Paris with kids: Where to go and what to do in the French capital
By Jennifer Burgess
3 February 2014
You love Paris. And you love your children. Is it possible to enjoy your two great passions at the same time? Jennifer Burgess explores how.
I have been conducting a long love affair. With a city; the city of Paris. I can track our relationship through my choice of accessories. When it started, I was carrying all my belongings in a backpack. Later, we would snatch some brief moments while I was toting a briefcase between appointments. In more recent rendezvous, I’ve had a designer weekend bag.
In the latest reunion with my beloved city, I was to be accompanied by my favourite accessories: my husband and our ten- and six-year-old sons. Our boys have been lucky enough to visit Paris before; when they were younger and easier to keep amused with short, frequent stops at parks and bribes of beautiful French toys.
Keeping kids engaged and enthused is a challenge on any city break. Could Paris woo and bond with my older children? Would my city and I still be able to spend some valuable “alone” time together? As the French like to say: it is possible. Here’s how.
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What to do
It is almost mandated by international travel conventions that any Paris itinerary will include a visit to at least one of its 173 museums. Tragically, this pastime is not high on the radar of young boys who have been hanging virtual masterpieces in their own Minecraft galleries for years. What does interest them, however, is another quaint activity – a treasure hunt.
So, on Day One of our Paris tour, we adopt our best Indiana Jones expressions and strut past the long entrance queue at Musée d’Orsay flashing tickets purchased online. We report to the gift shop to collect our clues (also known as art postcards) and begin the hunt for the precious artworks depicted, transforming the old train station from museum to adventure park. The only intrusion on this happy scene is my six-year-old’s disgruntlement that he isn’t able to photograph the “real” artworks on his iPod.
The iPods do come in handy the next day, when French socialism collides with tourism. After being reprimanded by ten-year-old Olivier for neglecting the Eiffel Tower during our recent visit, we dedicate a morning to this iconic monument, only to find it closed by a strike.
Fortunately, technology eases some of the disappointment. Taking some striking Instagram shots ensures that the visit receives an “awesome” rating by Olivier. The discovery of a large playground at the residential end of the Parc du Champ de Mars consumes some of the energy six-year-old Nicholas had conserved to climb the 704 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, to buy tickets for the lifts and avoid the queues. A helpful tip for those who, like us, couldn’t buy tickets online. Be warned – with almost seven million visitors to the Eiffel Tower every year, they sell out well in advance.
Another Parisian park that has a five-star rating with our family is Jardin des Tuileries. It’s a perfect pit stop between the Musée d’Orsay on the Left Bank and the world’s most prestigious shopping boulevard, the Champs Elysées. The promise of fresh crêpes, hot dogs, coffee and playgrounds had all the family buzzing as we strolled the pale gravel boulevards.
Sadly, as we approached the carousel and the trampolines, Olivier informed me, “I won’t be having a go. It’s not cool.” Bouncing was still cool for Nicholas. Olivier though, was unable to resist the attractions of the adventure playground and the opportunity to renew his membership in the International Playground Community as he and his brother played with locals and tourists.
My husband’s favourite part of the gardens is the pond and the miniature wooden sailing boats. It is still one of our boys’ top-rated activities in Paris. The boats are nearly as weather-beaten as their proprietor, but manage to look majestic as they sail across the pond with the assistance of a wooden cane and an enthusiastic young sailor. My thrill at hearing the magic words, “Hold my iPod, Mummy,” probably generated enough energy to propel the ancient boats along by themselves.
The pull of the boats also provided an opportunity for me to snatch a few moments with my beloved city in one of my favourite shopping streets, chic Rue Saint Honoré. The brief encounter left me breathless as I dashed between stores such as Collette and Hermès and came face to face with handbags and shoes normally only seen on the pages of magazines.
What to eat
My stolen shopping time comes with a catch. I must return with one of our favourite French delicacies: the macaron. Parisians invest nearly as much time debating who produces the most superlative macarons as they do queuing up on a Saturday afternoon to buy a box of these colourful pastries. After years of arduous research, our family vote is with Pierre Hermé and the Mogador flavour (passionfruit and milk chocolate).
Apart from devouring macaroons in the playground, there is another child-friendly way to savour French cuisine – a picnic. While you could easily fill your basket at the food hall of department store Bon Marché, practising your French at fromageries and flirting with the fruit seller should be part of the Parisian picnic. But to do this accompanied with two impatient boys diminishes the fun factor – even in Paris.
The solution? Do a parents-only food tour. The Eiffel Tower Food Tour with the Localers is like shopping with your local friend; if your Parisian friend happens to be a very knowledgeable, well-connected chef who lives in the glamorous 7th arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower. Armed with our new introductions, and our taste buds still tingling from the samples of the day before, we were able to return with the boys, impress them with our quick purchases and put together a delicious picnic spread. Everyone happy.
Another way to keep everyone happy is with an English-speaking babysitter (see www.baby-sitter-paris.fr). She enabled the boys to have a “rest” morning with their gadgets at the hotel while we went on the food tour.
If we had wanted to dine at one of our favourite restaurants sans enfants, we could have also used her services. Instead, we opted for another strategy – lunch. Fashionable French restaurants exercise a greater tolerance of kids (and their iDevices) if you book for lunch. With its courtyard setting lifted straight from a villa in Provence, Ralph’s on the Left Bank is still one of the hottest places in Paris. But the lunchtime reservation and menu featuring one of the world’s best hamburgers gave all the family a highlight Parisian experience.
Paris is a perfect city for walking and our long relationship means that I navigated the family around its avenues or used the Métro with only the occasional misfire. More importantly, I was attuned to the signals from my younger companions that sometimes it was necessary to surrender and find a taxi stand. Like all good relationships, a city break with kids requires compromise and consideration of all parties’ needs. It is a complex chemical equation. If my grown-up boys want to accompany me and my walking stick to my beloved Paris in the future, I’ll know I got that magical equation right.
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