Just got back from a long weekend in Paris, here are a few of our observations about enjoying the City of Lights with kids.
1. Accommodations: We stayed at the Aubervilliers Etap hotel, a three person room (double bottom/single top bunk). Not a particularly pretty location, but convenient to metro and the town centre. About a 15 min walk to the metro, or there's a bus, but still about a 5 min walk to the stop. There's a park with a playground across the street, and the centre nautique (public swimming pool) is tantalizingly close - the kids could see in the windows and begged to go every time we passed. About 10 mins in a different direction (follow the signs to the "Centre"), is the centre of the neighbourhood, lots of bustle, shops and a strategic McDonalds, if you're desperate. There's a decent brasserie right across the street from the hotel, though, and a bakery on the corner which is cheaper than the 4 Euro/person breakfast at the hotel. And probably the same buns. The area is very multicultural - everywhere you look you'll see people dressed in colourful garb more usually seen in Africa or Asia than Europe. Great fun. Also, lots of cheap clothing shops if you need replacements!
There are tons of etaps all over Paris, usually around the 40 - 45 Euro price range - they book up pretty fast, though.
2. Food: Breakfasts we bought at bakeries en route to the metro every morning. There's a cafeteria (I think probably a chain, though we only found one) called Flunch, which is a good bet for satisfying a range of tastes - they have a kids meal and a daily special, or pick and choose whatever you want. The one we ate at was across the street from the Pompidou Centre, downstairs. The chocolate torte was de-lish...
Dinners - first night we ate at the brasserie across the street - about 55 Euro for 6 of us, including a beer and water/juice/Coke. Most of the restaurants we wanted to eat at didn't open til about 7, but we were too hungry to wait. The second night after wandering for about 2 hours we finally gave up and went to the aforementioned McDonalds - there's a play area upstairs.
3. Attractions: The Musee d'Orsay had a kid's programme/treasure hunt kind of thing focussing on the train-iness of the place - the architecture, the history of the building, paintings of trains, and what not. It was quite good, though only available in French. The museum is not stroller friendly at all, lots of little flights of stairs and you can't get all the way round on the second level so it was kind of fiddly negotiating it. But the polar bear sculpture was a hit there. The clock and great stained glass window were also well received, and the older girls recognized some of the paintings, but it wasn't the biggest hit of the trip.
The Louvre had no specific children's programme, but it's so awesome. We did a treasure hunt to find the works on the plan, and followed their interests - our son was engaged by a ratty little dog on a table at "The Wedding of Cana" (across from the newly located Mona Lisa - kids are allowed to go up to a special viewing area), and we looked for similar ratty little dogs in other paintings - there were several and it was quite fun. We checked out the "Objets d'art" exhibit, where the Napoleon apartments were a HUGE hit. Since we didn't plan on visiting Versailles or any other palaces, we got a taste of glam without a separate trip. There, I randomly named several items for them to find (a pumpkin, fish, wheat, swords, a tiger...) and they discovered them in everything from sculpture to mosaics to ceramics.
Both the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay have "My Little ________" museum guides for kids (about 10 Euro) which highlight particular artworks and ask specific questions or give particular info - they're good, and I'd have bought them as games/souvenirs if we hadn't had to lug them around all the rest of the day. Normally we buy postcards which serves the same purpose without as much detailed info, but didn't this time.
The smaller places were bigger hits, though. The Musee des Arts et Metiers is a fascinating look at scientific development, with lots of hands on exhibits, though the staff on our visit were rather unfriendly and told us off for making too much noise with the big clunky wooden hands-on exhibit...
Also, the Paris City Museum of Modern Art has an incredible painting "La Fee d'Electricite" that is said to be the largest in the world. You could get lost in it for hours. Again, we did a treasure hunt, but just in that one painting. Lots of Picassos and Matisses and all sorts of other stuff too, but don't miss the "Salle Dufy".
The Musee Marine, a maritime museum, has cool models, a film clip of deep water exploration subs and the crazy critters they study, and the nicest bathrooms we found in Paris. Not the ones by the front door, they're basic, but the ones downstairs and at the back are truly lovely, and the only ones I found with a counter at which you could conceivably change a diaper.
Another hit was the Cite des Industries in Parc de la Villette. It's a big science centre, with tons of hands on exhibits that are fun even if you don't speak French. Some of the displays have optional english commentary, but by no means all. The place is huge. We spent about two hours there, and saw barely a quarter of it. The Parc itself sounded nice to me, but we didn't like it so much when we got there. Perhaps we didn't see the nicest part, but I like a good amount of grass in my parks, and this had rather a lot of concrete and steel. There is a fun playground, the Dragon, although bits of it were closed off when we were there. The kids had a ball though. There's also a good sized amusement park, but we didn't linger there. At 3 Euro a piece for a carousel ride, one turn around the merry-go-round costs us more than a meal...
There's also a music museum in the Parc, though we didn't get there in time to check it out.
There's also a little playground round the side of Notre Dame Cathedral, though it's more geared to really little kids (up to 6, I'd say). Our older girls (8 and 10) still played, but the equipment was pretty tiny for them. It's a lovely place for a sit and rest, though. We also took a break in the Jardin des Tuileries, the kids had a ball running through the maze, and we enjoyed a chance to take off our shoes and wiggle our toes in the grass.
We got Museum Passes for my husband and I, kids under 18 are usually free, except at a few places, like the Cite des Industries which gears to kids. So it's not necessary to get them a card. The cards have changed this year, they now have 2, 4 and 6 day passes, instead of the 1,3,5 and 7 day passes we anticipated. Since we had three days in the city, we crammed the museums into two days, and did other stuff on the third day. A huge plus to the cards is that you don't have to queue to go into the museums or to buy tickets, at the Louvre you even go through a different entrance (the group entrance). However, if you have a stroller (une poussette, in France) you have to go into a different, different entrance in the Pyramid. But you still don't have to wait in line and you get to ride a really cool elevator.
4. Getting around: We are hard core public transit fans, even though this is usually a hassle with a stroller. We saw people taking fancy bulky strollers on the metro, but an umbrella stroller is much more manageable. Our first choice was to buy the weekly Orange card, but unfortunately they don't sell them on Thursdays. These passes are good for a calendar week, but you can only buy them from Friday to Wednesday. The next Friday, the following week's pass goes on sale, but you can't use it that weekend. It's rather a pain. So we opted for our second choice, the Paris Visite Card, which is not as good a deal, but the three day pass pays off if you take 15 rides (I think), which is not hard. It covers Metro, bus and RER, so you're all set, and it makes giving your tired feet a break by catching a bus instead of walking a more manageable option. The cards themselves are just the size of a normal subway ticket, so they're a bit easy to lose track of, if you're not paying attention. Kids 5 and up pay half price, and the tickets are available for them, so no fiddling with change.
To get a stroller into the metro, you have to walk confidently up to the out door and have someone open the door for you. Our girls loved the job, but if you are traveling alone, feel free to accost people going through and ask them to open the doors for you - we saw it happen frequently, no one gives it a second thought.
A great movie to watch before/after a visit to Paris is "An American in Paris". The music is great, the dancing is amazing, the kids might recognize the style of the final sketch if they've seen the Dufy painting, and there are some fun scenes with kids in. Our five year old son left during the middle portion (the boring romance bit), but enjoyed the finale. Of course, there are familiar landmarks cropping up throughout, and a happy ending is what Paris is all about, non?