A short guide to Paris with small children…

12 June 2010

Now, I have to admit that when I told people that we were planning to take the boys to Paris for a week, we had a fairly mixed reaction from other parents, ranging from ‘You are so lucky’ to ‘Are you mad?!’ to ‘Why bother? They won’t get anything out of it!’ to ‘They won’t thank you, you know – they’d clearly much rather go to Butlins instead’.

Well, pish to the lot of you doubters, because we had a great time. Now, okay, it wasn’t perfect and was at times immensely stressful and tiring BUT both boys really enjoyed themselves and I think that Felix will never, ever forget his first trip to Paris. In fact, far from  not getting anything out of it, I believe that this holiday has sowed the seeds of a lifelong love affair with France, history and art so you can keep your Butlins, thank you very much, and we will have Paris instead.

Anyway, before I went, I tried to do as much research as possible into the practicalities of taking small children to Paris, but didn’t find much information to be honest or at least not much that wasn’t riddled with dire warnings not to attempt such arrant folly. Which is why I thought I would put together a post about our own experiences in the hopes that it might help other parents. If just one other family feels encouraged to take their offspring to Paris as a result of this then my work here is quite frankly done.

Moving on! I think the best way to do this is in easy sections so let’s begin at the beginning with travel…

Transport in Paris: Now, you may well have arrived via Eurostar, in which case you can jump straight onto the Metro and go directly to where you are staying. In our case, we flew into Charles de Gaulle (not a bad flight actually thanks to a combination of Werther’s Originals, Sherlock Holmes on my iPod and Felix’s DS) then caught a Roissy bus (about 9 euros) into central Paris, where it drops you off on the Rue Scribe, right next to the gorgeous Opéra Garnier.

The Roissy bus is an efficient system and gets the job done but be warned that the drivers are surly and the aisles of the bus are narrow so don’t end up like us, struggling with two children, two cases, three big bags and a pushchair that was slightly too wide to go up the aisle when the driver speeds off before we have even managed to sit down. Collapse your buggy first is my advice.

Once you are in Paris, there are various options available to you: taxi, walk, bus, Metro and, most excitingly, boat. Walking is easily done as Paris has a compact centre surrounded by a whirl of distinct districts, however this will probably kill your poor feet so the best plan is to decide on a few things that are close together then take the Metro there and wander about as much as you like.

The Metro is justifiably well thought of but be warned that it isn’t exactly great for those of us who are still encumbered with pushchairs. Older children can go through the barriers just like adults but those of us with pushchairs have to go through a gate, which you have to rely on an attendant opening for you. We found that it was already open a couple of times, which was good but more often than not we had to press the red button next to it and ask for it to be opened and on two occasions no help at all was forthcoming and we found ourselves stranded with no way of getting through. There’s also a lot of stairs, only a handful of escalators and no lifts that we could find. If there are two of you then you can carry the pushchair in the time honoured way up and down the stairs, but if you are on your own you may have trouble finding someone to help you.

I thought about this a lot while I was there and came to the conclusion that the fact that no one offers to help with pushchair carrying or whatever isn’t down to the rudeness of the average Parisian (on the contrary, I’ve always found French people in Paris to be utterly lovely), but more to do with the very different attitudes of French parents. In England we expect help and lo it arrives but in Paris, parents seem to be far more pro-active and expect to do everything themselves so no one expects to have to help them. In London, you frequently see lone women standing forlornly at the bottom of steps with their pushchairs WAITING for some chivalrous person to come along and offer to help, whereas in Paris you would more probably see them carrying the pushchair and baby up the stairs by themselves without a second thought.

Our preferred mode of transport was boat – we got a 5 day Batobus pass on our second day, which cost a bargainous 20 euros per adult and 10 euros for children over 5 and entitled us to unlimited travel during that period. This was pretty good as they had a variety of stops, including Notre Dame, the Jardin des Plantes, Hotel de Ville, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and Orsay so you could plan all sorts of days out around it. The other good thing is that we could just roll the pushchair straight on and off without too much hassle at either end, which was infinitely better than struggling on the Metro. However there are often stairs down to the mooring.

Best of all though were the views! Everyone should try and take a boat up and down the Seine at some point, but thanks to our trusty 5 day pass, we were at liberty to take the boat as often as we liked and made full use of this, taking photos of a sunset behind Notre Dame one day and then the sunshine over a bridge the next. It was lovely and a great way to feel connected to the life of the city as we went past crowds of waving Parisians enjoying wine and sandwiches on the quays at sundown.

