The charms outweigh the challenges when travelling to Paris with kids. Here are eight tips to make this beautiful city child-friendly.
1. Apartment living
Booking a Paris apartment to stay in rather than a hotel was the most sensible decision I’ve made in a long time. I used the website VRBO to source my accommodation. The entries had everything I needed to know about each apartment including an owners’ description. I chose a studio in Arr. 4 which featured: the Hotel d’Ville (where we ice-skated at night); galleries such as Musée Picasso; a food market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the fashionable Le Marais area, and it was just across from the Left Bank. (We were so close to the Notre Dame we could hear the bells chiming every morning). The owners lived in the US. Wife Alix was French and her husband was a retired neurosurgeon. A quick Google confirmed these facts so when I sent my bank cheque I knew I would receive the keys. A local manager, Thiery, was a phone call away if i needed anything.
I can also recommend Guest Apartment Services which has a small bouquet of beautiful Parisian apartments at the more upmarket end in great locations such as Ile St Louis and St Germain but still reasonable in price.
2. Food for fuel
Although I never cooked an evening meal at the apartment, having a kitchen was handy. While croissants are delicious, they don’t fill kids’ tummies especially in the depths of winter. We’d stroll down to the local boulangerie, return to the apartment and eat breakfast. An hour later we’d be out when I’d hear the words, “I’m hungry”. So I made porridge with raspberries from the local fruitier for my daughter before we went out for the day. It filled her and kept her warm until a suitable time for morning tea or lunch. This meant peace for me and a few less Euros spent mindlessly when desperately hunting a quick fix to keep the kids quiet. I also bought gorgeous La Cure Gourmande biscuits and the obligatory baguette, which we kept for cheeses from the neighbourhood fromagerie. In the evenings, we could eat the cheese and bread, which I washed down with a glass of French champagne from the bottle bought at the local supermarket and stored in the fridge.
Eating out at restaurants at night was a mistake for us. Irrespective of how ambient a low-lit bistro can be in Paris and how much I wanted to taste an authentic bourguignon, nothing dowsed an appetite faster than a grumpy, tired child. We’d pop into a restaurant and often my daughter didn’t like the food. At some of the bistros I’d enjoyed BC (Before Children) French fries weren’t available although I’d never realised this previously because it hadn’t been an issue. So I’d sit hurriedly eating to ensure there wasn’t a scene with her crankily pushing around a $25 meal.
However, one of our most successful meals was lunch at Bouillon Racine, a fully restored Art Nouveau brasserie on the Left Bank originally dedicated to bouillon (soup bases) when it opened in 1906. The decor was stunning with bevelled mirrors, stained glass and marble mosaics, which could be appreciated at any age day or night. The menu offered delicious fresh child-friendly soups – pumpkin and chestnut, crème of mushroom or pea, along with full meals / wine list and desserts – all at lunch time prices, which, like most establishments during the day, were lower than in the evenings.
4. Not another gallery, Mum!
No matter how much enthusiasm you use to describe the beauty of Claude Monet’s Les Nymphéas (water lilies) at Musée de l’Orangerie or Cezanne’s exquisite still life images at Musée d’Orsay, a child won’t buy it if they decide “galleries are boring”. Dragging along a child who doesn’t want to walk and who you can’t bribe with chocolate can wear out the hardiest, culture-seeking parent. To combat this evil, I brought along a small wooden box of acrylic paints, paintbrushes, charcoal and a sketch pad. At each gallery, we bought a fridge magnet and postcard of her choice and she could paint it when we returned to the apartment or at home in Australia. It worked well enough, the bonus being a stack of magnets to hold up school notes.
5. Exploring French toy shops
If we were to visit the cultural sights I enjoyed then it was only fair to visit those my daughter loved. Spending time in the toy shops of Paris was one of the most enjoyable and inspiring experiences of the city. There is nothing more beautiful than watching a child’s imagination soar especially from a culture that takes exquisite pride in creating toys with artisan perfection. It was for this reason that I opened the Spirited Mama French Heart Store which sources gorgeous toys and children’s decor from the heart of France.
Here are the Most Beautiful Toy Stores in Paris – just stunning.
6. Sightseeing and shopping – a delicate balance
If you can, download onto your iPad the Lonely Planet Guide Paris – Everything you ever wanted to know: Not for parents. It’s full of fascinating and at times macabre insights into Parisian history just for kids – head chopping, Quasimodo, who Mr Eiffel was etc. Did you know Mona Lisa is housed behind bullet proof glass? My daughter was intriguedand couldn’t wait to see the painting, nor could she wait to find the hunchback of Notre Dame when we visited the church.
I tried to limit major attractions to one each day eg climbing the Eiffel Tower or visiting the Louvre with afternoons left to window gaze down pretty streets or shopping. At these times, I kept in my bag the sketch book and charcoal (in a plastic bag) so that when the words “I’m bored” were uttered she could draw. It worked beautifully and we were left with a picture diary of our trip although mother guilt arose when change-room curtains began to feature in her artwork. However, if you’re looking for kiddie retail therapy you can’t go past Monoprix (like a French Target) because it has chic children’s outfits at good prices, and decent little trinkets and souvenirs kids like to mull over (Don’t forget to collect your receipts to get reimbursed at the airport the tax you paid if you spend more than Euro175 in any one shop).
The big gun incentive was EuroDisney on our second last day. We bought the tickets using the Paris Visite pass, which includes a 20 per cent discount on the entry fee. In the icy rain, we queued for hours with the hordes to experience the magic of Disney via two minute rides. We escaped having bought Mini-Mouse ears, a pen and an autograph book, which went relatively unsigned because the characters must have been inside warming their butts by the heater. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the holiday season with the queues, hell on Earth I suspect, but we were able to tick it off the list and it was a great ‘carrot’ to keep my daughter enthusiastic about things i wanted us to do, given chocolate had lost its appeal.
Whether it was my earnest attempts to speak French or because I had a cute kid, I encountered nothing but delightful, helpful people during our stay. The Les Fan fan toyshop owner in Le Marais enchanted us with his magic tricks and gave my daughter a small gift for her upcoming birthday. When I bought the tickets to Eurodisney I conversed with the old metro conductor showing him pictures of Australian snow on my phone to prove its existence – we had a laugh, perhaps about different things since my French was so poor but the soul connection left me with good memories. In fact, the bon vivant created with ordinary Parisians was the key to our trip’s success. It generated a grass roots experience of the city, the occasional adult banter and the good feelings that I needed to travel happily to the other side of the world.
Child friendly Paris hit list
- Rent an apartment – VRBO or Guest Apartment Services
- Bring an iPad: (to effortlessly store books for you and the kids, English-language movies, games such as Scrabble, look up information you need eg venue opening times, check emails, bank statements, flights etc).
- Prepare for snacks (try Monoprix supermarkets)
- French connection / charger
- Lonely Planet Guide Paris – Everything you Wanted to Know: Not for Parents
- Visit beautiful Parisian toy stores.
- Eat in gorgeous establishments at lunch time (they’re cheaper at lunch) and keep evenings low key
- Bring a small paint box, sketch pad, charcoals especially to galleries and while shopping
- Attempt to speak French with a smile.