What to do (and not to do) with children in Paris
After seven years in France, two children, and countless visitors, I have developed a point of view on the touristic value of Paris. It is vast, although the city, like most cities, is oriented more towards adults than children. Still, almost everyone I know these days seems to want to bring their kids to Paris, so here in a short, less structured post, I will share my knowledge of how to entertain little ones in the city of light.
But first, before you hop a plane with a three year old, ask yourself this vital question. Why? Why am I bringing children across the Atlantic? As someone who regularly makes transatlantic flights with a four-year-old boy and 17-month-old girl, I can attest the horrors of jet lag on small, confused minds. If your child is less than seven years old he or she will be profoundly out of sorts for at least a week. There will be tantrums. There will be sorrow. You will be very, very tired.
My first suggestion is that if you must come, come for more than a week and in the summer when the light makes it easier to adjust. Summer days in Paris are long so even if you sleep all morning and don’t make it out until 4 PM you will still have plenty of light with which to see the city. This is not true in the winter or late autumn when the sun sets at around 4.30PM. Kids also seem to adjust to time differences faster when they have natural sunlight.
My second suggestion is to do one activity a day. Forget Versailles in the morning, the Louvre in the afternoon and somewhere smashing for dinner. After breakfast go to the Louvre or a nice lunch. Visit the Jardin du Luxembourg. After that one activity spend the rest of the day hanging around the hotel. Also, this is not the time to economize. Pick a nice hotel. Make sure they have good television. Make sure they appreciate children. It doesn’t hurt to call them ahead of time and ask: “how do you feel about two year olds in the lobby at 7 AM?” If the answer is “not so great” or uncomfortable laughter, don’t go to that hotel.
These stern caveats aside, Parisians really like kids. They seem to open wells of simple love and physical affection in a society afflicted by perpetual crisis and critique. Mothers of babies in particular experience a rare kind of love. I was once on the bus with my three month old and had an old lady look me in the eye and say: “Well done. Very well done, indeed.”
I felt validated for days.
Things to do in Paris with your children
- Jardin du Luxembourg. 75006. This place is popular and has been popularized (read Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik) for a reason; it is a wonderful park. The central area right in front of the Senat has small ponds where you can rent sailboats and push them around with long sticks. In the summer there are sandboxes next to wading pools where it is perfectly acceptable for children to strip down to their underwear and run barefoot. The southwest corner houses an enormous playground that costs a couple of euros to get into but has jungle gyms for children from 2-12 years old. Plus there is a Guignol puppet show almost every day of the week. Sometimes when we are lazy we just go and watch people play tennis on Sunday afternoons. My son Theo very much enjoys it when people miss the ball. Ah, il a raté, papa. Il a raté!
- Aquarium of Paris. Avenue Albert du Mun, 75016. It rains in Paris and winter is long, grey and cold so it’s good to have an indoor spot in your pocket for a Sunday. We own season passes to the Aquarium and probably go eight or nine times a year. By American standards it’s a soggy, slightly sad place but we love the sharks and the jellyfish; the one man pirate show on the weekend is also a hit. The weekends are busy but on the weekdays you can have the place almost to yourself. Sometimes I take my 17 month old there so she can just run. Plus it is almost always open—Sundays, holidays, even in August when the city feels terribly still.
- La Chine Massena. 96 Boulevard Masséna 75013 Paris. 01 45 83 98 88. Bring my kids to a huge noisy restaurant in Chinatown when they should be looking at Rubens in the Louvre? Well, yes. It’s a fun restaurant with the best dim sum in Paris and the people who eat and work there love children. On the outer edge of the main diningroom are huge fish and seafood tanks full of dirty looking carp and slow moving lobsters which will mesmerize small children. There can be impromptu karaoke, which any teenager should enjoy, and they are open on Sunday until 4 PM so if you roll out of bed late on a day where many restaurants are closed, you can still eat.
- Tuilleries. 75001. This is the park closest to our apartment and vastly undervalued by Parisian muckety-mucks who think it is dusty and touristy. It is dusty (and touristy) but in July and August there is a wonderful, slightly dodgy carnival that sets up shop complete with little roller coasters and shooting galleries. In the winter there is a ferris wheel just in front of Place de la Concorde that is huge and bright and spins seemingly all night. Theo particularly likes the trampolines where children can jump as their parents look on in sober refinement from belle époque benches.
- Ladurée. 21 rue Bonaparte 75006: 01 44 07 64 87 ; 16, rue Royale 75008:01 42 60 21 79; 75; avenue des Champs Elysées 75008: 01 40 75 08 75. This place is a French institution and rightly so. They have some of the best patisserie in Paris and are particularly good at le macarons, a small meringue cookie-type thing. I prefer the one in the 6th but the one near Madeleine is good too. I suggest bringing the little ones for tea and pastries at 4 PM on a Wednesday when the grande dames of Paris are out with their grandchildren. The interior is gorgeous and the tea is Mariage Frères. Your children will enjoy the sweets and learn a thing or two about comportment because no one misbehaves at Ladurée.
- The Sewers. Face au 93, quai d’Orsay, 75007. Paris has a complex and surprisingly elegant system of underground sewers that were expanded in the 19th century when Haussmann redid the city. Today the city opens them to tourists in the afternoon and slightly older children will find the underground labyrinth fascinating. The place conjures images of the Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables but it also was a valuable underground escape route used by the French resistance during World War II. Those who knew the sewers, and they are truly enormous, could escape even the most ardent members of the Gestapo. Word of warning, the place smells very very bad. This isn’t a sanitized, Disney World sewage system. One literally walks next to and over rivers of flowing shit.
