Join avid museum-goers and make the rounds of Paris' greatest collections…
Let’s say you, like me, have been there before and fallen in love. Madly in love with Paris’ beauty, sophistication, style, and joie de vivre… And, like me, you deserted this belle de France for a respectable family life, breaking your own heart more than hers. Last summer, I journeyed with husband and son to rekindle my old passion en famille.
Museum-going is our favorite respite from parenthood, and Paris is a Mecca for museum-goers. Could we satisfy both our hunger for the arts and a toddler’s need for play? We did, and found that kids deserve more credit for aesthetic appreciation than we give them. Our son was only 2 1/2-years-old, and we knew his behavior could make or break our trip. Therefore, we made certain concessions to our child-in-tow, which I would counsel all mixed-age groups of travelers to follow.
A delicious 10-day holiday included innumerable sights, tastes, and sounds. Those that follow are particularly noteworthy for pleasing the family while maintaining a lover’s interest.
MusÃ©e du Louvre (01 40 20 51 51 – Open daily from 9am to 6pm, except on Tuesdays and certain public holidays, late nights Wednesdays and Fridays until 10:00pm) and free the first Sunday of every month: This enormous repository of beauty lured us back three times. Our son hung in through most of the Renaissance painting (including the Mona Lisa), because we challenged him to call out whenever he saw a dog’s picture. Age appropriate games are a terrific way to engage children. Visit number 2 began at the ground floor Venus de Milo, and continued through Greek and Roman antiquities, a collection better appreciated by grade schoolers studying mythology or ancient civilizations. Our last day, we all enjoyed the regal furnishings and objets in the Richelieu and Sully wings.
The Louvre encourages family art appreciation by offering educational workshops for children aged 4-13, for a small fee. While kids do arts n’ crafts in supervised, age-appropriate sessions, adults can tour their favorite collection. Book these ateliers in advance (01 40 20 51 77); although instruction is in French, the hands-on activity transcends all languages. Offerings are more frequent during school holidays and in the summer.
Young lords and ladies can continue their aesthetic education at the GalÃ©ries Lafayette (01 42 82 34 56) department store, where there is a very French, very free fashion show on Fridays at 3pm, all year long. Reservations required.
MusÃ©e d’Orsay (01 40 49 48 14 – Open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30am to 6pm, Thursdays from 9:30am to 9:45pm, and closed on Mondays), children under 18 receive Free admission: All ages are startled by the dramatic appearance of an elegant neoclassic train station turned museum of 19th century arts. I waltzed past many Impressionist favorites so I could spend time guiding our son. Boy, was I surprised when he stopped in the Degas collection (upper level) and tried to assume the foot positions of the remarkable ballerina sculptures!
If the word musÃ©e irks your group, insist on a visit just for lunch. The formal restaurant here, situated in what used to be the restaurant of the hotel of the Gare D’Orsay, offers a truly French gastronomic experience appropriate for all ages. If the wait is too long or this isn’t your style, the uppermost level has a cafÃ© (less pricey, more limited menu) dominated by the huge bronze clock face seen from outside. Adjacent to the cafÃ© is an enormous terrace with not-to-be missed views over the River Seine.
MusÃ©e Picasso (01 42 71 25 21; April-September 9:30-6:00, October-March 9:30-5:30, Closed Tuesdays): This playful collection is housed in a restored 17th-century mansion with private garden in the Marais district. Picasso’s bright, eccentric sculptures and paintings are tucked in parlor rooms, up marble stairs, and in cellars. The Italian teens we met were totally captivated by art students crouched in front of paintings, trying to reinterpret these masterpieces. And Le Marais is quintessential Paris — all beauty and style and well worth a stroll. A handsome line of 16th-century mansions encloses the Place des Vosges, the city’s oldest square. Their brick and limestone arcades shade antique-hunters looking for a buy, as well as families heading to the fountains in one of Paris’ prettiest pocket parks.
Centre Georges-Pompidou , also known as the “Beaubourg” (01 44 78 12 33): For my taste, this museum’s temporary exhibits of modern art are either hit-or-miss. However, the design workshops for kids 5-12 are very well done. Take advantage of them while you gallery-cruise; check ahead for the schedule (there is a small fee). The one sure crowd pleaser is the inside-out architecture of colorful pipes and exposed beams, pioneered here. It’s fun to examine, fun to ride up and down the exterior escalators, and fun to drink in the view over the Place Beaubourg. Around the corner is one of the world’s great fountains, filled with spinning, whirling, wildly-colored sculpture by Jean Tinguely and Niki de St. Phalle.
One of Paris’ most integrated neighborhoods, Beaubourg lures international tourists, Africans in colorful dress, street performers and an eclectic mix of budget sidewalk vendors. Save your museum visit for early evening; it’s open daily except Tuesdays from 11am until 10pm. There are many tiny Chinese restaurants, French ice cream parlors, and purveyors of international junk food within a short walk.
MusÃ©e Rodin (01 44 18 61 10 – Open every day except Mondays, from 9:30am to 5:45pm in April through September and 9:30am to 4:45pm in October through March): Its private park-like gardens (with two sandboxes!) and small size work well for the restless of any age. Many will enjoy imitating the famous “Thinker” statue’s pose, particularly if they’ve seen video reruns of “Dobie Gillis.”
