Oui, Mon Chéri
Published: June 2009
By Heather Smith MacIsaac
But of course: the City of Light is every bit as enchanting en famille. Here, an À la carte guide to a brilliant vacation
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.
CHEESE One whiff at the door of Barthélemy (51 Rue de Grenelle; 33-1/45-48-56-75) or La Ferme St.-Hubert (21 Rue Vignon; 33-1/47-42-79-20) and your children may turn up their noses. But once they step inside either shop and see hundreds of fromages, they'll learn an important lesson—that cheese isn't always pre-sliced and wrapped in plastic. Counter their suspicions with a dollop of mild chèvre here, a spread of unpasteurized butter there.
SOUFFLÉ Zero in on the cheese, chocolate, or lemon versions at Le Soufflé (36 Rue du Mont-Thabor; 33-1/42-60-27-19).
ICE CREAM Even in winter, there can be a line outside Berthillon (31 Rue St.-Louis-en-l'Île; 33-1/43-54-31-61), Paris's best-known glacier. No artificial ingredients defile its 50 varieties, served year-round, so you can count on raspberry sorbet scooped in December to taste like summer. Still, when it comes to the king and queen of flavors—vanilla and chocolate—Dalloyau (2 Place Edmond-Rostand; 33-1/43-29-31-10; plus four other locations) makes the creamiest.
SWEETS Debauve et Gallais (30 Rue des Saints-Pères; 33-1/45-48-54-67). Silly fact: In this elegant candy store, originally a pharmacy, chocolate was once prescribed (as it was throughout France) as a cure for flatulence.
À la Mère de Famille (35 Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre; 33-1/47-70-83-69). Buying foil-wrapped chocolate francs and chocolate cigarettes is only part of the fun to be had within this 238-year-old establishment. Paris's oldest candy store has a 19th-century cashier's cage, tile floors, and enameled signs—not to mention jams, candied fruits, and assorted bonbons.
La Bonbonnière de la Trinité (4 Place d'Estienne-d'Orves; 33-1/48-74-23-38). Follow the backpack set to this sweets shop where the display is as dazzling as the final set of The Nutcracker.
PASTRIES The be-all and end-all of French pastry is the croissant, of course. Great examples are too numerous to list, but not to worry: the kids won't mind stopping at every patisserie for a taste test. While you're at it, search out these delectables: macaroons and lemon tarts from Gérard Mulot (76 Rue de Seine; 33-1/46-33-49-27); apple turnovers—especially hot from the wood-fired oven—and shortbread cookies from Boulangerie Poilâne (8 Rue du Cherche-Midi; 33-1/45-48-42-59); pain de fantaisie (bread shaped into elaborate figures and forms) at Au Bon Pain Cuit (111 Blvd. Haussmann; 33-1/42-65-06-25); and pound cake and walnut bread from Poujauran (20 Rue Jean-Nicot; 33-1/47-05-80-88).
Long for an in-house French chef?Start your kids off early with a three-hour cooking workshop (in French, but the assistant chef can translate) at the École Ritz Escoffier (Hôtel Ritz, 15 Place Vendôme; 33-1/43-16-30-50, fax 33-1/43-16-31-50; $80 per student; workshops held monthly). Students, ages 6 to 12, are issued le costume du chef —checked pants, double-breasted white jacket, long apron, and mini-toque. What's on the syllabus?Salads, hors d'oeuvres, perhaps a lemon sorbet or marble cake. They'll have a cookbook, class portrait, and diploma to remember the occasion by. But the before-and-after shots you take of your child in uniform may be the best mementos—especially if the class tried to master chocolate mousse.
Their eyes glued to microscopes, kids squeal at the squiggles of more than 6,000 organisms at the micro-zoo within the Ménagerie (57 Rue Cuvier; 33-1/40-79-37-94), Paris's otherwise out-of-date zoo, located within the Jardin des Plantes. A visit to the spectacular Grande Galerie de l'Évolution, housed in the same park's Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (57 Rue Cuvier; 33-1/40-79-30-00), shifts the focus from the minuscule to the tremendous.
