickets are slightly cheaper online.
  • Parc Floral de Paris This magnificent botanical park is a highlight of the Bois de Vincennes. Natural landscaping, a Japanese bonsai pavilion, an azalea garden and several ponds with water lilies and lotuses impress garden lovers, while Paris’ largest play area (slides, jungle gyms, sandboxes) thrills families with young children. For bigger kids, there are plenty of paid-for activities too, including minigolf, a ropes course and table tennis (equipment rental available). Free open-air concerts staged throughout summer make it a first-rate picnic destination. Not all facilities open outside the warmer months.
  • Lac Daumesnil Like something out of a Renoir painting, the largest lake in Bois de Vincennes is a popular destination for walks and rowboat excursions in warmer months (cash only; €20 deposit required). A Buddhist temple is nearby.
  • Hippodrome de Vincennes First opened in 1863 and rebuilt in 1879 following the Franco-Prussian War, this hippodrome hosts horse races and trotting races. Binoculars are available for rent. Free shuttle buses run from the metro and RER stations.

Elephants in Paris

After the Bastille fortress was torn down, debate ensued over what should replace it. A fountain? A monument to the Revolution? Finally, in 1808, Napoléon Bonaparte provided the solution: a gigantic 24m-high bronze elephant with a viewing platform on the top. Mais, bien sûr! Always one for larger-than-life projects, Napoléon intended for the elephant to serve as an architectural counterpoint to another massive monument he had proposed just two years earlier: the Arc de Triomphe. Designs were drawn up and in 1813 a full-scale plaster-and-wood model was actually installed at the place (featured in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables). Unfortunately, after Napoléon lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, funds dried up and permanent construction came to a halt. The plaster model fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1846.