Aron and I had been talking about returning to Paris for years. For some reason, despite many visits as a couple living on the West Coast, we never made the trip once we lived on the East. By the time the opportunity arose, I was pregnant. And nothing sounded sadder than a trip to Paris (with its incredible wine, raw cheeses, and its laundry list of pregnancy taboos—like foie gras and steak tartare) while expecting. (You might recall that I faced similar dilemmas in Montreal, albeit the kind that that no one should really ever complain about.)
In hindsight, it might have been easier to travel to Paris while pregnant than with a toddler. Either involves some sacrifices, some compromises (to put it more glass-half-full)—the toddler perhaps more.
And here’s where I should learn to heed my own advice: Just go!
So to start…
I want to tell you the secret, magic tricks to having the perfect vacation in Paris—ah, Paris!—with a toddler. I really do. I just have to be honest: there was a night at dinner when Aron and I, albeit proud of our well-behaved son who was licking herbed butter off of escargot shells, agreed that if someone asked us whether to choose to go Paris with a two-year-old, we might say “non.”
I mentioned before that this sentiment comes with major caveats. Again, my general philosophy about all travel is “just go!” Enjoy. Make it happen. You’ll rarely regret. So if you have a chance to go to Paris and you’re more excited to see it than say, the pebbly shores of the French Riviera, then by all means fear not. Otherwise, I just think some timing considerations and adjusted expectations might be in order.
For example, most guidebook recommendations for Paris-with-kids place a great deal of emphasis on parks: picnics, sailboats, pony rides, playgrounds, carousels, and the like. We were fortunate enough to get to do most of those things, but a bit unlucky to arrive during a week when all of Europe was experiencing an unseasonably cold and grey Spring. C’est la vie.
All of this is not to say that we didn’t have a great time. We did! I think you’ll see that we truly did. I really do think Hudson is a wonderful little traveler, and we did our best to savor every moment. But I found that Paris presented some unique challenges for families with young children (with New York City as my main lens for comparison), more so if you have your own wish list (like shopping or eating in romantic restaurants). I expect the city is easiest with a toddler for the first-time tourist (almost easier just to spend a morning at a single site, like the Louvre), or the seasoned one (who’s content to grocery shop and spend the evening in). I’ll do my best to point out what worked for us (and what didn’t) on this trip to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
We rented a beautiful two-bedroom apartment in the 6eme, near the Jardin du Luxembourg through the company Haven in Paris. It was wonderful, having such a calm, spacious place all our own to return to in the evenings and for naps. I talk more extensively about our experience in this post, “Our Paris apartment rental.”
We arrived after a brilliant stroke of luck (and effort, on Aron’s part). We could only afford to go to Paris (with three seats selling for $1700 a piece when we booked!) if we used miles. Using miles meant we’d agreed to a pretty terrible routing: Drive to San Francisco, fly to Newark, connect to Heathrow, then to Frankfurt, then to Paris. We were almost guaranteed to arrive without our luggage, we had decided. But at 2am, the morning of our flight, Aron woke me up to say he’d found three seats, just released for miles, on a direct flight from SFO to Charles De Gaulle, but none of them were together. Go for it? In my half-awake state, I agreed. We knew they’d have to put the one-year-old with one of us, and fortunately someone else switched so that Aron and Hudson were together in one row and I was on the aisle just ahead. Thank goodness Aron had kept checking the United site for those seats—it would have never occurred to me.
We did a little bit of switching off, Hudson slept through the overnight portion of the flight, and we all arrived nearly a full day earlier than planned!
Our accomodations were just blocks away from the gorgeous Jardin du Luxembourg, one of the largest parks in Paris. It was green and lush, and a pleasure to cross as much as it was a pleasure to stay in and enjoy.
There are courts for tennis and petanque, and table for chess. There are lovers strolling through old orchards and runners jogging around the garden in the afternoon. And there cafes and food stalls for crêpes. We tended to enter near an apiary—for studying bees.
The gardens are also notable for all of the diversions it offers for children. Though most of the grass is to be kept off, there is plenty of room to roam, and a wonderful, fenced in (for pay) playground. In general, we didn’t see many children out and about in the parts of the city we frequented, save for weekends and the hours after their crèche or school and before bed (roughly 3-6pm I’d estimate?), which was a big shock to us. We had become accustomed to seeing strollers everywhere in New York and they just weren’t really around here. But during those magic, afternoon hours, the gardens came alive.
We managed to get Hudson to look the other way when the pony riders were making their circuit (available April through October). He was too little, and would have been crushed. But we were excited to have him spot his first carousel.
