In October we had our first family holiday abroad, to Paris, and I thought I’d share some of our findings and tips. It was a budget trip, a very budget trip thanks to the pound and euro being pretty much equal when we went (my main tip for saving money would be to book and pay for your accommodation before the EU referendum, but unless you’ve invented a time machine that’s not really possible). By budget I mean eating pasta from the supermarket for dinner. Everyone’s idea of budget is different, but to be clear, that’s the kind of standard we’re talking about here.
The trip came about after my dad bought Bagl a pop-up book of Paris for Christmas in 2015. He was really taken with it and keen to go to the places in it. We had wanted to go and visit some dear friends in Brussels as our first trip abroad but they were having work done on their house and we didn’t want to throw ourselves into the chaos. So Paris it was. We booked to stay for four nights, giving us three full days there. Bagl was 4.5 when we went.
After borrowing the DK Eyewitness Travel Family Guide Paris from the library we decided to buy it, and I also got a second hand copy of The Little Bookroom Guide to Paris with Children, both of which were very useful. They both include essential information for parents, such as toilets and places for kids to run around, child friendly places to eat and how to get the most out of the sights. I also saved a lot of Paris articles and blog posts to a Pinterest board, and I bought the Herb Lester Paris en Famille map as well, which wasn’t massively useful but was very pretty. My trusty popout map came along too, I really recommend these as they slip in your pocket easily.
Bagl already had his Paris book, but we borrowed A Walk in Paris by Salvatore Rubbino and Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans from the library. Both are lovely but the former is particularly good for a visit. We also bought First Sticker Book: Paris for the train, which is a really well designed book for younger children, and Bagl enjoyed looking at it every day to see where we had been and where we were going.
Not wanting to all be in one hotel room (although this could have potentially cut the cost of the trip), we scoured Airbnb and did some general searches for self catering accommodation. I also had a look at aparthotels like Citadines, but they were significantly more expensive. We eventually found an apartment near to the Place de la Republique that gave us enough space and was reasonably centrally located. Although perhaps a bit more than we had initially hoped to spend, it was lovely and the host was very kind. Close to supermarkets, restaurants, shops and the Metro, it was much more spacious than we thought it would be, another plus when travelling with a young child. The only down side was the restaurant on the ground floor holding a huge opening party on our final night, which Jon and I struggled to sleep through. I would recommend the apartment but perhaps message them first (they live in the same building) to see if there is any chance of another party. Just up the street was a fascinating looking place called Musee de Poche, which seemed to be small gallery/shop hosting children’s art workshops and exhibitions, worth investigating more if you are in the area.
Flying isn’t really our thing so we opted to do this trip by rail. On the way there we travelled to Paris in one day, meaning a very early start and about eleven hours travelling. It was quite wearing and Bagl got a bit bored on the London train (although fell asleep on the Eurostar for a while). One the way back we decided to break our journey by stopping in York for a couple of nights, which really helped and made the journey feel like much less of an ordeal.
If you book Eurostar far enough in advance you can get some good priced tickets. We also have a Friends and Family Railcard, even though in theory we don’t have to pay for Bagl until he’s five. The discount you get if you use it and pay for your kids is cheaper than paying for just two adults and nothing for a child. It also means your child(ren) get a reserved seat, which is a great bonus on a long journey. For entertainment we took comics, books, stickers, the iPad (with a new game, plus downloaded CBeebies programmes and of course headphones), drawing things, Galt water magic book and a pencil case full of Lego. And snacks.
We used Virgin East Coast to get to London from Scotland, as this terminates at Kings Cross we just had to walk over the road to St Pancras to get the Eurostar, no negotiating the tube with a big bag and a small child (although being a massive rail fan, he would have loved this). There are lots of public spaces around the area now, brilliant if you have a little one needing to stretch their legs. We didn’t actually make it to any of the parks as Bagl was happy running around Granary Square but it was a relief to know they were there if we’d needed them. There’s a good sized Waitrose (which sells plain ham sandwiches if that kind of thing is important to anyone in your party) near there if you want get some food, we also picked up some bits for Jon and I in Leon. Both Kings Cross and St Pancras stations have a good variety of shops and cafes, you get a better selection at St Pancras before you go through passport control though (unless you are again looking for a plain ham sandwich, which you can find in WH Smith).
Getting through passport control was very straightforward and Bagl was patient and followed instructions well. There’s plenty of space and free toilets when you are in the waiting area, plus free colouring and activity sheets for the journey.
On the way there we went on an older Eurostar train but on the way back Bagl was very excited to see that we were travelling on one of the new ones, as he’d spent a fair amount of time exploring them on the website (whilst we attempted to manage his expectations about whether we would actually travel on one). These have free Wifi, comfier seats, information screens and some nice treats in the buffet.
