Considering what a huge role travel has played in my life, it was with a surprising amount of trepidation that I booked our Winter Break tickets to Paris. Trying to live in a foreign country with a four- and a six-year-old somehow felt less daunting to me than trying to enjoy a vacation in a foreign city, especially when that city is one that holds so much meaning for Matt & I.
We were pleasantly surprised, however, and have some tips to share with regards to visiting Paris with children in tow.Let me say up-front that Disney played no part in this trip. We didn’t even tell the children that there was a Disneyland Paris. We wanted them to experience the art, architecture, and food in our favorite city. I’m not saying we’ll never go to Disney, but we were able to have a fun and educational trip without it!
My first bit of advice concerns lodging. The Paris Metro is extremely convenient in terms of the location of stops and how you can basically get anywhere in town in two changes or less. That said, it is very crowded, not the safest place to be in Paris, and a little difficult to navigate with two children who are ogling everything from the buskers to the homeless people to the decorations/advertising. So I would suggest resisting the temptation to stay in a cheaper hotel that is outside city-center.
We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Paris Republique and were able to find a sweet off-season deal that made it fairly reasonable. The rooms are small and a bit dated, but clean, and the concierge service is amazing. The restaurants on site are good, if expensive, and it’s literally on Place de la Republique, giving you good access to Le Marais, a quick hop down to Ile de la Cité via Hôtel de Ville. This is by no means the only choice of hotels in the area–there are many to choose from, especially in the Rive Gauche/Le Marais area that would be less expensive and just as convenient, but we ended up happy with our choice.
Because we wanted to see so much of the city in our five days in Paris, we bought Paris Visite travel cards that allowed us unlimited use of the Metro and bus system. We never ended up taking the bus because we are more familiar with the Metro, but I definitely think the passes were worth the price. Knowing that we could hop the Metro back to the hotel at any time, and that we could duck down underground if the weather turned bad or if the children were tired of walking, allowed us to venture farther than we might have otherwise. The passes are available in 1, 2, 3 or 5 days, and work on the regional train system (RER) as well as the Metro/bus.
Our best find, however, was definitely the Paris Museum Pass. Available in 2, 4, or 6 day increments, this pass gets you in to just about every museum in Paris. The best part is that you can avoid the enormous lines at the Louvre & Musée d’Orsay and walk right in the doors for the groups & pre-booked tickets. The day we were at the Musée d’Orsay, it was raining hard and the line was at least an hour long, so if we hadn’t had the passes, we probably would have had to skip the museum.
We were able to buy the travel cards & museum cards together at a discount and have them delivered directly to our hotel, but you can also have them mailed to you, or can even buy them in Paris, depending on how far in advance you’re booking.
Eating in Paris is an amazing experience, but it’s not cheap. Just a simple breakfast of tartine (baguette with butter & jam), juice, and hot chocolate/coffee was somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-9 Euros per person, and if you want eggs (my kids always want eggs), it’s 8-12 Euros. Lunches on the cheap will still be in the 10-12 Euro per person range and that’s assuming a sandwich, no dessert, and no wine. Let’s face it, it’s Paris, you want the dessert, and the wine, so budget a bit more and enjoy! The best way we’ve found to save money is to each out for lunch and eat simple for dinner. This is a tradition we started on an amazing trip to Southern France with my sisters 10 years ago and we continued it on this trip.
Dinners were usually composed of whatever we picked up at the corner market/boulangerie/cheese shop: a couple of small aged goat cheeses, a baguette, a bottle of wine, and some fruit. We split a couple of pastries for dessert, and we were set. One night we did eat out at Pizza Pino, which was literally 150m down from our hotel and has delicious and reasonably-priced pizza & salads. I will admit that we’ve lucked out with this approach because both of our children are adventure cheese eaters and will eat cheese that is blue/stinky/aged without batting an eye. If your children are pickier, make sure you get some milder cheese for them, or pick up a brie baguette from one of the many street-side venders early in the day and save it for dinner.
