This spring we went to Paris with our four small children.
Call us crazy, but when we saw some great flights on the EXACT dates of our Spring Break, we jumped at the chance and although we could have gone just my husband and I, traveling as a family is something we are really passionate about. (Check out the blog posts from our month living in Mexico here here and here)
I’ll probably write a few posts about our trip and some revelations and lessons and such, but we’ve had so many questions asking about tips, and things to do and recommendations, that I thought I’d get that done first – while it’s all still fresh in my mind.
I’m breaking this list up into different categories so you can just scroll down to the one that interests you most.
Just a little overview of the purpose of this trip. We did not take this trip as our “One and only trip of a lifetime” trip to Paris. Our goal and intention is to travel the world regularly with our kids and return several times. This was helpful because we could tailor the trip to THIS season, with the kids at THIS age and not feel bad if we had to skip things that wouldn’t serve us at this time. We wanted to be compassionate towards our kids and not force them to go to hours upon hours of museums, but at the same time push them a little outside their comfort zone and trust that they are people and capable of appreciating and enjoying the good, the true and the beautiful even if it’s not wrapped in bright, primary, cartoon colors.
Children are amazing and more capable than we often give them credit for, they can eat at fancy restaurants, and enjoy modern art. Balancing this with compassion for their attention spans and need to run and wiggle is not easy – I won’t say we did it perfectly, but this is how we try to travel – stretch them and then give them a rest and break to be kids. Our four kids were 8, 7, 5 and 2 years old on this trip.
Ok – on to the tips and recommendations!
Big Red Bus Tour:
Being that we are from a “tourist” city ourselves (Miami, FL) we often scoff and roll our eyes at all the tourists sitting atop those gaudy big red busses rolling through the streets. However, going to a new city and exploring it through “wandering” as we like to do, we thought it would be fun to get a bird’s eye view and get our bearings as to how the city is laid out. This ended up being a great idea. We got to sit (hooray!) and listen to a tour guide give some awesome facts and history about the city that made the experience so much better! Ideally, we would have been studying Parisian history before going on this trip, so that we had background info and all sorts of interesting stories to reference, but life is busy, and that didn’t happen. This was a nice short cut for that – and also, fun to learn all the stories while being RIGHT UNDER the very monuments we were learning about.
The kids loved the bus as well and were fascinated by the stories the tour guide told us. It really did add to the experience the rest of the week when we got to explore some of the museums and monuments in greater detail, we all already had some history and background to go off.
Yes, yes and yes – obviously.
It’s breathtaking and just walking around it was amazing for us and the kids.
The park right in front of the tower is a perfect spot for a picnic (more on how to source picnic food in the food section)
We decided not to go up the tower this trip – although I kind of regret it and if (or rather, when) we go back I would love to do it (if we only had our older three kids and not the two year old we probably would, we were nervous the baby would freak out in such a long elevator ride and neither of us wanted to cary her up 1,000+ steps.
One of the things we learned on the big red bus, was how many scientists and mathematicians it took to make sure the Eiffel Tower was constructed perfectly – and they engraved the names of all these math nerds on the tower to spite all of the artists of the city. Finding the names and marveling and having discussions on the necessity for both art & beauty and order and precision was fun to have with our kids because we have one who wants to be an engineer and another who wants to be an artist.
We HIGHLY recommend seeing it at night. It gets all SPARKLY every hour on the hour for about 5 to 10 minutes. The kids lost their minds when this happened and it was a really special moment.
—> Aside: at every monument, museum, restaurant and park we tried (maybe not so much when we were just exhausted) to engage the kids in conversation. Not talking TO them (which we tend to do a lot in the day to day) but talking WITH them. We do this thing called “The Question of the Day” and whoever has a question to discuss can bring it up. It’s fun to ask good questions, and it’s fun to hear what questions our kids have. It’s not always easy to draw thoughts and ideas out of your kids. Sometimes their thoughts and ideas are lazy and silly. Sometimes their thoughts and questions are hard to answer and uncomfortable, but it was one of the most fun parts of the trip for me, to not only SEE and TASTE and LEARN about things, but observe and draw out from the kids how they were processing everything.
Arc de Triomphe
This is just absolutely breathtaking to be up close to (and far away). Again, one of those monuments that we skipped going up to the top of. We tried to reserve standing in long lines for those things we we felt were absolutely worth it, out of compassion for the kids. Once again, I will say, I would probably like to go up next time, but at night!!
Once again, the big red bus gave us some amazing facts about this monument – commissioned by Napoleon but he never saw it completed, they carried his body through it when it was brought to Paris to rest. The “tomb of the unknown soldier” is here and at 4:30pm there is a ceremony for that (much like the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown solider in Arlington National Cemetery)
We only went to three, again, trying to keep things manageable for the kids. We went back and forth over whether to go to the Louvre or skip it, in the end we skipped it (I know, the sacrilege!!) and I am SO glad we did!!! We saw the outside, walked through the gardens (which were just BEAUTIFUL in the spring – the statues are amazing) and headed for the Musee de l’Orangerie – a PERFECT size museum for our kid’s ages. The pieces it contained were AMAZING – Monet, Matisse, Picasso and others – the audio guide was super fun for the kids, the could pick which pieces of art THEY were interested in and could choose to learn more about it. This gave them autonomy and independence over their learning experience.
The next museum we went to was the Army Museum, located in Les Invalides building. This was great ESPECIALLY for our boys. Lots of armor, giant cannons, tanks, guns, swords and other weapons. It was also beautiful (because, go figure, even the weapons were works of art!!). We didn’t see the entire museum – it’s pretty big – but we did get to see a good amount and the tomb of Napoleon (which we heard about on the big red bus, so the kids were already curious and interested to see it!)
Finally we went to the Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou Center. This was supposed to have a children’s exhibit that is interactive, one of the main reasons why we went, but it was closed. Thankfully, modern art – with all it’s strangeness, was super interesting to the kids. We spent much more time there than I thought we would. It sparked a lot of conversations about what art is, what it’s supposed to do, and the difference between art that beautifies and art that provokes.
Basilica Sacre Coeur
This beautiful church on a hilltop was one of the absolute highlights for me. We were hoping to be there to watch the sun set over the city, but with little kids, we didn’t force ourselves to stick to a strict schedule. Thankfully it all worked out and we found ourselves at this beautiful Parisian landmark at just the right time. There is also a little spot to sit with room for the kids to play and let out some steam.
The entire neighborhood of Montmartre is lovely. In future trips, this is likely where we would like to stay.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame
We absolutely watched as many Paris located movies with the kids before coming, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of them, so the kids could instantly recognize this landmark. It is such a beautifully imposing building! We were able to go in for one of the Sunday masses, which was lovely (although we didn’t get to actually SIT through it because of a wiggly two year old, we caught most of it and walked around the cathedral and both of us took a moment to reflect and take in the spiritual beauty of the cathedral)
The cathedral sparked great discussions about the role religion played in the middle ages and a brief overview of Catholicism, the pope, lighting candles and the saints and Mary. We also took in the beauty of the architecture and stained glass windows.
This iconic palace is MASSIVE. Once again, we opted for the smaller exhibits this time around and skipped the main palace. There is no food allowed inside the palace, so we left a little later in the day and arrived to Versallies (about an hour and a half by train) around 11:30am. We walked the gardens a bit and found a place for a picnic. Then we headed to a little restaurant over by the boats and the sun came out and we simply rested on the lawn there. The kids ran around and played, it was magic.
After that we made our way to Marie Antoinette’s village and King Louie’s retreat homes. The village was ENCHANTING, and mostly enjoyed from the outdoors. There were animals and bridges, really fun and great for the kids. Then we went the retreat homes (palaces) and this gave the kids a little taste of the riches of the king – the chandeliers, paintings, couches, rugs and furniture, with out the crowds in the main palace. It really worked out perfectly for us and the kids – I think this might have been the highlight of the entire trip for us all.
The town of Versallies was also really nice, outside of the actual palace. We ate at a great little pizza place – wonderful service (which we didn’t always have in Paris) and DELICIOUS pizza. I highly recommend eating and walking around the town of Versallies a little bit if you have time.
We picnicked a LOT. Great weather in the spring, beautiful parks and grocery stores all over the place made it an ideal choice. We mostly shopped at Franprix, a local grocery store, and we got cold cuts, sliced cheese, some fruit and some wine (for us) to go. You can also get croissants or baguettes at the Franprix, but usually we stopped into a Boulangerie (bakery) for the bread. Most stores don’t give you bags for things, but we always had our backpack with us and fit everything inside of that. We were going to bring a picnic blanket, but never got around to it. Thankfully the week we went was a dry week (no rain) which is unusual in the spring, but that worked in our favor because the ground was dry, so we didn’t end up needing the blanket after all.
We also enjoyed (for dinner) the rotisserie chickens from Franprix. It was easy to eat and very cheap (about 3,90 euro for the whole thing!)
Picnics are the way to go! And if you are traveling without kids and want to get a little fancier with your picnics (think figs, french cheese, nuts, etc.) we saw plenty of up scale grocery stores that looked just LOVELY – but we stuck with the basics for ease on this trip.
We didn’t eat at a TON of great restaurants. This was one of the hardest things for me to “skip” out on with the kids, but we still ate WELL so I can’t complain. One tip with small children, prepare them ahead of time on how to behave in a fancier restaurant. We don’t eat out a TON back at home either, and if we do it’s some place casual – so we took a few nights at home, before our trip, and prepared a “fancy” meal, with wine glasses for our water cups and our best dishes and cloth napkins and we practiced for our Paris trip. I taught the kids how to put the napkin on their lap and corrected them when they started to slip into crazy “normal” dinner behavior. We talked about how to be courteous to those around us and it was REALLY helpful when we ate at a finer dining place, to have a standard of behavior already instructed to them and set up for them before hand.
We still had spills and I had to remind them SEVERAL times to return to our “good table manners” but I am really glad we did that ahead of time.
The best restaurant we ate at was one of the oldest restaurants in that neighborhood Montmartre called Le Bon Bock. The kids tried escargot (and it was AMAZING!!) and duck confit, we had creme brûlée and it was just delightful. I highly recommend this place!
The other great restaurant we went to was more casual, a little on the healthier side (which was kind of a welcome change, but the kids were not fans of the gluten free desserts) it is located in the Marche St. German. Very seasonal food, incredibly fresh. Mostly soups and sandwiches, but was obsessed with this one open faced sandwich we had with french cheese and roasted endive.
We also snacked, a LOT. We had plenty of crepes and macaroons and ice cream and croissants whenever we felt like it, there’s literally a cafe a stones throw from you wherever you are in the city.
Ok, this is getting a little long – I think I’ll cut it here and pick back up a little later in the week with Part 2. I’ll be sharing all about transportation, park and setting realistic expectations.
If you are a traveling family (or aspire to be) I’d love to connect!
You can follow me on Instagram @van_fernan and I hope you do introduce yourself, tell me about your travels and say hi!