In case there’s anyone who might be interested in our experience travelling to France, but who doesn’t want to slog through a week’s worth of blog posts to get the relevant details, I decided to summarize what we learned.
First, know this: Paris is NOT stroller friendly. After living in Vienna for over a year, we were thinking, “Oh, Europe is SO easy to navigate with kids!” Not so. That’s Vienna. (Actually, that’s everywhere we’ve been in Austria so far. There is not a single place I haven’t been able to take the kids IN the stroller — including to the top of a mountain in the Alps.)
Paris is NOT like that. Most places are not stroller friendly. The metro system is a nightmare with a stroller. If your kids are old enough to not require one, don’t bring one. If they’re little, and you need to, prepare yourself for carrying the stroller up and down a lot of stairs. (The Eiffel Tower, however, was remarkably stroller friendly, given what the rest of Paris is like.) It is very easy, though, to take a stroller on and off the city buses (but not a double — I don’t think it would fit) and I don’t know that I’d be brave enough to try during rush hour.
Other than dealing with the stroller, Paris was lovely for the kids. There’s a lot to do outdoors, and even at age 3, Benjamin found some of the sites we visited fascinating. There are beautiful parks and fountains, and the boys loved watching the street performers. They didn’t mind the Arc de Triomphe (although they thought it was too windy) but they LOVED our hours-long stroll down the Champs Elysees (especially our stop at the Toyota dealership, of all places). The wait at the Eiffel Tower was a little rough, but the boys enjoyed the ride up to the top and the view (although they’d seen what they needed to see after about 2 minutes — a stop for ice cream on the 1st floor increased their patience with our experience at the Tower). Benjamin, unexpectedly, loved Notre Dame (both the inside and the outside, although we didn’t wait through yet-another-line to go to the top of the tower — maybe when they’re older and won’t have subsequent nightmares about gargoyles). Versailles was a hit — we only did the exterior — because there was room to run, things to look at, and bikes to ride. (We contemplated renting a golf cart to explore the grounds, but B preferred a bike, so that’s what we did.)
We stayed in an apartment right in the city (about 2 blocks from Notre Dame). It was great. The apartment had everything we needed, including a portacrib (aka “baby cot”) for Liam, a refrigerator, a stove, an oven, a microwave, a dishwasher and a washer/dryer combination. If I went back, I would stay in the exact same place, or somewhere just like it. A hotel is more likely to offer a nice common area and many amenities that an apartment won’t, but, with kids, we probably wouldn’t have used those much, anyway. Having space for them to run around, as well as a variety of appliances and such made things really pleasant. Also, I was glad we didn’t skimp on location. Since dealing with the metro or the regional trains is incredibly difficult, I was glad we didn’t HAVE to get on the train to do everything.
Paris is kind of crimey, which I found stressful. (After living in Vienna, I’d probably feel that way about almost anywhere, though.) There really are pickpockets and potential scammers almost everywhere you go, especially at, and on the way to, the big tourist destinations. Trying to keep both eyes on the kids while also keeping an eye on our stuff was exhausting. (This is actually the one time I was grateful we had a stroller — we put all our stuff into our backpack, in a deep, interior pocket, and attached the backpack to the stroller with a carabiner. Not foolproof, but relatively hands-free.) Being approached by people trying to get you to “sign a petition” (who are also probably trying to steal from you) takes on an extra edge when you’re holding hands with your child. No one particularly bothered us (I did get approached for petitions twice, once while holding Liam, and once while walking with Benjamin, but they went away when I said “no”) but it is a frustrating part of travelling to Paris. None of this was true in Normandy. Either it’s much safer there, or at least less obvious. We were able to relax a bit more there.
Our two days in Normandy were heaven for the boys. The cottage we stayed in had a big yard for them to play in (not something they’re used to, as city dwellers) with flowers, grass, bees, dirt — everything. The neighbors on one side had cows, and there were sheep on the other side. The beach wasn’t as fun for them as I thought it would be, but the playground AT the beach was a hit, and we ate lots of ice cream all over Normandy. Benjamin cried when it was time to leave, and has already asked several times when we can go back.
In terms of dining, there are lots of good “street food” options (like take-away creperies, “croque monsieur” sandwiches to go, tons of good ice cream, bakeries with sandwiches and quiches and tarts that are good for little ones). For sit-down restaurants, there are a few challenges. First, it was rare that an establishment had a high chair for us to use. Second, the French eat dinner late. Many restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 7 or 7:30, which can be tough for kids. On the other hand, we found our boys LOVED the food we had in French restaurants, and the proprietors seemed very happy to have our kids as guests. We did simple carry-out dinners most nights and only did “sit down” restaurant dinners twice, so that we didn’t burn the kids out on sitting through late meals on our laps. In Normandy, where take-away dinners weren’t as common, a crepe restaurant actually aluminum-foiled some plates of dinner for us to take home, as long as we promised to bring the plates back the next morning (we did).
We loved Paris — and Normandy – with our boys. If Liam (currently 19 months) were even 6 months older, though, I think we would have left the stroller behind. Otherwise, it was an excellent trip.