Paris is always a good idea
This article is not only full of wistful Paris imagery but also informative links, useful tips, practical advice and a couple of #hiddengems for families travelling to Europe and visiting the French Capital. Never in my widest dreams did I imagine my year of ‘Less Is More’ would include a trip to Paris. The year of Less ‘Stuff’ More ‘Experiences’ is well and truly exceeding my expectations.
Paris still oozes the same classic charm experienced during our first visit as backpackers many years ago. However, just for the record, travelling with a pram is a whole lot different to travelling with a backpack. Can you imagine the nostalgia we experienced returning to Europe, now as parents, with a SEVEN and a THREE year old bouncing along beside us – the same amount of adrenalin mixed with a different kind of fun!
Yes, you guessed it, this is a long one – but stay with me and enjoy the conversation…
Day #1 – Arc de Triomphe, La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, Montmartre
Three of Paris’ most iconic places to visit all in the same day, made possible due to the close proximity of our hotel to the Arc de Triomphe, which also happened to be en-route to the metro. A three hour time difference also ensured we were up early, ready to head out around the same time as the Autumn sunrise. And, as luck had it, we could also watch the sunset over the Arc and the surrounding street lights take over, as we passed by on our return home each day.
The Arc de Triomphe was built between 1806-1836 and, I’m sure, is just as spectacular today as it was back then. Allow an hour or so to wander beneath and around the Arc, enjoying the engraving, sculptures and to photograph every angle possible. The entertainment isn’t only found on this iconic structure but also around it. We held our breath watching cars manoeuvre around the ‘round about’ and crazy pedestrians trying their luck crossing the hectic road, rather than using the extremely safe and convenient underground subway.
We chose to bypass the site museum this visit, explaining the history between the Arc and those who fought for France and also didn’t venture to the top to admire what I’m sure is a magnificent view. The arrival of bus loads of tourists, who seemed to surround us all at once, signalled it was time to head to our next stop, the Sacré-Coeur.
There are many ways to approach the 19th Century Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur. We chose front and centre, weaving first through the colourful pedestrian street selling everything you can possibly dream of conveniently stamped with a Paris icon. The view as we rounded the corner, stopped us all in our tracks. That’s the thing with Paris, these incredible buildings are breathtaking regardless of how many times you have seen them.
After a quick stop at the carousel, which unfortunately/fortunately wasn’t open as yet, the children and I began the climb to the top.
From experience the ideal way to approach sight seeing (and minimise stress) with young travellers is to allow plenty of time. In this case time to explore the gardens, stop to admire the magnificent panoramic view of the city, brush up on photography skills, enjoy watching the buskers and generally celebrate being out in the fresh air and sunshine.
Yes we (including our trusty travel-proof umbrella pram), made it up the 270 steps to the top and continued inside the Basilica. Here we were treated to a service, which provided the perfect reason for the children to sit quietly and recoup tired legs. For me having the opportunity to listen the Grand Pipe Organ (built in 1898) in all its glory was almost goosebump material and a privilege to experience. We wandered around in awe admiring the spectacular internal features and finished our visit with what has become a family ritual when visiting a church, lighting a candle while saying a quiet prayer. Then it was onto the artists corner.
Manoeuvring a pram over the cobblestones which make up the quaint old world village of Montmarte is not ideal, however, sometimes the atmosphere easily takes over the inconvenience. While the children entertained themselves chasing pigeons and exploring the collection of artists interpretations of Paris, I was swept away with nostalgia, lost in fond memories of a cold winters evening many years ago, sitting freezing with my Mum, while watching my Sister have her portrait painted. Surreal now really…but then that trip to Paris is a whole different story.
Today we once again lost track of time wandering the charming streets, relaxing on the Basilica steps with a picnic, listening to a busker play his harp and generally enjoying people watching. The crowds began to gather just after we finished lunch, the perfect excuse to retreat home. The advantage to an early morning start is by early afternoon you are done and able to enjoy an early finish.
As there was no energy left between us, we travelled down the easy way (1 minute 30 seconds) – via the Funicular. Next time I’d love to take a ride on the Little train of Montmatre and explore the quirky streets further, but this little Family was ready to call it a day.
Day #2 – Jardin Du Luxembourg Gardens
Think 25 hectares of Park, explosion of Autumn colours decorated with both English and French Gardens, exercise tracks and walking paths, the smell of roasted chestnuts, statues, fountains and fun.
