The Eiffel Tower is a cliché but also a legend and a must on family holidays in Paris, recognized all over the world and much-loved by kids. You can walk up to the first and second levels by stairs (all lung-busting 1,710 of them) for a nominal fee, or there’s a lift to the second floor if you’re with younger kids (and any vertigo-suffering – or unfit – parents). At the second floor there’s a second lift taking you to the viewing platform at the top, 276m up. It's now possible to book ahead to bypass the hellishly long queues, and kids 6–10 can pick up a Gus quiz-trail leaflet on the 1st floor to find out more about the tower's history and construction.
The Louvre, vast and awe-inspiring, lives up to its reputation, from the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo to the modern glass pyramid in the courtyard outside. Ask about the self-guided or guided tours for families, or the program of workshops for kids 4 and up. You can also print out a number of thematic trails on the likes of horses and Christmas from the website ahead of your visit, including in English. From the Louvre you can watch straight through to the Jardin des Tuileries, with its sculptures, carousel and donkey rides.
Another popular outside space is the Jardin du Luxembourg, over on the Left Bank, with lots of 19th-century statues, including ones of various queens and other famous Parisian women around its pond. Fountains make it a refreshing spot on a summer’s day, and you can watch locals playing alfresco boules, chess and bridge, admire the 20 or so hives at the aviary, and watch shows at the puppet theatre.
Or head for the wide open spaces of the Bois de Boulogne east of the city, notorious as a transsexual hangout at night but a wonderful spot in the daytime, especially for its Jardin d’Acclimatation, an fantastic amusement park reached by a little motorized train from Porte Maillot, with plenty of rides and play equipment (including a ‘magic river’ with a water chute, trampolines, a hall of mirrors and a paddling pool), a puppet theatre, a mini-zoo and farm, pony rides, kids’ gardening workshops and the Musée en Herbe or ‘Growing Museum’, with changing, hands-on art and science exhibitions and workshops for kids.
The building of the Centre Pompidou, which looks like it’s been turned inside-out, is as much a tourist attraction as the national collection of modern art inside. If you speak good French, check out the artistic workshops for kids 6-10, or attend a Dimanche en Famille (‘Family Sunday’), with activities based around a specific work, artist or theme.
For resolutely non-arty kids, head for the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes at the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle – a mini zoo inside the city’s botanical garden. The world’s oldest zoo to have retained its original appearance, having been set up in 1794 to house animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles plus animals rescued from street entertainers, it focuses on smaller animals and their conservation, and includes a unique ‘microzoo’ full of the kind of microscopic animals with whom we share our beds. There’s a larger zoo run by the same folk in the Bois de Vincennes in the 12th arrondissement.
And don’t miss what’s inside the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle itself, especially the Grande Galerie de l'Évolution with its thousands of stuffed animal specimens, the spooky Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie Comparée, full of skeletons, preserved organs, shells and fossils, and the giant – and we mean giant – crystals in the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie. Don't leave the Jardin des Plantes without checking out the Ménage du Dodo, a quirky carousel with extinct or endangered species to ride, or the maze.
In northern Paris, the La Villette abattoirs in the 19th arrondissement were transformed into a remarkable leisure and cultural space in the 35-acre Parc de la Villette, the city’s largest green expanse. Here you’ll find, at various times of the year, contemporary circus, cabaret, street art, cinema, puppetry and more, as well as tons of space in which to run around, and a dozen themed gardens alongside a promenade bordered by sound installations and play areas, including the Jardin des dunes et des vents (‘Garden of Sand Dunes and Wind’) for 2–12-year-olds and the Jardin des voltiges (‘Garden of Flight’) for over-6s.
On-site you’ll also find the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie and the Cité de la Musique. The first, a vast museum of science and technology, includes the Cité des Enfants, with discovery spaces for kids 3–5 and 5–12, plus a children’s media library, changing exhibitions, a planetarium, a decommissioned 1950s submarine you can explore, an IMAX cinema (the Geode), and a moving cinema (the Cineaxe). The Cité de la Musique is a concert space and museum of musical instruments; family offerings include Wednesday-afternoon concerts and shows for children and parents, music workshops, and tours of the collections with a storyteller, followed by a workshop or by a puzzle to solve.
A boat trip down the Seine is touristy but a must: the most longstanding company to ply the river is Bateaux-Mouches, offering recorded commentary in a variety of languages. Lunches and dinners are pricey, but one under-12s lunch menu is offered free with every two paying adults.
For those prepared to venture outside the city confines, there is, of course, Disneyland Paris in the eastern suburbs, 32km from the centre. Lesser-known but well worth a visit is Parc Astérix 30km to the north, not far from Charles de Gaulle airport. The latter, based on the classic Uderzo and Goscinny comic books about a tribe of ancient Gauls resisting Roman occupation, includes Europe’s largest wooden rollercoaster, plus some interesting rides modelled on ancient Greek and Roman themes. As with Disneyland, you can choose to stay nearby, although both are straightforward and speedy to access from the centre.
For young kids, you could also try out the Playmobil Funpark at Fresnes south of the city close to Orly airport.