Introducing your children to some of your favourite places is one of the thrills of being a parent. It’s wonderful revisiting those places you’ve loved with your own children and seeing them for the first time through their eyes.
I took my 11-year-old son, Edward, with me to Paris a few months ago. It was his reward for working hard for his exams but we both got a lot out of the trip. Travelling one-to-one can be a great way of bonding with your child as you get to spend some time alone together and create some really special travel memories. Here are some tips on how to make the most of the experience.
Let them get involved in the planning
Get your child involved in planning what you do and see while you’re there. Going on a one-to-one trip with a child will be a very different experience to going on your own, with a partner or with girlfriends. I know Paris really well – I’ve lived there and visited on numerous occasions – but this was my son’s first trip and he had very clear ideas about what he wanted to do. Edward was desperate to do all the touristy things I hadn’t done in years: climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, go down the Seine in a boat and visit Notre Dame.
Don’t plan every minute of your trip
You should definitely do some research before you go, make lists of the things you want to see, check out opening times and book tickets for sights like the Eiffel Tower to avoid queuing when you get there. But don’t plan your days so rigidly that you don’t leave any spare time for doing something on the spur of the moment or wandering around and getting a little lost in Paris’s enchanting streets and alleyways.
If you’re open to possibilities you might discover some wonderful place you haven’t read about. It’s these chance discoveries that can be the highlight of your trip. Don’t just follow the guidebook either. Often the best way to get to know a place is to listen to the locals once you’re there. Where do they eat? Where is their favourite place to visit?
Choosing where to stay
You’ll want to travel all over the city and visit sights in lots of different areas during the day but I didn’t fancy venturing too far away from our hotel at night so it’s a good idea to pick a base – whether hotel or apartment – in an area which has a lot going for it so that you’ve got restaurants, cafés and sights right on your doorstep.
This isn’t difficult in Paris, where so many areas have an individual, villagey feel to them. Good areas to look at include the Marais (where we stayed. Take a look at my guide to the Marais for more information), the Latin Quarter and Montmartre.
Don’t try to do too much
Don’t try to fit too much in. It’s better to see one or two things well with an engaged and interested child than rush around all the sights with a child who is tired and grumpy. You won’t see anything properly and you will both be miserable. Travelling should be a pleasure, not an endurance test. If you’re going to a museum, plan something relaxing to do afterwards like finding the best ice-cream in Paris (try Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis) or head to Angelina’s on the rue de Rivoli for the most divine hot chocolate you’ll ever taste. Don’t just rush from sight to sight.
Choosing the right place to stay
It can get pretty tiring spending the day sightseeing even when you’re having lots of treat stops for ice-creams and hot chocolate so it makes sense to base yourself in a hotel or apartment that is nice enough to provide a much needed sanctuary when you need an hour’s break before going out again.
We chose to stay in the wonderful Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais which has all the charm of an 18th-century Marais town house with its antiques and chandeliers. Edward and I delighted in returning here to put our feet up after a day’s sightseeing with a pot of tea from room service and a parcel of cakes from the local pâtisserie before heading out again for the evening.
Make getting around part of the fun
Most cities are best experienced on foot and Paris is an absolute joy to walk around. You’ll find unexpected delights every time you turn a corner. But when you need to travel that bit further, make getting there an event in itself. On our first afternoon we took a boat trip down the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame and back, past many of the most iconic sights in Paris. It was a great way to get our bearings on our first day and see some of the sights before deciding which we’d like to explore further.
The other great way to get around is by bus. There’s no need to pay for a sightseeing tour when you can go on a local bus for a fraction of the price. The number 69 bus route is particularly scenic as it takes you past the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides, Saint-Germain-des-Près, Pont Neuf, the Marais and Bastille.
Try to avoid queueing
Long queues can sometimes spoil a good trip, particularly when you’ve got children. Try to avoid queues by booking online for sights like the Eiffel Tower. There are also clever ways of avoiding the very long queues for museums like the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Follow the wonderful tip I was given: Go to the Cour Napoléon, the main courtyard with the Pyramid in front of the Louvre, and head for the shopping centre downstairs. Here you can buy tickets for most of the museums from a small tobacconist and then join the much smaller queue at the museums for people who already have tickets.
Don’t overdo the museums
Like a lot of first-time tourists to Paris, Edward wanted to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I managed to convince him to go to the Musée d’Orsay instead. The Musée du Louvre is rightly one of the world’s most famous museums but it is massive and you need a whole day to do it justice which wasn’t an option for us on a weekend trip. Plus, the Mona Lisa is always surrounded by tourists and it’s so small when you actually get up to it that it’s almost a let down after battling through all the crowds.
The Musée d’Orsay, while still huge, is more manageable and there were enough famous paintings in there to satisfy Edward: Van Gogh’s Self Portrait and Starry Night, Manet’s Olympia and Monet’s Rouen Cathedral to name just a few.
Unless you plan on spending most of the day in a particular museum it’s always a good idea to decide which painters and paintings you really want to see and just do those. That way, you and your child won’t get museum fatigue and you’ll be able to spend time looking at the things you’re most interested in. Edward was keen to see the Impressionists so we did the large gallery on the fifth floor and a couple of other bits and pieces on the other floors. Obviously we had to see the clock too.
The advantage of pacing ourselves and just seeing a few chosen things in the Musée d’Orsay meant that after a lovely lunch in a café in the middle of Jardin Tuileries we felt up to wandering over to the Musée de l’Orangerie to gaze at Monet’s wonderful series of Water Lily paintings in their specially designed gallery.
Bond over books – or whatever the two of you have in common
It’s great when you share an interest with your children. Edward and I both love books so it was always a must for me to take him to my favourite bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, which is tucked away beside the Seine on the Left Bank. We spent ages wandering through the book-lined rooms and up the winding stairs where we found a white cat curled up on one of the beds. Edward loved the idea that book lovers and aspiring writers can sleep in the beds here amongst the bookshelves on the condition that they read a book a day. He nearly moved in there and then but eventually settled himself down with a book on one of the comfy day beds.
We even managed to find a bookshop to have our dinner in one evening – the wonderful La Belle Hortense in the Marais, which doubles up as a wine bar at night.
Make your trip even more special by finding an activity perfectly suited to your child’s interests. Edward’s really into magic so we visited the Musée de la Magie which is a fantastic museum for kids whether they’re aspiring magicians or not. There’s a live magic show and an impressive display of props from famous magicians like Robert Houdin. It’s a brilliantly interactive museum too, with lots of handles to turn, magical mirrors to look through and illusions to figure out.