10 Chic and Free Things to Do with Kids in Paris
Paris may be the world's most romantic capital, but it's also a wonderful city to visit with kids, even if you don't speak French. Whether your family loves food, culture, history, or arts, Paris is full of must-see sights and places that happen to be kid-friendly from the Eiffel Tower to the Jardin du Luxembourg. Almost anywhere you go in Paris, you'll find pretty little parks with play areas, tasty snacks, and kid-friendly attractions, because this sophisticated city has made a big effort to develop a wealth of educational and fun activities for young Parisians and visitors.
What's more, with so many parks and outdoor sights, many of the city's can't-miss destinations are free! So here are our top picks for the best chic and free things to do with kids in Paris.
Bois de Boulogne
The vast Bois de Boulogne (Boulogne Woods) was once a wild, dangerous forest where the kings of France hunted wolf, deer, and wild boar. (It's still unwise to venture into its wooded areas at night, although animals aren't the problem these days.) Napoléon III gave the forest to Paris in the mid-19th century, and developer Baron Haussmann, who was carving huge boulevards through the city at the time, laid streets through the woods as well, modeling his plan on London's Hyde Park. Today, the park is popular among Parisians looking for fresh air and open spaces.
At the Lac Inférieur (the larger of the park's two lakes), you can rent paddleboats or bicycles, and at the Lac Supérieur, kids bring remote-controlled boats and buzz them around the lake. The park also contains two race courses: the Hippodrome d'Auteuil, which stages steeplechases (with jumps and hurdles) regularly March– December, and the Hippodrome de Longchamp, which hosts flat racing April– October. On the first Sunday in October, you can watch top Thoroughbreds compete in the world's richest horse race, the Arc de Triomphe.
Where to Eat: Within the park are two kid-friendly restaurants. You can take a little boat to Le Chalet des Iles, a magical—and expensive—restaurant on the island in the Lac Inférieur. There's parking nearby or you can walk from the La Muette métro stop. The delightful Les Jardins de Bagatelle restaurant in the Bagatelle gardens is a great spot with beautiful garden views.
Good to Know: If you have any tennis fans in your family, be sure to take a little detour to Tenniseum, a museum in honor of one of France's favorite sports, located on Court 3 of Rolland-Garros, the country's most famous tennis complex and the home of the French Open.
Bois de Vincennes and the Parc Floral
Just east of Paris's city limits, the 500-plus-acre Bois de Vincennes (Vincennes Woods)—the ancient royal hunting grounds—is well worth a métro ride for its many family-friendly venues, particularly the Parc Floral de Paris and the 14th-century Chateau de Vincennes, the finest example of a medieval château in France.
Around the park's three lakes you can watch a puppet show, take a turn on a merry-go-round, eat barbe à papa (cotton candy), rent a paddleboat or a bicycle, or just sit on a bench and watch the world go by. Bike lanes, jogging paths, and sidewalks crisscross the park. You'll find plenty of places to picnic, as well as huge expanses of woods, grass, a bird sanctuary, a baseball field, a number of soccer fields, a horse-racing track (the Hippodrome de Vincennes), and even a working farm: the Ferme de Paris where kids can sometimes feed the animals.
Where to Eat: Picnic in the Bois, which also has several snack bars, or try the restaurants in the Parc Floral: Les Magnolias has good fixed-price lunches, afternoon tea, and a shady terrace; Le Bosquet is a classy-looking but budget priced cafeteria where sandwiches and fruit smoothies can be eaten on the premises or taken out for a picnic.
Good to Know: This is a huge park and to really benefit from all its forest and green space, you'll need to rent bikes. One reliable source is Location Vélo, a stand next to the Lac des Minimes that rents all types of bikes on weekends April–October, some with training wheels or baby seats and all in good condition. Another bike-rental operation is Paris Cycles near the Lac Daumesnil. All rent bikes for around f5 per hour, with discounts for longer rentals. There is also a Vélib' stand between the Chateau and the Parc Floral.
Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou
The Centre Pompidou (referred to by Parisians as "Beaubourg," after its neighborhood) was a big city-planning gamble. Former president Georges Pompidou and crew picked a vacant lot in the middle of Paris as the site for a "supermarket for culture" and created an edifice (designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers) that looks like a kid might have built it using Legos and Tinkertoys. Today the center is popular among all sorts of Parisians, including children, who come for all sorts of reasons.
Thanks to its wacky architecture, the center is a hit with kids as soon as they see it. From the exterior, you see brightly painted ducts and supports, clearly showing why Parisians nicknamed this place Notre-Dame des Tuyeaux (Our Lady of the Pipes). Kids also appreciate the big square in front, which is always filled with fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, mimes, and musicians. It's an ongoing, free outdoor circus.
