Explore Paris's Medieval Landmarks and Modern Delights
Learn how to make the small moments count for the whole family in this tourist's dream city.
"Paris may be one of the most richly vivid cities in the world,” says writer Jim Morgan, author of Chasing Matisse. “The place is like one great piece of art. Every quarter, every street, every character seems painterly.” Most older children are familiar with the iconic symbols of the city—the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the “Mona Lisa.” But it’s the small scenes, the little moments that give this city its artistic moments. Help connect your children with its artistic luminosity before you go. Introduce them to some paintings of the greats who lived and worked here: Picasso, Cézanne, van Gogh, Monet, Chagall (some suggestions: Monet and the Impressionists for Kids or Usbourne’s Famous Paintings, 30 illustrated cards with explanatory text). Show them classic Paris scenes—Monet’s “The Boathouse on the Seine,” Marc Chagall’s “Paris Through the Window,” Van Gogh’s “Sidewalk Café at Night.” This gives the makings of an art scavenger hunt they can pursue when actually in Paris.
Once there, don’t overdo the sightseeing. Begin with a trip on a bateau-mouche, a glass-enclosed or open-top boat that plies the Seine and gives you a graceful overview of the city. “Sightseeing without walking,” says Linda Healey, an editor at the International Herald Tribune newspaper, who raised her daughter in Paris. Tours take about an hour and depart from several places along the river.
You’ll be tempted, but don’t gorge on sightseeing (save that for the food). This city rewards the concept of living like the locals (consider renting an apartment, especially if staying longer than a week). Linger in small cafés over hot chocolate and French bread and jam. Watch Parisian life go by; have the kids count the number of dogs they see—Parisians love their dogs. Less is more. “Doing three museums in a day is a huge mistake,” says Doni Belau, blogger and creator of the Girls Guide to Paris website. “Plan one cultural thing per day and one fun thing the kids choose themselves. Have it be interactive and all about them.” Rather than trying to see everything displayed in the Louvre, for example, narrow your visit to periods or genres that most interest your children—like the Egyptian mummies in the Sully Wing. You might want to see the “Mona Lisa,” but the crowds are usually huge and pint-size kids will have problems catching a glimpse. Be polite and gently maneuver your child forward and you’ll probably end up right in front of the masterpiece (an advantage of traveling with children).
Then follow with a surprise. Pop into Au Nain Bleu, the city’s oldest (1836) and largest toy store. A great treat in the ninth arrondissement is la Mère de Famille, an old‑fashioned sweet shop (founded in 1761) with more than 1,200 types of candy.
When you do sightsee, try starting on the Île de la Cité—the island in the middle of the Seine. Remember: Think stroll, not power tour. Notre-Dame Cathedral dominates the island. Let the kids light votive candles and climb up into the towers for a glimpse of the gargoyles and a Quasimodo-level view of Paris. Go medieval inside the Conciergerie, the notorious prison where Marie Antoinette and so many other notables were held (and often tortured) before losing their heads to the guillotine. If you’re there on a Sunday, visit the Marché aux Oiseaux, where birds and pets are sold inside a classic pavilion.
On another day see the Eiffel Tower—which offers a 42-mile panoramic view of city and environs on a clear day. Pose intriguing questions—“Why do you think so many Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built?”—that make history more relevant and give them something to think about. On the first floor you can pick up a booklet that poses questions kids can answer as they follow tour guide Gus along a trail of yellow footsteps. Another essential stop is the futuristic Centre Pompidou, a building that looks like it’s been turned inside out. Home to the National Museum of Modern Art, it includes a section called the Galérie des Enfants, with exhibits and activities designed specially for kids. Out front is the best place in Paris to catch musicians, acrobats, fire-eaters, and other street performers.
Let your child’s age rule. “For small kids, rent a wooden sailboat at the Luxembourg Garden; they use a stick to push it from one side of the large pond to the other, like generations of Parisian children before them,” advises Healey. “Also in the Luxembourg area: pony rides and a pay-to-enter playground with lots of stuff to climb on. For a truly French experience, take small kids to the marionettes show, a Parisian tradition.”
Paris is perfect for specialty tours. You can spend a day exploring beneath the city, clambering through the Catacombs—subterranean crypts with thousands of bones—and the Parisian sewers that have been turned into an underground museum (without the smell or rats). If you have a budding gourmand, consider cooking classes. And while you’re roaming, says Healey, be sure to “observe the ritual of French goûter [snack time] at 4:30 p.m. with Nutella on a baguette or a fruit tart from a bakery.”
Doni Belau recommends tours based on movies or books that kids can see or read before the trip—for younger children, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Madeleine, and Ratatouille, and for older ones, Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette or Amélie with its myriad Montmartre locations. “One time we read Linnea in Monet’s Garden—about a little girl who visits Paris with her grandfather and discovers the artist—and did a progressive book tour,” says Belau.
Now it’s time to relax. Think about something as simple as a picnic in one of the city’s magnificent green spaces—the Tuileries beside the Louvre, the sprawling Bois de Boulogne, the Jardin des Plantes (home to a zoo), or the offbeat Buttes-Chaumont with its artificial lakes, waterfalls, and mountains. “Make a big deal about going shopping for the picnic and have the kids pick out what they want to eat,” says Belau. Our suggestion: Visit small shops for fresh French bread, cheese, salami and other meats, local fruit, and mineral water (avec or sans gaz) for the kids, local du vin for you. Adds Belau: “That’s France—creating a day around food—talking about it, planning it, buying everything, and finally eating.”
Know Before You Go
Insider Tip: The Parisian Metro system offers more than 130 miles of train tracks, zigzagging through 300 stations and interlocking tracks beneath and above the city. Families can buy booklets (carnets) of up to ten tickets for use on the Metro mix of trains, buses, or trams. Have a buddy system in place before descending into the labyrinthine railway stations, though, as they are perennially crammed with frenetic subway patrons, artists, and musicians.
Books for Parents:
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik (2001): What would it be like to raise your family in Paris? Read an American writer’s perspective on living and working here from 1995 to 2000.
Les Misérables (1862): Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, the musical version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece tells the story of former convict Jean Valjean as he explores the laws of justice, morality, and grace across the backdrop of French history.
Phantom of the Opera (1910): The legendary novel by French writer Gaston Leroux has been adapted to numerous literary and dramatic works, including this musical. The underground pond referenced in the story lies beneath Paris’s famed Opéra Garnier, constructed in the 1860s.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Midnight in Paris (2011): Woody Allen’s 42nd film was shot in Paris except for a few sequences in Giverny and at the Château de Versailles.
Ratatouille (2007): This delightful Disney animated comedy is set in one of Paris’s finest restaurants. In pursuit of his lifelong dream to become a French chef, a determined young rat spurs a hilarious chain of events that turns the town upside down.
City of Paris Portal: This site keeps a comprehensive up-to-date list of happenings about town. It also provides links for booking hotel rooms and city tours.
Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau: This website offers a rich menu of musical and theatrical events, museums and tours, scenic outdoor strolls, and more ideas to build a packed itinerary. Purchase museum passes and event tickets here.
Catacombs’ Musée Carnavalet: Travel underground more than 2,000 years back in time. Visit the website of the Catacombs’ Musée Carnavalet for activities geared to parents and children.