A Family’s Month In Paris: Our Advice
As we round out our one-month stay in Paris with our three kids — Matthew, 13; Lucas, 8; and Nora, 6 — Julie and I came up with a list of advice we would give to others thinking about coming here with kids. Some of this applies to lots of places, and other things are Paris-specific. Above all, if you are thinking about doing something like this, and you have the financial ability to pull it off, and the freedom, then by all means do it. We are so, so glad we came. Chances are this was a once in a lifetime thing for us, and as cheesy as it is to say so, the memories we have built over these last four weeks will last forever. That said, below is a kind of long list of things we did right, things we wish we had done differently, and things we wish we had known before we came. I invite readers who have had experience traveling abroad with children to add their own advice in the comments’ section.
After the jump, our list, in no particular order of importance…
1. Be realistic about what your kids are going to do with their down time. We thought our kids would be sitting around musing about all the great things they’ve seen that day, working on their French, and so forth. Didn’t happen. Not even close. We found that we would come in at the end of the day, dead tired, and our kids still needed to be occupied. What then? Well, when they’re like this at home, we usually tell them to read. Doesn’t work here: English-language books are really expensive in Paris, and hard to find — and there are no English-language libraries. [UPDATE: I was wrong — there’s an American Library over by the Eiffel Tower.] Sometimes we tell them to go watch TV. Guess what? There’s no kids’ TV in English, and neither your Amazon.com online nor your Netflix will work here. And you can’t send them out to play in the backyard because there is no backyard. What do you do then? You’d better be prepared. Luckily we had lots of games on old iPhones. I would seriously consider investing in a GameBoy, or whatever the hell handheld games kids play these days. This is a much bigger deal than you think it’s going to be.
2. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. You need to be absolutely sure your shoes are well broken in and comfortable before you get here. I bought a pair of super-comfy Rockport boots. Walked around in them a bit back home, and they fit like gloves. Idiot me, I thought they’d be fine. But most days I walked at least a couple of miles, and my feet were in bad shape for the first 10 days. Julie had problems with her shoes too. Chances are you will walk more than you think; you don’t want to get in the position of having to not go do things, or curtail your activities, because your feet are badly blistered. If that happens, though, the good news is that the blister products in the parapharmacies are way, way better than what you get in the US.
3. Embrace the bus. Boy, was this a helpful thing, learning to use the Paris bus system. It’s safe and clean and goes everywhere — plus, unlike the metro, you get to see neighborhoods passing by from the bus. And unlike the metro, you don’t have to drag kids all over cramped and gross underground tunnels. RATP, the public transport service in Paris, has a free app that’s really helpful in planning bus and metro routes. By all means get it and make use of it. It’s hard to overstate how much the buses assisted our traveling with kids.
4. Be realistic about the cost of food, even self-catering. Restaurants, even cheap ones, are far more expensive than what we’re used to in the US. We really misjudged this in planning for the trip. For example, a simple lunch for the five of us at a neighborhood crepes place — really simple food — off the tourist trail still cost us about $60. Our pal Amy Welborn, who traveled around France with her boys for a few weeks before coming to Paris, says that prices are way more reasonable outside of Paris.
Because we rented an apartment, we planned on doing a fair amount of cooking at home, and we did. But even that was significantly more expensive than we thought it was going to be. The normal supermarkets cost as much and usually more than Whole Foods does in the US. You will save money if you self-cater — bread is especially good, and relatively cheap — but it’s hard to be in Paris without busting your budget. You need to be as realistic as possible with yourself about this before you commit to being here. If you plan on eating out a fair amount, you will hemorrhage money, and if your kids are picky, you’re going to be miserable, and so will they.
5. Don’t overschedule. We found out quickly that our kids were less able and willing to do all the things Julie and I were willing and able to do. Don’t schedule more than one or two things per day. If you try to jam too much in — or even what to an adult would be a normal day’s schedule — you’re going to regret it. As I write this, on our penultimate day here in Paris, I’m thinking of a few things we intended to do with the kids, but never got around to. Tomorrow we could do them … but at this point, all of us are dead tired, and it would be a miserable slog to try to cram something else major in at this point.