What to Eat: The center's top-floor Restaurant Georges, reached by escalator or the glass-walled elevator, has great views and a large outdoor terrace, while the in-house Cafe Mezzanine and Kiosk caféteria offer lots of low-priced choices. Dame Tartine serves quiches, salads, and other affordable treats, and its terrace overlooks the wacky fountain in the Igor Stravinsky square.
Good to Know: For kids, guided tours and all sorts of creative arts workshops are held in the Galerie des Enfants on Wednesdays, weekends, and school holidays, except in August. Special activities for families (shows, guided tours, and workshops, in French) are offered on Sundays).
If there's one Paris street that people have heard of, it's the avenue des Champs Elysees—" Les Champs" to Parisians. This wide street, first built in 1667 as an approach to the royal palace in the Tuileries, was widened, beautified, and given its current name (which means "Elysian Fields") in the 19th century, when it became known as the most beautiful avenue in the world.
In the 20th century, however, the avenue evolved into a bustling, high-rent commercial district whose sidewalks literally became parking lots. In the 1990s, a decade-long renovation project reclaimed sidewalks for pedestrians and lined the avenue with tall trees, and the Champs became pleasant to stroll down again. In many ways, though, it's been a victim of its success. Rents are now so high that only major retailers can afford them. The world's biggest Adidas store (22 av. Champs-Élysées) opened here in 2006, while many of the movie theaters and smaller shops that once lined the avenue have closed. In 2007, the city launched a campaign to try to preserve the avenue from becoming a glorified shopping mall by limiting any more mega-stores from opening along it.
What to Eat: Restaurants along The Champs can be pricey, packed with tourists, and less-than-kid-friendly. But a pit stop at Laduree, a Paris institution and elegant tearoom, is a must.
Good to Know: Note that the Champs slopes steeply up to the Arc de Triomphe, so if you have small children, start your stroll on the Arc end of the avenue to avoid the uphill climb. Guignol puppet shows, are performed Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, and holidays at 3 pm, 4 pm, and 5 pm, and the stamp and pin market is held on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Nearby, you can take a peek through heavily guarded gates at the Palais d'Elysee (France's White House) and at the U. S. Embassy.
Fontainebleau's château was built in the 12th century as a hunting lodge, but if you're thinking rustic retreat, think again: this has always been the domain of French royalty. King François I added huge Italian-style rooms and galleries in the 16th century, other kings added their own embellishments, the great 17th-century garden designer Le Nôtre created terraces and fountains here, and Napoléon chose Fontainebleau over Versailles. A visit to this lavishly furnished château with its elegant gardens is like a quick trip through French history.
Where to Eat: Picnic in the forest or try Au Délice Impérial, a pastry shop/restaurant, Pizza-Pazza for tasty pizza and pasta, or Le Franklin, a cozy bistro. There's a food market near Saint-Louis church on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday mornings.
Good to Know: Fontainebleau is 69 kilometers (42 miles) southeast of Paris. By car, take the A6 toll-road to the Fontainebleau exit and then the N7 highway to the town. Several trains run daily from Paris's Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau-Avon (40 minutes). Take a shuttle bus (June through September only), city bus or taxi to the center of town. At the château, ask for the brochure for kids (livret-jeux), which takes them on a treasure hunt. You can tour the gardens by bike or horse-drawn carriage.
Jardin des Tuileries
Thanks to its wide gravel walks, placid fountains, lawns—all with pelouse interdite (keep off the grass) signs—and carefully manicured flower beds stretching between the Louvre and the place de la Concorde, the Jardin des Tuileries is without a doubt the city's most elegant park. For generations, Parisian families have come here for outings. Parents relax on park benches while kids run around or, best of all, sail little boats on one of the park's ponds. (You rent a boat and a long pole from a stand next to the pond, hope your kids' boat will be one of the ones whose sails catch the wind, and encourage your children to use the pole to prod their craft away from the side of the pond if it gets stuck.)
This formal park had very humble beginnings: in the 15th century it was a quarry for clay that was used in making tuiles (roof tiles), the source of the park's name. Marie de Medici had the idea of creating an elegant, Italian-style garden here, and later André Le Nôtre, the great 17th-century garden designer responsible for the park around the Chateau de Versailles, embellished the park.
Where to Eat: There are snack bars and drinks stands scattered around the Tuileries. Cafe Reale, right in the middle of the park, has good tartines (open-face sandwiches), though the service can be slow. You can also come here just for a pastry and sit indoors or out. Angelina, a tearoom founded in 1903, serves to-die-for hot chocolate and excellent (though pricey) pastries; try the Mont Blanc, a chestnut and whipped cream extravaganza.
Good to Know: You can rent the little toy sailboats to sail in the fountains on Wednesdays, weekends, and school holidays.