MusÃ©e National d’Histoire Naturelle (01 40 79 30 00 – Open every day except Tuesdays from 10am to 6pm): Natural history museums are big in our family, particularly when you have a stadium-size second floor filled with BUGS! After the greenhouses in the huge Jardin des Plantes, I found the most pleasurable display was the delicious Greek feast we had nearby. The ethnic enclaves and off-beat shops of the surrounding 5 Ã©me arrondissement (bordering the ornate Gare d’Austerlitz train station) are also worth an explore.
Museum of Music (01 44 84 45 00) – Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 12 to 6pm, Sundays from 10am to 6pm and closed on Mondays): This museum promises an exciting auditory experience for all ages of ears. Visitors can view one of the largest collections of musical instruments in the world, spanning from the 17th century to the present, with an explanatory headset. There is a vast calendar of concerts and events to choose from, including a live performance with every guided tour. Events include child-friendly workshops – the Museum of Music devotes Sundays especially for family musical discovery.
Great Non-Museum Options
La Conciergerie (01 53 40 60 97–Open Everyday March-October 9:30am-6pm, November-February 9am-5pm): Fans of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” can tour the royal prison which held luminaries from the Reign of Terror. Although Marie Antoinette was fairly well-treated, most cells are occupied by sullen wax figures who demonstrate the use of ankle-irons, the rack, guillotines, boiling oil baths, etc. You’ll never need to take your kids to the local police precinct after they’ve seen this!
Conciergerie is located on the Ile de la CitÃ©, within sight of the gorgeous CathÃ©drale Notre-Dame (01 42 34 56 10 – Main hall open daily from 7:45am-6:45pm, visitors are partially interrupted during Masses). Thanks to Disney’s animated Hunchback of Notre Dame movie, which brought it fame, the cathedral has been renamed “Notre Disney” because of the long lines of young tourists waiting to inspect its belfry.
Les Catacombes (01 43 22 47 63 – Open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10am-5pm, Closed Monday): Located about 50 meters below Place Denfert-Rochereau, this one’s sure to appeal to the budding scientist, doctor or ghoul. A 1,000 meter-long underground museum dug to house the bones of plague victims, it was later organized and opened for public touring under Napoleon I. After descending through a limestone tunnel, the living begin to pass the neatly stacked mounds of thigh bones, forearms, fingers, toes (you get the picture) of 6,000,000 Frenchmen. Kids are always fascinated by the bleached white skulls. This unusual outing is more pleasant in summer than winter, though a renovation has added a climate-control system.
Got a real Night Crawler in your party? Our friend’s 8- and 10-year olds flipped over Des Ã‰gouts de Paris (01 53 68 27 82 – Open every day except Thursdays and Fridays from 11am to 5pm in summer, 11am to 4pm from October to April), the well-ventilated and quite interesting French sewer system. You can enter it opposite 93 Quai d’Orsay; call ahead for hours and wear boots if you brought them!
La Tour Eiffel (01 44 11 23 23 – Open 9:30am to 11pm, and 9am to midnight in the summer): In my family, eternal Paris is the ever-present Eiffel Tower, once seen on a moonlit night after champagne at CafÃ© Deux Magots. We returned: toddler-in-tow, hot sunny day, mobs of tourists. Yet the crowded elevator ride to the top (at 300 meters above ground) is still so exhilarating it justified the two-hour wait (go at 9am instead.). A brief poll convinced us that younger children prefer the view from the first level and that older ones like to go up to the second and third levels, where magnifying telescopes are available for rent. You might consider saving that steep admission if your party decides to walk up 1,652 stairs to Level 1! But I can’t imagine where else it could be better spent.
Paris Planning Pays Off
I’m not sending you to Paris to save money, but there are a few essentials worth their weight in euros. (Note: Currently, US$1= € .73)
Purchase a Carte MusÃ©es et Monuments, the museum pass which will liberate your schedule and alleviate your guilt. About $76/per adult gets you each a five consecutive day pass with unlimited entry to over 60 museums and monuments, plus the shortest waiting line at each. Children under 18 gain free admission to most museums. The passes, also sold for one or three days, are available at all major MÃ©tro stations, museums, or at the Paris Tourist Office.
Buy the best value Carte Orange MÃ©tro Passe (good on buses and subways in specific central Paris zones), or the heavily-promoted Paris Visite Passe (good on buses, subways, and the RER suburban railway in greater Paris area). $68 (half-price for kids 4-11) buys five days of free transport and they can be purchased at any MÃ©tro station.
Shop at the inexpensive Monoprix and Prix Unic chain stores for snacks, juice boxes, paper diapers (disponibles), toys and take-home gifts. Your kids’ allowance will go a long way here.
Paris Travel Tips
- Rent an apartment or hotel room with fridge so that meals, naps, and play remain as flexible as at home. Remember: Parisians eat dinner very late, and jet-lagged kids wake up hungry at the oddest hours!
- CrÃªpes, croissants, and baguette sandwiches are widely available. Don’t push coq au vin on a fussy eater, but do encourage taste tests. Our son fell in love with boeuf bourgiugnon!
- Pace yourself at half the speed you’d go sightseeing alone, or at your child’s pace, whichever is slower!
- Limit museum trips to about one hour, and buffer them with an outdoor “active” or indoor kid’s activity.
- Vary your modes of transportation. Children are fascinated by different traffic signs, signals, and styles and colors of buses, subways and taxis.
Try to involve children in what you love about the city, museum or sight. They may not be old enough to remember the experience clearly, but if they enjoy themselves while traveling they’ll never want to stop!K.M.
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