If you’re new here, hello! My husband, sons, and I just returned from a week in Paris, and I promised a write-up about all we did. Our boys are 10 and 12½ and are seasoned travelers. That said, Tom and I know that we must always balance their youth and interests with our greater stamina and all we hope to do and see. We are fortunate to have taken many successful adventures with the boys, but this trip stands near the top of our list in terms of fun, accomplishment, and overall terrific’ness. (I’m writing with jet lag so please forgive any incoherence in the following post.)
Renting an apartment versus staying in a hotel:
As we always do when we travel with our kids, we rented an apartment this week. We do this because with children, it’s really helpful to have regular kitchen access both because you can always have snacks on hand AND because not going out for every meal saves money. Also, days of walking, touristing, and so forth are often exhausting and sometimes you just want to veg out in your pajamas with a simple dinner rather than going out and worrying about potentially subpar behavior at a restaurant whose food options may not even appeal to the kids.
We also prefer apartments because you can rent ones outfitted with washing machines. This is crucial in terms of being able to pack in somewhat limited fashion but not run out of underpants and clean shirts. When the boys were younger (and even sometimes still), they never made it a full day without food or playground dirt getting all over their clothes. Packing double for two - four people makes for an insane amount of luggage; a washing machine means a lighter load and room to bring home purchases.
Day 1: Getting our bearings and eating
We landed in Paris just before 7:00am and, fortunately, were able to move into our apartment upon arrival to it. We immediately took our customary 2-hour nap, forced ourselves awake, and headed out to get groceries and explore our neighborhood, Saint-Germain, on Paris’s Left Bank, in the 6th arrondissement*. It is a relatively quiet area full of year-round residents, just off the Seine, and with great proximity to the Metro (we were just steps from the Odéon stop) and bus lines. We try to stay in such locations because we dislike overly touristy areas, prefer to take public transportation versus taxis when we can, and want to be as near the center of things as possible so that we can run out for ice cream before bed, for example, or easily scoot home midday should anyone need to nap or unload bags. We have found it worthwhile to pay for the best location possible because doing so enables more of a sense of living in a place, no matter how briefly, and by being able to walk and talk public transportation, you save money and really see a place in more realistic fashion.
We got lunch at Little Breizh, a crêperie not far from our apartment. I’d met a wonderful native-Parisian on the plane ride over (she now lives in DC with her family) who recommended we go there, and it was a fine way to start our trip. The highlight was the dessert crêpe: warm apples, salted caramel, vanilla ice cream. After lunch, we walked across the Seine and back, explored Saint-Sulpice (the church in the DaVinci Code where Silas breaks open the floor to find the sénéchaux had all lied to him), wandered through Saint-Germain des Prés and to The Smiths bakery for Oliver’s first eclair (he had big plans to taste as many as possible). We ended up going to The Smiths at least four more times, and I highly recommend you visit at least once. Darling, always packed, and delicious. I had a terrific slice of cheesecake.
Day 2: Montmartre
We spent much of the day exploring Montmartre, the hilly Right Bank neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement, one of the most northern of Paris’s areas. Home to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Montmartre is known for its artistic history: Modigliani, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mondrian, Picasso, and Van Gogh, among others, all lived or had studios there at one point. It’s a wonderful place to climb and wander, and the views and street art are tremendous.
Near Montmartre, on the border of the 18th and 9th arrondissements, is Pigalle. Home to the famed Moulin Rouge, the cabaret house where the can-can originated, Pigalle now boasts an impressive number of sex shops and clubs. We didn’t exactly mean to walk down the main thoroughfare of Pigalle, but it was quite an eye-opening education for the boys. Hah!
After recovering from miles of walking and various discussions about thongs and just why so many shops in a row would use the unremarkable name, Sex Shop, we ventured home to rest and change before dinner at Poulette, a restaurant just northeast of Les Halles. There the boys enjoyed their first steak frites, Tom had a giant plate of pork, and I had a forgettable piece of fish but an incredible cocktail. The service was great, and the ambiance was too. Not an exceptional place but easy and solid. Afterwards, we walked home past Notre-Dame and got gelato at Amorino, a delicious chain that we frequented almost daily because of Jack’s obsession with sorbet and ice cream.
