my top 10 tips for traveling to Paris with kids
I mentioned before that Marcus and I had each visited Paris previously, and this is true: Paris is one of my favourite cities in the world to visit. It is so glamorous! The cuisine is so delicious! And the wine ... oh, honey, the wine ...
... which is why the more I thought about our trip before we left, the more nervous I became about taking Alex to Paris for two weeks.
See, the general thinking is that Paris is a city for adults, not to mention that it bills itself as a romantic city. And I don't care how you slice it, while traveling with kids can certainly be fun, it is rarely romantic. I was really afraid that we would all end up being disappointed with our trip, so I became determined to ensuring that the holiday would be fun for everyone, without having to break down and finally resort to visiting Disneyland Paris. (I remind you that our primary reason for this holiday was to celebrate Marcus' and my 10th wedding anniversary. Challenging enough was having a kid with us for the trip, but I would be damned if I sank to visiting Disneyland Paris as well.)
For these reasons, I did a ton of research before we left Houston, wanting to ensure that we all had a good time, especially Alex. I'm happy to report that the trip exceeded all of our expectations, and it turns out that with the right perspective, Paris is an amazing place for little ones to have fun, while also giving them a heaping dose of culture. While, admittedly, our 8-year-old is somewhat predisposed to being relatively adventurous, in the event you're struggling with whether to bring your young kids with you on a dream vacation to Paris, here my top 10 tips and tricks that will hopefully convince you to take the plunge:
1. As soon as you book your flights, buy this book for your children: Lonely Planet's Not for Parents, Paris Edition. People, buying this book for Alex was the biggest stroke of brilliance I had when planning for this trip. The good folks at Lonely Planet, purveyors of amazing travel guides, have recently come out with a kids' line of travel books, breaking down cities like London and New York, and yes, Paris, into what's awesome about them from a kid's point of view. In other words, instead of listing Zagat-rated restaurants and the best neighbourhoods for shopping, the Paris edition of these books included, among all the information about places like the Louvre Museum and l'Arc de Triomphe, wildly awesome tidbits like the history of the guillotine, where to see the best gargoyles, and ghostly stories about catacombs under the city.
It is beautifully illustrated and detailed, and I gave Alex a copy of the book weeks before our trip, telling her that she would be responsible for our daily itinerary. (This book is targeted for 8-11 year olds, but to be honest, I think younger kids would still love looking through it with their parents; similarly, I think older kids would love it, too. Hell, I'm 44, and I thought it was great.)
While she didn't actually decide what we did each day of our trip (although she certainly was responsible for a couple of the days), her copy of the book was well dog-eared by the time we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport. Moreover, she brought the book everywhere we went, proud to whip it out and regale us with trivia about any and all of the historic sites. She loved this book, because it truly made Paris come alive for her, even before we ever set foot on French soil.
And the best part? Nowhere in its pages does it mention Disneyland Paris. in fact, as of this writing, Alex still doesn't know it exists.
And I hope to keep it that way.
2. Consider renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel. I'm not going to lie to you: Paris is expensive, and hotels are no exception. Add three meals a day to this, and you're talking about a pretty pricey holiday. To help ease the cost a bit, we've become a big fan of doing short-term apartment rentals when we travel: the cost is about the same as a mid-range hotel, but since there's a kitchen in the apartment, we save on meal costs by buying groceries and fixing at least 2 meals a day at "home." Another bonus: there's no rush to get up and out in the early morning, to get out of housekeeping's way, because, well, there is no housekeeping. Granted, having an apartment means cooking and washing up after ourselves, but we feel like it's a small price to pay for the independence we gain, and the chance to feel like we're living like locals. And finally, it was nice for Alex (and the rest of us, frankly) to have a room to retreat to when we each needed a bit of alone-time.
When booking short-term vacation rentals, we love VRBO.com, a service that allows individual owners to list their properties online. We've used this service in New York City, Austin, Bath and most recently in Paris, and have been thrilled with the accommodations in each instance. While in Paris, we stayed in a tiny (tiny!) two-bedroom apartment in Montmartre, walking distance from a small grocer's. We got into the habit of waking up embarrassingly late, and having a leisurely breakfast before heading out for the day. Then we'd have a late lunch/early dinner while out sightseeing, before heading back to the apartment in time for Alex to get to bed, and Marcus and I would have a glass of wine and a light snack while watching the late evening sunset. It was bliss.
