Paris… the city of romance and art, of the Eiffel Tower and the Musée du Louvre. For families in the summertime, Paris can also be an amazing place of fun and adventure. Despite general assumptions, activities in this great city don’t have to break your pocketbook. Here are some tips to make a summer trip to Paris more affordable.
I am certainly a fan of exposing your children to art and there’s no more worthy goal than the Louvre, but if you have limited time and resources – or if you chafe at the thought of waiting for hours in line with a thousand other people under the hot sun – then there are some other options for your family this summer in Paris.
1. First of all, Paris is a city of walking. Every street is a masterpiece in itself, where people-watching is a favorite pastime, and exceptional parks can be found in most Arrondisments.
My favorite park sits right in the middle of Paris, and provides enough options to keep you busy for several afternoons.
2. The Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6thArrondissment offers any number of kid-friendly options, including pony rides, push boat rentals, and with the piècede résistance for kids: its amazing playground with fantastic climbing structures, twisting twirling contraptions, a mini zip line, and more – all surrounded by shade-covered, comfortable chairs. There’s even an espresso vendor for waiting parents. Very civilized!
3. When my son was younger there was no way I could keep his attention in big museums, particularly if they were packed with people or had long lines in scorching heat. Instead we discovered a Paris summer phenomenon that changed everything: Paris Plage. I was told it was a strategy by the French government to keep Parisians from fleeing the city on their long summer breaks, and to provide summer activities for the thousands of visitors that descend on the city of lights. Officials haul in thousands of pounds of sand and transform the banks of the Seine into a beachside boardwalk fantasyland, complete with plastic buckets and shovels for little kids (free!), misting stations, food stands, beach chairs, and beach-side music and activities. I’ve heard some Parisians scoff at the “vulgarity” of it all, but for a traveler with a small child it was everything a parent could want: a view of the most amazing city on earth, all while barefoot, building sandcastles along the Seine. When my boy was smaller it was a true heaven on earth. Just head to the Right Bank between Pont au Change and Pont Notre Dame. Runs roughly mid July to mid August.
4. The Pont des Arts is a scenic footbridge crossing the Seine at the Louvre museum. A few years ago someone started putting small lockets on the grill of the handrail with painted messages of love and remembrance, then tossing the keys into the Seine. Hundreds more of these Love Locks followed (with a booming cottage industry of lockets for sale at both entrances) until the weight of the lockets created such a threat to the bridge that in 2015 the entire grill was taken down. But habits die hard and I hear there are still Love Locks being placed and keys tossed. Even if there are no lockets, the bridge is a popular place for young people to bring their guitars or a picnic and watch the passing traffic.
5. If you want to treat yourselves to some fabulous art but don’t want to face the crowds of the Louvre, consider my absolute favorite museum the Musée D’Orsay. Built in an old Beaux Arts train station, it has the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world: Monet and Manet, Mary Cassat, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh… Find it along the Left Bank of the Seine in the 7thArrondissment on Légion d’Honneur.
6. Pablo Picasso Museum is also very manageable, with a walkway that takes you through the Spanish artist’s different periods. Free for journalists with a press pass and all visitors the first Sunday of every month. Located in the Marais (3ème) the area is always full of color and fun. Bordering the city’s gay/lesbian quarter, there are trendy shops and fun people. For food be sure to go by Chez Marianne for one of the best Falafel’s anywhere. Full stop.
7. TheEiffel Tower – Though it’s sure to be surrounded at all hours by long lines of tourists waiting to summit, this one tourist activity checks off physical activity with amazing views. My son loved climbing to the very top and still talks about the number of stairs he once scaled.
8. For older kids, a visit into the depths of the Parisian underground – The Catacombs – is certain to thrill. Holding the bones of nearly six million people, it was built as part of an effort to deal with Paris’ overflowing cemeteries. Enter just near the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop.
9. Sacré Coeur Basilica – Overlooking all of Paris, this might one of the most beautiful structures, in a city full of extraordinary structures! The walk up is as wonderful as the view at the top. The closest metro stop is probably Anvers and while there are about 300 steps to the top, there also is a funicular at the foot of Montmartre (18ème) to the foot of the basilica.
10. One of my favorite Parisian activities leans more toward the adults, and less to the family section – unless your child is a budding Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. That’s the nightly dancing events at the Jardin Tino Rossi on the banks of Port Saint-Bernard in front of the Institut du Monde Arabe (5ème).
Far from the smoky rooms of Paris nightclubs, this open-air (and free!) activity draws dancers from many genres: tango, salsa, rock, even country and western the nights I visited. Every night from June through August dancers gather in the small, semi-circle seating areas (designed like amphitheaters) each offering a different themed dance style and music. Be forewarned that those who attend are serious dancers, and some knowledge of the art form is expected. No pressure.
11. Finally, I always tell people that Paris doesn’t have to be a place of expensive activities. This city is one of the few where simply walking through the city streets is one of the most enjoyable activities of all. Each Arrondissment is slightly different and each provides a feast for the eyes and senses. Whether during the day or at night, the streets of Paris are always lively. A few of my favorite areas include the Carrefour de Buci (Carrefour means intersection) in the 6ème where the streets are filled with outdoor cafes and the nights are always hopping; the plaza in front of Notre Dame Cathedral fills each evening with daring street performers on roller skates, with juggling balls or fists full of fire; and the Centre Pompidou in the Beaubourg area (4ème) is similarly entertaining day or night.
12. One general rule I’ll add here is that when I arrive in a new and unfamiliar city, I always try to find a sightseeing tour to help me get my bearing. Many of you might be familiar with the red bus double-decker tour buses. Far from free – and for a big family could get quite pricey – but for me it’s been very helpful before I strike out on foot.
13. I’ve noted some of my favorite free activities, but for those who might want to hit every possible museum and monument, Paris offers both a Museum Pass which costs €48 for an adult for two days, €74 for 4 days etc (free for under 18). The Paris Pass includes admission to all museums AND unlimited travel on public transport. That ranges from €139 for two days and up to €259 for 6 days (teens pay €84 for 2 day, €141 for 6, while 11 and under pays €46-79). Cost value will depend on how many sites you’re planning on visiting, but one invaluable aspect is that both allow you to skip the lines – though you will have to wait with other pass holders and those who purchased advance tickets.
So while Paris may still be one of the most romantic cities in the world, for me it’s also one of the best family-friendly adventures going. With the combination of incredible architecture, museums, parks and culture, it should be on every family’s bucket list.