First, the bad news: Since Paris is one of the world’s most visited cities, seeing its best-known monuments and museums can require wading through masses of people and waiting in long lines. If you’re traveling with children, you will probably be exhausted before you even get inside.
Now the good: The city is filled with lesser-known draws that are authentic, often queue-free and a pleasure to visit en famille. The secret to a successful family visit is to discover these sites at a leisurely pace and to explore your neighborhood’s microcosm of parks, bakeries and cafes.
In other words, forget the Paris you think you’re supposed to see, and you’ll get much more out of the Paris that’s actually there.
According to the old saying, Paris is for lovers. But it’s also for families. The city is compact, safe and covered with playgrounds and kid-friendly places.
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Opt for smaller museums that you can tour in an hour or so, which is about as much as most little kids (and some grown-ups, myself included) can absorb. The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, the Museum of Hunting and Nature (60, rue des Archives, Third Arrondissement), mixes art and natural history, to great effect. There are displays of antique dog collars, a gorilla posed in front of still-life paintings, and a pair of lifelike stuffed lions who appear to have wandered into a drawing room.
One way to lure children to the museum: mention the wooden drawers containing the dung of various animals.
The Jardin des Plantes (Place Valhubert, Fifth Arrondissement) houses several separate, manageably sized attractions. Check out the live animals at La Ménagerie, an 18th-century zoo featuring a monkey house, reptile rooms and a Chinese panther. (It’s on the far right as you enter from Place Valhubert.)
Then visit the striking collection of animal skeletons at the Grand Gallery of Evolution on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History.
You can break up these longer explorations with dashes through the 17th-century gardens, rides on the merry-go-round and lunch.
The Pompidou Center (19, rue Beaubourg, Fourth Arrondissement) has a hands-on children’s area called La Galerie des Enfants, with rotating exhibits designed by artists (one devoted to Frida Kahlo opens in mid-October). It’s free for kids; adults need a museum ticket.
Add to that a brief tour of the main collections on Levels 4 and 5, a stunning view across Paris from Level 6, a jaunt through the terrific ground-floor gift shop, and lunch next door at one of the cafes opposite the fantastical Stravinsky Fountain, and you have yourself a très bonne journée.
Let your child’s love affair with Paris start with an authentic French breakfast. Any cafe will serve tartines, sliced baguettes with butter and jam.
Kids can dip the bread in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate; a bit of chocolate in the morning is supposed to fortify children for the day) or spoon on some gooey oeuf à la coque, a soft-boiled egg served in the shell. (The egg holder, called a coquetier, makes a great souvenir.)
Croissants and pain au chocolat are of course available, although these tend to be occasional treats for French children.
Cafes serve basic sandwiches, plain omelets, chicken dishes or croque-monsieurs, essentially grilled cheese with ham.
Increasingly, children’s menus are available in some cafes and restaurants, usually with hamburgers (sometimes called steak haché), fries and dessert. In a pinch, McDonald’s is never far away.
Children are welcome in non-fancy restaurants, but they’re expected to more or less behave. (Try the French habit of not letting them snack except in the afternoon. )
The Tuileries Garden (Place de la Concorde, First Arrondissement) is one of the most kid-friendly places in Paris and also one of the most beautiful. While you delight in its symmetry and designer lounge chairs, your children will enjoy the in-ground trampolines, merry-go-round and enormous sculptural playground.
Before leaving, walk to the park’s western edge to see the Luxor Obelisk, a 75-foot column (my kids call it the “giant crayon”) that once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt and now stands with an air of mysterious calm at the center of a swirling traffic circle.
Your children can mingle with the offspring of the French cognoscenti at the Luxembourg Gardens (Sixth Arrondissement, museeduluxembourg.fr/en/le-musee/jardin), a park that’s appealing to all ages. There’s an excellent enclosed pay-to-play area (with bathrooms), pony rides and toy sailboats in the central basin.
The park’s storied puppet theater puts on shows, in French, daily at 4 p.m., and at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekends.