L’Enfant de Paris: make the most of family city breaks

If a city break with kids sounds like the worst kind of stress then think again. In the recent Travellers Choice awards launched by Trip Advisor, using data gathered from over 45 million contributions to the site, they compiled a list of child-friendly cities. Paris came out in 8th place and earlier this month we took a family trip to the city.

We cheated a little as I know Paris pretty well, so feel very comfortable around the city. Plus I speak adequate French and have friends that live there who accommodated us for part of the trip. However, there’s a reason why it ranked highly as a child friendly city, despite my familiarity we hadn’t been there with kids and were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to make the most of our trip.

Disneyland Paris
We wanted to take our 2 ½ year old to Disneyland, so we booked a hotel near the park for one night, Thomas Cook’s Explorers Hotel at Disney. If you choose to go by Eurostar, the Disneyland complex is easily accessible from Gare du Nord terminal despite one line change and only cost around €6 for adults, children under 4 years old ride free and the under 10’s travel at half fare. Many of the Disney hotels have free shuttles which go from directly outside Marne La Vallee RER station, we hopped on easily with a buggy and luggage Explorers being the first stop on our particular run.

We chose Explorers for the pool and choice of restaurants, plus the price was reasonable compared to the Disney branded hotels located within the park complex. The food was average really, the staff were helpful and hotel clean & presentable. We didn’t get a chance to try the pool out after the effort as we all had colds & earrache but judging from the shrieks and the brief observations I made, it was a lot of fun for all ages.

Disney is a reasonable amount of cash for the face value ticket but unlike some British theme parks I didn’t feel they ripped you off once inside. Even with the Euro the way it is, there was a vast choice of food & snacks at varying prices. Apart from merchandise and refreshments, the only thing I could see you paid extra for was the shooting range and arcade games. Going on a Wednesday before French and British school holidays meant there were virtually no queues. The longest wait all day was 30 minutes for Thunder Mountain. The best thing for our group is there was plenty of rides suitable for a toddler and her pregnant mum. Top of my list has to be the Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasy Land, followed very closely by Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t scare my 2½ year old at all. Our friend’s 4½ year old boy was able to go on some more thrilling rides, such as Big Thunder Mountain which are height restricted at 1.02m (3’ 3”) and Buzz Lightyear Laserblast.

One day was just enough for small children and I was reliably informed that the Walt Disney Studios adjacent wasn’t suitable for pre-schoolers being aimed more at older children and adults. By 6pm we were all Disney-princess-royally exhausted and happy to go home.

Top tips for exploring Paris
1. Book the Eurostar in plenty of time. We left it a little bit late and the fares rose a bit the nearer we got to our date. If you don’t have travel in school holidays you will probably nab one of those £59 fares they are so fond of advertising. Travelling either direction on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday can be extortionate. Flying is always an option but it depends where your base in and for us on the South Coast, the train in my view is more convenient and cost negligible, as there are no operators running a service to Paris from Gatwick.

2. Don’t be afraid of the using public transport if you have a buggy. Paris underground is built relatively near to the surface, nowhere near awkward as the London Underground lifting pushchairs up and down several flights of stairs. They also built metro stops quite close together, so the likelihood of your planned excursion or hotel being near a station is high. The RER urban network has fewer stops in the city but they are conveniently situated near a few key sights, plus many of the stations have lifts to the platforms. The best aspect of using the Paris underground system is the price, being government owned has its advantages as they invest heavily to ensure the system is kept running smoothly and cost-effective for travellers. A single ticket bought in a carnet of 10 works out to be €1,20 (roughly £1.00) compared to £4.00 for a similar journey on the tube in London. Look out for tourist passes Paris Visite which gives you unlimited travel for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days, perfect if you have an ambitious itinerary.

3. Historical monuments can be fun for children, in small doses. Our daughter was fascinated with the view from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and loved travelling up in the lift. Adults pay €8,20 for a lift pass to the 2nd floor, 4-11 year olds half fare and kids under 4 go free. We also took in the view of Paris’ signature monument from across the river in Trocadero gardens, a good space to stretch little legs. The Sacre Coeur was an experience if only for the gardens leading up and all the steps (which amazingly she loved and chatted about for days after). Get the metro to Chateau Rouge to avoid a huge climb up the hill. While you’re watching your children, keep an eye on your belongings too. These areas are renowned for pickpockets plus were crawling with dubious charity collectors and friendship bracelet makers.

4. Eating out with kids in Paris is socially acceptable. Unlike our still ’children should be seen and not heard’ mentality that lingers in some parts of Blighty, the French are much more family oriented. Eating a meal together is an important family function. Restaurants don’t pander to kids but accommodate them very well. Even in the busiest of tourist spots the Place du Tertre, our daughter was made a complete fuss of. Bedtime is a little later on the continent too, so you won’t be stared at if your kids are still out and about at 9pm.

5. Take a walk. The best thing about the centre of Paris is it is fairly small. You could easily walk for an hour and take in several major sights. Many routes are buggy friendly, we walked along the Seine path from the Eiffel Tour to Invalides along a charming path a popular spot for joggers and cyclists alike to take in the view. Paris is like an open-air museum, every corner you turn you can stumble upon a monument, church or other landmark. The wide busy avenues built by Haussman and Napoleon to deter uprisings in the city make most areas easy to navigate but if you want to get lost in a more charismatic part of Paris wander round the Latin quarter or the Marais. These neighbourhoods have plenty of cafes where you can stop with the kids, snack and taking in street theatre for as long as their attention span holds out.

6. Experience a park. Paris has some fantastic green spaces in and around the city. We visited Jardins de Luxembourg which is spacious enough for your little ones to release energy or to save some Euros by having a picnic, it also playground, pony rides and toy sailboats on the lake in front of the Palais. Set in the heart of the Latin quarter, it’s well maintained by the Senate which is housed in the Palais de Luxembourg.

7. Liven up your trip with some language games. If you’re trying to mix in less child oriented excursions in your day, you may need to make them more appealing and what better than to start to learn some of the local lingo. We had great fun with food names and greetings, even with a 2 year old. Many book shops in the UK sell books for young kids (even pre-schoolers) learning French, so why not take one with you? Despite the reputation of Parisiens in years gone by, there is a much more positive attitude to tourists and if you are seen to making an effort in speaking French you’ll be the best thing since baguettes.

8. Load up your smartphone with handy apps before you go. There are a variety of free maps you can download on to your phone and access without WiFi or mobile internet (which will cost the earth while abroad). The best download by far was the RATP metro plan, having it at my fingertips meant we could be spontaneous, which is a city like Paris is an option you must leave open, you never know what you will fall in love with.

Pony rides in Le Jardin de Luxembourg