While we're on the subject of food, by the way ...
3. Do not discount the utter charm of a Parisian picnic. Paris has positively stunning gardens dotted throughout the city, and if the weather cooperates, a picnic is a great and relatively inexpensive way to enjoy them. It's not always permissible to sit on the grass of these gardens, but there are generally tons of benches and other seating throughout these parks. We had picnics several times while we were in Paris -- some breads, cheeses, cold cuts and fruits, along with some drinks and a portable picnic blanket (Marcus brought along this one, it worked beautifully), and we were absolutely good to go. Bonus: while we found the small neighbourhood playgrounds where we were staying somewhat dodgy, some of these beautiful gardens -- most notably the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg -- have outstanding play areas for kids. It's a great way for you to enjoy the scenery and for the kids to burn off all of those crêpes and pains au chocolat that they've been devouring.
I now interrupt these tips for a note to the gluten-free: Both Marcus and Alex have mild-to-moderate intolerance of gluten, and Paris, with all its baguettes and other pastries, can admittedly be a celiac's nightmare. (Marcus paid dearly one day after foolishly overindulging.) Happily, however, my local French friend (and brilliant photoblogger) Irène turned us on to Naturalia, a local natural foods grocery chain that sells gluten-free breads and pasta. This was a lifesaver, and then once we exchanged restaurant dessert tartes for glaces (Ice cream) and mousse au chocolat, all was well again.
And because, really, I can't say enough of about eating in Paris ...
4. Dear God, try the food. Parisian food is consistently delicious, and none of the restaurants we patronized while we were in Paris disappointed. The good news (if your child is a picky eater) is that while the food might sound a bit exotic, it doesn't necessarily have to feel particularly foreign. Many restaurants we went to included cheesy pastas, burgers, steak-and-fries (entrecôte avec frites), omelets, quiche, and so on. And at a bare minimum, all restaurants, it seemed, offered a cheese plate and/or a plate of cold cuts (charcuterie), so I do encourage you to stay away from McDonalds and give French cuisine a whirl.
If you have a more adventurous eater in your family (of which Alex is a prime example), your kid is in for a treat: there are tons of wildly exotic dishes for your child to try. The Not For Parents book I mentioned above did a great job of both horrifying and intriguing Alex with the concept of eating escargots (snails) and frogs' legs; happily, she was game for trying both.
The snails, which she liked, were still nonetheless a little hard for her to mentally process what she was eating ...
... however, she had no such apprehension with the frogs' legs. My girl threw down with a plate of frogs' legs, people.
One more tip: while many menus had English translations, ordering food is where a French-English dictionary can be invaluable. It can help clarify that the steak d'espadon isn't actually beef you're ordering, but swordfish; similarly, while you might generally have no issue with eating veau (veal), a dictionary would save you the surprise when your plate arrives, and you discover what you ordered was rognons de veau (veal kidneys). When we were leaving to go to Paris, in the car on the way to to airport I downloaded this French-English dictionary for my iPhone, and it worked a treat: it doesn't require an internet connection to work once it's downloaded, and it properly prepared our palates a number of times in restaurants all around the city.
5. Do something meaningful for your family. As I mentioned above, Paris is an incredibly romantic city, and since Marcus and I were celebrating our 10th anniversary, I knew I wanted to visit a particularly romantic spot, the Pont des Arts, and add an engraved love lock to its railings (you can read about our adventure and the legend of the love locks here). When I was ordering our love lock (just google "engrave padlocks," and you can find tons of online places who do it, but note that a simple hardware store padlock and a Sharpie works, too), at the last minute I bought an additional one with all our names on it for Alex to add. I'm so glad I did. She loved the idea that we were leaving our "mark" on the city, and she's already making plans to return to the bridge when she's an adult, to see if it's still there. Perfect.
I'm not saying that every family should do the Love Locks (although it's a wonderful little thing to do, to be sure); but do something meaningful: throwing coins in a fountain and making a wish together as a family; or even buying flowers and handing them out to strangers like Design Mom Gabby's kids did in Rome would be awesome. (Paris is the City of Love, after all.) But just doing something to create a special memory of your time together in Paris would be wonderful for your kids, and honestly, for you as well.