Jardin du Luxembourg
An oh-so-Parisian park, the Jardin du Luxembourg has it all: a beautiful palace, designed in 1615 and now the home of the French Sénat; huge trees; ponies to ride; tennis courts; beehives; the Grand Bassin pond, where kids can sail boats; and even—rarest of all in Paris—an area where you can actually walk on the grass (if you're accompanied by a toddler). One of the park's treasures is its merry-go-round, whose much-loved wooden animals were designed by none other than Charles Garnier, the 19th-century architect of the Opéra de Paris-Garnier. Kids can try to catch a brass ring with a stick. Next to the merry-go-round is the park's own puppet theater, the city's biggest.
Where to Eat: Stop into Geard Mulot for all kinds of delicacies, sweet and savory. Amorino, a high-quality chain of gelato shops, has an outpost nearby on Rue Vavin, and Bread and Roses serves excellent gourmet pizzas, sandwiches, quiches, and salads.
Good to Know: Fans of Little Nemo would enjoy visiting his clown-fish relatives at the nearby Centre de la Mer. This museum/aquarium complex is designed to make people—especially kids—more sensitive to aquatic life forms. Exhibits, many of them interactive, are accessible even to very young children. Classes for kids 3– 8 let them touch various sea creatures, and a treasure hunt (in French) for kids 8– 12 is popular among Parisian.
Also called La Coulée Verte (the Green Course), the Promenade Plantee (Landscaped Trail) is a former train track that's been turned into a beautifully landscaped pathway for pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, and roller skaters. It's one of Paris's top choices for a family stroll, especially since there's no traffic to worry about. The promenade stretches 4 ½ kilometers (almost 3 miles) from near the place de la Bastille to the edge of the Bois de Vincennes, just outside Paris's eastern limits. Sometimes it hovers high above the street, sometimes it winds through little tunnels, and sometimes it traverses hills, but through the entire length it's dotted with park benches, so parents and tired toddlers can take a break.
Begin near the Bastille, where the old tracks were supported by high brick arches now called the Viaduc des Arts (av. Daumesnil). Within the arches are around 50 crafts shops and art galleries, some with tall windows through which you can watch artisans at work.
Where to Eat: Trendy Le Viaduc Cafe , isn't cheap, but their Sunday brunch includes live jazz. The place d'Aligre has a food market every morning except Monday—it's an inexpensive source for picnic goodies. Moisan has delicious organic bread, while at A la Petite Fabrique, you can sample 40 kinds of chocolate bars and watch them being made.
Good to Know: Near the eastern end of the Promenade Plantée is the Palais de la Porte Doree which houses two kid-friendly venues worth the walk: the new Cite Nationale de L'Histoire de L'Immigration which focuses on immigrants who have come to France from all over the world, and the Aquarium Tropical home to more than 5,000 aquatic creatures living in state-of-the-art aquariums. Kids of all ages love the sunken crocodile pool.
Le Friday Night Fever (yes, the French refer to it by this English name) has reached epidemic proportions in Paris. Every Friday night just before 10 pm (if it's not raining), about 10,000 people of all ages gather on Place Raoul-Dautry in front of the Gare Montparnasse for a fast-paced, three-hour, 12- to 15-mile-or-so circuit of the city—on skates. If your family includes topnotch skaters, you can certainly participate in this exciting celebration of city skating, but if you'd prefer a more relaxed, family-oriented alternative, you can join the leisurely, free, three-hour Sunday-afternoon skate-ins organized by Rollers-et-Coquillages (Skates and Snail Shells), an association of skating enthusiasts.
The Sunday circuit, like the Friday one, is along a route that changes every week, is organized in advance, and is always traffic-free: the Paris police force blocks off all roads along the routes during the skate-ins so that skaters won't have to contend with cars. Rollers-et-Coquillages has designed the Sunday event for beginning skaters, families, and anyone who'd like to visit the city on skates in a low-key way.
Where to Eat: Hippopotamus is always a kid-pleaser, thanks to burgers and mounds of frites (fries). Dalloyau is a sedate pâtisserie/tearoom/take-out shop. At Le Barrio Latino you can fuel up at the huge buffet brunch, which includes pastries, eggs, cold meats, smoked salmon, and even a few Tex-Mex treats.
Good to Know: Near the Omnisports sports complex in the Parc de Bercy, roller bladers can practice in the free outdoor Roller-Park. If someone in your family prefers skateboarding to rollerblading.
Photo Credits: Bois de Boulogne: By the lake by Chris Waits Attribution License; Centre Pompidou: Centre Pompidouvia Shutterstock.com; Champs Elysees: Champs Elyseesvia Shutterstock.com; Fontainebleau: Fontainebleauvia Shutterstock.com; Jardin des Tuileries: Rostislav Glinsky / Shutterstock.com; Jardin du Luxembourg: Jardin du Luxembourgvia Shutterstock.com; Promenade Plantee: La promenade plantÃ©e byAttribution-ShareAlike License; Rollers-et-Coquillages: Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es by Alexandre Duret-LutzAttribution-ShareAlike License
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