Outstanding views and sights, fabulous hotels, good food and drink at great prices... there’s even a magical museum. Yes, Paris has everything for family holiday harmony
Paris: the city of light, a beacon for romantic weekends, legendary for its architectural beauty, its art and its cuisine! Not the kind of place you’d want to take your children to for the weekend, surely? Friends shook their heads sadly when we told them we were taking Amy (11 years old) and Lara (nine) to the city of romance for a weekend break. Everyone knows, they said, that small persons – whose attention span is about five seconds on a good day – are hopeless at city breaks. They loathe museums and galleries, spend most of their time grumbling and gurning, and consider the choice between nattering on Facebook or being dragged around the Louvre to be a no-brainer.
“Much better to take them to Disneyland,” was the advice we got. Well, we’d already done that, and the Disney Corporation is brilliant at what it does well – engaging children and putting smiles on little faces. But Disneyland, about 20 miles east of Paris and set in bleak countryside, is sometimes not the first choice for many adults. Once you have queued with what seems like half the teenagers in Europe for over an hour – as I have – for the Space Mountain: Mission 2 roller coaster, you’ll find your rictus grin wearing thin pretty fast. So, off we went on our cultural weekend to Paris, with the two – slightly reluctant – little darlings in tow.
And was it a success? Yes, it was, and it opened the eyes of our two (sheltered?) girls to a different culture. But it’s important to strike a balance between doing things that will amuse them, and not sublimating yourselves entirely to their wishes. After all, Mummy and Daddy want to enjoy themselves too. So, you must choose your venues and activities with care; otherwise long faces or tantrums will be the order of the day.
Central Paris is compact and easy to get around; it also has one of the most efficient Metro systems in the world. But little legs are not good on pavements, so remember to bring their scooters. It’s also best to avoid the major galleries such as the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay (whilst they house magnificent collections, they’re huge and slightly overwhelming), and to stick to smaller, children-friendly places. (Nevertheless, a lightning visit to the Louvre for a look at the 'Mona Lisa' is a must – they’re bound to have seen The Da Vinci Code and will want to see where Tom Hanks found the body.)
Take them to the Musée de la Magie in the Marais. There are wonderful interactive devices, plus a 20-minute live magic show that astounds even hard-bitten parents. And do go to the Centre Pompidou; there’s some fantastic contemporary art inside, and the square outside is always alive with jugglers, mime artists and musicians. The sixth floor has some of the best views over the rooftops of the city – Paris’s rooftops beat any other city’s hands down – and there’s also a very good watering hole, the excellent Restaurant Georges.
After a good lunch there, relax on the Seine for a bit by taking a trip on a bateau-mouche – the glorious Parisian architecture looks its best seen from the river, and kids love mucking about in boats. Keep the sightseeing gentle – the Eiffel Tower and a little wandering around the narrow streets of the left bank. Remember to bring those scooters for les enfants!
It’s well worth finding time for a trip to Versailles. It’s only 30 minutes on the RER line, and a child’s first glimpse of the stupendous grandeur of the palace is something to remember. Amy’s succinct remark – “This makes Buckingham Palace look a bit mingy, doesn’t it, Dad?” – was spot on. Avoid trying to find your way around the palace itself – it’s enormous and very confusing – and instead walk through the gardens to the Grand Canal, where you can hire bikes. There are 250 acres of grounds to explore, and a visit to the exquisite Petit Trianon – which Louis XV much preferred to his vast state apartments in the palace – is worth a detour.
Where to stay
You don’t want to be shelling out loads of Euros on accommodation, particularly as children don’t much care where they sleep. My favourite is the three-star Hotel Delavigne, where you can get a very comfortable family room at a decent price. It’s in a great location, between the Boulevard St Germain (top retail therapy for Mummy) and the Jardin du Luxembourg (where Daddy can read the paper in peace and quiet). It’s also got a babysitting service, just in case you want to ditch the little darlings for a candlelit dinner à deux.
Where to eat
You can’t leave Paris without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. For a final treat, book a table at the Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor. It has its own lift – thus avoiding the endless queues – has sensational views, and is Michelin-starred. Don’t be nervous about bringing children; the charming chef rattled up chicken and frites for ours, at a surprisingly agreeable price - while their parents happily tucked into the gourmet menu. Vas y!
And in Versailles you can lunch well just by the Grand Canal, at La Flotille restaurant, full of well-turned-out French families, who set an excellent example to little English girls of how to eat properly with papa et maman.