6. Get to know the Métro. The Métro is Paris' subway line, and it gets you positively everywhere you want to go. It's not the cleanest subway I've ever used, for sure, but it's safe, relatively easy to navigate once you get the hang of it, and it's definitely cheaper than taking cabs (we only took cabs 4 times -- to and from the airport, and twice when we were out after 11 p.m.). They even have ticket fares for children (enfants) as well as multiple-day passes. By the end of our trip, Alex was a Métro pro.
7. About clothing -- think layers. Paris weather can vary wildly, especially in the summer: while we were there, we had a couple of days with highs in the upper 50s, and others with highs in the mid-80s (and air conditioning is hard to find in Paris, so the warm days felt downright hot). I checked the weather before we left, obviously, and while the t-shirts were a no-brainer, I'm so happy that I brought Alex both a light cardigan and a foldable lightweight windbreaker (this one, actually), that I could just tuck into our daypacks for sudden downpours.
8. Get your kids some journals. I'm a big fan of journaling, obviously, and have been buying journals for Alex since she could hold a crayon (I've always bought them instead of loose leaf paper, actually -- it keeps all her art in one place, minimizing house mess, and I love the idea that I have these journals filled with her creativity from her past). Alex kept a journal and some writing utensils in her daypack every day, and it was invaluable to have on her when she was bored (waiting for a meal to arrive, say), or when we were in a museum that didn't allow photography -- she would simply sit against a wall and sketch what she saw. Now that we're back, I love that she has a little souvenir of the trip that she created herself.
One thing we had that was cool: I own a Fujifilm Instax camera (which is like one of those old Polaroid cameras) and I brought it with us, solely for Alex's use. It was awesome: there was nothing like the instant gratification and magic of watching the tangible image appear when she took took the shot. In the evenings, when we returned to the apartment, she would tape the images into her journal and write something about them. I'd bought my camera a few years ago and already had some film lying around; but if you're in the mood to splurge before your trip, you might want to grab one, and a few packs of film for your kids -- again, certainly not a necessary item, but it was so fun to have (and obviously, you'll then have the camera for future family travel). In the alternative, consider buying a disposable film camera for them, or be sure to hand your camera phone or camera over to your kids occasionally for them to take a few shots -- having their own photography memories makes the trip feel so much more special to them, and having the images to add into their journals makes the trip even more real once they return.
9. End your trip by seeing the Eiffel Tower at night. No trip to Paris is complete without visiting the Eiffel Tower, and we made sure to do this early on in our holiday. (We didn't actually go all the way to the top -- its summertime, and the crowds were insane -- but again, Gabby wrote a great piece on going to the top with kids.) However, I had heard that since the last time I'd been to Paris, lights had been added to the structure that sparkle every hour on the hour after nightfall, and I wanted to see them. So after an early dinner two nights before we left, we happily stumbled upon what I think is the best way to see the tower at night:
Just off the Avenue de Suffren, between Avenue Octave Gréard & Quai Branly, there is a a small unnamed alley that leads right to a small park directly below the Eiffel Tower. We walked down that alley and to our delight, discovered the park wasn't crowded. Marcus spread out our portable picnic blanket on the ground (seriously, we carried that blanket with us everywhere), and we sat down to wait.
Nightfall doesn't come to Paris until about 10:30 p.m. around this time of year, so we had quite a bit of a wait. Luckily, Alex had brought a book:
Unluckily, Marcus and I hadn't brought a bottle of wine. Next time.
Finally, at about 10:20 p.m., the lights came on.
And then, precisely at 11 p.m., the tower began to sparkle like a Christmas tree.
By this time, it was well after Alex's bedtime, but it was so worth it. She was stunned silent. For at least 3 full minutes (though it seemed more like 5) the tower twinkled like crazy, and Alex stared up at it, transfixed. Her reaction was exactly like the one we all want our kids to have during a fireworks show finale, only better.
"That was amazing," she breathed, after it was all over. "Mom, Paris is beautiful."
10. If all else fails, Disneyland Paris is apparently only about a 45-minute train ride out of town. But please, I beg of you:
don't tell Alex.