Finding hidden places in the most visited city on Earth: Or, how I learned to avoid tourist traps and love Paris again

There’s a natural tendency for Paris visitors to try and hit the big sites — the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre, Montmartre, and the Champs Elysée. It’s natural to want to see in person the sights that were only viewed on screens or postcards and dishtowels.

The big advantage of living here is that you get to see these things almost daily — from the outside at least — or occasionally when there’s a compelling event like a special exhibit or somebody decides to wrap a monument in fabric for a few weeks ( don’t laugh, it happened last year with the Arc de Triomphe.)


The other advantage to living here day to day is that you often stumble across less ballyhooed museums, monuments, buildings, and gardens that aren’t ringed by souvenir shops full of berets and Eiffel Tower key chains. Take this week for example.

Chateau Vincennes

After lunch, we hopped on the Number 1 line Metro and took it to its easternmost end — Chateau Vincennes. When you emerge from this Parisian hole in the ground, you’re smack dab in front of the entrance to a former fortress and royal residence that was literally and figuratively abandoned by French royals once the Place des Vosges was finished (and then abandoned for the Louvre, which was subsequently said for Versailles.

The Chateau de Vincennes gives you a taste of really old Paris with its donjon, which is pronounced just like its English equivalent, dungeon, and Gothic stand-alone chapel, Sainte-Chappelle de Vincennes.

Built mostly in the 14th century, this was a fortified chateau where French kings and their families sheltered in place during times of trouble (I daresay American cities might want to consider building one of these enclosures with multiple moats in this time of undeclared American civil war when white supremacists are using fellow citizens for target practice in American schools, grocery stores, theaters, and night clubs.)

The Chateau de Vincennes also served as a prison and arsenal for the many revolutions and counter-revolutions that made France the peaceful place it is today.

The Vincennes Chapel

The jewel in the Chateau de Vincennes crown is its stand-alone “chapel”. When Louis IX purchased the reputed Crown of Thorns from the Emperor at Constantinople (an amazing scam that resulted in the king spending more for what was supposed to be Jesus’ crown of weeds than he had to spend building a chapel to hold it.)

Louis received the heavily marketed relic at Sens Cathedral, schlepped it to Vincennes, and then rode with it to its eventual home in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (a quickly constructed stained glass palace on the Ile de la Cité.

A few thorns from the crown of thorns and a splinter of the “True Cross” were stored at Vincennes for placement in a future chapel. (Be reminded: At one point, religious hawkers were selling the naive faithful the bones of nearly 20 index fingers of John the Baptist.) Louis IX said farewell to his family at Vincennes before his departure to the Crusades, from which he did not return.

The Vincennes Chapel is similar in size and scope to the one in Central Paris that draws millions of visitors each year (it’s practically across the street from the closed-up Notre Dame).

The Vincennes Chapel used to be entirely enveloped in stained glass, in the style of the St. Chappelle in Paris, but a major storm in December 1999, destroyed the nave windows, which have not been restored. Still, the chapel is exquisite inside and out. It has the added attraction of being nearly empty of visitors, so you can wander, and read the boards full of historical background and descriptions of both the interior and exterior

  • The grounds of the chateau and its buildings are vast and open to the public.
  • To enter the chapel and dungeon, you’ll need a ticket that can be bought in the gift shop just inside the entrance to the grounds.
  • Buy the ticket. It’s pretty cheap — 9 Euros — and well worth the investment

Nothing you’ll see here is as glitzy and glam as the Louis-inspired palaces of Versailles and Fountainbleu — the decorating inspiration for a former U.S. president.

To find the Chateau de Vincennes: Take the No. 1 metro in the direction of Chateau de Vincennes to the end. Emerge from the metro and look left. There’s the entrance. Even I couldn’t get lost!

Have you been there? Share your stories and experiences in the comments



About the Contributor

Valérie Helmbreck Mascitti

As a staff features reporter for Gannett newspapers for many years I won the Temple University Free Speech Award and later worked in France for the DuPont Company. I'm a proud member of the Oyster of the Month Club and the National Geographic Society.

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