Day 3: La Tour Eiffel and Le Marais
We started the day with 9:30am tickets to the Eiffel Tower. I highly recommend going early because the crowds are minimal then. We were slightly late and so unfortunately could only join part of our tour, a guided climb with summit access, but still learned a lot (Eiffel didn’t actually design the Tower; two architects at his firm did). We opted to climb the 704 steps to the second platform and are really glad we did. Fun to be in the iron work and watch the ground disappear slowly, but it is a haul, so do purchase elevator tickets if you want/need! (To summit, you take an elevator from the second platform.) I really liked our guide for the brief time we spent with her; she engaged the kids beautifully but didn’t dumb things down at all. (I’ve had great luck with tours booked through Trip Advisor.) I’ve climbed the Eiffel Tower before, but I’ll tell you, it doesn’t get old. It’s truly stunning and the views of Paris from the top are breathtaking.
After lunch and rest, we spent the afternoon walking around two neighborhoods, Les Halles and Le Marais. Les Halles is busy and full of shopping areas and can feel a bit touristy, but Le Marais, which spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, is infinitely appealing and wonderful. On our walk home, we were delighted to run into one of Ol’s classmates and her mother near the Hôtel de Ville. A street performer was working wonders with a rope and some soapy water, and the kids played and ran and caught bubbles for ages.
Day 4: Le Marais walking food tour
Per what had become our usual, we picked up baguettes and financiers from Eric Kayser, a boulangerie and patisserie, just down the street from us. It’s a chain that I’d first discovered in New York (you might recall my ode post to the pistachio financier several years ago) and it was a treat to have one so close to our Paris apartment. However, we ate light because at 11:30 we were to meet our guide in the Marais for a walking food tour (again one I purchased after reading reviews and options on Trip Advisor). It was 3.5 hours of gourmet heaven. Our guide, Antoine, was lots of fun and very informative, we were a group of just seven, and we visited 9+ old, top-quality, artisanal markets (we began at the oldest market in Paris, the Marche des Enfants Rouges), shops, and a Corsican restaurant, tasting cheese, wine, chocolate, desserts, appetizers, oils, vinegars, cured meats, and falafel (at the famed L’As du Fallafel; sublime; I went back later in the week for more). It was absolutely worth the price, and Tom, the kids, and I enjoyed it so much we considered doing the similar tour offered in Montmartre.
Day 5: the Louvre, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, BHV, the famed Mariage Frères tea
Once again, early was better. We had 9am entry tickets to the Louvre (free for people 18 and under) and by the time we left two hours later, it was a mob scene. I highly recommend downloading a museum map before you go, pinpointing the works you most want to see, and visiting those in orderly fashion by wing. The Louvre is the largest museum in the world; you could easily walk miles in it. Frankly, I think it’s rather dull. There are incredible treasures inside (Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People; Winged Victory; Michelangelo’s Slaves; a beautiful Fra Angelico; some portraits; the Mona Lisa), but they are vastly outnumbered by pieces that just aren’t of interest to, as we now know, anyone in my family. So, visit what you want to see with intention unless you truly groove on seeing countless landscapes and religious scenes. Keep in mind that there are SO many other museums in Paris, too.
After the Louvre and some lunch, we went to the Hunting and Nature museum which many had recommended as one of their favorite hidden gems in Paris. I assumed the boys would love it as there were multiple large rooms full of guns and crossbows and the like. It was a lovely, eccentric little spot, but none of us was swept away. The vast array of taxidermied animals, including a jaguar and a polar bear and a ceiling made of owls, was unique.
If you want to visit a Parisian department store, try the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville aka the BHV Le Marais. It’s on the Rue de Rivoli in the 4th, has seven floors, and felt very local. I got some fabulous French linens from Jacquard Français and Garnier Thiebaut there (spring sale, woot!).
And if you love tea, do visit one of the locations of Mariage Frères, Paris tea emporium since the 1850s. It has rather a cultish following, offers seemingly countless flavor and type options, and is beautiful and very fine.
Day 6: Musée des Arts et Métiers, the Yves Saint Laurent museum, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, a darling wine store in the 11th
As I love fashion and design, I tend to send Tom and the boys to a science museum while I get my fix so that they won’t be frantic with boredom, and neither will I. I adore science, but did I need to explore the exhibit on the redefining of the kilogram at the Musée des Arts et Métiers (science and tech)? I did not. Did J, O, or Tom have the slightest interest in basking in the creations of Yves Saint Laurent? Absolutely not. And so we split ways on Thursday morning so that we could dork out in our respective realms.
