By Eric Stoen
Every summer we take advantage of school holidays and head to new places with our three young kids — 26 countries in the past eight years. But we also find ourselves returning again and again to favorite destinations. Paris is one of them. Since December is a perfect time to start planning travel for next summer, it’s also the perfect time to share a few valuable lessons we’ve learned over the course of several trips to the City of Light. These 10 tips make our vacations fun for the kids (and adults) and largely stress-free.
1. Try a rental instead of a hotel
In an apartment we feel like locals. (Photo: Eric Stoen)
We love renting apartments instead of staying in hotels. In an apartment we feel like locals: We have a kitchen — with all the dining flexibility that it brings — and we have far more space than we would in a hotel. Plus, since there are five of us, we would require two hotel rooms, and that becomes expensive. When we spent time in Paris this summer (as part of our six-week trip through Europe), we rented a house through Airbnb, complete with a courtyard, and it was the perfect place to return to after a day of exploring.
Additional tip: We always stay in the 7th arrondissement. It has the markets of Rue Cler as well as the Eiffel Tower, both of which are landmarks that make it really easy to find our way back home from anywhere in the city.
2. Search out smaller museums
The Musée de la Chasse is fun and quirky for kids.
The major museums like the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre are absolutely worth visiting (see my next tip), but there’s much more to explore in Paris than just the big-ticket attractions, and you’re missing out if you don’t take the time to suss out the unusual and unique small spots in any city. They are often less crowded, just as interesting (if not more so), and easier to see with kids with naturally shorter attention spans. Two of our favorite small museums are the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature and the Musée Marmottan Monet. The Musée de la Chasse is fun and quirky for kids: There are a lot of interactive animal-related displays in a setting that reminds me of a Wes Anderson film. The Monet Museum lets kids get up close to amazing Impressionist art (without the crowds) and to see Monet’s progression as an artist—something you don’t necessarily see at large museums that focus on major works.
Additional tip: Save the museums for a rainy day. Even when the weather is bad, the smaller museums are rarely crowded.
3. If you’re going to a major museum, book a kid-friendly private tour
One of the highlights of our summer trip was a private tour of the Louvre with Paris Muse.
One of the highlights of our summer trip was a private tour of the Louvre with Paris Muse. Not only did we avoid most of the lines and crowds, but the kids had a great time completing word puzzles and being led on a treasure hunt that included a wide spectrum of Babylonian, Greek, French Medieval, and Italian Renaissance art and antiquities.
Additional tip: There are numerous groups that lead kid-centric private tours, including Paris Muse and Context Travel.
4. Think picnics
Every summer that we return to Paris, we find ourselves having more and more picnics, both for lunch and dinner. We’re able to sit and enjoy wine while the kids run around and play — and the breads, meats, cheeses, and tarts bought from local markets can’t be beat.
Additional tip: Bring a thin linen blanket from home (which, in addition to being perfect for picnics, can be used as a towel or a sarong) and buy disposable plates, cups, and utensils at the local supermarché.
5. Walk. A lot
The Métro is great for reaching farther-afield areas of the city and for giving legs a rest, but the biggest mistake that first-time visitors to Paris make is that they take the Métro from major site to major site and miss out on the neighborhoods and the transitions between arrondissements. There are great parks, churches, cafés, and shops outside of the major tourist areas, and some of our best days have been the ones when we did the most walking.
Additional tip: We like picking a destination in the morning or the night before, taking the Métro there, exploring that area, and then slowly walking back to our apartment in the afternoon, buying things for dinner along the way.
6. Learn to cook
Whether you’re into pizza, baguettes or pastries, you can find a cooking class for it in Paris.
We’ve always loved macarons. So this summer we learned how to make them with Cook’n With Class in Montmartre. Our kids were involved in every step, from preparing the dough and fillings to final assembly — and, best of all, they got to take home everything that they made. Whether you’re into pizza, baguettes or pastries, you can find a cooking class for it in Paris. And it doesn’t even take up a whole day — a short course is a perfect morning or afternoon activity.
Additional tip: If you find a class that looks great for your family but is geared to adults, ask the school if they can offer you a kid-friendly version.
7. Become regulars
On Rue de Grenelle near Champs de Mars there is a little Italian restaurant. We’ve eaten there six times over the past two summers, and every time is better. When they see us they seat us right away. They anticipate the kids’ drinks. They give us extra appetizers, sweets, and after-dinner liquors at no cost. We always get the same waiter and expand on our conversations each time, as much as possible in French. It makes for a much better experience than simply being one-time visitors. The same holds at boulangeries, where the lovely lady behind the counter would anticipate our pain au chocolat order every morning, or at the local fresh fruit market, where they gave us frequent discounts for not-really-noticeable produce blemishes—but only after we had gone there several times.
Additional tip: Always try to speak French. Even if it’s just one or two sentences that you quickly looked up on Google Translate, it gets you a better level of service than walking in and assuming that the staff speaks English.
8. Stop at every carousel
One of the best carousels for spearing brass rings is at Luxembourg Gardens.
There are a lot of carousels in Paris. Every one is different, and our kids love all of them, so we never say no when we’re passing one. The brass rings are always a highlight because you don’t see them in the U.S. very often anymore. There’s rarely a wait, and it’s a nice chance to relax after a lot of walking.
Additional tip: The best carousels for spearing brass rings are at Luxembourg Gardens (by the playground) and at Champs de Mars park, near the Eiffel Tower.
9. Skip the big amusement parks
My kids love the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
Forget Disneyland Paris. Head to the Jardin d’Acclimatation instead. It’s a much more authentically Parisian experience, easier to get to, and a lot less expensive, with a small entry fee and then pay-per-ride attractions. Go early, before the park gets crowded.
Additional tip: Bring swimsuits and towels. Our kids love the water area.
10. Stay up late
My daughter and I have a tradition of walking around the Eiffel Tower area at least one night during our trip.
A few years ago when we landed in Paris, my wife and two of the kids were jet-lagged and went to sleep early, but my oldest daughter and I felt wide awake. So we quietly left the apartment and walked all around the Eiffel Tower, the Champs du Mars, and the Trocadero area for two hours, including several trips around the Trocadero carousel. It was great one-on-one bonding, and we got to see more Parisian nightlife than we usually do. Since then, it’s become a tradition for the two of us: We always head over on our first night, and then once or twice a week after that.
Additional tip: I especially enjoy walking at night after it’s rained. The reflections are magical.
More from WendyPerrin.com: