Visiting paris with kids

Visiting Paris with kids can be a great chance to expose them to culture, but you have to learn to take their special needs into consideration.

We recently did a spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris with our young son. Although he's well-traveled, we weren't sure how to mix kids and culture on a visit to the City of Lights.

After we decided to take advantage of incredibly low off-season fares through a special saver's program, I had five days to plan the five-day trip for the middle of August. Five days! For our trip to Britain last year, we planned for six months.

The first thing we did was search the Internet for hotels. Most didn't have online reservations, so we put in requests for information and headed for the bookstore. My husband and I couldn't agree on travel guides, so we bought two: The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Paris and Time Out Guide: Paris. Between the two of them, we thought we'd have plenty of information for planning our trip. Wrong!

The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Paris did provide one essential tip: Aparthotels are the best hotel bets for families. These apartment-hotel hybrids, similar to all-suite hotels in North America, can be big money-savers for families of three or more. Our suite had two separate rooms, allowing us to put our six-year old son to bed early and giving us some privacy. It also had a full bath, something you're not likely to get in a typical European hotel. The courtyard exposure and double-glazed windows made for peaceful nights. On the downside, the rooms were more like modern American hotel rooms, lacking the charm of older French hotels.

The mini kitchen in our room allowed us to keep breakfast and snack food, and could easily have saved us a considerable amount of money on meals if we'd chosen to prepare our own lunches or dinners. We were too tempted by the great restaurants nearby to dine in our room, though.

Despite the fact that both guides said these section of the city had little to recommend it, we found it charming. We discovered several good restaurants within a few blocks of the hotel, the kind of places that catered more to locals than tourists. In the evenings, performers took up their posts in the plaza, juggling flaming batons, strumming guitars, or miming in classic French fashion.

Getting Around

Unless you are familiar with French driving, do not plan to drive in Paris. You're much better off using their excellent Metro system. Your feet will thank you, and you won't have to worry about parking. Metro passes are inexpensive, and can be bought individually or for a set number of days. Inquire at the station to find the best options for your trip.

Don't succumb to the temptation to try and see everything Paris has to offer. Be selective, get input from your kids, and make sure to take plenty of breaks. Remember that vacations are not marathons, and your children will not thank you for making them endure endless museums and mile-long queues.

Even if you've visited Paris before, you may find that bringing your children will show you a side you've never seen. The French, and perhaps Parisians in particular, dote on children. They are very welcoming toward young visitors of any nationality. In shops, clerks seem to go out of their way to find just the right souvenirs. In restaurants, they may try to accommodate unusual requests more easily than they would for an adult.


Regarding restaurants in Paris, it's definitely Buyer Beware. Food is very expensive, and meals can take two hours or more, so you want to choose your restaurants wisely when you're traveling with kids. We made the mistake one night of trying a place recommended by The Complete Idiot's Guide, and were very
disappointed. The food was mediocre, the service was awful, and the prices were outrageous. We learned our lesson: ALWAYS read the menu posted outside before going inside. If we'd taken that simple precaution, we'd have realized this placed specialized in duck and liver dishes, leaving nothing our usually adventurous six-year old even wanted to try. We chose safe beef and fish dishes, thinking he could sample our meals, but the beef was tough and strong-flavored, while the fish was bland and over-cooked.

If you want to save money and still have a satisfying, quick lunch, try one of the many creperies. You can order salee (salty) or sucre (sweet), for lunch and dessert. The crepes are large, thin pancakes, filled with savory ingredients like ham and cheese, or Nutella and hazelnuts. Best of all, they're good finger food, and kids love them.

Another great idea: The plaza near our hotel, in Place des Halles, sported a McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC and Chicago Ribs. We found that feeding our son on familiar food before going out to dinner accomplished two things: he got to eat something he recognized and enjoyed, and he was much more patient during the long restaurant meals. While he's not normally a picky eater, he definitely doesn't like long waits for his meals.

If you want to bring a few taste treats back home, many shops in the Latin Quarter offer gourmet food items packaged for export. You'll also find many delis and shops where you can sample pastries, pates, and other delights.

