I thought traveling in Paris—a city I know well that speaks a language I speak well—would be easy an easy family vacation compared to my trips to Bangkok and Guadalajara with my cousin’s twins, Moses and Etia. Surprisingly it was more challenging. Perhaps it was that the latter cities were more foreign to me, so I had no expectations. More likely it was the age: the twins were 22 months old when we took on Paris and each had a mind of their own and slept less, a situation compounded by jet lag.
Jet lag horrors aside, it was a great trip. The weather in late September was glorious and our trip coincided with Paris Fashion Week. We quickly discovered the metro with a double stroller was a miserable option, so multiple days of hoofing it through the streets and occasional bus rides ensued. I’m not a slave to my iPhone step counter, but let’s just say I was topping out near 20,000 most days.
We were intrepid and covered a lot of ground, visiting classic spots like the Sacre Coeur, Jardin Luxembourg, Notre Dame, Centre Pompidou and the Eiffel Tower, as well as a quick tour of the Musee D’Orsay and my favorite small museum, the Musee Rodin. We spent time in the Marais District, walking the quays and sitting in cafes, but much of our time was spent discovering small playgrounds in the many manicured parks dotted throughout the city.
Every day of our visit to Paris included some outdoor park time of course, but we were determined to enjoy our adult visit and have the kids exposed to art and culture. Just walking the streets there were numerous moments, from a magical toy store window with baby dolls on a small carousel, to dancing along with hip-hop kids in public spaces. Paris is chock full of memorable spots and fabulous world-class venues, but sometimes just walking the streets offers up the best treasures.
Give me a petite park, a baguette, a hunk of cheese and maybe a robust red—or maybe just a couple of toddlers thrilled to run around—and I’d call it a good day.
- Travelers: The twins, Moses and Etia, my cousin, Leila, and me
- Date: October 2017
- Itinerary: 10 days, split between the 15th and the 10th arrondissements. In the 15th Arrondissement, we stayed at the Hotel Baldi and in the 10th we stayed near the Arts et Metiers metro stop in a ground floor apartment.
- Budget: About $4,500, including the flight for two (the twins flew free as lap children), lodging and about $100 per day in pocket money.
The Good Stuff
Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. You’ll find three playgrounds in the Champs de Mars. At Avenue Anatole France, in the middle of the park, there’s a charming hand-crank merry-go-round, a small play area with a sandbox and a cafe where parents can have a coffee while the kids play. In the southwest area, Allee Pierre Loti, you’ll find the biggest playground with colorful climbing structures, slides, and imaginative play areas. Tucked away in the southeast corner is a small play area, perfect for toddlers.
It is quite remarkable visiting a place that holds so much lore in one’s life and seeing it from a completely different perspective. Cobblestones became the enemy and anything whimsical or child-friendly my friend. The most magical moment came when we discovered the 19th-century hand-crank carousel on the Champs de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I was told the carousel opened at 2 p.m., but that seemed like a guestimate and dependent on the jovial guys that ran it showing up on time and in shape to run the manual thing. Still, the kids were so excited, we bought a series of tickets. I took a video of the twins on the carousel and throughout the trip, they would request viewings.
It was amazing to find this idyllic carousel and a few small playgrounds right near the foot of the Eiffel Tower. This being a tony quartier, there were many nannies and unbelievably well-dressed kids tearing around the pristine play areas.
Neighborhood Parks. Near our hotel, another playground—on the Esplanade Jacques Chaban-Delmas—offered a view of gold-domed Les Invalides. The twins enjoyed the various rocking horse-type activities and the climbing and slide structures, but missed the swings, as the park mysteriously had none.
The Musee Rodin was an extraordinary venue with the kiddos, as the 3-D nature of the sculptures and the cozy grounds were more than enticing for kids.
Afterward, we found a sweet small park, Square Samuel Rousseau, tucked away in the 7th Arrondissement in the shadow of Basilique Sainte Clotilde. Not a tourist in sight, we had the park practically to ourselves for a while. I discreetly changed diapers and offered the forbidden American “snack on the go” without any drama. (Unlike Americans, the French strongly believe children shouldn’t snack all day.) Quaint and quiet, this little area boasts restaurants, cafes, and shops with a less busy feel.