6. Paris Museum Pass. These things are golden. You can buy them for periods from two days to six days. They give you instant access to most Paris museums, which means you don’t have to wait in line to buy tickets at each place, and you can come and go as you please. But I really screwed up, and bought six-day passes for Julie, Matthew, and myself (kids 12 and under get in free most places). The trick is, the passes kick in the first time you use them, and they expire after six consecutive days (or for however many days you’ve purchased). I thought we would have time to see all the museums we wanted to see in six days. That was stupid. Things came up, and we really didn’t get our money’s worth (these things aren’t cheap). We would have been far better off buying three two-day passes per person, and staggering our usage. It put way too much pressure on us, trying to use our passes in the allotted time. The problem was I thought like a grown-up; you just can’t plan so rigidly when you’re traveling with little ones.
7. Don’t overlook the Army Museum at Les Invalides. I had never been to it, because I’m not that big on military history or arms and armaments. But I have two young boys, both of whom were eager to go. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would — the collection of historical uniforms, weaponry, and military stuff is really impressive — but even more, this was the museum that my museum-hating 8-year-old boy really loved. Do your male child a favor and take him here as payback for putting up with you dragging him to look at all those pictures.
8. Reserve at the Eiffel Tower before you leave the US. If you want to go up in the Eiffel Tower — and you’d better believe your kids want to — then please, please, please make a point of reserving your date and time before you leave the US. In fact, Rick Steves recommends doing so as soon as you know when you’re going to be in Paris. I had been told that you really need to book online to avoid standing in the hellish line under the tower, but I never imagined that I would get to Paris in the mid-autumn and find the thing sold out for two weeks in advance. We didn’t get to go up in the tower after all; there could have been free cold Champagne up there, and I wouldn’t have stood in that hours-long line. Next time, we’ll reserve before leaving America.
9. Research restaurants before you go by reading American food bloggers. A US expat acquaintance told me a while back that the American food bloggers in Paris have become really influential in directing people to restaurants. I enjoy reading food blogs anyway, but getting familiar with Paris By Mouth (especially) and David Lebovitz proved really helpful. (Hungry For Paris is good too, but not really geared toward the family traveler). What you don’t want to do is wander into a tourist-trap restaurant. It’s going to cost you a good bit to eat in Paris anyway, so why not make the best of it? Also, it’s generally not done to just walk into restaurants and ask for a table; the French way is to reserve tables, even at not-so-fancy restaurants. If you’re planning simply to stop and eat on a whim, you may be disappointed. A little research before you go (and while you’re there, if you have an online connection) will help a great deal.
10. Adjust expectations. You are traveling with kids, not yourself. If you won’t change your expectations to account for that fact, you’re going to be unhappy, and so will your kids. For example, yes, it’s a beautiful day, and you are in Paris, and you’d really rather be over at the Rodin Museum, but if you are willing to stay at the Luxembourg Gardens for four hours at a stretch because that’s where your kids are happiest, well, roll with it. You’ll see things you wouldn’t otherwise, and maybe even meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet (this happened repeatedly to Julie). I serendipitously found that my older son Matthew and I had a great time museum-going together, and walking around talking about things. I never would have gone to the Museum of Arts and Metiers, which focuses on industrial and technological design, but Matt wanted to go, and I let him lead me. It was a great museum, but more than that, it was so great to be in a museum where he knew a lot more about things than I did, and I got to be taught something by him. The point is, if you let your children be your guide in some things, you might be surprised by the things you’ll get to do and see and learn.
11. Crepes restaurants are good places for kids. It is very hard to go wrong taking your kids to a French pancake house. Have savory crepes for dinner, and sweet crepes for dessert.