The YSL museum is housed in what was Saint Laurent’s Right Bank studio, in the 8th arrondissement, just over a half mile south of the Arc de Triomphe. I relished the collection of Mondrian-inspired shifts, YSL’s tranquil but vibrant studio, and the sense of him that pervaded the place. The whole visit takes maybe an hour as it’s a small museum, but if you enjoy fashion, it’s a must-see.
Meanwhile, near Les Halles in either the 2nd or 3rd arrondissement is the Arts et Métiers museum. J and T were sincerely jazzed about the kilogram exhibit; Ol preferred construction, computers, and electricity. Overall, it was a highlight which they highly recommend.
We met for pizza at Iovine’s and then the guys headed home to rest. I wandered to the Decorative Arts Museum which directly abuts the Louvre. As y’all can probably figure by now, I love design and decorative art AND there is currently a special exhibit on Gio Ponti, an Italian architect and designer I admire. The entire place was very disappointing, and I can’t recommend a visit. The Ponti show was fine but lacked energy, and the upper floors smelled musty and felt rather dead and forgotten.
Later in the afternoon, hellbent on finding a wine we’d enjoyed earlier in the week, we cabbed to the 11th to visit Caviste le sourire au pied de l'échelle. (Tom had emailed the vineyard who directed us to this particular store.) It is a terrific little spot with charming owners and makes for a good jumping off point to tool around the 11th which is a great area in which I want to spend more time during a future visit to Paris.
Day 7: Mokonuts, Père Lachaise, L'Atelier des Lumières
Have you heard of Mokonuts? It’s a tiny (maybe 8 tables) restaurant in the 11th that’s been open for three years and has received consistently enthused, fantastic reviews. Owned by a wife and husband team, Moko Hirayama and Omar Koreitem, Mokonuts is open Monday-Friday, 9a - 5p with a break from 11-noon (they have two children and are committed to family time).
Anyway, I HAD to go, so I hauled my family over for breakfast before our planned visits to Père Lachaise and the Van Gogh light show at Atelier des Lumières, both of which are in the 11th too. It did not disappoint. By the time we arrived, around 10:15, they were out of a few menu items so we ordered one of each of the remaining five: labne toast (off the hook good), a wild broccoli and aged cheddar tartine (also insanely delicious), an English muffin with homemade lemon jam, a sourdough waffle with maple spread and butter, and a lemon poppy muffin. Moko could not be friendlier or more welcoming, Omar has such a dear smile, I loved everything about their place, enjoyed chatting with them, attempted to buy some labne to go but when I couldn’t bought two of Moko’s cookies instead and was glad I did. Definitely make time (and a reservation) to eat at this special little place.
I suspected the kids would love the magnitude, occasional creepiness, and the overall feel of Père Lachaise, so after breakfast, we walked over and proceeded to spend a couple hours wandering. It’s really a very cool place, and if you enjoy photography, you’ll find yourself with magical shots at every turn, including the Raspail family’s tomb (see photo).
We had some time before the light show so walked to the Bataclan to pay respects and see how it’s recovered. The club looks shiny and new, and I’m glad it’s still there and going strong. Then back to the Workshop of Lights, L’Atelier des Lumières, for Starry Night/Van Gogh and Japan Dreaming. I had heard countless rave reviews of this immersive art experience. It’s essentially an artist's work projected onto the walls of a cavernous warehouse space, put to motion and paired with music; you feel, perhaps, as if you’re in the paintings. It was lovely; I was not awed. Nor were the kids or Tom. We aren’t sorry to have seen it, but I’m not sure it was worth €42 for the four of us. The Japanese segment was my favorite. (The artists featured change, so check the listing based on the time of your visit.)
Day 8: Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe, a very French lunch
We purposefully left our last full day open to use as a catchall for things we’d not yet gotten to and to return to places we wished to visit one last time. First stop was Notre-Dame. Entrance is free, and there are two free English-led tours each week (days/times published on the website) but the lines are lengthy and we didn’t feel like waiting until afternoon, so simply walked through the Cathedral on our own. The kids were suitably impressed but I think a formal tour would have been largely unappreciated so I’m glad we didn’t force it. Churches are only so interesting to many kids; my boys were really just glad to have seen the sheer scale of the place. You can also reserve/buy tickets to climb the towers, see the gargoyles, and get the views from the top, but the boys didn’t feel like it, so we skipped.