Which brings us to…

Food in Paris: Eating in Paris can be a bit hit or miss, especially when you are a strict vegetarian like me (this is worthy of its own post!) or have small, fussy people with you! We found that eating outside worked best for us – breakfast was pain au chocolat or croissants from the nearest bakery eaten while sitting in the magnificent courtyard of the Louvre, which was a few minutes walk away from our apartment. The boys loved this and really enjoyed their trips to the bakery in the morning. Don’t worry about appearing like hobos – you’ll see people all over the city strolling along in the morning eating croissants, quiche or apple tarts straight from the bag.

Lunchtime involved a sandwich or salade composée eaten in a park – our favourite spot for lunch was the Palais Royale, which is lovely and serene but Parisians themselves favour all sorts of places such as the steps of the Madeleine, sitting by the Seine or the Jardins du Luxembourg. The boys really liked sharing a ham and cheese sandwich, whereas I preferred salads, which come with a knife and fork, napkin, pots of oil and dressing and piece of bread and usually cost around 5 euros. Don’t forget that crepes, sandwiches, cakes and ice cream are available in abundance!

Dinner could be more problematic as at first we were uncertain about the etiquette of taking children into the lovely, enticing looking bars that line the streets of the city. During the day they are more like cafés but the atmosphere subtly changes in the evening and we weren’t sure if children would be entirely welcome. It was fine though and we weren’t made to feel at all de trop when we rolled up with the boys in tow. Most bars serve simple salads, ham and chips, egg and chips, omelettes or crepes so there should be something to keep children happy. Our best meal was on the last night when we went to an American diner close to the St Paul Metro station in the Marais district – it was really great and the boys really enjoyed their chicken nuggets and fries in a basket.

Another option is the French equivalent of McDonald’s, which is called Quick. I’m not keen on McDonald’s as it doesn’t really cater for vegetarians at all but Quick is much better with fries that are cooked in vegetable oil and a weird but oddly tasty vegetarian option of roasted vegetables and goats cheese in a ciabatta bun. The boys were really keen on their milkshakes too and fries dipped in their ice cream!

We fell in love with Monoprix while there as well as they had everything you could possibly need and for great prices too. I loved wandering around inside looking at the lovely French food (violet and rose petal jams!) and day dreaming about living in Paris and living on glamorous ready meals. They also do 1.5 litre bottles of water for 19 cents, which is absurdly cheap.

Loo breaks… A bit of a banal subject this one but nonetheless any parent considering a trip to Paris is probably worrying about the legendary iniquity of French loos. I know this because I worried too! I also got a bit anxious about where exactly I would be able to change Oscar’s nappies. Well, worry no more as it wasn’t nearly so bad as I had feared – there were baby changing facilities in most loos, generally in the disabled bit, and toilettes themselves were in ready supply and not of the hideous Hole In The Floor variety of legend either.

Stuff to do… Well, now we have transport and food covered, let’s look at Paris itself and things that children might fun to do or at least things that my own children liked! OBVIOUSLY, My personal interests are eighteenth century art, history and Marie Antoinette which isn’t usually to the taste of small boys but rather than despair over this, I took Felix around the Carnavalet, St Denis, Louvre, Musée des Arts Décoratifs and Conciergerie without too many issues. The trick was to talk to him about what we were looking at and also keep an eye out for anything that he might find interesting like an actual guillotine blade or a painting of a child his own age in eighteenth century clothes or the creepy ‘dead’ kings and queens at St Denis.

Most of the museums claim to be child friendly but you may well find in practice that although they will welcome children with smiles, there will be lots of stairs and a general lack of lifts that will relegate pushchair users to the ground floor only. I won’t go on about the different places that you can visit because you probably have your own ideas about that sort of thing (comment and ask though if you want to know anything specific!) but I will look at a few of the main attractions just so you get an idea of what to expect if you take children to them.

The Musée Carnavalet – This is a fantastic and sprawling museum about the history of Paris located in a gorgeous mansion in the Marais, that was once inhabited by Madame de Sevigné. It’s a brilliant place to take children because there is an abundance of things to look at – paintings, sculpture, royal relics, room sets and all sorts of little bits and pieces are everywhere and you are bound to find something that will catch their interest.