12. Really think hard about where you’ll stay before you go. The single-best decision we made about this trip was one Julie insisted on: staying as close as we could to the Luxembourg Gardens. She did this solely because she knows we have two kids who are still playground age, including a rambunctious little boy who needs to run. A lot. The Jardin de Luxembourg is a spectacular park, with a great playground for kids, and I really don’t know how we would have made it here for this long if it hadn’t been within easy walking distance of our apartment. Beyond that, I’m really glad we chose to stay on the Left Bank, which I find a lot cozier and more pleasantly walkable than the Right Bank (certain neighborhoods excepted). I would do as much research as possible on areas your considering before booking, and consider how centrally located you are to the things you and your kids are likely to want to see. Mind you, you can take a bus most everywhere, but it’s great when there are fun things to see and do within decent walking distance.
But you don’t really want to be smack in the middle of things. We had looked at a nice apartment in our price range on the Ile St-Louis, which is one of the two islands in the Seine. Hard to get more centrally located than that. But being slightly familiar with the area, I knew that it was heavily touristed (therefore crowded), and also that it would be hard to get everyday supplies without paying a lot for them. This proved to be a wise insight, as I discovered when we spent some time on the Ile St-Louis.
13. Cultivate a deeper curiosity about Paris, beyond the guidebooks. One of the unexpected pleasures about staying in one place for a whole month is that it gave me the freedom to follow my curiosity about this or that aspect of life in Paris. Early in our stay, I felt acutely how little I knew about the French Revolution, and suddenly wanted to know a lot more. The streets I walked almost every day, and the places I’d see — many were really important in the course of events. I bought a history of the Revolution in an English-language bookstore, and off I went. The city took on much more dimension after that. Just tonight, I walked back by the Danton statue near the Odeon, the same one I’d walked by many times before, but tonight I looked at him closely, having learned more about who he was, why he was important, and that his house, and the political club he was part of, were in this neighborhood. Reading about the French Revolution really made this place come alive in a new way for me. There are countless points of entry into Paris — historical, literary, culinary, artistic, and so forth — beyond the main ports through which tourists enter. It’s good to be curious and open to where your discoveries may lead. I suppose that’s good practical advice for any traveler, but I must say that traveling with kids meant that I had to have a lot of down time at home, which gave me the opportunity to do a fair amount of reading about Paris.
14. Bring bubble wrap, rubber bands, and tape. You’re going to need this to wrap things up to take home. And it’s not easy to find in Paris, believe me.
15. Be realistic about how much time your kids can handle away from home. There was a time in which I wondered, “Is four weeks going to be enough? I wonder if we should try to see if we could afford five?” In the end, it was too much. Three weeks for us would have been perfect. But we’ve been out of our routine for too long. We’re physically tired, too. All of us got sick with colds and bronchitis at about the beginning of week two, and believe it or not, it’s still kind of lingering with us all. That took a lot out of us, but you have to be prepared for that when you’re traveling with kids. They’ve done well, having been away for so long, but I’m not going to ask anything like this again of them, at least not when they’re so young.
16. French pharmacies are amazing. Don’t bring a lot of toiletries from home. The pharmacists can give you what you need, and they have all kinds of cool stuff (so says Julie, who’s bringing home a whole bunch of unguents ‘n stuff). They sell hand sanitizer here too, which, yay.
17. A lot of strategery is going to need to go into figuring out where to tee-tee. Potties aren’t that easy to find in Paris, and you can’t just walk into most places to use the bathroom. Plan accordingly.
18. A wine strategy for amateur enthusiasts. Nicolas is a chain of small wine stores. They’re in every neighborhood, and they sell mostly French wine, including many types I’ve never heard of, or at least rarely see in the US. In our first week here, I talked to clerks at the two Nicolases close to our apartment, told them that I was on holiday here, and wanted to try French wines that weren’t widely available in the US. I told them how much I wanted to spend. The clerks were knowledgeable and very friendly, and didn’t steer me wrong. I’ve been drinking wonderful French wine for this past month, and paying significantly less than I would have paid for the same level of quality back home. I don’t know enough about wine to have pulled this off on my own. (N.B., it doesn’t work for Champagne, which is, if you can believe it, even more expensive in France than in the US).