Next, Sainte-Chappelle. This, in my opinion, is a must. Built as a private house of worship in the 1200s by King Louis IX with the express purpose of housing the most sacred Christian relics including the Crown of Thorns (which alone cost more than the entire chapel), it is an incredible architectural achievement with all-encompassing awe-inspiring beauty. The stained glass windows on the second floor, fifteen in all and each is 15 meters high, depict more than 1,100 Biblical scenes and are stunning. As gorgeous is the way the ceilings, walls, and architectural elements are painted. Sainte-Chappelle is very close to Notre-Dame so it’s easy to see both in a morning or afternoon.
We’d seen the Arc de Triomphe from the Eiffel Tower but took the metro out to see its magnitude close up. Located at the western end of the Champs-Élysées, the arch honors those who fought in France’s wars, particularly the Napoleonic-era ones. Because so many Yellow Vest protests have started at the Arc, it is heavily guarded but still accessible and worth seeing!
Finally, a very French lunch. If you want a traditional meal in the loveliest of old spots, try Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie. It feels very local, still hews to traditional menu items like various cured duck products, cured salmon, caviar, and such, and just feels like an experience. Word of caution: if you order the meat plate expecting a charcuterie board, you will be, as was Jack, surprised. His surprise was not positive; perhaps yours will be. It was a giant board of confit/pâté/rillettes/duck every way including a tiny cured leg.
The Luxembourg Gardens, the Seine, the Tuileries
Don’t miss the natural beauty in Paris! The Seine is beautiful, as are the many bridges that span it, and there are lengthy pedestrian and bike paths that are off-limits to vehicular traffic as well as picnic tables and water bottle filling stations. The Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens are magnificent; in the former is the Medici fountain (first pic below), and in both you can picnic, rest, let your kids run free, enjoy the flowers and manicured paths and so on. Our apartment was a block from the Luxembourg Gardens and we went multiple times.
Bottom line tips:
Walk as much and as far as you can. Like many places, Paris is best seen by foot! Plus, you can then eat and drink as much as you want and your waistline will not suffer. I actually lost a pound or two in both Copenhagen/Stockholm and in Paris, while eating and drinking everything in sight, because we averaged 7-9 miles per day of walking/biking. Public transportation is also great; inexpensive and you feel more like a local.
Buy all tickets in advance, making sure to pay attention to what’s free for kids. If kids can’t enter free, there is often a family rate, so check that too. Consider reserving early morning slots to avoid lines! And make sure to check days of closing; many museums, for example, are closed on Mondays. Likewise with restaurants; if there are ones you know you want to try, make reservations early.
Do consider renting an apartment because you will see and want to indulge in all manner of market, cheese, wine, and so forth, and hotels don’t easily accommodate mass refrigerated needs. Plus, fatigue may drive you to dinners in pajamas listening to the bustle of Paris outside your window. That’s not a bad thing, and in an apartment, it’s really easy.
Leave plenty of packing space for bringing home goodies, and bring packing supplies with you to ensure safe return for your treasures. Tom and I always leave our suitcases about 20-25% empty and fill that space with bubble wrap, packing tape, packing plastic, and even cardboard. We got all of the below home plus six glasses.
Represent the best of America (or your home country), please. I always see such ghastly behavior from some Americans- loud, pushy, whiny, refusing to even try to speak even the most basic niceties in the host language. Curiosity, kindness, and a willingness to try speaking, no matter how broken or slow, is so appreciated and facilitates such wonderful, potentially magical interactions. Also, I like to dress nicely even if exceedingly comfortably. It makes me feel less tourist, more “native.”
Don’t be alarmed by the degree to which the gendarmerie (Parisian police) are armed. As you know, Paris and France have sustained some horrific shootings in recent years, and there is a noticeable presence of heavily-armed police in many areas. You can expect to see them at all the main tourist attractions, for example, at any Yellow Vest protest (if those are still happening when you visit), and so forth. We didn’t find it off-putting or worrisome, and they were all very polite.
*Paris is divided into 20 areas known as arrondissements. They start in the center of the city and spiral outward like a snail.