The 168-year-old taxidermy shop Deyrolle (46 Rue du Bac; 33-1/42-22-30-07) is like a museum in that you can't touch the menagerie. But you can get very, very close—near enough to snap a fearsome photo that will evoke plenty of "Awesome"s back home. Most parents will have to say no to bringing home the lion; maybe the kids will settle for a bamboo-handled butterfly net.
If the stuffed animals begin to seem ominously quiet, stroll past the shops fronting the Quai de la Mégisserie at Métro Pont-Neuf across from the Île de la Cité, on the Right Bank. The sidewalks are alive with chirps, scratches, and twitters—emitted from cages of birds and little beasts for sale.
Sure, boys (and more than a few girls) are made of snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails . . . behind which smolders a little lieutenant. Here's a strategy for attacking the militaria of Paris:
ARMY CENTRAL In due proportion to his ego, the tomb of Napoleon, in the Église du Dôme at Hôtel National des Invalides (Esplanade des Invalides; 33-1/44-42-54-42), is a grand sarcophagus. It's in a circular crypt harboring six nesting coffins, topped by a gilded dome. If you want to see Napoleon's face, or at least a plaster cast of it in deathly repose, head across the courtyard to the Musée de l'Armée (Hôtel National des Invalides, 129 Rue de Grenelle; 33-1/44-42-37-70). This is the place for parents who won't allow toy weapons at home to indulge their kids. After all, the hundreds of swords, guns, and other instruments of destruction are stuck in the past.
CALL IN THE TROOPS The miniature corpsmen for sale at Au Plat d'Étain (16 Rue Guisarde; 33-1/43-54-32-06) may be on a tiny scale, but the prices are not; the best view of these little lead men may be through the window. Try gathering forces instead at Les Drapeaux de France (8 Galerie de Nemours; 33-1/40-20-00-11).
THE GOOD SOLDIER For a benign sword—one made of wood—go to Le Bonhomme de Bois (43 Blvd. Malesherbes; 33-1/40-17-03-33), where all the toys are classics.
Of course it is—no one's allowed to walk on it. Chances are you'll spend most of your time in the Right Bank's Jardin des Tuileries and the Left Bank's Jardin du Luxembourg , where the kids will discover the grandeur of formal landscaping in addition to puppet shows, pony rides, carousels, and sailboat regattas in the fountain basins. The latter is the best entertainment value in the city: $6 buys an hour's ownership of a numbered sloop and a bamboo stick for launching it. Other worthwhile parks:
• Cleverly crafted from a defunct quarry, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (Rue Botzaris) departs from the flat parterre of most Parisian parks. Its cliffs offer a climb to a panoramic view, and its lake affords access to a grotto and waterfall—both artificial—and a refreshment pavilion. • At the Bois de Boulogne , you'll probably see only the northern end, where the Jardin d'Acclimatation, with its miniature train, mini-canal ride, go-cart track, and camel rides, elicits glee from the kids. During May and June, rent bikes and cycle to the Bagatelle to see the explosion of roses.
Not every open space in Paris is overrun with people and their pooches. Here are two prime examples:
• Children love to rollerblade beneath the 18th-century arcades of the Palais Royal , as well as skip and hop amid the truncated columns of artist Daniel Buren's graphic 1986 installation. • The Parc de la Villette (Ave. Corentin-Cariou or Ave. Jean-Jaurès; 33-8/03-30-63-06) is farther afield but worth the trek if your child is science-minded. Within the 75 acres are centers devoted to music, history, and, most notably, science and industry; there's also the silver Géode housing an IMAX theater, the bright red modern garden follies, and grass that kids can romp on.
