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Trip Ideas

Paris With Kids

Writer Sarah Horne Grose explores the City of Light, family in tow, and rounds up the ten best places to take les enfants

Two summers ago, my husband Will and I, newly married, headed to Paris for a romantic weekend. We stayed at L’Hotel, a swanky, sexy boutique property beloved by party animals like Mick Jagger and Oscar Wilde; we danced ‘til dawn at a friend’s wedding; we drank carafe after carafe of Bordeaux in the afternoon at the cafe La Palette; we hunted down secretive cocktail dens and indulged in decadent three hour dinners at sought-after spots like Spring, walking home across the Seine long past midnight. It was heaven, and a thoroughly adult experience, complete with a thoroughly adult price tag and thoroughly adult hangovers. Were there children in Paris? Shrug. I barely noticed.

Fast forward to 2013, and our family of two had become a family of three. Our son Axel was now 11 months old, and on the move, eager to crawl and scoot and climb and laugh at strangers and babble and screech mysteriously to himself. I was newly, still secretly pregnant with our second child, and we were feeling a surge of wanderlust. It was our very first big adventure with our son without extended family, without the obligations of holiday traditions, and also likely the only international escape the three of us would have before we became four. {"type": "right-quote", "text": "Parisians, steely and cold though they may seem in some instances, are generally a family-friendly lot."}

Bravely, we chose Paris all over again.

Anyone who has read the book Bringing up Bébé, by the American mother-in-Paris Pamela Druckerman, might rightly be terrified of bringing their child to a city where children apparently comport themselves like miniature adults, eat aged cheeses with gusto, and sit decorously while their parents discuss art and politics during their fourth course of dinner. Once we scratched the surface, though, Paris was a natural fit for babies (stereotypes be damned.) As it turns out Parisian children wreak just as much havoc as our little American. They’re just a little better dressed when they do so. And Parisians, steely and cold though they may seem in some instances, are generally a family-friendly lot.

We were regularly stopped and asked all about Axel and his particular habits; Did he sleep through the night? Was he “sage” (a French catch all for ‘chilled out and well behaved’?) Far from turning their nose up at this little person, Parisians used Axel as an ice breaker. One taxi driver told us about his three lactose intolerant French babies (the horror!); another said he and his wife were ‘trying’ and said repeatedly “Children are a blessing.” Scowling elderly ladies stopped us in the street to announce we had “un beau bébé,” before shuffling along on their way.

One of the keys to our success was undoubtedly the postage stamp-sized apartment we rented in the Marais. Steps from the Place des Vosges, our apartment came with a sleek little kitchen, a travel crib for the boy, WiFi and a laptop for emergency Peppa Pig sessions, and a washer and dryer. It wasn’t rock star-bait, perhaps, but it was situated in an arrondissement jam-packed with just-so boulangeries, redolent cafés, and boutiques. We were in the thick of fashionable Paris, and yet had a little retreat where we could wash bottles and let the baby loose for a few hours. {"type": "left-quote", "text": "A little boy and girl, well-coiffed and well-heeled, began singing the very sweet French lullabye “Dodo, L’Enfant Do.”"}

In the mornings, the manicured park where Victor Hugo dreamed up Jean Valjean was packed with Parisian parents and their children. Up early (instead of sleeping off our Pastis), we had been inducted into a sort of secret society. The parents gave us tips on places like the Jardin des Plantes, and smiled wearily and knowingly when a little one began to whimper, on the verge of a meltdown.

Though we visited Versailles and the Musée D’Orsay and consumed our fair shares of steak frites, much of the joy of Paris, this time, was in the small stuff. There was a sweet pleasure in finding places Axel would love, like Les Trois Ours, the charming little toy store on the rue du Turenne, or in stopping at a boulangerie to buy him a fresh baguette to gum. One night, we bought falafel at a stand in the Marais and walked down to the banks of the Seine, which were packed with French students eating bread and cheese and quaffing wine. As we ate one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in Paris, Axel watched the Bateaux Mouches stream past as the lights came on on the city’s bridges.

At Bonton, the hip kids’ department store, we bought him classic children’s books while he slept in the stroller. As I leafed through the pages of Max et les Maximonstres, a little boy and girl, well-coiffed and well-heeled, shopping with their mother, peered in at him and began singing the very sweet French lullabye “Dodo, L’Enfant Do.”

