When I originally told people we were going to Paris with our two sons this summer, their reaction was usually a barrage of questions...
Is it worth it? Will they even remember it?
Are you crazy? Why not just go to "France" at Epcot?
As you know from my previous post, we did indeed take our sons to Paris this summer - and we were so glad we did. We felt strongly about the need to expose them to a new and different place; show them how it is to be immersed in a new culture and language; and instill in them a passion for travel and adventure at an early age. We completely stand by our decision. But, it wasn't always the easiest of trips. And it may not be for everyone.
Did our sons just want to go back and watch TV at our rental apartment? Yes. Did they want to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at McDonald's and Subway? Yes. Did they get worn out from all of the sightseeing? Yes. Did they refuse to take one more step on a cobblestone street? Oh yes. But they had a lot of fun too and they can't wait to go back.
How is that possible in Paris - the city of lovers, fashion, cafes and wine? The parental answer is simple - by peeling back the romantic, gourmet and utterly amazing layers of the City of Light to view it...as kids.
Yep. We worked hard to regard the city from a pint-sized level. The walking, the food, the sights and the fun - as kids. And that, was the secret to our success.
Taking Paris On... In Kids-Sized Pieces
At home in Chicago we try hard to find ways to enjoy the city's amazing neighborhoods, cultural institutions and festivals in the most family-friendly way possible - and then break it up with a stop back at our toy-strewn home, a favorite playplace or park, or a casual, family-friendly restaurant. But Paris is not our hometown. We had no toys, we didn't have a go-to list of easy, fun spots to hit with our kids, and our sons can only eat so many ham and cheese sandwiches. So was this a problem? Could it mean we really were in for an achingly long time away from home? Not at all.
What surprised us the most about Paris was the sheer number of parks, playgrounds and other attractions that seemed to be everywhere we turned (and next to some of the city's most notable sights), and we were blown away by the delights each one offered our sons. And boy does Paris know how to live it up in the summer...
For four weeks, the city turned the banks of the Seine River into a beach (Paris Plages) and offered free sand play areas, boat rides, pétanque courts, art projects and more. While the kids were at play, the adults could indulge - in gelato, beer, wine and other delights. What could be better?
The summer months also brought a carnival (Fetes des Tuileries) to the Jardin des Tuileries. It was surreal to be able to ride a ferris wheel and look out at the Louvre Museum, Place de la Concorde and the Musee d'Orsay. It truly was the perfect mix of indulgence, culture and fun... In Paris. Guaranteed to quell a tantrum, refuel the sightseeing tanks for my guys, and add huge smiles to all of our faces.
Parks. I love that Mayor Daley took inspiration for many of Chicago's most beautiful areas from other great cities - including Paris. I hope Mayor Emanuel (a fellow parent) continues the trend. And, on that note, all I have to say is push boats, trampolines and carousels. They're everywhere in Paris parks and they're a money-making, kid-pleasing hit.
- Jardin du Luxembourg (6th arrondissement). The Jardin du Luxembourg is a favorite among Parisians and tourists alike. It is the place to sit and bask in the Parisian sun and enjoy some serious people watching too. There is a ton for kids to do here, but top on the list are the sail boats they can push across the Grand Bassin pond across from the Palais du Luxembourg. There also is a carousel, puppet theatre, fenced-in play area, sand play area, basketball courts and more. You could spend all day here - just prepare to have to shell out a few Euros for most activities.
- Jardin Villemin (10th arrondissement). There was a lot for our kids to love about this park... The rolling lawns, two playgrounds, gazebo and more. But the highlight was the location - right in the Canal St. Martin neighborhood and right across from the canal locks. Our sons could have watched the water levels changing and the locks opening and closing for passing boats for hours - and they had plenty of space to run off steam and meet other children between the streams of passing boats.
- Parc Monceau (8th arrondissement). This quaint neighborhood park has everything - the ubiquitous Parisian carousel, pony rides, iron swing-boats, playground and... ruins! Yep, with one trip to this park, we exposed our sons to pyramids, colonnades and more - all fake of course but unique and beautiful nonetheless.
Cultural Sites. Paris knows how to instill a love of culture among the toddler set and it starts with whimsy and fun - even without having to step foot inside. It truly is an ingenious way to cultivate creative minds with an innate love of the finer things in life - without even knowing it!
- Centre Pompidou (4th arrondissement). While the Centre Pompidou has a gallery space just for kids (La Galerie des Enfants), the draw for us here was what was on the outside. The building itself is cool to look at since it looks inside-out, with the escalators, elevators and air ducts visible on the exterior. With our rental apartment a block away, the square outside became our pseudo backyard, with plenty of space for our sons to run around. But, the highlight was the whimsical fountains just asking for kids to put their hands in and get wet - or get "kissed" by the water.
- Jardins du Palais-Royale (1st arrondissement). We were surprised to come upon an art installation at the south end of the park, just on the other side of the Comedie-Francaise, but we were so glad we did! The huge square features black and white striped columns of all sizes, perfect for jumping over, climbing on and running around. It was a great place to let our sons get some exercise and meet other kids - right in midst of beautiful 18th century buildings, right in the heart of Paris.
Special Attractions. We were lucky to have the luxury of lots of time in Paris so we could fit in more sights - even ones that were further from the city center. And, no. We're not talking about Disneyland Paris. There are other amusement parks and playgrounds... The ones Parisian families go to. And they're great!
- Jardin D'Acclimatation (16th arrondissement). Billed as Paris' oldest children's amusement park, it is one of our new favorite attractions. The large park, located at the end of Bois de Boulogne, boasts an amusement park, sprayground, farm, petting zoo and more. Our favorite was the amusement park chock full of unique rides we've never seen in the US - including a huge ball and water that made our older son look like a giant hamster!
- Parc de la Villette (19th arrondissement). This is more of a campus than a park with a science museum (Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie), themed play areas, fun sculptures, amusement park rides, and outdoor movie theatre (Festival du Cinema de Plein Air). But it's also a park in transition. When we were there, some of the play areas were closed for renovation and construction was being done at one end of the park. There was still lots to do and enjoy - we'll just need to come back to experience it again once the dust has cleared.
Restaurants/Markets. Okay. So restaurants and markets aren't parks, playgrounds or sites, but anyone with kids will tell you that food is what keeps our kids happy and energized - and that keeps parents sane. And it's no secret that the food is amazing in Paris - no matter if it's at a restaurant, cafe or market. You just can't go wrong - and there are tons of easy, fun and relatively healthy options for kids.
- Crepes (everywhere!). It's no surprise that crepes made up many of our kids' favorite meals. And boy did they know how to pick their fillings... Nutella, bananas and sugar, ham and cheese, sausage and cheese - and the list goes on! It was easy to get them at or near any place we went - at any time of the day. But, one of our best dining experiences was at a creperie in the 15th arrondissement - in the shadow of the Montparnasse Tower. We ate savory and sweet crepes and loved every beautiful and absolutely delicious bite. We went to Creperie de Plougastel, but you can't go wrong with any restaurant on the creperie-lined street of rue du Montparnasse.
- Falafel (Maris neighborhood, spans 3rd and 4th arrondissements). All of the guidebooks tell you to get falafel in Paris. While not something you'd likely associate with Paris, it fits with this eclectic neighborhood steeped in Jewish history. You'll know you're in the right place when you see falafel stand after falafel stand and get the hard sell by the owners working the stream of tourists and locals out in the street (rue des Rosiers). L'As du Fallafel is the most well-known place, but our guys preferred Mi-Va-Mi since it had a shorter line and gave out free samples of falafel balls. Hint for parents with picky eaters... Micky's Deli next to Mi-Va-Mi serves up great hot dogs and fries - and one hot dog actually includes two dogs! Eat your food alfresco at the nearby Place des Voges. Just stop by a market on the way over and grab drinks - including wine or beer that you can drink outdoors!
- Picnic, Picnic, Picnic (at the Eiffel Tower, Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, Jardin des Tuileries...). We were lucky to be in Paris in the summer and could easily eat al fresco for practically every meal. And boy did we take advantage of it! Picnics are great because they're casual, convenient and economical - perfect for a family of four with two young boys who aren't hot on sitting still for long, drawn-out meals... For most picnics, we stopped at the local supermarket or shopped our way through a neighborhood food market. It was a great way to get fun, easy food for all to enjoy. Word to the wise... Look for parks to picnic where you can walk, sit and eat on the grass (something that is a bit rare in Paris). When in doubt... Do as the other Parisians do!
Applying Our Learnings to Life at Home
Back at home, we have tried to approach and explore Chicago like a tourist. For us, that means taking on the city, its sites and its neighborhoods in small, kids-sized pieces, and breaking it up with trips to nearby parks and playgrounds.
We're also trying to picnic more, filling our basket with supplies from the local market - while the weather holds out for us. We're taking soccer and rugby balls with us to turn any location into an arena. We're reading up on the city and its many attractions together as a family and letting our sons play tour guide, setting the "sightseeing" agenda for the day. And, we're making more of an effort to mix with "tourists," knowing just how special and entertaining interactions with the "locals" really can be - for parents and kids.
Do you have any secrets for traveling with kids - in Chicago, the US or abroad? For those of you who have journeyed to Paris, any other favorite kid-pleasing places you discovered? I'd love to hear all about it!
Here's to World Citizens!