Here the children enjoyed their first ride on a Carousel which, although is looking quite tired and well loved, is said to be the oldest one in Paris. We attended our first Punch-and-Judy type puppet show at the Theatre Du Luxembourg which was spoken entirely in French and had the whole audience captivated and amused, regardless of nationality or language. We waved to the young pony riders as they passed, ran and squealed through the piles of Autumn leaves which covered the ground and played with children from all over the world in the ultra modern playground. The absolute highlight of this visit and the reason why we didn’t see the orchards, apiary and art exhibitions, was the hours we spent playing with the 1920’s wooden sailing boats on the Grand Bassin Pond.
Here, in the grounds of a Palace, Families come together enjoying good old fashion fun surrounded by European charm. French accents, frivolity and laughter fill the air as children and adults alike, with no prior skill or coaching, launch their vessels into the centre of the pond with wooden sticks, each proudly adorned with flags from around the world. Children of all ages, bursting with pure excitement and adrenalin, hang precariously over the edge as Mothers who (like me) didn’t think to bring a change of clothes, hope they don’t fall in. There is no time to worry about such cautions, or notice the duck poo covering the pond wall, as the importance, responsibility and freedom to keep the boats in the centre completely consumes the young sailor.
It is the battle of the Nations – ducks beware!
Boats are available for hire on the weekends from February to December from 11.00am – 4:00pm and till 6:00pm during the summer.
Day #3 – Musee De Armee
The Army Museum was created in 1905 as a result of a merger between the Artillery Museum and the Army History Museum. It is made up of seven main spaces making it one of the biggest Military Art and History Museums in the world.
Spending a day at an army museum while visiting Paris wouldn’t be this Mums preference however, our Little Seven-Year-Old Man is so curious about war history and, since this is a family holiday, we all have to make sacrifices. Our holiday itinerary always includes unplanned days and this excursion fitted into one of those.
Firstly we hired an audio head piece which was super easy for him to use independently, then began our visit in the Main open air Courtyard. Here 200 years of history is on display – 60 cannons, howitzers and mortars. Next stop was The Old Department, one of Europe’s major collections of 13th-17th century weapons and armour – actually I borrowed the audio for this room. It was fascinating looking at the armoury and learning a bit about the history of jousters and hunters, seeing displays of adorned horses and their proud knights and admiring the ornate designs on the royal amour. The contemporary department was next filled with memorabilia and history from the two World Wars (1871-1945). The displays also include antipodean soldiers and I spent the whole time being grateful for the sacrifices these brave Men and Women made for our country.
The Musee De Armee is also home to Napolean’s Tomb which was the last section we visited. The Royal Chapel was built between 1677 and 1706 and Napoleon was transferred and laid to rest here in 1840. The architecture of the building is stunning and I appreciate we took the time to explore.
It was priceless seeing the grin on our Little Man’s face when we left, proof of how much he loved this excursion and interactive history lesson.
Day #4 – Tour Eiffel
You can argue that the view is less distorted and a lot clearer from the first level than the view from the Sommet but for this family, if we are having a trip of a lifetime to Paris, we are going right to the top baby!!!
We caught the lift directly to the top and, after a look around and a couple of hundred photos, stopped at each level and repeated the process on the way down, leaving the lift in favour of walking from the lowest level back down to the ground level. The children loved this alternative as it gave another perspective and the opportunity to experience every aspect of this iconic structure.
Four tips to keep in mind when you visit the Eiffel Tower:
- Pre book tickets online here or arrive at least half an hour before opening. We pre booked, arrived half an hour early and watched the queue grow by the minute as we happily began our journey to the top. No unnecessary waiting time meant we enjoyed a leisurely morning visit and still had the whole afternoon free for other activities.
- You can store prams and extra luggage in a secure purpose built storage unit on site. For the sake of less to carry, the small cost was truly worth it.
- For all you parents out there pondering whether to lug warm coats and jackets around for a day of sight seeing in the colder months, the day you book a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower is not the day to leave them behind – it is cold up there!!!
- Great day to pack a picnic – you can read my thoughts on packing a lunch box while out and about on an adventure here and our preferred reusable lunchbox items to take travelling here.
Day #5 – Canauxrama Canal Cruise
The Canauxrama leisurely cruises along 6 kilometre of Canal Saint-Martin. For us the sun was shining, Autumn leaves coloured the trees which lined the banks, footpaths were full of pedestrians and cafes buzzing with people out enjoying another spectacular Parisian day. If I ever felt like I was on a set of a movie then today was that day.
The cruise begins through the 1850 metre long Boulovafe Richard Lenoir vault which was constructed under the city in 1854. Once out the other end and for the remaining duration of our journey, we passed through four double locks, under two swing bridges and our barge climbed 24 metres. We watched in awe as each lock slowly sprung to life, mesmerised as the gates swung open, water poured over the edge and the barge rose to street level after street level. As we arrived at each new lock we were greeted by crowds of people lining the elegant footbridges above us and at certain vantage points along the footpaths. I got the feeling it was quite an occasion for locals and visitors alike to visit the canal and watch the journey of the Canauxrama.
