Paris Avec Famille

Sophie at the Eiffel Tower

By Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb
Photo by the author

Ahh, Paree! For most of us, the City of Light is synonymous with culture, cuisine and romance.

When you visit, you’re supposed to spend your time in world-class museums and Michelin-starred restaurants. You’re supposed to take intimate strolls by the River Seine. You’re not supposed to take your children. Right? Wrong.

In fact, Paris is extremely kid-friendly. Part of the reason is that the locals-–who tend to take their own enfants everywhere-–are so welcoming. But it is also because Paris itself seems reassuringly familiar to children.

Some discover the French capital as toddlers courtesy of Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline books; other make vicarious visits with Eloise, the Aristocats, the Rugrats, even the ubiquitous Olsen Twins. Hence its big-ticket attractions already have a built-in appeal. Take Notre Dame Cathedral: 800-year old churches don’t normally top a child’s itinerary. But, as the setting for Disney’s Hunchback movies, this one is an exception to the rule. Since it is literally the center of the city–the place from which all distances are measured-–it also makes a fitting starting point for your family’s monumental adventure.

After spinning around the cavernous interior and “reading” the stories in the stained-glass windows, older kids can drop a few euros to descend into the pre-Roman Crypte Archeologique or climb the towers for a close-up look at Quasimodo’s home turf.

Younger ones, meantime, may prefer to plop on a bench in adjacent Viviani Square. Thanks to the uncluttered view of Notre Dame it offers, they can amuse themselves by playing “spot the gargoyle” (one looks suspiciously like Disney’s Laverne) and feeding the world’s most gregarious pigeons.

Compared to the cathedral, the Eiffel Tower is a relative newcomer. Yet it’s a certifiable icon, and you’ll likely feel compelled to scale it. Of course, every other tourist in town will too. So to avoid the worst crowds, try arriving early on a weekday and taking the elevator straight to the third level. Tickets are steep (11.50€ /6.30€ for ages 3-11); but on a clear morning the vista is priceless. Alternately, bring the kids after dark to see the tower lit up like a super-sized Christmas tree. For the full effect, arrive on the hour (dust to 2 a.m. in summer) when 20,000 individual bulbs sparkle in a 10-minute display.

For those who’d rather look at the Eiffel Tower than be on it, the Arc de Triomphe is another option. Napoleon’s tribute to his troops might not seem like a natural choice for families: after all, it’s perched on the site where Paris’ 12 main avenues converge and is surrounded by an obscenely-busy traffic circle. Nevertheless, children routinely give it the “Coolest Tall Thing” award. That’s because it’s wide open at the top. Unlike the Eiffel Tower (which is enveloped in mesh) there is nothing creepy or cage-like to impede their view-–and the sight of Paris, laid out like a star below–is impossible to beat.

Once you’ve soaked it all in, it’s time to hit the city’s famed museums-–some of which are aimed squarely at families. One such venue is the Science and Industry Museum. Its interactive “Cité des Enfants” is undeniably inviting: five – to 12 year-olds, for instance, can program robots while younger siblings play Bob the Builder at a mini construction site. However, the rules can be off-putting. Registration is required, limited numbers of guests are admitted and visits are restricted to 90 minute sessions. Kids are also streamed by age. So depending on your family structure, the trip can be a logistical nightmare.

Luckily, though, there’s no need to stick to the kiddy category when it comes to Parisian museums. Musée Rodin is a case in point. The esteemed sculptor’s estate in the seventh arrondissement is an ideal place to introduce youngsters to fine art. Sure its walls hide orderly flowerbeds, ornamental pools and a grand 18th-century mansion. But don’t let the formality fool you. In the garden, kids are free to play among famous statues; and inside visitors as young as four can sign up for regularly-scheduled activities (including tours complete with games and drawing sessions) that are priced between €4.50 and €6. 

Musée d’Orsay, on the Left Bank, and the Pompidou Centre’s t&L=2″ Musée National d’Art Moderne, on the Right, are kid-pleasers as well. The former has a dazzling Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection (think works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Cézanne), while the latter focuses on Modern masters like Picasso and Matisse. Both have intriguing architecture, plus bright bold canvases that appeal to kids. But the fabled Louvre, with its exhaustive-–and exhausting!-–supply of religious and historical paintings will seem pretty staid by comparison.

If seeing Mona Lisa’s smile is high on your personal to-do list, consider taking turns with   another adult. When one of you dips in, the family can relax just outside on the expansive lawns of Jardin du Tuileries. It’s easy to while away hours there bouncing on tres chic trampolines, sailing toy bateaus, riding carousel horses or graduating to real ponies (à la carte activities that cost a couple of euros each). Many of the same simple pleasures can be enjoyed across the Seine in Jardin du Luxembourg: a sixth arrondissement park which also happens to house the city’s best-loved marionette theater.


The beauty of both spots is that they’re not merely tourist attractions. In a city of apartment dwellers, these jardins serve as a backyard for countless families. So lingering in them qualifies as an authentic cultural experience, especially on weekends or Wednesday afternoons when local children are out of school. If your offspring have a smattering of French they can strike up a conversation with their Parisian peers. If not, don’t worry: they’ll quickly learn that the language of child’s play is universal.

For playtime on a grander scale, you can take the gang 20 miles north to Parc Astérix (35€/ 25€ for ages 3-11). Inspired by France’s favorite cartoon hero, it features dozens of amusements ranging from a classic wooden roller coaster to an ultra-modern corkscrew model. Twenty miles east of the city, meanwhile, is Disneyland-Paris: a 2,225-acre resort that proves it really is “a small world after all.” Said to be Europe’s #1 tourist attraction, it consists of two parks-–a Magic Kingdom and Walt Disney Studios-–with one-day passes to each costing  46€  (38€ for ages 3-11). 

Since these resemble their U.S. counterparts and recreate many popular rides (“Dumbo’s Flight” and “Rock’n’Roller Coaster” among them), Disneyland-Paris is often dismissed as an unnecessary Americanism. Who, naysayers may ask, needs a kingdom built around a faux castle when the countryside is full of the genuine article? For that matter, who needs a movie park dedicated to a foreign director when Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut are native sons? Well, nobody does. But they’re fun anyway. Besides, a dose of Disney is a great antidote for kids suffering a temporary case of culture shock.

The truth is that no matter how well prepared you are, your children will feel slightly disoriented at times. Moreover, touring with them will always be an added responsibility. Yet there are upsides. Kids, literally and figuratively, look at things from a different angle. Hence being with them will reveal sites and scenes that are typically hidden from vacationers. All you have to do is slow down and savor the experience. Remember, parents don’t get bonus points for ticking off every attraction listed in their guidebook. The real reward comes from building a store of family memories that you all can share. ET

Take a Pass: Admission charges add up fast, so a  Paris Museum Pass is just the ticket for pennywise parents. Priced from €30 for a two-day version, it gives adults unlimited entry to more than 60 museums and monuments – including all of those mentioned above except for the Eiffel Tower. Children don’t need one because so many of the attractions are already free for guests under 18 (that’s a big plus when your traveling companions have short attention spans!). Better still, the whole family benefits since the pass also allows all of you to jump those lengthly lines.

Living up to her turn-of-the-millennium resolution, freelancer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb jettisoned her professorial robes and traded teaching for full-time travel writing. In the years since, she has spent an inordinate amount of time doing research in Europe — much of it with her family in tow!  The results can be read in Fodor’s guidebooks (she’s contributed to six thus far) as well as Fodor’s online newsletter, and a host of Canadian magazines and newspapers. When not jaunting around the continent, Susan enjoys taking it easy in her sublime home base: Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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