I took my six-year-old son to Paris for spring break and saw the city I thought I knew well through a new lens. Eating, modern art, vintage shopping, and wine bars were replaced by boy-friendly museums, merry-go-rounds, and random cafés. I think we both agree that it was the trip of a lifetime. Here’s my takeaway.
The obvious places that are worth it:
Jardin du Luxembourg Get some macarons and an Ispahan from Pierre Hermé or a takeaway crêpe or sandwich from L’Avant Comptoir nearby and start with a snacky picnic. Then put your kid on a pony, whiz them through the playground and a puppet show (check the schedule here), and finish with a sailboat race across the fountain. Just be sure to wear shoes that are good for running around in gravel. Afterwards, have a meal at Breizh Café or Le Comptoir (see below).
Jardin des Tuileries Along the Rue de Rivoli, near the Plaza Athénée, is a great playground and a lovely old carousel. Perfect pre- or post-Louvre. I went after splurging on Cédric Grolet’s stunning pastries served during tea time at the Plaza Athénée’s Le Dalì (be sure to reserve), or from Grolet’s adjoining jewel-box bakery. You could also skip the line for hot chocolate at Angelina and get takeout (!), or get a few macarons at the tiny Pierre Hermé outpost on the rue Cambon. Parental bonus: The photography shows at the Jeu de Paume at the edge of the garden are always poignant and just the right size. (So bummed I missed the Luigi Ghirri show, but that would’ve been pushing it.) Child bonus: Maybe you take them on the ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde…?
Jardin des Plantes The 17th-century zoo tucked into this pretty, not-too-manicured botanical garden is more poetic than sad. (Zoos—ugh.) You’ll be into the crumbling architectural follies while your children search for monkeys and wallabies. Not much to eat nearby; walk a few blocks to the city’s largest mosque, where you can order mint tea and sticky orange-blossom pastries in the beautiful, bustling tea room.
The Louvre Here’s the move: Go late on a Wednesday or Friday, when they’re open till 9:45 p.m. Otherwise, be sure to buy your ticket online. Before or after, there is a great café for snacks and people-watching next to the Comédie Française.
The Eiffel Tower Jesus God, go online a couple of weeks ahead and buy the timed tickets. (You’ll find a variety of tour operators selling them online as well.) We once spent almost three hours in line. That was not fun.
Some less obvious places:
Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature You might not think you want to go to a museum dedicated to hunting art from centuries past. You do. This is the most exquisitely designed museum I’ve been to—even better than the nearby Musée Picasso, which is tops. You can do it in 30 minutes and still have time for buckwheat crêpes and Bordier butter-shopping at nearby Breizh Café.
Musée de l’Armée Maybe I visited Napoleon’s tomb here during my junior year abroad? I skipped it on this visit anyway. I was too worn out by my son’s bouncing-off-the-walls enthusiasm generated by floors of French military arms and armor, uniforms, battleground maps, and more. Tip: If you print your tickets at home, don’t forget to pick up a cardboard Napoleon hat in the ticket area on your way in. They’re stupid-fun.
Sainte-Chapelle Our visit was just a week after the fire at Notre-Dame. It was heartbreaking to pass it on the way to this historic marvel, a Gothic church seemingly built of stained glass, tucked into the courtyard of the medieval palace where Marie Antoinette was later imprisoned. I bought tickets for a classical music concert, which started just before sunset. The music, the light, the sense of history and beauty—all will make an impact.
Monoprix I buy most of my son’s clothes at what’s basically the French Target. And all of my friends who’ve had kids in the last decade have received Monoprix baby clothes from me. Rumor has it their designer was hired from Bonpoint, and I wouldn’t be surprised. The quality is not great, but what kids’ clothes last?
Les P’tits Bo’bo I always hit this dépôt-vente (consignment shop) near the rue des Martyrs in the 9th for gently used Bonpoint, Zef, and other kids’ designer clothes, shoes, and books. Find more dépôt-ventes here.
A l’Etoile d’Or So maybe this one’s more for the parents, but I love this old-fashioned Pigalle boutique, where the glass cases are stocked with every kind of French chocolate, including my favorite caramel-filled Bernachon bars, which arrive weekly from Lyon. Owner Denise Acabo, a seventysomething woman in pigtails and an above-the-knee kilt, is a local treasure.
Any café will do Here’s why: The French do not take their kids to restaurants. Or maybe the restaurants don’t take their kids. Not really blaming them. But the withering glances from staff and diners are intense. So go the easy route and hit any café that looks like it’s popular with locals. There, you can have a serviceable croque monsieur or goat cheese salad and a kir while your kids happily eat bread and drink hot chocolate. (You can also ask for milk with vanilla syrup—who knew? My son also became addicted to grenadine, aka pomegranate, syrup with fizzy water.) It wasn’t until our trip that I discovered the pleasures of a set-menu breakfast (tartine, croissant, OJ, hot chocolate) that filled us up until we could hit a crêpe stand for a late lunch—another good move, along with pizza places. We did two “nice” restaurants so I could at least take pictures of the food. 😉
Here are some of our other favorites.
Breizh Café This Breton-Japanese café is worth reserving for before or after your visit to the Musée de la Chasse. (Or go early. Or leave your name and then shop the hood—Merci and Bonton aren’t too far.) Their sweet and savory crepes are made with Bordier butter and topped with lovely things, such as apples, caramel, and whipped cream. Their cider game is strong. And the adjoining store is perfect for gifts of salted butter caramels, addictive buckwheat crackers and cookies, and more Bordier butter.
Le Comptoir No longer excellent, this Odeon staple is still very good — and, perhaps more importantly, very kid-friendly. I don’t know what happened, but my vegetarian son ate an escargot here, and went through two baskets of bread sopping up the garlic-parsley butter. Me? I still love the grilled pork belly (bacon!) over potato puree. You will be surrounded by the same Americans you saw racing sailboats in the Jardin de Luxembourg, and that’s okay.
Chez Georges Touristy classic that’s cool with your kids. When in doubt, just order them the tarte tatin.
Télescope Cafe My friend Nicolas runs this coffee bar not far from the Palais Royal. Parents can get a third-wave coffee, while the hot chocolate starts with housemade ganache. Nicolas bakes his own bread and (black olive) financiers. Your kids won’t have the run of the place, but you’ll be very happy here. (Moms: There’s a good consignment store two doors down with lots of Isabel Marant and Dries.)