No city is more feminine than Paris, no place more fun if your daughter is of the princess persuasion. If you thank heaven for little girls, then indulge yours in . . .
PERFUME Eau de Charlotte and Eau de Camille are fragrances designed by Annick Goutal (14 Rue de Castiglione, 33-1/42-60-52-82; 12 Place St.-Sulpice, 33-1/46-33-03-15) specifically for girls, but even if you come away with just a spritz on the wrist, the memory of flitting about in a jewel box of a shop will linger.
A PARTY DRESS For the big events in their lives, proper young Parisiennes don a Bonpoint frock—traditionally styled, beautifully sewn. The main store is on Rue Royale, but those in the know plunder the tiny outlet shop (82 Rue de Grenelle; 33-1/45-48-05-45). After all, few back home will care if the dress is last season's.
A COSTUME À LA MARIE ANTOINETTE Let your princess eat cake in a fanciful gown, complete with a white wig. Le Bon Marché (22 Rue de Sèvres; 33-1/44-39-80-00), the Left Bank's noteworthy department store, has a selection of expensive, elaborate costumes in its toy department. The entire lower level, in fact, is a paradise for kids, who could easily while away a rainy day moving from toys and books, to crafts and clothing.
A SELF-PORTRAIT Most kids tire after a few minutes in front of a painting, but around a sculpture they move and bend and mimic. At the Musée d'Orsay (1 Rue de Bellechasse; 33-1/40-49-48-14), watch your ballet-loving daughter shift into third position when presented with Degas's Young Dancer , her mirror image in bronze. Or witness her getting serious in front of The Thinker in the garden of the Musée Rodin (77 Rue de Varenne; 33-1/44-18-61-10).
A MAKEOVER Paris fashion mademoiselles buzz to Agnès B. (6 Rue du Jour; 33-1/45-08-56-56), near the Beaubourg plaza, as if it were the last honeypot on earth. Insist that for every priceless T-shirt they buy, they spend five minutes in the reconstructed atelier of sculptor Constantin Brancusi (33-1/44-78-12-33), also on the plaza.
The carpet may be a bit frayed and the sounds of French negligible, but Angelina (226 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/42-60-82-00; drinks for four $24) is still the destination for chocolate bars melted down to a thick syrup—a.k.a. hot chocolate . Or try conquering mont-blanc, another house specialty, a mound of meringue with whipped cream and a vermicelle of chestnuts. Afternoon tea at Mariage Frères (30-32 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg; 33-1/42-72-28-11; tea for four from $12) comes complete with tea cozies, a wide range of strainers and sugar scoops, and a booklet detailing the characteristics of all 500 teas on the menu. For an exotic milieu, head to the extraordinary pink marble Salon de Thé de la Mosquée de Paris (2 Place du Puits-de-l'Ermite; 33-1/43-31-18-14), within France's oldest mosque (the Arab community of Paris is one of the largest outside the Middle East). While adults refuel on Arabic coffee, kids warm to Moroccan pastries, mint tea, and the low, loungy furniture.
Although the fun factor in Paris is high, even the most worldly of kids will occasionally clamor for reminders of home. Disneyland Paris is only a 40-minute train ride away (on the "A" RER Express, to be exact). The attractions may have different names—Blanche-Neige et les Sept Nains, for example—but they don't differ significantly from the two American parks. Kids can marvel at Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, test their bravery with Indiana Jones et le Temple du Péril, or choo-choo around the park on Casey Jr., Le Petit Train du Cirque. Disneyland Paris has six hotels with weekend packages (Friday and Saturday night and two days in the park from $218, double.). There is also an off-site guest ranch, Davy Crockett Ranch. For day-trippers, Disney Passports—purchased in advance at FNAC or Virgin Megastores throughout France, or in the French tourist office (129 Champs Élysées; 33-8/36-68-31-12)—cost $33 for adults and $28 per child. For more information, call 407/934-7639 from the United States, or 33-1/6030-6030 in France.