It was one of those blissful Parisian moments, like hearing “La Vie en Rose” as you climb the steps of Montmartre, that makes you feel full and present and lucky. And one of the reasons we’ll keep coming back, our expanding brood in tow.

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Jardin D’Acclimation

Set in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris’s leafy Western district, the Jardin D’Acclimation is a veritable children’s paradise. There are multiple playgrounds, vintage carnival-style rides, and a miniature train that chugs along through the park as well as pony rides, puppet shows, a water play area and a small zoo. This being Paris, the whole affair is rather civilized: there’s plenty of espresso at the food stands, and exotic peacocks roam the grounds. If you’re feeling sporty, you can rent a bike with a child’s seat just outside the gates and explore the wooded trails nearby.

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L’As du Fallafel

The Marais, once known primarily for its private mansions and as the city’s Jewish Quarter, is now a warren of cobbled streets packed with fashionable restaurants and great one-off boutiques. One evening, feeling like a long sit down meal might try the baby’s patience, we headed to the counter at L’As du Fallafel for two of their famous, very cheap vegetarian stuffed pitas, which come wrapped in paper, then walked down to the banks of the Seine for a casual, cheap dinner for three.

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Hameau de la Reine, Versailles

The main chateau of Versailles is often thronged by tourists, but many of them never get past the famous Hall of Mirrors and the formal gardens immediately outside the palace. Parisians and their families head further afield to stroll the chateau’s old hunting trails or sun themselves in the grounds of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon folly. The last queen of France built a miniature village and petting zoo there, and children love seeing the exotic chickens and stylized, old-fashioned farm buildings.

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Jardin du Luxembourg

Perhaps nowhere else in Paris makes childhood seem quite so charming. From the pony rides (for children 18 months and older) to the classic toy sailboats available to rent near the central pond, to the playground and vintage puppet theatre, the Jardin du Luxembourg is an ideal family oasis in chic St. Germain. If your child is clamoring for a taste of home, you can even order “un hot dog” and penny candy at the café.

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Bonton

Paris is noted for its killer fashion, and the city’s children are naturally chicer than chic. Bonton, a very cool department store, caters to discerning parents as well as kids; there’s a whole floor devoted to birthday party supplies, children’s books, and charming little toys. Upstairs, there are neat little piles and racks of precious clothes (think cashmere onesies and handsome little bloomers.) If you’re lucky, your little one can get a walk-in slot for a children’s haircut at Bonton’s very own salon.

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Parc du Champ de Mars

For a view of the Eiffel Tower (without the price of admission or the stairs), the adjacent lawns of the Champ de Mars make for the perfect picnicking spot. There’s a playground for the kids in the park and plenty of room for them to run around and play while you perch on a blanket and nibble on cheese, olives, and charcuterie. Parisian families stay up late, and you’ll see little ones out even when the tower’s lights begin to twinkle.

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Place des Vosges

The 17th century Place des Vosges is truly one of the most elegant and romantic squares in Paris. Victor Hugo wrote many of his masterpieces in one of the mansions overlooking the park. With its fountains, its expertly pruned trees, and its location in one of the chicest parts of the city the Place might seem like an odd destination for children. Take a second look and you’ll notice the playground discreetly set to one side; there’s even a sandbox. Perfect for parents who want to soak up some history while the small fry scamper about.

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Merci

Merci is a concept store that was created by the owners of the French children’s clothing label Bonpoint. Adults will love the sophisticated home decor, fashion, and accessories (proceeds go to benefit a selection of charities), while picky young eaters will relish the tasty, healthy fare served at Merci Cantine, the store’s café. Think freshly squeezed juices, simple homemade veggie soups, scones and cakes with an Anglophile twist.

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Jardin des Plantes

A world class botanical garden set on the banks of the Seine, the sprawling Jardin des Plantes is also home to Paris’s Natural History Museum and a small zoo that dates to the 18th century. Ask any Parisian parent about their routine and chances are, it will include weekly trips here, as it’s a beautiful setting for children and adults alike. The reptile and monkey houses, playground, and the Great Gallery of Evolution are particularly beloved spots.