Paris is a city of romance, of beauty, of art. It’s the city of lights, the city that celebrates Picasso, Monet and Victor Hugo. It’s a food mecca, a wine lover’s paradise, a shopper’s dream. Paris is the cultural capital of the past, present and future.
Paris is not a city of amusement parks and activities for children, Disneyland Paris not withstanding. So it goes without saying Paris is not a destination for families, correct? Wrong, although it took months of planning followed by a week experiencing the city with a 5-year-old to convince me that, in fact, Paris with kids is very possible.
But let’s be clear: the type of family trip to Paris depends somewhat on the child along with the expectation of the parents. If I’ve learned one thing from traveling with a child it’s that nothing ever goes to plan. Some children have meltdowns, others go with the flow. Some will eat just about anything while others have a taste for two or three items.
We had been to Paris once before and had been itching to get back since that trip way back in 1998. But it seems every time even just the idea of a trip to Europe comes up we settle on somewhere else instead. For this trip, our first with our son, we were originally thinking Ireland, simply for the fact of how I’ve heard it’s such a wonderful destination for families. But the pull of Paris finally won out, and so I found myself tasked with figuring out how to fully enjoy Paris with a child in tow.
If you travel even a little bit with children you’ve probably stayed in a hotel. We’ve stayed in nice hotels, budget chain motels, bed-and-breakfast inns and apartments with our son. I think hotels are fine generally. But when spending more than a couple days in a destination, my experience is that an apartment works best. And when we visited Paris with our son, we found an apartment with a bed for us and a pull-out couch for him worked perfectly.
In general we prefer staying in an apartment. Apartments can be found in neighborhoods where hotels aren’t options, so it can give the feel of living like a local. That’s great for parents, but children aren’t too concerned about living like a local. But what they do care about is snacks, TV and comfort. Having an apartment typically means a kitchen. Having a refrigerator to store milk, for example, can be the difference between a happy camper and a whiny brat. It also helps to find the nearest grocer and patisserie to get a quick snack.
Speaking of food, what to feed our picky 5-year-old was our biggest concern. Paris is known for exquisite food and we wanted to experience that. We don’t eat fast food at home and had no plans to lower our standards on the road. We take our son to nicer restaurants at home, but we do know that some of them have more romantic settings. So instead of dinner later in the evening we knew the earlier we could eat dinner the better.
We did bring a jar of peanut butter that proved to be a God-send at times when he needed quick comfort food. But we also discovered he loved crepes, and he was able to have them at least once a day.
Cheese plates were great to share as well. While my wife shopped, oftentimes my son and I would drop into a cafe where he would enjoy a sampling of cheese and I’d sample a small pitcher of house wine.
It also helps that we had Crayons to go with his coloring book and sketch book, a Nintendo DS and movies on my iPhone. Headphones meant he disturbed no one.
My wife loves art and Paris has some of the world’s best. Fortunately for us we had already visited the Louvre so we weren’t planning to spend much time there. But we were looking forward to visits to the Pompidou, Orsay and Orangerie. Not too many young children are that interested in art, and our son is no different.
But we did prepare him for the art he would see. On a previous trip to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art we bought a bundle of children’s art books. So he was already introduced to the work of Piccasso, Monet, Van Gogh and others. It was gratifying as we walked from gallery to gallery in the Orsay to hear him point out paintings he recognized. After that visit, he sat at a cafe coloring his own masterpieces that he said he would hang in his museum when we returned home.
Ah, shopping, my least desirable activity but my wife’s favorite. Normally when we have a couple’s getaway there is always shopping involved for my wife. But I’m almost never in attendance. That’s because I’m good about finding bars to enjoy local beer, or sometimes am able to happen into a sporting event to attend.
The difference in this case is even in a more liberal Europe, sitting at a bar with a 5-year-old isn’t much of an option. But that’s where I had to get creative. For starters, cafes are part of Parisian culture and sitting at a table where dad can enjoy a glass of wine while son samples cheese worked for us.
But the biggest thing in our favor was the two main shopping areas my wife targeted, there were activities in the neighborhood. There are several shops my wife spent time at near the Eiffel Tower. So he and I enjoyed a visit to the Tower while she shopped.
Colby and I spent a few hours enjoying the Eiffel — Stacey had already toured it and had no desire for a repeat performance — while she shopped nearby.
And the Marias neighborhood, in Paris’ 4th Arrondissement just across the Seine from Notre Dame, is a great area for boutiques. But it also has a wonderful little square, Places des Vosges, where a sand pit, playground equipment and other activities for kids abound.
The couple of hours my son and I spent there while my wife shopped nearby might have been two of my best hours in Paris.
What was so great about it? It’s simple. I sat on a bench people watching while he sat in a pit of sand laughing and playing with Parisian children and other tourists. Want a genuine cultural experience for your child? Take them to a playground and watch him or her interact with local kids.
Our final afternoon in Paris was spent watching Colby laugh and play with Parisians in the children’s playground at Luxembourg Gardens.
Is Paris with kids possible? Most definitely, you just have to get creative. You’re probably not going to experience a romantic meal, for example, but you can still visit wonderful restaurants. And while you might not be able to steal a kiss over a candlit meal, you will be able to pass on an important cultural experience to your child. Better to have a third, fourth or even fifth wheel along than to just stay home and not experience Paris at all.