THERE are few places as lively, vibrant and stimulating as Paris. I’m not entirely referring to the city either as my daughter is named after the City of Light. It seems fitting that the two should meet. But if you shudder at the thought of dragging young children around vast museums, consider these tips on how to toddle around the French capital.
1. Cafe culture: Sip hot chocolate together as you watch people and dogs. Discuss, write, draw and photograph what you see. It’s never too early to cultivate the tradition of travelling with a journal, sketchbook and camera. Keep the results to create an album to cherish.
2. Water babies: The most popular water park in Paris is Aquaboulevard with its wave pool, water slides and grassy sunning area. There’s a children’s pool at Butte aux Cailles (13th arrondissement) inside a 1920s building with an art deco ceiling. From mid-July to mid-August, the Paris Plage (on the right bank, from the Louvre to Pont de Sully; on the left bank, at Port de la Gare) never fails to excite with its makeshift beach along the Seine. And if the day is too cool to get wet, watch the creatures of the sea in the aquarium at Palais de la Porte Doree Aquarium Tropical.
3. Parks and rides: Paris is full of lovely parks and gardens but my favourite is the Luxembourg (7.30am-9pm in summer; 8.15am-4.30pm in winter). With their pretty, formal gardens, marionette shows, fantastic playground, carousel, outdoor cafe, remote-controlled model boats sailing in the lake, sandpits, ponds and donkey rides, the centrally located Luxembourg Gardens are understandably popular.
The Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne is further afield but this cross between zoo and amusement park includes a children’s theatre and circus, pony club, mini railway and boats.
4. Science stuff: Parc de la Villette’s science museum, Cite des Sciences et de l’Industrie, has a section, La Cite des Enfants, which caters well to three to five-year-olds. There are hands-on activities that illuminate many aspects of science and modern technology. With the regularly changing exhibits, little ones won’t mind coming back to play with water, assembling buildings on a miniature construction site, experimenting with sound and light, manipulating robots, racing their own shadow, and superimposing their image on a landscape. There’s also a playground in a maze-like setting in the park.
5. Artists as young boys (and girls): The Pompidou Centre ensures great views from its caterpillar escalators that creep on the outside of this inside-out structure. Downstairs, the Atelier des Enfants interactive children’s gallery gives a taste of modern art as kids touch and play with the exhibits or attend a workshop. There’s also a rooftop cafe with inspiring views. If cabin fever strikes, in front of the gallery is a large plaza with street performers, including musicians, fire-eaters and artists. Nearby is one of Paris’s most beautiful churches, St Eustache. Its soaring vault ceiling is modelled on Notre Dame, and enchanting organ recitals are held at 5.30pm on Sundays. The Louvre also organises special sessions to introduce children to various aspects of art.
6. Theme parks: When your children get a bit older and discover that you didn’t take them to Euro Disney, they may be disappointed. However, I must warn you, this is a big day out. Preparation is the key to success here: head straight for Fantasyland, which caters well to little ones.
Not far from the Charles de Gaulle airport, Parc Asterix, which centres on the world of Asterix the Gaul, includes six themed worlds featuring gladiators and rides.
7. Towering adventure: Everywhere you look in Paris, you are treated to a view of the lacy tower. Even the locals sigh when it sparkles with a thousand fairy lights on summer evenings. The queues are shorter at night but you still need to be prepared for a long wait. Ascent is in three stages and there are some stairs to climb, which is worth bearing in mind if you are wheeling a pram or stroller.
8. Cruising the Seine: Be treated to a tranquil view of Paris on an organised cruise or take the Batobus, a boat shuttle service that stops at eight points along the river (get on and off at leisure).
9. Churches and cones: At the end of the day, a small child’s sightseeing requirements are basic. For instance, many of the smaller churches have playgrounds. I highly recommend Ile St Louis as you stroll beside the Seine, catching the drips from a divine ice cream cone.
10. The simple life: Drop into a toy shop or visit the children’s section in a bookshop for exquisite French pop-up books. Let older children practise their school French by buying fruit at the local market or delicious pastries at the boulangerie. A trip on a bus or a train is always an adventure. A picnic in the park or by the river in summer is a delight. Why not count the gargoyles on Notre Dame or feed croissant crumbs to pigeons in a square? Buy postcards of the places you are visiting and help your children find what’s pictured.