Another plus is that it is free, which I think is a huge bargain considering how much there is inside. The gardens outside are gorgeous too, but be warned that they don’t like people eating in them!

I took Felix around the Carnavalet and we really enjoyed ourselves. He loved the paintings and models of the Bastille and all the different room sets and the curators were delighted to chat to him as we went around. We had lots of comments about how nice it was to see a child taking such an interest, and then of course their joy knew no bounds when they realised that we were English!

There are lots of stairs in the Carnavalet though and I couldn’t find any lifts so it isn’t so great for buggies, alas. Dave and Oscar spent a couple of hours hanging out in the gardens while we went around.

The Musée Louvre – Ah, the giant behemoth. There is loads here to keep children of all ages happy and Felix really loved the paintings and sculptures, although he found the latter rather terrifying at first as they reminded him of the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who! The really big paintings in the French eighteenth century rooms seemed to capture his interest though – especially the one of the Coronation of Napoleon, which is enormous! Dave took him to see the Mona Lisa too, which he was thrilled to see in person.

I think his favourite bits though were the Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman rooms though as they have vast collections of sculpture, jewellery, every day bits and pieces and, most importantly, MUMMIES. The Medieval Louvre, where you can walk around the remains of the original Louvre wall and donjon was a big hit too as it is rather creepy down there.

The Louvre has loads of loos, which is good news for parents as you can never be caught short in there as there is always one a few rooms away. It’s vast though so there is loads of walking involved so if you are pushed for time, don’t attempt to see all of it in one go but instead view it in manageable chunks.

The worst thing that we found about the Louvre was the lifts. Now, there are loads of lifts but they are reminiscent of the Glass Elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in that they never seem to go where you would logically expect them to! This was a bit of a problem for us as I am terrified of lifts so would take Felix by the stairs while Dave took Oscar in a lift. This led to a few incidents where we totally lost each other, which was a bit grotty and led to one of the curators gently telling me off for crying in front of my children, ‘parce que, madame, it is up to you to set an example, n’est ce pas?’. However, we eventually learned that setting out with a map of the Louvre and making a mental note of the elevator letter (they are all lettered) sorted most problems.

The Louvre shops are great too – there is the big bookshop, a poster and postcard shop (although the poster selection is VERY limited and doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last twenty years!) and a little shop that is devoted entirely to children’s books and toys, which was great for art books in French and models of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette if that’s your bag. It’s certainly mine.

Next to the Louvre is a big shopping centre which has a great selection of shops such as Sephora, L’Occitaine, Apple, Virgin and some weird but fun gadget type stores. There is also a food court upstairs, which we ate at once. There you can get a plate heaped with Moroccan, Spanish, French or Italian treats for 7 euros or, if that doesn’t appeal, there is a McDonald’s as well.

Oh, and before I forget, you skip the often horrendous queue to get into the pyramid entrance of the Louvre if you have the pushchair with you. You get in through a separate door and go down in a special lift, which is good.

Dave performed Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe duties as I am terrified of heights so I will let him talk about how it all worked out!

The Eiffel Tower – I was hesitant about taking Felix up the Eiffel tower, especially as he was insisting on going all the way to the top. But, like the parents in the queue behind me, I took the chance and we went to the “sommet”. €9 for a child and €13 for me. Floor 2 prices are €5 less each. Be aware – there are no refunds if you get to floor 2 with tickets for the top and your child gets scared and won’t go up.

We were fine though (as were the parents behind us in the queue). Felix got to the top and asked if he could go higher. It feels very safe up there. When you exit the lift it’s into a room with walls, windows and a roof, if you like you can go upstairs which is open but fenced all around.

When queuing you will probably get a choice between a long queue in the shade of the tower, and a shorter queue that’s in the sunshine, depending on north/south/east/west tower and time of day/year. We queued at the sunny shorter south tower queue for about an hour. There is a stairs option, I didn’t take it as for about €3 extra I preferred the lifts.

There are loos, even at the very top. Also a champagne bar. The second floor contains gift shops, containing Eiffel towers about 10x more expensive than you’ve already been offered a million times by the street traders in the queue. Buy from the street traders if you want a model Eiffel tower. And if you want to haggle they’ll quickly drop their cheap prices further. Likewise, water is sold by the street traders for €1 a bottle compared to €2.50-3 from the stalls.  They may be pushy, but they are also worth checking out.

