From mummies and knights in armour to rooftop encounters with gargoyles, here's how to make the most of the French capital en famille
All too often parents seem to forget about bringing their children to Paris or perhaps they are just selfishly keeping it to themselves.
In fact as a densely inhabited city, the place is just full of kids – and all sorts of things for them to do. It is compact enough to explore by foot or public transport, easy to navigate and packed with readily identifiable monuments, many of which are free for children, while almost every small park or square has a playground where small kids can let off steam. Depending when you come, look out also for seasonal events, such as the outdoor ice rinks at Christmas, when there's a children's rink and toboggan run alongside the main rink at Hôtel de Ville, the farm animals at the Salon de l'Agriculture in late February and Paris Plage riverside beach in summer.
Seeing the sights
Visiting Paris as a family can be the perfect excuse to do the sights, as long as you keep things in manageable child-sized nuggets. For adults who normally feel far too cool for something as touristy as the Eiffel Tower (www.tour-eiffel.fr) what better excuse than a child in tow to finally go up this Parisian icon? The structure is fascinating seen from the lift (the courageous can also climb to the second level on foot). It helps to have two adults to share the queuing, although they have at last just introduced an online booking system, or come in the evening when the crowds have gone and the ironwork sparkles with thousands of lights.
The big Sphinx and mummiefied everythings in the Egyptian department are the indisputable children's favourites at the Louvre (www.louvre.fr) but you should also visit the Denon wing with its greatest hits of French and Italian painting: the cast of millions in David's picture of Napoleon's coronation, shipwreck and cannibalism in Géricault's Raft of the Médusa, though children may well be more interested in the lavish banquet, costumes and dogs in Veronese's Wedding Feast at Cana than the enigmatic gaze of Leonardo's Mona Lisa in the same room.
At the Centre Pompidou (www.centrepompidou.fr), the Galerie des Enfants puts on special exhibitions for children (Habiter 2050 until 8 March 2010) but there are also of plenty of fascinating works in the modern art museum, as well as the appeal of the colourful building itself and the escalator ride up the side.
Among smaller museums, get up close to medieval sculpture or spot the rabbits in the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée National du Moyen-Age (www.musee-moyenage.fr), there are sculptures all round the house and gardens at the Musée Rodin (www.musee-rodin.fr), and fabulous knights in armour, cannons and Napoléon's hat at the Musée de l'Armée at Les Invalides (www.invalides.org), while the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (www.chassenature.org) is an eclectic curiosity with portraits of Louis XIV's dogs, stuffed bears and animal-shaped tureens.
For high-tech science, the Cité des Sciences (www.cite-sciences.fr) at La Villette often seethes with kids, but can be horrendously crowded and not everything is bilingual. Instead try the historic Musée des Arts et Métiers (www.arts-et-metiers.net), focused on great steps in science and engineering. Early cars and planes are dramatically displayed in a medieval chapel and there is a witty audio guide in English where seven to 12 year olds are taken round by a chirpy Cockney robot.
The Jardin des Plantes (www.mnhn.fr) combines zoo, natural history museum, botanical garden and public park all on one site. In the Ménagerie, the red pandas, orang-utan, leopards and scary tanks of snakes and spiders are all hits; then there are the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution, where stuffed animals are beautifully displayed wandering across the jungle or savannah, skeletons in the Galerie de Paléontologie and giant crystals, chunks of meteorite and strange coloured rocks in the Galerie de Minéralogie.
If in doubt, climb
Many small children love the challenge of climbing steps. Try the Arc de Triomphe (www.arc-de-triomphe.monuments-nationaux.fr) with 234 steps for a bird's eye view of traffic milling around place de l'Etoile and the Champs-Elysées.
At Notre-Dame Cathedral (www.notre-dame-de-paris.monuments-nationaux.fr), 400 steps up the north tower bring you face to face with the stone gargoyles on the Galerie des Chimères. Another flight of steps in the south tower climbs past the bourdon – a massive 13 tonne bell – to the rooftop terrace... before the equally exhausting way down.
Hotels for kids
Paris's grandest hotels are competing to promote themselves as child friendly but many of the city's simpler traditional hotels are good affordable options and often have rooms that sleep three or four.
Hôtel Bel-Ami at 7-11 rue St-Benoît, 6th. This fashionably minimalist St-Germain hotel makes a genuine effort for families. Deluxe rooms are large enough to add an extra bed, while the family package of two adjacent or inter-connecting rooms starts at €390. Children are welcomed with teddy bear, crayons, playstation, dressing gown, bath sponge and room service child's menu; parents can recover at the Payot spa.
Hôtel Jeanne d'Arc at 3 rue de Jarente, 4th. This characterful hotel has a good Marais location, near a small café-lined square. Rooms are gradually being redone in attractive colours (others remain traditionally floral). Larger rooms that sleep three or four (€146-€160) are ideal for families. The hotel can also provide a cot.
Hôtel Familia at 11 rue des Ecoles, 5th. There's a friendly welcome at this 19th-century Latin Quarter hotel, which has been run by the same family for three generations. Rooms feature cherrywood furniture and cheerful murals of Paris, with triples and quadruples starting at €165.
Citadines Paris Saint Germain at 53 ter quai des Grands-Augustins, 6th. With their well-equipped kitchenette, Citadines aparthotels are useful for longer stays or if you don't want to eat out all the time. This branch is well placed by the Seine, offering decent sized studios for two and two-room apartments that sleep four.