In the 10th Arrondissement along the Canal St. Martin, near the fabulous Antoine et Lili kids store, we discovered a small park above street level, shaded by trees and with a caretaker blowing the leaves from the structures; I believe the park is called Square des Récollets. Seeing the man removing the leaves from the ground and play structures was a stark reminder of how much investment is made in early childhood education in France.
Square du Temple. After my cousin’s work was finished (she was covering the U.N. climate change conference), we moved to Le Marais, to an apartment. The closest park—and part of the reason my cousin chose this place—was Square du Temple. Possibly the most charming park I’ve ever seen, it featured a duck pond, ping-pong tables, beautifully maintained gardens and a fantastic playground area, as well as a very moving memorial to neighborhood children who perished in the Holocaust. Less posh and more hip than Champs de Mars, I noticed a few kids curiously wearing suspendered rain pants, which seemed odd on a boiling hot day. I asked one of the caregivers, who drolly said it made for less laundry.
Père Lachaise Cemetery. The adults were determined to see Chopin’s and Jim Morrison’s graves, so a visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery involved some grave-climbing for the kids. It felt wrong at first, but it was hard to wrangle the twins, and because of steps and cobblestones we had to ditch the stroller early in our visit. I finally decided it was OK, particularly (and arbitrarily) if the grave was more than 25 years old. I was stopped in my tracks when we came across a grave of a young woman gunned down at the Bataclan in the recent terrorist attacks.
Place des Vosges. We arrived at dusk and the light was simply dazzling. Despite an unintended fountain swim by Moses, our time here was enchanting. Small playground areas were quickly eschewed for the fountain and green patches, as I soaked in the beauty of the ancient buildings that surrounded us.
Jardin Anne Frank. A visit to Jardin Anne Frank, a planned stop on our park circuit, was moved up in an attempt to avoid the hordes at the Centre Pompidou on a Saturday afternoon. This newish park, which did not exist when I lived in Paris 25 years ago, offered a history of its namesake along with an adorable if crowded, play area. A graft of the chestnut tree that Anne Frank admired from her window was planted here in 2007.
Street Art. Crisscrossing the city pushing a double stroller, murals, graffiti and inventive art pieces—some built into the edifices—were a constant source of conversation and joy for both us and the twins. This one of a balloon afro was along the canal St. Martin in the 10th Arrondissement. The gorgeous mural by Vinie went up days before our visit. We stopped at a little playground park nearby, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off it whilst trying to keep track of the kiddos.
Paris is, and has always been an artist’s and art lover’s paradise, with so many world-class museums and such a history of support for the arts. Public art is greatly embraced and in 2016, Paris’ city hall announced that a chunk of the budget participative—the 500 million euros set aside for the public to spend by 2020—would go toward the creation of murs d’expression (murals) in all 20 arrondissements.
Outdoor Markets. You may not have the luck we had with beautiful weather, and you might not be as inclined to hoof all over the metropolis, but other outdoor pleasures include neighborhood markets. There are so many, from the abundant produce stands to antique and flea markets. From squid to pigs’ feet and woodland fare to rabbits, the feast is mostly for the eyes.
The market in Belleville, a neighborhood situated on and around a hill which vies with Montmartre as the highest in Paris, is a new favorite. Historically a working-class neighborhood, it was home to Edith Piaf and the 1956 film The Red Balloon was also shot here. Walking toward the market, I looked up, and much to my delight, saw a blue balloon waiting for its red friend outside an upper-story window.
Today, the colorful multiethnic neighborhood is popular with the hipster set. We had a fantastic meal at a Kurdish restaurant and then explored the chaotic Belleville market. I was taken with some African textiles and purchased a few yards in the hopes of making kitchen curtains. Not far from the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, it makes a nice day excursion; market days are Tuesdays and Fridays.