Museums and kids:

We knew ahead of time we'd have to limit our time in art museums, which aren't stimulating enough for a six-year old, so we bought a Carte Musee at the Metro station. These passes are a great deal for several reasons: (1) They let you go to the head of the line or use a separate entrance at most museums, with more than 70 museums and monuments included. When you see some of the lines, you'll realize what a time-saver this can be. (2) They can be bought for one, three or five days. Add up the admissions to the museums and monuments you plan to see to find out if it's a good deal. (3) If you have the pass, you're more likely to visit marginal places (some of which are real finds). Plus, you won't feel bad if your kids start whining at the Louvre and you have to leave after two hours, or if your feet are killing you and you just need to go sit down at a café and take a break.

The museum pass also allows you to key in on a few highlights rather than struggling to see entire collections in order to get your money's worth. Try to focus on art objects or paintings your kids will recognize and remember. On the way to see the Mona Lisa, for instance, you can enjoy the Louvre's exceptional Renaissance art collection. A brief detour will allow you to browse through the Impressionists while you make your way through the gallery to see Whistler's Mother.

Our favorite place was one the guide books gave a thumbs-down: the Musee de L'Armee military museum. Although the main attraction here is Napoleon's tomb, that was a mere footnote to our visit. The collection of medieval weapons was what caught - and kept - our attention. Our son, a history buff like his parents, would have gladly spent two more hours touring the weapons collections. I'd read the description, and thought it would be a hit, but our guide books didn't agree. One, The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Paris, said the museum was tedious. The other suggested it would be good for weapons buffs, especially the World War I and II collections, which we never even saw. Another bonus: it wasn't crowded at all, so we had plenty of time to browse and enjoy.

On the other hand, the Musee de Moyen Age was a disappointment. We went there expecting a glimpse into medieval life, but saw mostly artwork and tapestries. It was more a museum of medieval art than a look at the Middle Ages.

Other sites

Although August is supposed to be the off-season, most of the tourist sites were incredibly crowded. The worst was Versailles, which was so jam-packed with tour groups that we just pushed our way through without pausing to admire the art and architecture: a pity because the palace and gardens are quite beautiful. The crowds and the din of multi-lingual tours detracted too much from the splendor. Add to that the fact that the grounds had three restrooms for about 10,000 visitors, and you have the makings of a real nightmare.

Ditto for the Eiffel Tower. After spending two hours in line (our pass didn't include this site), we were so pressed and oppressed by the crowds that we couldn't wait to leave. The view may have been magnificent, but we had trouble seeing anything over the heads of all the other visitors.

The stairs at the Arc de Triomphe are hard on the feet, and may be difficult if you've must maneuver young children and strollers up the narrow staircases. The view at the top is worthwhile, but the kids may not be impressed. Far better, in that regard, is the Notre Dame Cathedral. For one thing, most kids are familiar with the Hugo's story of the hunchback, if only from the Disney film. For another, they'll be so delighted with the gargoyles, they'll probably forget how many steps they had to climb to see them.

The sewers were supposed to be a sure bet for kids. What they really were was a smelly look at a very modern sewer system, with a little history thrown in. Definitely not worth the trip, especially not since our clothes ended up smelling of sewers for the rest of the day.

A better bet is the Champs Elysee, which has plenty of shops, arcades, and cafes. Our son especially liked the Lego store; in fact, he seemed to have a sixth sense, unerringly ferreting out the store in a vast arcade of shops. And, while you may not find haute couture, you will find plenty of clothing shops catering to all tastes.

When you're tired of walking, head for one of the city's many parks. Most have playgrounds, with nearby benches for weary parents. You'll soon realize that language is no barrier, as your kids quickly find playmates. Snacks and drinks are available at kiosks, so you can stay as long as you and your kids need the break.

Rest assured that, no matter how much planning you put into your trip to Paris, your kids will remember the strangest things: the playgrounds in every park, the pay toilets that are nothing more than holes in the ground, and the fact that you must never, ever walk on the grass.

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