Travelling around Paris
We mainly walked but also bought a carnet of Metro tickets for when things weren’t within walking distance or we had just had enough. We also used some on the Montmartre funicular, which Bagl loved. We took our Toddler Tula, which was well used during our trip. There were times when Bagl was tired, or a bit overwhelmed, and it meant we could get around a bit quicker with him on Jon’s back. He even napped in it a couple of times!
What we saw
Our sightseeing was dictated by the Paris Pop Up book as Bagl wanted to see everything in it (indicated by italics). In retrospect this was a bit ambitious for a three day trip, even though we didn’t actually go in most of the places, it took time getting around. We perhaps should have suggested picking three places and then taken him to one of the big parks further out of the city for a while. But that’s not to say we didn’t have fun, there were just points where we all felt a bit tired and overwhelmed. So, the things we saw were:
Place de la Republique – Our apartment was a short walk away so we saw this place a lot! During the summer holidays and on Wednesday afternoons they lay out loads of play equipment for children, which looked like a lot of fun. I kind of wish I’d got something souveniry of it as it felt like such an important part of our trip.
Hotel des Invalides – not somewhere I would really choose to visit, but it was a very beautiful building and we went slightly out of our way so we could take Bagl on a double decker train to get there. It’s also not far to walk to our next stop, through the Parc du Champ-de-Mars.
Eiffel Tower – I think this was the one we were most all excited about, as you can’t fail to be impressed by this Parisian icon. We enjoyed a walk through the park, stopping off at a play area for a while. Since I last went in 2008 security has been stepped up so we couldn’t just saunter over and stand underneath. We chose not to go up for a variety of reasons: cost, length of queue and me not being great with heights, but it’s fascinating looking up at it.
Arc de Triomphe – This was walkable from the Eiffel Tower, although we had a lunch and park stop part way there (it probably would have taken us half an hour or so to walk straight there). Again we didn’t go in but looked on from the busy road, Bagl found the traffic a bit overwhelming but was pleased to see another monument from his book.
Avenue des Champs Elysees – Not something we planned, but it was still early afternoon after we saw the Arc de Triomphe and we thought we’d have a little wander down just because it was right there. It’s not an ideal spot for a 4 year old but Bagl was quite happy just to watch Paris and the tourists for a bit. There are several shopping arcades which have very nice (if expensive) public toilets and baby changing along here, if you need it. We ended up walking quite a way down it, finding a nice little playpark near to the Grand Palais to stop and rest/run around (delete as appropriate).
Place de la Concorde – Again, not planned, but we walked over there after our playpark stop and then got the Metro back to our apartment. Our first day was lovely and sunny and we really wanted to make the most of being outside.
Canal St Martin – This was near our apartment and we had a little wander around before finding some dinner at the end of our first full day. There was a good playpark and we watched barges going through the locks, which fortunately woke Bagl up just as he was dropping off – no one wants a 5.30pm nap!
Le Marais – We strolled through on our way to Place des Vosges and then on to the Centre Pompidou. This has always been one of my favourite parts of Paris, on previous trips I’ve whiled away a fair bit of time wandering round the shops and also visited the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme. This time we were wandering and window shopping, which was pleasant but I was kind of itching for a proper browse!
Place des Vosges – Despite having been to this area of Paris many times I had never actually visited this square. We treated ourselves to a very fancy chocolate muffin to share and Bagl had a play on the climbing frames.
Centre Pompidou – After a quick sandwich stop we went here, full of high hopes (I visited on my first trip to Paris and loved it, although I knew it would be a different experience with a 4 year old). The children’s area sounded great, there was a Magritte exhibition for Jon to look, a nice shop and a good view of Paris. The entrance fee was a bit steep but as we weren’t paying to go in anywhere else we felt that was ok. BUT – after paying we discovered the children’s area was closed, the queue for Magritte was 30 minutes and my fear of heights came back a bit whilst we were going up to the top. This was not the fun and cultural experience we were hoping it would be. Bagl was also getting tired and grumpy (he fell asleep about ten minutes after we left), and wasn’t really up for looking at art. We did our best to engage him in it but in the end decided to admit defeat and view our entry fee as a contribution to the cultural life of Paris. The bad exchange rate meant the shop wasn’t much fun either. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.
Louvre – We wandered over here to have a quick look after Bagl had napped and made a new minifigure at the Lego Shop. It was raining and we were all tired, on any other day I might have suggested looking around the Carrousel de Louvre and maybe going into the Jardin de Tuileries but we’d all had enough. So we headed back and treated ourselves to fancy cake from the nearby bakery to raise our spirits.
Playpark along the Canal St Martin – We decided to walk to Notre Dame, following the canal that meets the Seine. For much of the walk the canal was underground but on top of it was a playpark, something different every 25-30 metres, so Bagl got lots of running around and playing time, plus when we wanted to move on we could just say ‘let’s try the next one’ without him getting upset at leaving a park.
Ile St Louis – We spent some time admiring the lovely buildings, window shopping and buying crepes for lunch. There’s a really good playpark at the eastern tip, which we had to ourselves.
Notre Dame – We sat down in the gardens outside with our crepes and wandered round the outside, the queues were very long to get in.
Le mur des je t’aime – A tiled wall which says ‘I love you’ in 250 different languages, our guidebook said most people miss it but it was pretty busy. There was a playpark next to it so I could have a look in peace whilst Jon and Bagl played.
Funiculaire de Montmartre – We could have walked up the hill to Sacre Coeur as it’s not that high, but we thought our little train fan would enjoy this novelty. He did, I think it might have been one of his highlights. Note that unlike the rest of public transport in Paris, you don’t get a child discount. Or at least that’s what the woman in the ticket office told us.
Sacre Coeur – The last thing in our book, I had wondered if we might go in, but again long queues and a tired boy meant we decided to call it a day and start heading back.
Square Louise Michel – We walked back down through the famous gardens, there’s a little playpark at the bottom where Bagl played before we walked back to our apartment (he fell asleep on the way, we had hot chocolate, we got a bit lost and then played in a nice toy shop for a while!).
What we ate
Bagl is a bit of a fussy eater, not as fussy as some kids and he eats enough to get a variety but eating out isn’t always easy. Fortunately ham sandwiches are easy to come by in Paris, as is pasta. To save money and stress we ate in during the evening, there were a couple of small supermarkets on our street, plus plenty of takeaways and a big Monoprix not far away. It’s very easy to find child staples such as pasta, cheese and yoghurts, we also got plenty of fruit in. There were times that Jon and I gazed longingly at restaurants and cafes but there will be time for that when Bagl is older. I sometimes worried he wouldn’t eat the sandwiches we bought him as they turned out to have salad in, or the bread was very different to home, but I was pleasantly surprised when he happily devoured them, hooray! We treated ourselves to some good baked goods, Jon venturing out every morning to get yummy pastries and bread for breakfast, and we picked up cakes and macarons from a bakery near our apartment on the way back every afternoon. Aux Peche Normands was our afternoon bakery of choice and Jon went to Les Delices de Parmentier for our breakfast.
Paris is much better for vegetarians these days, and we saw plenty of places that sold healthy food so you wouldn’t need to rely on cheese all the time. Sandwich shops are really easy to find in all the places we went to, one of our guide books suggested there was a dearth of them around the Arc de Triomphe. We approached it from Avenue Kleber and there were lots of them, both independent and chains like Cojean and Exki. We also found a lovely park in which to sit and eat them.
On our last day we had crepes for lunch and let Bagl have a nutella one. Normal eating rules go out the window somewhat on holiday.
Essentials: playparks and toilets
There are lots of playparks in Paris, something I had never appreciated before (probably because I had never needed them). As most people don’t have a garden, the city provides lots of little parks instead, and we were never far from one. This really made a difference, Bagl could let off steam, meet some French children and we could get a sit down and a chat.
There are plenty of toilets of the superloo variety in Paris, we managed to avoid needing to use them by going to the toilets in places we visited. Lots of the shopping arcades on the Champs Elysees have them, they cost about €2 but sometimes when you’re tired and in a strange place, a nice clean toilet can make difference to your day and nevermind the cost. There was also a free toilet for customers at Monoprix City in Montmartre, near the famous carousel, so that’s worth bearing in mind if you are caught short there!
Ha! On the trips I took to Paris in my twenties, I used to spend half of each day sightseeing and half of each day just wandering around enjoying the city, and often having a nose in the shops. Not so easy with a four year old. I did get a nice look around Antoine et Lili’s stores near our apartment, and opposite a playpark, we also spent some time in the Lego shop, Bonton (mainly colouring in and using their vintage photobooth) and a toy shop when we got lost. Jon and I also had a browse in the Moleskine shop whilst Bagl was napping in the Tula. The rest of the time it was mainly window shopping or food shopping, with Bagl deciding to try out (totally unprompted) a ‘bonjour’ to many shop staff, which was really lovely.
As I said above, next time we wouldn’t be so ambitious and would include some of the bigger parks like La Villette, so we could have some good outdoor time plus visit La Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. Les Berges looks like a lot of fun, as does hiring bikes for all of us in car-free areas. We all would love to go back to Paris but when it comes to France, I’m also intrigued by Colmar in Alsace, which looks like a beautiful town and not far the biggest railway museum in Europe (possibly the world), as well as being within daytripping distance of a few other countries. I’ve already started an Airbnb wishlist…