19. Learn basic phrases, and basic social codes. It is not necessary to speak French to get around Paris, but it is necessary to try. The French really appreciate it, and trying to meet them halfway will do you a lot of good. It’s hugely important to observe the social code here of saying “Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame,” when you walk into a shop, and “Au revoir, Monsieur/Madame,” when you leave. It’s a matter of basic respect.
20. What foods should you try in Paris? Macarons, of course. They’re pricey, but rich and delicious, and hard to find back home. You know that the bread here is the best in the world; what you might not know is that it’s cheaper than back home, in general. You need to buy it fresh every day, though. Try the boulangers in your neighborhood, and order the “traditionelle” baguette. It will cost a bit more, but it’s worth it. If you have a branch of the small Eric Kayser chain near your place, be sure to go there. Also, the mustard in France is extraordinary (Maille especially), and you’ll be surprised how good ordinary supermarket mayonnaise is. The butter here is unbelievably delicious too. For ice cream, walk to the Ile St-Louis and try Berthillon, which is justly famous around the world. Crepes and galettes are something special, as are French oysters (but expensive). Like tea? Go to Mariage Freres, which is a wonderland. La Grande Epicerie, on the rue du Bac, is marvelous, but don’t overlook something more ordinary, like the Monoprix on the rue de Rennes, in St-Germain-des-Pres. They have a great cheese counter. Want an old-fashioned French meal? Move heaven and earth to get to Le Quincy, a small country-style brasserie near the Gare de Lyon (I wouldn’t bring kids there, though; it’s not that it’s fancy, but it’s hard to imagine that there’s much on the menu they would go for). Oh, be sure to try chestnut cream and chestnut products — we don’t have them in the US like they do here. Cheese and dried sausage are also something special. There’s a great farmer’s market three times a week at the Place Maubert.
21. Deyrolle! This elegant, artistic taxidermy shop on the rue du Bac is magical. We went four or five times on our visit. There’s nowhere else like it in the world. And they do mail order, too. Matthew is bringing back a beautiful butterfly specimen from Deyrolle, in a nice clear plastic display case. So you can get one of a kind souvenirs, at affordable prices.
22. Staying in an apartment? Renting an apartment is the only reasonable way — financial and otherwise — to stay for any length of time in Paris, with kids. We were really happy with our experience on this front, but we had not factored in the hidden cost of supplies — trashbags, laundry detergent, soap, etc. It adds up. Plus, electricity is metered, and may cost extra, depending on your contract. We will probably owe a lot more than we counted on once our electricity bill is counted up at check-out time. Why? Because washers are much smaller here, and it takes longer to do loads. For a family of five, that wee washer has been doing heavy duty. We didn’t pack a large amount of clothes, because we knew we’d have the washer. But Julie has had to keep it going every single day. Bear that in mind.
23. Gypsies and street scammers. Everybody who has been to Europe knows to watch out for the gypsies and con artists preying on tourists. But it’s amazing to see how many of your fellow Americans on the streets fall into their clutches. It almost happened to me once on this trip, even though I know what to look for. When I realized what was going on, I grabbed my kids and got the heck out of there. It can be difficult to explain to your children why you yelled at the nice-seeming man who gave you the gold ring he “found” on the street, or why the sad anxious dramatic lady with the begging children ran up to you waving her arms, and you yelled at her and her family to get away. Your American kids have trouble accepting that things aren’t what they seem, and that these people are thieves.
24. Dress in layers. You forget how warm you can get when you walk. Besides, in fall and winter, French people are nuts about heat in buildings. You need to be able to peel stuff off as necessary.
25. Most apartments don’t have air conditioning. Consider that before you come during warm months. Our apartment has been wonderful, but it’s autumn here. There is no a/c in this building. I can’t imagine how miserable we Americans would be here if it were July.
