Paris is always a good idea, or so the saying goes. but is that still the case when accompanied by your kids? Dilvin Yasa finds out.
I have loved Paris for more years than I care to mention, first falling under its spell as a penniless teenaged backpacker. I have enjoyed the city with lovers, on work trips and – my favourite – gleefully solo but now, as I fly in with my young family for the first time, I feel a stir of mixed emotions. There’s excitement that I’m finally able to show my daughters (aged eight and 13) the elegant settings that form so many of my ridiculous travel stories. There’s trepidation over whether there will be enough to do to cater for their particular age groups. My biggest question?
Can I make Paris work as a family holiday destination without having to visit Disneyland? Armed with a booking at Hotel Bedford – chosen for its spacious, interconnecting rooms and central 8th arrondissement location – we discover the answer is an enthusiastic, “Oui!”
The Eiffel Tower – a testament to French industrial ingenuity to some, a monument that holds a mirror up to all your parental failings to others. Pro tip: get off at Trocadéro metro station for the best “Eiffel-casually-in-the-background” photos. Unsuccessful in our attempts to purchase tickets online some five weeks beforehand, we arrive at the tower early only to find an hours-long queue snaking around the base. “Puh-lease, the French hated it when it was first built, anyway,” I tell my crestfallen kids as I usher them over to Instagram heaven, Rue de l'Université, for more photos. “Besides, the Eiffel Tower is far from the city’s only major landmark.”
With mother guilt firmly in place, we tear around the city like Amazing Race contestants to hit up every “Parisy thing” (in the words of my eight-year-old) we can find. There’s a two-hour Bateaux Parisiens lunch cruise, which is like a “greatest hits” of the city, sailing past all the landmarks, including Notre-Dame, as we dine on a decadent four-course lunch. “Probably would have looked nicer had it not half burnt down,” my 13-year-old quips in the understatement of the trip. “Everything looks really pretty, Mum, but when can we get Nutella crêpes?” adds my eight year-old.
There’s playtime at the carousels and trampolines at Jardin des Tuileries (plus post-crêpe sleepy time on the reclining chairs at Jardin du Luxembourg) and when the lure of the Eiffel grows too strong, I pull out my trump card: online tickets to climb the Arc de Triomphe.
With 284 steps to get to the top, climbing the monument to its panoramic terrace is not for every kid (if there’s one way to accurately describe the heavy breathing coming from the stairwell, it’s “Darth Vader on a treadmill”) but, happily, it also has a lift. Booking tickets online at least two months prior will see you skip most of the queues.
Although it’s tempting to kick off with the Catacombs of Paris, our little one becomes terrified at the idea so we start with an early morning visit to the Louvre instead. You can book guided tours, treasure hunts or download kids’ audio tours but we find the museum stressful and chaotic. “That’s it?” my eight-year-old splutters as she cranes her head to look at Mona Lisa. “Why is it so… small?” My teenager shrugs in the way that all teenagers do and mutters something about, “[da Vinci] knew a guy who knew a guy – it’s no better than anything else that’s here.”
Obligatory walk-by of the famous – and clearly underwhelming artwork – done and dusted, we soon decamp to the excellent Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the largest science museum in Europe. Here, the kids explore new frontiers for video gaming, gastronomy and space then run riot on the perfectly landscaped Parc de la Villette, the gargantuan park on which the museum sits.
My children have a request of their own, of course: a visit to Choco-Story, a chocolate museum in the 10th Arrondissement that serves up educational tours and chocolate-making workshops among chocolatiers. Oh, would you look at that? It seems we’ve run out of time.
When you’re raising a family of gourmands, the cost of dining out (with teens particularly) can quickly become eye-watering in Paris. “Look, Mum, there’s a La Truffière,” my 13-year-old squeals with the enthusiasm of someone with no intention of footing the bill for a $29 foie gras with truffle starter.
The best way to get around this is with a daily food challenge. We decide that each member of the family must research which boulangerie/pâtisserie/café has won merde-loads of awards, such as “the best baguettes of Paris”, “the best croissant of 2021”, and then we would go in search of the fabled – and in most cases, affordable – local delicacy.
We hit up Maison Julien, a bakery in the 17th arrondissement that was awarded the title of best baguette in Paris in 2020, and La Maison d’Isabelle, winner of the best croissant in 2018. Famous patisserier Cédric Grolet Le Meurice – winner of The World’s Best Pastry Chef 2018 – is next, followed by crêperie Breizh Café – a popular vote from everyone. In each instance, we swoon with the pleasure of eating so many carbs. “This is the best thing about Paris!” my eldest daughter exclaims with every bite of a Maison Julien baguette. The steak frites filling, we agree, is the best flavour combination.
To market, to market
Nothing says “teen fashion” quite like dressing as though you’re fronting a Seattle grunge band and away from the high-end boutiques of Triangle d’Or and Rue de Rivoli, Paris is a haven of flea markets and vintage stores. A walk along the Champs-Élysées and around Place de la Madeleine is essential to give the younger members of your family a chance to sneer at "the bourgeoisie” (and also to get in some quick shopping yourself) but then it’s a metro ride north to Porte de Clignancourt, the world's largest antiques market. Here, among a sea of Art Deco furniture and second-hand Chanel purses, we spend hours rifling through old toys, costume jewellery and items of moth-scented clothing that look as though they’ve tangled with a lawnmower. Visits to Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves and Les Puces de Montreuil prove two things: they are far more manageable, size-wise, and far kinder on the hip pocket. Top tip? When your eight-year-old grows bored, treat them to a Nutella crêpe and promise to swing by cool young fashion chain Bonton afterwards.
Arriving at the historic district of Le Marais to flex our consumer muscles around Rue Vieille-du-Temple and Rue des Francs Bourgeois, we discover many stores remain closed until 11am. Fortunately, visits to Vintage Désir, one of the city’s favourite secondhand stores, and Bulle, a cherry blossom-covered bubble tea shop, make up for it. My teen comes away from Porte de Clignancourt market with a decades-old crochet top and costume jewellery from the 1960s and I load up on brightly coloured leather handbags. My greatest find? “Gently used” Chanel earrings that look brand new.
I’m ashamed to admit it but we make a stop at Westfield Forum des Halles where we all go nuts at H&M.
According to children the world over, parents are as fashionable as listening to A-ha on an eight-track tape but there is one way to boost your Parisian street cred: leading the family to the nearest bouillon. Made popular over a century ago, a bouillon is essentially a restaurant that serves cheap French classics – steak frites, beef bourguignon and the occasional boiled calf head – in a large space specialising in a convivial atmosphere and a speedy turnover. These days diners will wait for hours outside just to nab a seat at the likes of Bouillon Julien and Bouillon Chartier.
Families are an advantage here, since most of the bouillons – with the exception of Bouillon Julien – refuse to take reservations and we’re likely to be dining before 6pm (you know it’s true). We eat at Bouillon Chartier, a bustling space where waiters write orders on paper tablecloths and chefs churn out salads for a single euro, and Le Petit Bouillon Pharamond, an Art Nouveau establishment once frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Both are winners but less successful is Bouillon Pigalle. Not only is it located within the red-light district (a conversation about calf heads is a cakewalk compared to this) but it is LOUD. So loud we barely hear the waiter spit, “You don’t need a menu. I am the menu.” My kids refuse to try the escargot, insisting on eating their body weight in steak frites, cheese and bread, and of course, those aforementioned crêpes.
“I’m researching… like you,” my youngest insists when I try to cut off her supply. “Then one day I can write an article and tell them who has the best chocolate crêpes in Paris.”
Image credit: Raquel Guiu