Paris didn’t get its romantic reputation by catering to jet-lagged children. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be condemned to that notorious Parisian attitude if you’re visiting à trois (or more). There are umpteen ways to experience the city en famille without resorting to Disneyland Paris. The following are (largely) stroller friendly and utterly memorable.
How many of us have arrived in a new city, put our children to bed, then looked around the dark hotel room and thought, “Now what?” This is how my friend and her husband ended up eating pizza in the bathroom of a Paris hotel while their twins slept. And it’s what inspired me never to become that cautionary tale.
When we had two under three in Paris, we booked the family apartment at the Hôtel de Sèvres (hoteldesevres.com; rooms from €370; $550 Canadian), whose concierge arranged babysitting and parking for our double stroller (no small matter). Come morning, we were walking distance to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower.
Now that the kids are old enough for dinner at 8, we all pile into the quadruple room at Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc (hoteljeannedarc.com; rooms from €250), smack in the Marais, or the deeply fashionable Le Citizen (lecitizenhotel.com; rooms from €299), where the girls sleep on daybeds in the living area. There are more options: Airbnb (airbnb.com) has hundreds of family-sized apartments. Its smarter alter-ego One Fine Stay (onefinestay.com) vets member properties for designer details and offers a house smartphone loaded with local contacts.
An iPad with the SketchBook app will see you through most museums (plonk Jacob down in front of the Orangerie’s Monets and watch him interpret them). But kids don’t crave screen time at the Musée des arts et métiers (60 rue Réaumur, arts-et-metiers.net), a historic hall crammed with steam engines, gramophones and implausible flying objects, including Clément Ader’s Avion III, which dangles like a bat above the swooping staircase. It’s all deliciously steampunk. In an alcove, you can watch the back-and-forth of Léon Foucault’s original pendulum and despair of your inability to understand even the simplest explanation.
La Gaîté Lyrique (3 bis rue Papin, gaite-lyrique.net) is devoted to digital arts, music and fashion, meaning there are always flickering screens, LED art and wacktacularly outfitted mannequins to interact with. The resource centre upstairs is a cut above, with a video game lounge, arts and crafts tables, squishy seating and a music library with listening booths.
Bonton Bazar (122 rue du Bac, Bonton.fr) is shopping gold at the end of rue du Bac, the boulevard that cuts a dash through Saint-Germain-des-Près. But children are more impressed by deyrolle (46 rue du Bac, deyrolle.com), the fabled taxidermist whose exotic second-floor menagerie is back in business after a tragic fire. Hold hands if they’re liable to tackle the polar bear or stroke the (remarkably well endowed) kangaroo. Touching – and taking photos – is interdit. If your budget won’t stretch to the €22,000 South African zebra, you could buy a tiny bird skeleton, or a luggage-friendly botanical print.
If your kids have staged a mutiny during the inevitable Marais shopping expedition, march them off to the “bead district” along rue du Temple. At La Perlerie 22 (22 rue du Temple), for instance, they can rifle through bins of beads, buttons and charms (wire, clasps and safety pins also available) – even teenage boys have been known to dive in, to keep up with the girls at school. A few minutes here will tide them over until dinner, when they can string their beads while you drain a bottle of Bordeaux.
It’s a rite of passage to ride the carousel at the Luxembourg Gardens, or push a toy sailboat across the Grand Basin. Commissioned by 17th-century French queen Marie de Médicis, Luxembourg is so brilliantly appointed with fountains and statuary you could easily pass a day there. The park is a backyard for le tout Paris and the next best thing to a trip out to Versailles.
The Luxembourg is also severely civilized. Less so is the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a wild heath in the 19th arrondissement, near the art galleries of Belleville. At its centre, a network of rugged paths leads up the rocky butte to a gazebo overlooking the city, and a suspension bridge connects 200-year-old pine forests. The Rosa Bonheur café (2 allée de la Cascade), is the sort of functional-chic place where young parents watch their children rough-and-tumble in Kenzo Kids sweatshirts.
Across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the cavernous Palais de Tokyo (13 avenue du Président Wilson, palaisdetokyo.com) is a breathtaking exhibition space for experimental art that comes at you from all directions. The main-floor café, Tokyo Eat, has a wild, machine-age-modern look that doesn’t take itself seriously, and a menu of palatable Asian-fusion (plus a reserve of steak-frites, if the kids are so inclined).
Handy for Montmartre and the revitalized Pigalle district, Wepler (14 Place de Clichy, wepler.com) is a belle époque brasserie and seafood house that does heroic, multitiered platters of the stuff. It has heaps of historic cachet – Henry Miller drank here, Édouard Vuillard painted it a century ago – and yet there’s always a banquette free for families of jaded children.
Hand any baby a pain au chocolat and he will drool over it. Older kids are more discerning, yet few will sniff at the spectrum of macarons at Ladurée Royale (16-18 rue Royale, laduree.com) – as impressive as Baskin-Robbins’s 31 flavours but less embarrassingly messy. They can choose among flavours such as salted caramel and coconut – or simply what looks prettiest at the counter – then savour them in the rococo tearoom upstairs. The magnificent shop windows of Saint-Honoré and the Place Vendôme are just outside.
All that twee-ness may strike you as diabetically sweet – in which case Pierre Hermé (several locations, pierreherme.com) is your man. Hermé’s pastries, cakes and, yes, macarons, are displayed in dark, dramatic, terminally fashionable manner down in Saint-Germain. Some would say they surpass Ladurée’s, too; they’re certainly more expensive. It’s your call: In which setting would you be least mortified witnessing a sugar-induced scene?
The Marais bookshop Comme un roman… (39 rue de Bretagne, www.comme-un-roman.com) has a robust children’s section and shares my children’s affection for Barbapapa. If they’ve retained any vocabulary at all, it’s from the Barbapapa series they chose here, which we still read in the original French. You’ll find an even better selection of titles at the Left Bank outpost of Chantelivre (13 rue de Sèvres, chantelivre.com).
Seriously, though, you can’t do much better than a portrait from a street artist at the Place du Tertre in Montmartre. Yes, it is every Parisian cliché rolled up and tied with a raffia bow, and it might turn out horribly. But heck, nobody you know will be watching, and the little ones will have a memory of their trip forever – whether they recognize themselves or not.