We were fortunate enough to spend our Thanksgiving break in Paris this year. Planning a trip abroad with children has a different vibe than what I’d plan for my husband and me. If it were only Justin and I going, we’d be happy spending hours sitting in cafes and wandering around the city aimlessly. However, with a 6 and 9-year-old in tow, a little more structure was necessary. This trip wasn’t intended as a romantic or leisurely vacation. It was a memory-maker. It was about experiencing something grand together. It was about balancing everybody’s wants and needs. I knew we wouldn’t be able to stay out late at night. I knew we’d need breaks. I knew we’d need food everyone would enjoy and activities everyone would be interested in. I think we struck a good balance and were able to bond as a family.
If you happen to be in the market for a family trip to Paris, here are the top 5 most successful parts of our vacation. It was our first time there and we had a short period of time to experience this beautiful city. TripAdvisor, more experienced travelers’ blogs, and advice from friends were invaluable to the planning process. But if you’d like a beginner’s view of family-friendly activities in Paris, read on.
1. The National Museum of Natural History
On our first morning, we set off for the National Museum of Natural History. The name doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s not A museum. It’s an entire property of gardens, buildings, greenhouses, and zoos. I was glad I had done my research. I bought tickets to two separate exhibits. The Grand Gallery of Evolution and the Menagerie Garden. The Grande Gallerie de L’Evolution was an immense, 19th Century, multi-story hall filled with over 7,000 preserved specimens; everything from butterflies to giraffes. The Menagerie was like a mini zoo- not quite as spectacular, but we spent a decent amount of time mesmerized by an adorable baby orangutan playing with his parents. If I were to go again, I think I’d include tickets to the Gallery of Paleontology to see the dinosaur fossils as well.
When in Paris, you eat! But this is another area that had to be planned differently with children in mind. It would be fun to eat at a fancy, French restaurant with Michelin stars, but my kids are not going to appreciate Safran Arancinis and Tapenade with Truffle Vinegar Dressing. They want cheese pizza, and don’t put those green basil leaves on it! I also had to find restaurants that had food everyone would like and could accommodate a gluten-free diet.
On our first day, we ate lunch at Little Nona, where every item on the menu is gluten-free. With dietary restrictions, it’s a huge win when you can order pizza and dessert and it actually tastes good.
At Coquelicot, an adorable little boulangerie (bakery) restaurant in the quaint district of Montmartre, we sat in a room filled with Christmas decorations and I had quiche lorraine and a chocolate eclair for breakfast.
A highlight for the kids was our visit to Cafe Des Chats (Cafe of Cats) where we ate cheesecake and molten lava cake with cats wandering around under our feet, sleeping on the chairs beside us, and occasionally hopping up on the tabletops to say hello. If you are in the area, go for the coffee, dessert, and purrs.
In this hip, little place called The Hood that serves modern takes on fast Asian food, I had the creamiest, most perfectly spiced, not-too-sweet chai latte I’ve ever tasted. That’s not my typical order, but after trying Justin’s, I immediately called the waitress back over to order my own.
On our last night, we visited Carmine for dinner. The nice thing about Paris is that we are on an American kid’s eating schedule, and the restaurants are empty at 5:30pm. Parisians typically don’t dine until much later in the evening, so we had the place to ourselves. Justin had a perfectly cooked steak. The kids ordered pizzas and were delighted when they arrived in the shape of bunnies, complete with black olive eyes and noses. The wait staff was so friendly and, big bonus, we were within walking distance to the Eiffel Tower for an after-dinner stroll to work off those extra tiramisu calories.
Visiting the Montmartre district was my favorite part of our trip to Paris. There was an adorable Christmas village, complete with mini log cabin huts for vendors to sell their hats, cheeses, candies, and leather goods. Montmartre is covered in cobblestone streets and quaint views that are fun to explore and filled with secret treasures like the Wall of Love, a mural with “I love you” written in 250 different languages.
As we wandered around the winding roads we found a series of stairs leading up to the top of a hill where the Sacré-Cœur Catholic Church sits in all its intricate glory. We climbed the steps where the views were beautiful from every angle and the higher we got, the more expansive view of the city we could behold. Inside the cathedral, Justin and the kids lit a candle, took an awe-inspiring lap around the perimeter, and listened to angelic, soothing prayers and songs in the beautiful French language. It was a spiritual experience.
4. The Louvre
A trip to Paris would not be complete without a visit to the most famous art museum in the world! I was told ahead of time that I needed to plan a route and stick to it or we would get lost in a maze of buildings, wings, hallways, and seemingly endless rooms. I went in with a loose plan to find the most famous masterpieces and, if we were feeling up for it, we’d swing by the Ancient Egyptian and/or Medieval exhibits.
Even with a plan, we got lost. However, we managed to see the Mona Lisa, which was smaller than we expected. With some guidance, we also found one of my favorite paintings of all time, The Raft of the Medusa, which was bigger than I expected. The Raft of the Medusa, by Théodore Géricault, is a highly emotional piece, based on a real-life shipwreck. It’s the perfect representation of hope and despair and brought tears to my eyes.
We tried to make the trip entertaining for the kids as well. My husband cracked jokes and told stories about the most over-the-top paintings he could find. We tasked Teddy and Penny with finding the piece they liked best and tried to keep a pretty quick pace. Justin and I could have spent all day in the Louvre, but, with Teddy and Penelope in tow, a morning amongst the beauty and history was what we got and I’m so thankful for that experience.
We did this trip on a budget (around $3000 for everything including flights, our AirBNB, food, taxis, PCR tests, etc.) but how could I go to Paris without doing a little shopping?
There are plenty of cheap, touristy shops selling berets for 3 euros and tacky Eiffel Tower keychains, but those things don’t match the elegance and culture of Paris. My daughter came to Paris with a hand-me-down coat. She was too big for her old winter coat and we hadn’t found time to buy a new one in the mild Tunisian weather. Her souvenir was a coat from an adorable boutique called Bonton. She got to use it immediately as we walked from place to place in the cold rain. She’ll get use out of it for the next year or so and every time she puts it on, she can remember Paris.
In a serendipitous meeting with a Christmas market vendor from Tunisia, I purchased my Paris souvenir. I was lucky enough to find a badass leather jacket that I’ve been searching for for over a year.
Another fun shopping stop was visiting Ladurée where they make the best macarons in the world. We got a box of 12 brightly colored macarons for 35 euros, a bit pricey for cookies. It was a splurge for the experience of saying we’ve had the best and the fun of picking out our 12 different flavors in their fancy shop. I’m not typically a fan of macarons. The ones I’ve had always taste stale and too sweet, but I must say, these were pretty special; interesting, distinct flavors, perfect, fresh texture, and of course they were as beautiful to look at as they were to eat. We polished them off in 2 days!
The weather may have been harsh, but there’s something a bit romantic and adventurous about roaming around a historical city in the rain. I will forever be grateful that I was able to swap my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie for French pastries and spend a few days as a Parisian. We took in the soaring buildings, the stone facades covered in sculptures and lined with intricate balconies. We walked past locals bundled up in fashionable long coats exiting bakeries with baguettes and croissants. Normally we don’t go out in this kind of weather, but we were in Paris. We had to soak it all in and that included soaking in the cold and rain. A bit of a drizzle wasn’t going to stop us. We had things to see and cappuccinos to drink! But more than the magnificent buildings and fabulous food, I’ll always treasure the memories of my children’s faces as they experienced this magical place for the first time with me.