My other go-to market destination is the Marche au Puces at Porte de Clignancourt. I try to get there on each visit and luckily one of my best friends lives right nearby. This time I got a handmade Moroccan leather bag, desperately searched for soccer jerseys for my teenage boys and purchased two Senegalese tunics. We did a quick tour of the antique stalls and stopped at a cafe. I love the feel of this somewhat seedy, now trendy, sprawling market. Over the years I have purchased many of my favorite articles of clothing and items that I cherish here. Of course, like any market, it takes time to find the gems, but they are here.
Unexpected Moments. As with any trip you take with young children, some of the most memorable moments are not that five-star meal or haute couture purchase, but the little things: for us, it was seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up while sharing an ice cream and watching the aboveground metro pass by our hotel. We also especially enjoyed a dazzling parade of horse-riding Republican Guards that clomped by in a fabulous display of pomp for a foreign dignitary. Later that same day, we rested outside the Musee d’Orsay, where a motley trio of a clown, an inline skater and a violinist had concocted a bizarre street performance that involved slalom-skating and humiliating passersby.
The Not So Good
Bathroom for Three? If you think it’s hard to find public restrooms in Paris, try finding one that can accommodate a double stroller and a caregiver.
Eiffel Tower Tourist Trap. I have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower once and ridden under it (before terrorism eliminated that option) on the back of a motorcycle another time, but in general, I avoided this unbelievably touristy spot when I lived in Paris. These days, the lure of the selfie with a bottle of wine (it’s a thing) was beyond tacky and created unimaginable garbage on the lawn. Did I mention the hundreds of German soccer fans in town all clamoring for photos with their beers and team scarves?
Jardin Villemin. Near Gare de L’Est, this larger park offered a great spread of structures and equipment. Had we not witnessed a necklace robbery, we might have stayed longer. The thieves ran through the park like a Starsky and Hutch scene, hurdling the low fences. They ran so near to us that, had I absorbed what was happening, I might have been able to trip them. This area located near the Gare de l’Est definitely seemed a bit sketchy, but a friend who lives nearby takes his kids there often.
Good to Know
Get an Apartment. Our time in a small hotel room was tricky, as most affordable Paris hotels are tiny and all bed. Once we moved to a one-bedroom apartment on a ground floor, I definitely slept better and we could prepare food, do laundry and bathe the kids in a bathtub.
Some Notes on Food. Paris is, of course, an amazing food experience, but with kids, it is definitely challenging. Luckily, hotels offer a continental breakfast spread and there is often plenty for kids to love, from pots of yummy yogurt to pain au chocolat.
We tried to have the twins sleep when we sat for a midday outdoor meal, but given the limited hours most restaurants are open for lunch, usually noon–2 p.m., we wound up settling for brasseries or cafes for lunch most of the time. (One of our new favorites is the cool multistory Brasserie Barbès.) Stopping at cafe terasses is great with a stroller, and whether it be a coffee pick-me-up or a quick quiche and salad, most of the common offerings at neighborhood cafes and brasseries are kid-friendly. But don’t ask for a kids’ menu! The idea of a kids’ menu is not de rigueur and the French insist—rightly so—that children’s palates should be cultivated. (A friend who is raising two young kids in Paris often posts notes from the daycare on food topics. Once, a note home spoke of how his daughter was not taking to endives.)
Street food like crepes or sandwiches is fine, and of course, you can always pop into a market or deli (charcuterie) to buy picnic items. I would pick up fruit and snacks daily, but I tried to shop in outdoor markets or supermarkets if possible; the corner stores are open longer but can be pricier. Falafels in the Marais are a great meatless option; pizza was always a crowd-pleaser and we even found a place that made the kids Mickey Mouse pizzas!
I definitely recommend ethnic eateries for dining out with children. For the most part, folks from other cultures are way more forgiving than the French. Chez Omar (an elegant couscous place in the heart of Marais) was one of my favorites. Next time, I’ll go back to a couple of my “grownup” favorites: Swann et Vincent, a small husband-and-wife-owned spot in the 15th Arrondissement, has delicious Italian food, and the quaint Le Hangar, features classic French fare near Centre Pompidou and Jardin Anne Frank.
By Darya Mead, June 2018
© ROAM Family Travel 2018 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, paris with kids, france with kids, paris family vacation, paris with twins, paris with toddlers, spring break in paris, paris parks, paris playgrounds