I was really impressed with how much we fit in during our 5 days, but have to shame-facedly admit that we skipped the Louvre. Matt & I have been there numerous times, and although we set aside the whole day Monday to tour the Louvre, when we woke up Monday it was brilliantly sunny and warm, so we decided to wander around outside instead. I’m glad we did, and promise we will take the children another time. Here’s our itinerary, with notes on things that were particularly interesting to our children:
We arrived mid-day, so we checked in to the hotel and jumped on the Metro to Hôtel de Ville. The square in front of Hôtel de Ville had ice-skating and a carousel going while we were there, so it was a visual feast and a great place for the kids to form their first impressions of Paris. From there, we walked across the bridge to Ile de la Cité. The first site of Notre Dame, even from the back side, was really special. The kids were in awe, and we hadn’t even begun to show them around. We headed to Ile St. Louis for crepes and also picked up bread, cheese, fruit, and wine for dinner.
We ended up just window shopping and letting the kids play at the small playground on the south side of Notre Dame, but you could easily add a visit to the interior of Notre Dame and/or St. Chapelle here if the children aren’t too antsy.
We visited Musée Cluny to see La Dame et la Licorne (the lady & the unicorn tapestries), the Roman baths, and some statuary that had been recovered during various renovations of buildings throughout the city. Both smaller and less crowded than some of the other museums, this was a great place to start with the children. They loved the tapestries, the statues, and also the jewels & ornamentation on all the religious reliquaries that are housed here.
Next we visited Musée d’Orsay. The statue garden on the main floor is really wonderful for children and our museum pass kept us out of the long line to get in. After the museum, we went to see the Eiffel Tower. It was probably the only thing Gabriel could identify as Parisian before our trip and both children were excited to see it, although they quickly took up puddle stomping once we got to the park at the base of the tower and were more entertained by that than anything else.
A trip to Versailles will almost definitely be worth the price of the Museum Pass–man, have ticket prices gone up since I was last in Paris 10 years ago! We took the RER out to Versailles and spent the day there (Note that the travel card won’t get you all the way to Versailles, but I think our round-trip RER tickets were 15 Euros for all four of us). They have added golf carts and small trains to help you get around the gardens, but be sure to bring your driver’s license if you want to rent the golf carts. We didn’t have either of ours, so we ended up on the little train, which wasn’t bad. The kids loved running through the hedge gardens and seeing the fountains, but were also surprisingly interested in the ornate furniture and decorations in the Chateau.
OK, this is the day we would have gone to the Louvre, but wandered around instead. We walked up the canal, playing on the numerous playgrounds that line the promenade, took the metro down to St. Michel on the Rive Gauche for lunch, wandered some more, and ended up in Notre Dame. The stained glass was really stunning due to the sun, so I was glad we stopped. We wrapped up the day by taking a tour on the Batobus up and down the Seine because the kids were tired of walking. It is a really neat way to see the city, especially with little ones that can’t walk all day long without getting over-tired.
Our final day in Paris was probably the kids’ favorite, but definitely not ours. We visited the Musée de l’Armée in the morning. The kids loved the cannons, machine guns, military costumes, and old videos, but it was a sobering experience for Matt & I, because each gallery basically walks you through a year of each of the two World Wars. You can also see Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, which is part of the Musée de l’Armée complex, and that is definitely worth seeing. After lunch, we visited the Musée des Arts Decoratifs to see a special exhibit on toys that the children really enjoyed. It was a museum I’d never visited, so I was happy to get to see it even if looking at vintage Pokemon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wasn’t my favorite cultural experience of the week.
All in all, we saw more of Paris than I thought we would, and enjoyed more good French food than I thought we’d be able to. It wasn’t exactly a budget trip, but it was the best vacation I’ve ever taken with the kids, and that’s saying something.