26. Think about your ability to walk stairs if you rent an apartment. We’re on the fourth floor. Fortunately, we have an elevator. It’s a coffin-sized elevator, and it creaks, and it breaks down sometimes. But it’s an elevator. Climbing four flights of stairs is not that big a deal on most days. But if you’ve got a lot of groceries, or you’re bone-tired from walking, or your blistered feet hurt like hell, it’s suddenly a big deal. Just bear this in mind before you rent.
27. Teach your children not to walk spread across the sidewalk, three abreast, like morons at the mall. Talk to them about this a lot ahead of time, or you’ll end up yelling at them a lot. It doesn’t occur to Americans who don’t live in big cities that people who do use sidewalks like cars use roads: as a means of conveyance. Our kids have finally learned this … after three weeks of nagging.
28. If you get an apartment, find out where your local Picard is. It’s a frozen food shop, where they sell high-quality stuff. We cook a lot at home, but we really didn’t want to have to cook anything complicated on vacation. And we got tired of sandwiches and take-out. Picard hit the sweet spot. Additionally, learn your local bakeries and provisioners, and give them your business when you can; shopping locally is a big part of the Paris experience, and they’re a lot nicer to you when they start to recognize your face.
29. Two parents traveling with kids? Plan some days when one parent minds all the kids and lets the other have a day for him or herself. On Monday, I gave Julie a day at the Louvre, just her. She was so grateful. I was grateful to her for watching the kids on Wednesday so I could go have lunch with a friend. Also, think about whether it’s wise to drag all the kids to everything together. Some of the best times I had was when Matthew and I went alone to museums that the younger children either would have been bored by, or would have been too tired to stay at as long as we did.
30. If you have any quirks like being picky about noise, talk about it with your property agent before you rent. We were right next to a school. It wasn’t that big a deal, but the kids were really noisy in the morning and in the afternoons. If we had planned on sleeping late, it would have been a deal.
31. Dress like a grown-up. People are generally more formal in France, in their style of dress. I’ve worn jeans most days I’ve been here, but I’ve also worn a tweed or felt jacket. You may not think so in advance, but you’ll feel a lot more comfortable here if you’re just a slight bit more dressy than you would be back at home.
32. Pay in advance for a mobile phone data plan that lets you use Googlemaps. Seriously, whatever this costs you, pay for it. A million times more useful than unfolding maps on the street trying to figure out where you are, and the best route to get to where you need to be.
That’s all I have for tonight. I’m sure some more ideas will come to mind. Please, add your own, whether about Paris in particular, or traveling overseas with children.
UPDATE: Can’t believe I forgot this one: When in a cafe, don’t feel that you have to order a bottle of Perrier, Vittel, or any name-brand water. Simply ask for a carafe d’eau — a carafe of tap water. It tastes fine, and it’s free.
UPDATE.2: Clothes for kids in France tend to be more stylish and interesting than what we have in the US. I know, big surprise, eh? If you’re looking for clothes for your little ones (or looking to bring something nice home for them), stop by the nearest outlet of the chain store Du Pareil Au Meme. DPAM is like a French version of Gap Kids, which means that the fashions are affordable, but tend to be more stylish. If you want to bring something pricier but really special home for your little girl, head over to Happy Garden, a small shop just off the Blvd Saint-Germain (though n.b., they have several shops in Paris). Really beautiful clothes there, and the lady who runs the St-Germain store speaks English and is very welcoming and helpful. They have some boys clothes too, but I couldn’t imagine putting my sons in Fauntleroyish clothes like that.
Oh, Matthew wants me to point out that Shakespeare & Co. — which you have to visit, just because — is not the only good, fun English-language bookstore in Paris, or even in that neighborhood. A very short walk behind S&C, on a narrow medieval street near St-Severin church, is The Abbey Bookstore, which is much messier, and even more romantic and inviting.