Buggies must be folded. Your bags will be checked. The queue will be long. The queue from 2nd to top floor will also probably be long. But it is worth it.

The Arc de Triomphe – Stairs. There are lots of them. Although, to be honest, Felix was absolutely fine up them and waiting for me at the top. There is a lift, but I think you have to have a wheel or pushchair for it.  It does go to the top, but the second lift was out of order when I was there, meaning the second and third set of stairs would need to be walked.

The first set of stairs are the longest, and go up about 90% of the way. They are spiral, I wouldn’t even think about attempting this carrying a baby or pushchair. The second and third are short, but the third is narrow.

Again, there are loos at the top, and even a free water fountain, although only one and it’s hidden in a corner.

Out on top, there’s a six foot fence around a 1/2 meter wide ledge, which contains it all nicely making me able to not worry about Felix dashing off.

Back downstairs there is a gift shop. This may be one of the only places in Paris to sell Arc de Triomphe models. The street vendors outside only have Eiffel Towers and look confused when you ask about the Arc, despite standing right next to the thing.  You can find some Arc models in the souvenir shops by the Louvre cheaper, but the best selection is in the Arc itself.

Tickets are included in the Paris museum pass, so I don’t know how much they are. Like many attractions in Paris, bags will be checked on the way in.

There is a lot for children to do in Paris – there is an abundance of museums, two aquariums, a zoo and several parks, which leads us to…

Parisian Parks: The thing about Paris is that almost everybody lives in apartments so people take their parks really seriously as they are basically like communal gardens. This is good though as it means that parks in Paris are really lovely and well tended and buzz with life and fun.

If you go to the Louvre then you won’t be able to miss the Tuileries Gardens, a huge expanse of trees that lies between the museum and the Place de la Concorde. There are some grassy areas but be warned that they are thickly carpeted with cigarette ends so you may not want to let your children roam freely on them. The rest of the Tuileries is given over to arcades of trees and gravelled, dusty pathways, lined with benches which make a lovely spot to sit and have lunch or just watch people go by.

The nearby Palais Royal is probably my personal favourite spot in Paris and is really lovely with stripy columns to climb on in the central courtyard. At the back of the palace there is a long garden with the dusty gravel paths that they are so fond of in Paris, shady trees, benches and in the centre, a small grass oasis where children can play.

The Champs de Mars is lovely too, with its impressive views of the Eiffel Tower. However, like the Tuileries, the grass is covered with cigarette ends and litter so you may struggle finding somewhere to sit down with children.

The Jardins du Luxembourg in the student area of Paris is really gorgeous and a great place to take children as it is enormous and there is also a fantastic play area as well as two sand pits and other things, but again there are those gravel paths everywhere and seemingly a strict policy of not allowing people on to the grass areas. We took the boys on a lovely sunny day and each piece of grass was surrounded by a circle of chairs, upon which sat people staring disconsolately at the grass upon which they delicately rested their feet.

My favourite park by far was the Buttes de Chaumont. It’s not that hard to get to and is well worth the trip out of central Paris as it is truly lovely. There is grass in abundance that you are allowed to go on, waterfalls, grottos, a temple on a hill that has fantastic views, bridges and trees everywhere as well as cafes, ice cream stands and horse rides.

So there we have it. Any trip to Paris is what you make it, really but having small children with you doesn’t have to be a hindrance as there is plenty there to keep them interested and the Parisians themselves are welcoming and will, on the whole, be delighted to see your little terrors. Far from being scowled at or made to feel like we were in the way, our boys were greeted with smiles and compliments wherever they went – it all went over ‘le petit mignon’ Oscar’s head but I doubt Felix will forget things like the French Revolutionary dance that some of the curators at the Carnavalet performed for him in a hurry!

I hope this short guide has been helpful and please don’t hesitate to ask questions if there is something more specific you want to know about!

One final word of advice – make sure you get your children to look first before they sit down outside. Dog owners in Paris are mostly responsible about clearing up after their pets but not everyone is as thoughtful! We had a MOST dreadful and unfortunate incident one morning after one of my boys who will remain nameless but I WILL say that his name begins with F and he has a massive fondness for Minecraft and Ancient Egyptian history sat down on some church steps in the Marais without looking behind him first…

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