Thanks to Madeline, the Hunchback, and Pascal's red balloon, most children have a vision of Paris long before they ever set foot in the city. They picture parks with trees lined up like soldiers, stone bridges with fancy lampposts, schoolgirls all in a row, and, of course, French bread tucked under every arm. The good news is that there's truth to their fantasies. It's easy to make your trip so très français that you'll return accompanied by little Gigis and Chevaliers who have discovered that real french fries never need ketchup and that Parisians know a thing or two about joie de vivre. Now, take a cue from the stirring national anthem: "Allons enfants."
• Pick up Paris par Arrondissement. This street guide, available through travel bookstores, shows detailed maps of each neighborhood. • Book hotel rooms well in advance. Paris is full of small, reasonably priced hotels, and though few have suites, many offer adjoining rooms good for families. (Chains such as Sofitel feature the American model of family accommodation but lack the French character you came for.) Two good candidates are the Hôtel de l'Abbaye (10 Rue Cassette; 33-1/45-44-38-11, fax 33-1/45-48-07-86; two adjoining rooms $356, including breakfast and taxes), close to the Jardin du Luxembourg on the Left Bank; and the more modest Grand Hôtel Jeanne d'Arc (3 Rue de Jarente; 33-1/48-87-62-11, fax 33-1/48-87-37-31; doubles $97), around the corner from the Place des Vosges on the Right Bank. • Children under 12 are admitted free to most museums , but grown-ups should purchase a pass (one-day, three-day, or five-day, available at museums and the tourist office) to avoid long ticket lines. Turn an art museum into a treasure hunt by starting off at the gift shop, where children can choose postcards of their favorite works and then search for them. • Public buses can't be beat as inexpensive sightseeing vehicles. Grab a free RATP Grand Plan de Paris at any large Métro station. For a ride past many Paris landmarks, hop on bus No. 94, which follows a north-south route through the city, or take bus No. 69 along the east-west axis.
There's no better way to get oriented than to rise above the rooftops. It's easy in a city where most buildings conform to a six-story limitation (thank you, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann).
EIFFEL TOWER On a clear day, the view from the Eiffel Tower (Ave. Gustave-Eiffel; 33-1/44-11-23-23) extends some 40 miles, taking in what seems to be all of the Île-de-France. The design of the 1889 steel tour de force allows you to absorb the cityscape in stages, from intimate near the bottom to panoramic at the top. Allot plenty of time for the lines and perhaps a meal (but book ahead). Though the 7,000-ton tower has a Michelin-starred restaurant named for native son Jules Verne (33-1/45-55-61-44; lunch for four $250), families may feel more relaxed at the less formal Altitude 95 (33-1/45-55-20-04; lunch for four $65). Looking for something exhilarating to do at night?The tower stays open until 11 p.m. from September through June, and until midnight in July and August.
NOTRE DAME If the view alone isn't sufficient motivation for your kids to mount the 385 steps to the top of the north tower of Notre Dame (6 Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame; 33-1/42-34-56-10), mention the freakish gargoyles. Back on terra firma, light a candle for Joan of Arc (in a chapel south of the nave), compare an original 13th-century rose window (at the north end of the transept) to later restorations of its south and west counterparts, and be sure to introduce the cathedral's most salient architectural feature—the flying buttress, a term many kids find hilarious.
LA SAMARITAINE The best thing about La Samaritaine (19 Rue de la Monnaie; 33-1/40-41-20-20), other than the fanciful cast-iron framework that has made the department store an architectural landmark, is the view from its roof. Take the elevator to the ninth floor and walk up a flight to a terrace where, weather permitting, you can sip Orangina and nibble a croque-monsieur at a table sheltered by the giant letters that spell out the store's name. Take one more flight up to an intimate observation deck in the round. A tilework depiction of the vista, identifying churches, museums, and other monuments, rings the parapet.
INSTITUT DU MONDE ARABE The Institut (1 Rue des Fossés-St.-Bernard; 33-1/40-51-38-38) is best known for its south wall, a grid of light-sensitive steel shutters that is architect Jean Nouvel's inspired blend of Islamic pattern and construction wizardry. But the north side of the building is equally prizeworthy. A chunk of it is devoted to a broad terrace offering perhaps the Left Bank's best view of Notre Dame, the Île de la Cité, and the Île St.-Louis. Introduce your kids to Arab fare (roast chicken, couscous, and sweet mint tea) at the adjacent Ziryab Restaurant (33-1/53-10-10-16). On the floors below, a museum of art and artifacts will clue them in to other traditions of the Arab world—if you can tear them away from the glass-walled elevators.
THE CATACOMBS AND SEWERS There are plenty of kids who'd rather be really "deep" than rise above it all. Take them to the Catacombs (1 Place Denfert-Rochereau; 33-1/43-22-47-63) and the Sewers (Pont de l'Alma; 33-1/53-68-27-81). The sight of miles of stone quarries filled with 5 or 6 million skeletons adds a chill to the already cool temperature in the former; in the latter, what you see on the hour-long tour—tunnels that are a triumph of engineering—will likely be overpowered by what you smell.
Blood sausage?Pigs' trotters?Rabbit?Of course not. Still, the classics of French cuisine that kids will appreciate are many; when it comes to desserts and sweets, make that all.
STEAK-FRITES The best steak-frites in Paris are at Le Relais de l'Entrecôte (15 Rue Marbeuf; 33-1/49-52-07-17; dinner for four $80). You can't reserve, but the wait is short. Since there are no choices to make on the pre-set menu, the French—uncharacteristically—tend to eat and run. It's the secret sauce that makes the steak so delicious.
Who cares if the steak-frites at La Coupole (102 Blvd. du Montparnasse; 33-1/43-20-14-20; dinner for four $75) aren't absolutely perfect?They're an excuse to jump into the center ring of a lively circus masquerading as a brasserie. (If it's hamburger you're after, order steak haché. ) Have a birthday party here and watch a procession of waiters deliver a cake with an exploding center while launching into the most memorable "Joyeux Anniversaire."
CRÊPES They may be available on every corner (nearly) but not all crêpes are freshly made on every corner (hardly). If you see a merchant simply warming a thin pancake taken from a stack, move on. A real crêpe should be poured onto a hot griddle.
SANDWICHES Croque-monsieurs, the French version of a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, are as ubiquitous as crêpes. But beware—all are not created equal. A café's proximity to an exceptional bakery often ensures high-quality bread. Near Boulangerie Poilâne, for instance, try Le Cassette (73 Rue de Rennes), an everyday café. Le Sélect (99 Blvd. du Montparnasse), which also uses Poilâne bread, has, as the name suggests, a pedigree of historic habitués, and also higher prices.