Paris with Youngsters (6 and Under)
Opened in 1860 by Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, the Jardin d’Acclimatation might be a complete nightmare to pronounce, but in Paris, it is the place for kids. All Parisian mums have memories of their own early childhoods in this old-school amusement park, which now belongs to LVMH. The park is home to an archery range, a house of mirrors, an enchanted river, pony rides, a puppet theater, shooting galleries, a science museum, and an art museum for children (the Musée en Herbe). In the summer, the Jardin Plage has great water-themed activities—you can easily spend the majority of the day here. I suggest using the jardin as the ultimate reward: Visit the beautiful Foundation Louis Vuitton (in the very same garden), then take them to the Jardin, but only if they’ve behaved!
If you don’t like other people’s children’s company (not judging) and for a more relaxing experience, just a short walk from Porte Dauphine, right at the edge of the Lac Inférieur, sits a small wooden shack where locals and tourists can rent row boats. It’s been there since forever and is pretty fun—as long as your kids don’t realize what they’re missing at Jardin d’Acclimatation!
For an excellent Italian lunch in a truly local, kid-friendly spot head to LIVIO. Their Tiramisu is a revelation.
In the Jardin des Tuileries, there is a virtually un-advertised trampoline park—it’s very easy to miss (closer to the Place de la Concorde than the Louvre, next to the entrance on rue de Rivoli). A good plan would be to let them jump like crazy until they are exhausted, then to let them sleep in the stroller while you enjoy the Louvre. Note that the nearby playground is decent (by French standards it is actually amazing). There are also pony rides in the same area and a very old fashioned carousel where my boy had his very first ride twelve years ago. And of course, the good old toy boats that are available or rent by the little pond. It amazes kids every single time.
During the summer, a big carnival fills the garden. I think it is very dusty and a bit intense but my kids lose their minds over it! A million rides and games, including a Ferris wheel with a fantastic aerial view of the city. Up to you. In this neighborhood, it would be insane not to stop at Angelina for a hot chocolate (yes, even in July)—it is a Parisian institution, the place your French grandmother would take you for a patisserie (try the Mont Blanc). There might be a little bit of a line, but that’s the price you pay for a perfect tea in Paris.
You are not a true Parisian if you haven’t relaxed on one of the green chairs at Jardin du Luxembourg. That said, you child(ren) probably won’t let you do it for too long. For a little change of pace from iPads, there’s another not-to-be-missed activity for kids: the puppet show. It’s an absolute institution on the left bank where parents can really appreciate the throwback to simpler kid’s entertainment. Sure it is all in French, but they’ll be able to recognize some of the stories, like the one involving three adorable pigs and one scary wolf. Very close by there’s a delightfully quaint carrousel—don’t get scared off by the old-timey look of it, it is still in working condition. There’s also a very fancy gated playground that actually charges for admission; might be worth it for an hour of free roaming while you check e-mails. Since you’re dangerously close to the Pierre Hermé boutique at 72 rue Bonaparte, don’t buy anything in the park and head to the haute couturier of pastry (and macarons!) instead. Still hungry (really?), Michalak on rue du Vieux Colombier is another purveyor of bomb pastry.
Two more great options in the 7th:
L’ami Jean Friendly warning: this is a Basque restaurant, meaning the cuisine is on the heavy side, and the tables are very close together (if you like your personal space, forget about it). That said, this is one of the best spots in Paris and Chef Stephane Jego is a magician. Be sure your kids try the rice pudding and try to embrace the chaos, it’s part of the experience!
Matsuri bac Go here for the ideal super-easy, super-fun diner with your children. Grab a seat, then snatch whatever catches your eye off the conveyer belt. My children had a blast and tried a lot of dishes.
Shopping around Rue du Bac is the perfect ending to an afternoon on the left bank. Bonton at Rue de Grenelle is a dream come true for budding fashion experts; Serendipity on Rue du Cherche Midi is an old garage converted into a furniture and décor store for your little one’s bedroom; the Bon Marché department store is a one-stop-shop for pretty much everything you need; the spectacular mansion of Bonpoint on rue de Tournon goes without saying; and finally, my Parisian secret is MONOPRIX. It looks like Target at first, but just try it—I always come back to NY with an extra bag just for my MONOPRIX shopping. To avoid a meltdown between stores, take a minute at the Maison Deyrolle—it’s part cabinet de curiosite, part museum of taxidermy. Beautifully weird.
If you are brave enough to bear the lines at Notre Dame, it’s very much worth your time because climbing to the top of the tower is very cool. Of course, you might have to carry your toddler the whole time (422 steps…), so consider the workout an added benefit of this activity. If you have your kids watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame right before visiting you might even see a little spark of interest.
In any case, if you are in the neighborhood, take a moment to wait in line at Berthillon on rue Saint Louis en l’ile—their ice cream is the best in the city (general consensus on this one). Try the fraise des bois (“strawberries from the wood” = wild strawberries) and eat it while watching the street performers on the Saint Louis Bridge. Not very far from here, the Shakespeare & Co bookstore is a sight to see. Opened by an American expat in 1919 and mentioned in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the motto of the store is “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, which is a great lesson for all kids.
Note that on Sundays, the Ile de la Cité flower market turns into a bird market. If you are seeking atmosphere and picture-perfect décor, this is the place. Situated right next to metro Cité, kids will enjoy the parrots, chickens, and canaries that line the market. Though it may be tempting, it’s not a good idea to buy a dwarf bunny and bring it back on the plane.
For a fun afternoon on the east side of the city, head to the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes. This zoo, created in 1794 in a former royal garden to house the animals from the Ménagerie Royale de Versailles, is one of the oldest zoos in the world. On the other side of the Jardin des Plantes stands the National Museum of Natural History. Under the light of an enormous glass roof, you can enjoy a spectacular display of life-like animals. The Gallery of Evolution, featuring a collection of taxidermied animals from across the world, is always a big hit with young children.
When you are done with all of the above, plus a stroll in the park—the hidden Alpine Garden is simply magnifique—go for an (extremely sweet) mint tea at the Grande Mosquee de Paris right across the street. It’s like a little trip to a Moroccan courtyard right there in the middle of Paris.