Sunday, October 2, 2016

Paris, France

I've been to Paris twice before having children, but this trip that we took with our 7- and 5-year-old turned out to be my favorite visit. There's something about having kids with you that forces you to slow down and actually enjoy life in Paris. Here's what we'd planned to do, and what we actually did.

What to Do

Hands down my favorite activity during the trip was spending an afternoon at Le Jardin du Luxembourg. The park is a wonderland for kids, and the setting is absolutely gorgeous. I'd been expecting something like Central Park in New York, but instead what we found was a manicured mini Versailles that features playgrounds and puppet theaters. We didn't have time to watch the marionette show, but here's the schedule in case you're interested.

Sailing wooden toy boats around the fountain at the center of the park is a classic past-time for Parisian children, so of course we wanted to participate. For 3.50 euro, we rented a boat and a stick for launching it. There was plenty of wind that day, so my kids spent quite a bit of time chasing the boat around and pushing it back out to the middle of the fountain.

We also enjoyed the old-fashioned carousel in the park for 1.50 euro each. I've seen my share of old-fashioned carousels, but this one takes the cake, dating back to 1879. The hollow wooden horses are faded and marked, and there's no platform (the horses dangle from the roof) and no organ music. Instead, the children sitting on the outer perimeter receive sticks that they can use to spear rings held out by the ride operator as they whirl around.

In addition to these charming attractions, the park boasts the best playground I've ever come across. It costs 1.50 euro to get in, and I found it odd to have to pay to enter a playground, but it was well worth the money. Besides the usual slides, teeter-totters and jungle gyms, there was an awesome zipline course and the largest sand pit I've ever seen, complete with a structure that contained scooping and lifting equipment.

The thing the kids were looking forward to the most on this trip was the Eiffel Tower. Being crowd-averse, I've never ascended the tower before, only gazed at it from below, but it turns out that you can now purchase online tickets in advance (although they sell out almost as they become available, so you'll have plan way ahead). We arrived for our scheduled visit of 11 am, skipped the ticketing line altogether, waited about two minutes to get on the first elevator, which ascended to the middle of the tower, and then another five minutes for the elevator from the middle to the top. The view from the top was absolutely stunning.

We took the elevator back down to the middle level, but then decided to walk down the stairs the rest of the way. It was interesting to examine the tower's design up close. Another magical way to experience the Eiffel Tower is to watch it light up and sparkle at night, which happens every hour, on the hour, after dusk.

Right by the Eiffel Tower are about a half dozen Seine river tour companies, which is definitely a touristy thing to do, but turned out to be a great activity for the kids. It was nice to just sit and relax for an hour with some snacks as sailed around and saw some sights that we didn't have time for, like Notre Dame and the Louvre. Sailing underneath 20 of the 22 bridges that cross the Seine was also really neat, and you get to see their unique features up close. We chose to sail with Vedettes de Paris, but all of the companies seem more or less the same.

I didn't want to visit Paris without going to at least one museum, but also didn't want to deal with crowds. In the end, I chose Musée de l'Orangerie, a tiny museum bordering the Tuileries that features an amazing set of Monet's waterlily paintings, among other works by famous Impressionists. The museum is so small that we were in and out within an hour (including a visit to the gift shop), which was the perfect amount of time for the kids.

We also decided to ride the inside-out escalators at the Centre Pompidou, which was cool. Not sure if it's worth 3 euros each, though.

Where to Stay

So I just may have found the best hotel in Paris. By all accounts, Parisian hotel rooms are tiny and cramped, and ours was by no means large ... but it was a suite! The kids got their own room with mini-twin beds, and my husband and I got a whole room to ourselves; the king-size bed did take up the entire space, but it was still a room of our own!

The Hôtel Excelsior Latin is charmingly decorated, with Belle Époque details and updated fixtures in the bathroom. The completely modern, yet super-cute, closet-size elevator was a source of endless amusement for my whole family. We also loved how centrally located the hotel is, right near several Métro stops, attractions and restaurants.

Where to Eat

I had high aspirations for eating at the best specialty shops in Paris: Ladurée for macarons, Poilâne for baguettes, Angelina for hot chocolate, Marie-Anne Cantin for cheese. We ended up making it to none of these places, since walking even a few blocks with two small children can be a daunting trek. But the food in Paris, especially the bread and pastries, tend to be pretty good everywhere. You’ll find perfectly divine croissants, ham and cheese sandwiches, and hot chocolate even at chains like Eric Kayser and Paul (we loved both). As for macarons, there was a well-placed Ladurée stand right after you come through immigration at Charles de Gaulle airport, so we tended to our macaron needs right then and there. 

My favorite meal this visit was at Le Petit Cler, located on a charming street about a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. It’s the cutest little French bistro, with great food, good prices, and an incredibly pleasant waitstaff. Actually, all of the service we received in Paris was excellent. I have no idea how the French earned a reputation for being snobby or rude; everyone we met was kind, patient and friendly to the kids.

One of the best things I ate on this trip was a Nutella and strawberry crepe from a stand near the Centre Pompidou (if you're facing the entrance of the building, it's located on the right side of it). You'd think that crepes would make for awkward street food, but the long line at the stand convinced us to try it, and I’m so glad we did. Folded and tucked into a wrapper, it was perfect: warm and soft, with crisp edges and a gooey center.

What’s Nearby

London is so close to Paris, only two hours via the Eurostar, that we couldn’t resist spending a couple of days there. Here is my itinerary for that portion of the trip, from walking across the iconic Tower Bridge to visiting Windsor Castle to making the pilgrimage to Stonehenge.