Unfortunately, it was a bit of a fail (albeit a comically sad one). The vintage carousel has no standing place, as the horses move using suspension alone, and so children must ride unaccompanied. This meant that Hudson was too little to ride a horse and would only be allowed to sit in a carriage. Good thing, too, because it went so fast! As the horses whipped around, and children reached for rings, Hudson wailed and wailed and tried to break free of the ropes that tied him to his seat. With every turn, he’d see us and reach his arms out crying “off, off” making the tongue-click sound he uses for horses’ hooves in between sobs.
It seemed to last forever. Finally, the ride slowed. I tried to play it cool, but I just wanted to go rescue him so badly! I started walking beside him but it wasn’t coming to a stop. Aron looked at me like I was crazy and started laughing as I found myself fast-walking beside the carriage for an entire revolution.
I immediately thought about that book Bringing Up Bébé, and the description of the cliché, hovering American parent who shouts “weeeee” like a fool every time their child goes back and forth in a swing (guilty) and felt my cheeks grow flush.
Luckily, even the man with the rings took pity on Hudson and soon he took my place, walking beside the tear-streaked boy and trying to untie him before the ride had truly stopped.
I practically ran once he was in my arms. I ran to the playground, which was closing, and pleaded with a slightly shocked gatekeeper for just one ride down the slide.
What a ridiculous scene!
Our following visits were far more successful, and we even met up with friends (Abbey and family) at the playground.
A funny thing happened there, which I thought was fairly telling: when Abbey and I were returning to our strollers, she found another young boy in hers. He was certain that hers was his and he was waiting for his grandmother to return. She had left him to play inside the playground and would return soon, he explained in French. He wouldn’t budge! Eventually, Abbey pushed him (in her stroller) over to another red MacClaren and he hopped out and into that one to wait there. It was hilarious. And culturally revealing, right? I can’t imagine paying for entry into a playground (and there was a small fee for adults and for children at this particular one) and then trusting to leave my child there. So fascinating!
That same day, we caught the 5pm Marionnette (or Guignols) show, Patachon, at the gardens’ theatre. Abbey had mentioned that she’d seen bits of the show on YouTube and that the actor looked a bit scary (which he did). But we decided to give it a try.
The first three rows are reserved for small children, and no parents are allowed nearby in the aisles. I wasn’t sure whether Hudson would go for it, but he so excited to be seated with all of those kids. When the lights dimmed, he ran for us, but eventually he warmed up.
In fact, he even got up on stage! With the creepy masked man with blue hair! What a charmer.
Every year, for four months, a photography exhibit adorns the railings of the park. This year, to celebrate the 100th year of the Tour de France, there were 80 photographs chronicling the history of the tour. The images were stunning and made me think about all of the reasons one should still be excited and inspired by the triumphant riders, in spite of the recent shame brought upon it by a few unethical ones.
On a slightly related tangent, there are Velib racks all over the city as part of Paris’ bike-sharing program. We saw people riding day and night and it looks like a fantastic way to get around. There aren’t any child seats, but you can look into renting a bike with a child seat if it’s a priority (I’ve heard good things about the company, Bike About Tours).
We brought along a new stroller to try. Bumbleride offered to let us try their umbrella stroller, the Bumbleride Flite. Though our Bee is made for travel, I’ve been curious about the benefits of an umbrella stroller for a while now, and this one was terrific. I really appreciated how tightly it folded up for the Metro and for placing under a table or in a corner at tight restaurants. And I was impressed that it was tall enough for Aron. Granted, Hudson preferred to walk (or run) most places himself, but we were glad we brought a stroller along.
Our first few evenings, despite intending to use our kitchen back at the apartment, we found ourselves wandering around the banks of the Seine (way past Hudson’s bedtime as the sun set and the light grew dim only in the 9 o’clock hour). I won’t lie: I felt slightly envious of all of the couples in the glowing restaurants, but I mention this only in the service of managing expectations. I wouldn’t have traded places—and I knew we had nights of babysitting in our immediate future. After all, our streetside crèpes were absolutely delicious. (Oh, and add yet another fan of Nutella to this world.)
This is when, by the way, if you’re blessed with clear skies, it’s wonderful to embrace picnicking. Join everyone else along the Seine and it will be a memorable night.
