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Paris is a wonderful city for family holidays and breaks, with heaps of free attractions to please all ages, as well as the costlier crowd-pleasers. Like London, the French capital is never going to make for a cheap destination, but plan your days well and you'll have a truly unforgettable stay in the 'City of Lights'. And after eating your fill of steak-frites and strolling along the Seine, you can make the kids’ year with a trip to Disneyland.
Children are welcomed here, although it has to be said that French kids in general, and Parisian ones in particular, are extremely well behaved, so get ready for a few disapproving looks when yours cause havoc.
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.
Note that Family Twist can book Paris activity itineraries as well as packages with accommodation and transport, while award-winning walking tours firm Context Travel can also make Paris more accessible to those with kids with its themed family walks.
Food in Paris is often phenomenal and generally kid-friendly, although there’s a huge number of tourist traps and you can eat very badly here, so you still need to choose wisely.
Even if you aren’t up for frogs’ legs and snails, the city should tickle your taste buds somewhere along the line. Croissants, crêpes, omelettes, ice cream and hot chocolate are perennial child-pleasers that were more or less invented by the French.
Below are a few of our favourites, from classic restaurants to a hot-chocolate hideaway. And you can’t move for great delicatessens and specialist food shops where you can stock up for picnics or self-catering treats, or for street vendors sellings crêpes in all combinations, from cheese and ham to chocolate and banana – particularly handy in a country in which dining hours are somewhat restricted (although Paris is a better place than any for finding all-day options).
Berthillon, 31 rue St Louis en l'Ile, 75004, 01 43 54 31 61. Fabulous hand-made ice creams and sorbets available all over the city but best tasted here, at the factory and adjoining tea-room, where you’ll get the greatest choice.
Bistro Romain, 30 rue St Denis, 75001, 01 40 26 82 80, and other locations. A handy (if not especially cheap) chain to know about if you have relatively fussy kids who don’t stray far from pasta, with friendly service. Other Italian staples on offer include risottos, carpaccios, and meat and fish dishes, and under-12s get their own menu.
Chez Angelina, 226 rue de Rivoli, 75001, 01 42 60 82 00. A classic tea-room full of perfectly behaved French kids, and an authentic place for Paris afternoon tea in grand surroundings. It’s also a good breakfast stop. The hot chocolate is famous, the cakes unbeatable, but there are also club sandwiches, salads and the like. You’ll almost certainly have to queue.
Le Jardin d'Ivy, 75 rue Mouffetard , 75005, 01 47 07 19 29. A refreshing find in a touristy neighbourhood, full of families taking advantage of its flower-filled courtyard or its conservatory when the weather isn’t so kind. The fish is good, but it’s also a great place for veggies, and the prices are reasonable.
New Nioullaville, 32–34 rue de l’Orillon, 75011, 01 40 21 98 38. A vast Hong-Kong style restaurant always bustling with Asian families (dishes come from various parts of southeast Asia), with open kitchens for watching the multitude of chefs at work, big fish-tanks and carts loaded with dim sum treats.
Les Ombres, Musée Quai Branly, 27 Quai Branly, 75007, 01 47 53 68 00. A spacious restaurant in a Paris’ museum of African, Asian Oceanian and American civilizations, with gobsmacking views of the nearby Eiffel Tower, serving expensive globally inspired dishes, many featuring Fair Trade ingredients. There’s a large terrace with fountains looking out over the museum’s gardens.
Paris is amazing at any time of year, although it can overheat in August. This is when many locals escape to the country or the seaside, yet despite many sights and restaurants closing for the month, the city is filled with tourists and sights such as the Eiffel Tower become impossibly crowded, so it's not the best time for family holidays or breaks.
But if you do visit in summer, cool off on Paris Plage – the temporary beaches set up alongside the Seine from mid-July, complete with palm trees and loungers. Paris Plage grows year on year, but the prime spot for families is close to Châtelet, where there’s a kid’s area with baby-changing and -feeding facilities and plenty to entertain little ‘uns. Or head for the nearby Piscine Joséphine Baker (a floating swimming pool on the Seine), which is open all year but comes into its own in summer, when its roof fully retracts. Kids love the boat-shaped structure in metal, wood and glass, and the large paddling pool; for parents there’s a gym, sauna, spa, Jacuzzi and hammam. You’ll find it at Quai François Mauriac in the 13th arrondissement.
Bastille Day (July 14th), when folk celebrate the 1789 surrender of the Bastille that began the Revolution, is an exciting day all over France, but the firework displays and concerts held in the capital are naturally among the very best. Events start revving up the day before; on the day itself, everyone and their brother flocks to the Champs-Elysées to watch a military parade led by none less than the president, with jets whooshing overhead. After all-day partying, there’s another giant congregration by the Eiffel Tower to watch the awesome fireworks display.
At Christmas, Paris is an especially stunning sight, with lights and beautifully decorated trees all over the city, plus fab gift shopping.
It's about 2hrs 15mins from London St Pancras International with Eurostar. There are around 20 departures a day; under-5s travel free but don't get a seat if there’s not one available. When booking, do state if you are travelling with an infant so that you’ll be put in the family carriage with its baby-changing facilities. Children's prices are around £50 return; adults should look out for offers starting at around £69.
Eurostar arrives at the Gare du Nord. The taxi rank here can get very busy but if you're with young kids or need a people-carrier (ie, if there are more than 4 of you), make your way to the front and those in charge will prioritise you. Taxis are not absurdly expensive in Paris and are worth the outlay if you’re loaded down, but there are two RER lines and two Métro lines in the station itself.
There are flights from around the UK to Paris Charles de Gaulle just north of the city from most of its British airports and low-cost flights to 'Paris' Beauvais airport 1hr north of the city, in Picardy.
Depending on where you are staying, the RER (train) is probably your fastest means of getting into the centre from the main airports. A taxi from Charles de Gaulle will cost around €50 and one from Orly (south of the city) approximately €40.
In terms of getting around, the centre can be walked easily, and the Métro is clean and useful, if – like London's – a trial for those with buggies. The same tickets can be used on buses; to save money buy a carnet (book of 10) or a Paris Visite card, which gives you unlimited travel on local transport within certain zones for 1–5 days, plus discounted entry on certain attractions. You can buy it at all Métro and RER stops and in tourist offices, among other places.
Beware of Parisian drivers, who don’t always stop at red lights and almost never at marked crossings. The same goes for trying to drive here.
Adults and kids 14 and up can hire one of the bikes that form part of the Velib' system dotted all over Paris, although we can’t recommend strongly enough that you stick to cycle routes (see paris.fr for a map, including those in the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes). A good walk (and picnic spot) is the Promenade Plantée, a disused railway line now planted with flowers, which runs from behind the Bastille Opéra 4.5km to the Bois de Vincennes.
Paris – like any major city – isn't cheap for family holidays or breaks, even if you stay somewhere relatively modest but especially if you go for a really good hotel. The exchange rate hasn't been favourable for UK visitors for a long time, either. That said, many great things are free, including access to the majority of green spaces.
Hotels can vary from €70 per night to €1000 for a suite. Self-catering apartments can be had from about €100 per night. A set menu averages €10, crepes €3–4.By Rhonda Carrier
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