The Canauxrama doubles as a travelling cafe. Refreshments and a bathroom are available on board and there is fully enclosed seating option in the case of bad weather. Our trip was booked for an Autumn afternoon and, if I was to change anything about this family activity I would organise a morning cruise. We finished just before dark which, in hindsight, was a bit late when travelling with young children.
While in the area, either before or after the cruise (depending on your times), I strongly recommended a meal, or even just a drink, at the quirky Le Pure Cafe, a short taxi ride from Bastilles Metro. I’ll let you find out more information on this charming Parisian place here.
Day #6 – Notre Dame and Bike About Tours
Bike About Tours had me at “tours cover charming back streets & local neighbourhoods most tourists miss”. I could take us to all the major tourist attractions but seeing the real Paris is a different story. We covered more in the few hours of our bike tour than any guide book could’ve directed me to and both children were completely engaged for the full duration.
It was arranged that we met our Bike About Tours guide at the Notre Dame at 10:00am and, since we managed to arrived early and discovered there was no queues, had a look inside the Cathedral while we waited. Our guide arrived right on time and, along with the rest of our group, walked us a short distance to the Bike About storage area. Here we had the opportunity to pick our own bikes, find a helmet, and secure our pram. Our Little Man picked a BMX type bike and I had our Little Girl with me in an attached child bike seat. There was a basket on the front of my bike perfect for a small backpack with drink bottles and snacks.
Never have we been on a city bike tour before but, after spending the decent amount of the day following David (our tour guide) through the backstreets of Paris, we are hooked.
Our Little Man still talks about the stray canon ball from the revolution lodged in the wall of a house, the rat trap shop and one of the most expensive restaurants I have ever heard of which influenced the movie Ratatouille. Our little girl loved being chauffeured around and kept us posted when she spotted each ‘space invader’ from the anonymous graffiti artist. The old part of Paris, with its skinny, cobbled streets and old world architecture was a real highlight for me, complete with a mouth watering baguette from the local street stall all while appreciating the comforting aroma wafting from the surrounding bakeries.
I could go on for paragraph after paragraph of how much of a highlight this tour was for our family but how about a second opinion and perspective. Here is a detailed blog post written by another Mum which I found super useful while researching – Bike Tour of Paris – The Perfect Way to See it All
Accommodation and Dining out
Hotel Floridor Etoile is located in the local area of 17th District. It completely met our allocated budget and simple criteria of comfortable, clean, close to the Metro and off the tourist track. The staff spoke just enough english to keep communication lines open, answered questions regarding our activities for the day and had fun increasing the children’s french dialogue. The rooms are small, perfect for those who only need a place to sleep at night and includes a continental breakfast consisting of a croissant, baguette, tea/coffee, yoghurt and juice. The communal kitchen and dining room downstairs has everything one needs to prepare your own dinner or make a hot beverage and relax.
When you wander the streets in this district you will find local bakeries, deli’s, fish mongers, florists, flower markets, restaurants, casual cafe’s and supermarket. Rue Poncelet is across the road, a street lined with fresh fruit, vegetables and all the charisma you would expect from a outdoor produce market in Europe. Plenty of fresh options to fill an inspired lunchtime picnic or put together an evening meal to take back to your accommodation at the end of a busy day.
A great family restaurant, within walking distance from the hotel, is ‘Place to…Paris’. Quirky decor, homemade juices, freshly prepared meals, local ice-cream and even organic options. We returned more than once and each time enjoyed the informal, well priced meals and overall friendly dining atmosphere.
Last tips to finish…
- If you are travelling with a pram and planning on catching the train keep in mind the majority of the platform accesses are stairs. Our Baby Girl is three and can easily walk up/down stairs while I carried the pram #thethingsyoudo ! We noticed many families carried their baby in a sling while using the metro.
- While on the topic of transport, can I suggest you buy a book of tickets, there are 10 in a pack and they can be used on the train or bus.
Thank you for making it to the end, I sincerely hope you enjoyed the read and, if you’re heading to Paris, have been inspired with practical tips and fun activity suggestions to consider during your visit. It is challenging compromising and balancing every family members needs and wants but they are, after all, key ingredients for enjoyable #familytravel – simple, but not always easy!
Please stay in touch and share this story around – I have literally poured hours into writing this post and would love nothing more than to know it has been useful and entertaining.