Our sleep was less than peaceful throughout our visit. I’m afraid Hudson never fully adjusted to the time change and would generally be wide awake around 3am. Aron would often end up falling asleep in Hudson’s room (ever the gentleman). We were reminded about apartment living, when you fear that your neighbors will give you the stink-eye (or worse!) after a night with a crying baby. Let’s just say: we hoped to avoid seeing any of ours that week.
Though we saw few during the day, we found evidence of children, just as one sees in New York (and perhaps around the world): rows of scooters attached to fences around the city.
We started most days with pastries or baguette and butter—but often with an awesome view.
Hudson seemed to notice the Eiffel Tower, but more so he noticed the people around it, doing silly things for photographic moments. He started hopping all over the place and we realized it was because of a group trying to jump simultaneously for the camera’s shutter. That’s one of those wonderfully unpredictable small moments I won’t soon forget.
The face he’s making with Aron, above, is not then—you may guess—a reaction to the Eiffel Tower but to…
the carousel in front of it!
Thank goodness we could go along on this one—where Hudson wanted to ride in, um, a carriage.
After seeing the Eiffel Tower and deciding the lines were too long for even a climb to the 2nd floor (you can—and should—reserve ahead online if you are set on seeing the view from the top), we opted instead for a very quick, pre-nap stroll down Rue Cler.
We checked out stinky cheeses, and admired the sharply-dressed business people out to lunch, before packing up some provisions for lunch back at the apartment.
That runny cheese… SO, so good. We would usually just tell the fromagère some characteristics we appreciate and then ask for suggestions.
Hudson loved all of the boats along the Seine (“bo, bo!”)
And I loved spotting the lovers, and the browsing the Bouquinistes (the open-air, green boxed vendors along the river).
We spent a few afternoons in the Jardin des Tuileries, the expansive, beautiful gardens that extend from the Louvre and are bordered by the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Rue de Rivoli.
We discovered the city’s new eco-mowers: two goats brought in to graze the lawns.
And tried out as many seats as possible around the fountains.
We never quite made it to the playground, which I hear is amazing (with trampolines and such!), but there was plenty to entertain.
One night we found an empty courtyard and ate sandwiches on a stoop while watching Hudson jump. Over and over. Abbey said something interesting about traveling with toddlers: essentially, if you’re expecting them to change their routine just because you’re in a new place, you’re in for a rude awakening. And it’s just so true. The novelty is rarely what catches Hudson’s interest. He loves horses, and trains, and running, and jumping. And whether we were on the steps of a Mayan temple or at our front door, jumping from a height of four inches in a single bound would be the absolute best. This particular plaza had a four inch step and a horse. Score!
On a gray morning, we all took a taxi to La Maison Angelina, a popular belle-epoque tea salon on the Rue de Rivoli. You can read more about that experience in this post. It was a highlight.
After a decadent breakfast, I split off from the fellas and took advantage of the rainy day to go shopping.
I spent most of the time window-shopping, pausing for a delicious break at Claus, and popping into some gorgeous galerie or passageway when I’d happen upon one. There’s a charming wine bar and a wonderful children’s store (called Si tu Veux) in Galerie Vivienne.
I did do some shopping at Amor Luxe (striped shirts), Petit Bateau (well-cut kids’ clothes and some for mom, too), Isabel Marant, and the halls of Printemps. I never made it to Merci, Deyrolle, or to the flea market on this trip, the other stops I’d thought I’d visit and which I’ve heard raves about. I find Time Out to be a good guide for current shopping recommendations, and I did my best to pick a few stops from Anne’s wonderful address guide.
If you’re not in a position to truly splurge (as I was not), I think it’s fun to browse places like Colette, Zadig & Voltaire, Vanessa Bruno… and then pop into a Zara (the one on Rue Saint-Honoré is really nice), even if it’s not local, and pick out something that’s on trend with what you’ve been seeing around Paris.
One of my priorities was to finally try the macarons at Ladurée (I’d held out, even when a branch opened in New York). So I brought back these (which literally do melt in your mouth—pistachio and rose are my preferred), some clothes, and a few gifts for those who’d stayed behind. One of my favorite discoveries was the discounted location for a brand called “Loft, Design by.” It was just beyond Rue Montorgueil.
That same evening we decided to go for an early dinner at Bouillon Racine (a beautiful art nouveau brasserie in the 6e). It has a very traditional menu and is open all day rather than opening late for dinner. Overall, it was a big success. Hudson was really good (even if sitting still proved fairly difficult for him), and we only ate slightly faster than we would have otherwise.
Nonetheless, we were excited about our upcoming evenings, for which we’d arranged babysitting (months in advance).
Continue reading… in Part two.