- Eiffel Tower. 75007. The kids love it, though I don’t quite know why. To my mind it’s far too tall and the elevator shakes a little as it rises, sometimes stopping midflight for no good reason. Yet the view is stunning and children are impressed by the idea that it was designed to be a radio tower that may or may not receive messages from alien spacecraft. It’s also a good opportunity to talk about the World’s fair and how architecture which initially is reviled, can become beloved for its simplicity and style. At the bottom of the tower there is also the Champs de Mars a long stretch of grass that is ringed by good playgrounds. In the summer, it’s a nice place to picnic, though absurdly packed.
- Brunch at Mama Shelter. 109 rue de Bagnolet 75020. It’s weird, but the bar at the chic hotel/restaurant Mama Shelter is arguably designed for children. There are kids books, crayons and coloring books all over the place and on the weekend a huge screen goes down where they play avant garde (but totally appropriate) cartoons. I have been there for a drink at night with a friend and felt very cool but the Sunday brunch made me a lifelong devotee. They seem to really love children here and the fact that the floor is soft and wooden and the lighting dim helps with very little kids. Not so helpful is the 42 euros they charge per head for lunch. Still it’s a wonderful hotel/restaurant and the neighborhood around it is one of my favorites in Paris, the kind of place where the street musicians play dixieland and the five-year-old boys have long curly hair.
- Cité des enfants. 30 Avenue Corentin Cariou, 75019. This mini city is designed to entertain and educate children for hours on end but it’s out-of-the-way location can sometimes put off tourists. Yet children from the 2-12 will really love the place especially if they are science or engineering buffs. In the way off all modern things in France it feels wholesomely 60s and utterly unaware that it is, by American standards, totally falling apart. Yet the retro feel is fun and will at least rekindle childhood memories for older parents. Inside are huge lego structures and gender neutral construction sites where kids can work the bulldozers. Teenagers will like the Cité des science et industrie which is just next door and feels vaguely like the National Air and Space museum in Washington DC.
- Jardin des Plantes. 75005. Embrace the decay. I first came here with my husband while we were dating and it still holds romantic allure. The area is a large, well-flowered park with gargantuan 19th century buildings dedicated to the study of evolution and botanical science. Needless to say, this is one of the best places in Paris to worship and mourn the long decline of French imperial greatness. Now it is also a relaxing place to bring children. They have the Grande Galerie d’Evolution (36 Rue Geoffrey Saint Hillaire 75005) which has a permanent exhibition of African animals that date back to the 1889. At the moment the Galerie is also showing a dinosaur exhibition which Theo saw and was a huge hit. The other end of the park hosts a zoo, which while modest and not particularly humane, is a nice place to walk around on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
- Le Centquatre. 104 rue d’Aubervilliers, 75019. This place is half museum for adults, half construction site for small children. In the evenings there are some decidedly adult performances for mommy and daddy but during the day there are little exhibitions for children around the themes of art and innovation. On Wednesdays, when French children don’t have school, the Maison des petits hosts building and painting workshops for children from 1-5 years old. We have never been, but the atelier looks like a good chance for American children to interact with French ones.
- Any old cafe. Truly the French love children and most people who work in the cafes are from the south or central part of the country and they love them even more than Parisians. Chose a non touristy part of town; I suggest the 16th or the 17th near Parc Monceau or the bottom of the 15th, the 14th, the 19th (especially near the gorgeous Parc des Buttes-Chaumont). Most places have children’s menus and some have crayons and paper for those who are bored. Order a café, have a crepe. Enjoy.
Things not to do in Paris with your children
Velib bikes (a pay as you go bicycle share program). People think it’s cute to take small children on poorly-maintained bikes around a city that has only just introduced itself to the concept of two-wheeled transport. This isn’t Amsterdam people. The cab drivers hate tourists on velibs and some seem bent on their destruction. Even the average Parisian is capable of astounding moments of road rage. If you are an adult and can make adult decisions, rent a velib. Mazel Tov. But don’t do it to your kids.
The Louvre. People bring their children here all the time and they say they love it but I think bringing kids to this airless, overcrowded, overwhelming museum is bonkers. The Musee d’Orsay is just across the river and much smaller, more manageable and better aerated. I’d even venture a guess that the kids will like all the blues and greens of the impressionists better.
The Eiffel tower without tickets. Don’t even think about it. The lines stretch miles and miles even in pouring January rain, even at 8 in the morning, even after a terrorist scare. When an astroid hits the planet and we all have six weeks to live before the plants die, there will be a line at the Eiffel tower that stretches miles and miles. Buy the tickets on line. You’ll still have to wait but less.
Deyrolle. I think Adam Gopnik brought his son here and now on the weekends you can see confused children looking at taxidermied animals while their New Yorker-reading parents egg them on. You realize, the entire enterprise is devoted to the killing, stuffing and life-like display of once healthy animals. It’s a disturbing place for adults. Spare the little ones.
Go to a outdoor market on the weekend. I get it. France with its amazing fresh produce is mesmerizing and the Parisian markets at Avenue Raspail and Batignolles are soul-healing places. The thing is they get very crowded after 10 AM and its easy to lose your kids and piss off grumpy Parisian shoppers all at the same time.
A fancy restaurant. Just because you can afford to feed your four year old at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon doesn’t mean that the other folks in there, who have been scrapping and saving for that special anniversary/birthday/holy-shit-I-found-a-job day, want your four year old to be there. The average French cafe or even bistro serves good food and they like kids. Bring them there.