First, the bad news: Since Paris is one of the world's most visited cities, seeing its best-known monuments and museums can require wading through masses of people and waiting in long lines. If you're traveling with children, you will probably be exhausted before you even get inside.
Now the good: The city is filled with lesser-known draws that are authentic, often queue-free and a pleasure to visit en famille. The secret to a successful family visit is to discover these sites at a leisurely pace, and to explore your neighborhood's microcosm of parks, bakeries and cafes. In other words, forget the Paris you think you're supposed to see, and you'll get much more out of the Paris that's actually there.
To do that, it helps to debunk some Parisian lore. First, the weather: "April in Paris" is just a song; the sun often doesn't emerge until mid-June. Then there are the people: Paris is not a den of anti-Semitism or adultery; Parisians are generally monogamous and tolerant. (And also quite civil, so long as you preface every interaction with "Bonjour.") And the biggest myth of all: that Paris is for lovers; it's also for families -- just ask the French, who now have one of Europe's highest birthrates. The city is compact, safe and covered with playgrounds and kid-friendly places. Here are a few of them.
Opt for smaller museums that you can tour in an hour or so, which is about as much as most little kids (and some grown-ups, myself included) can absorb. The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, the Museum of Hunting and Nature (60, rue des Archives, Third Arrondissement), mixes art and natural history, to great effect. There are displays of antique dog collars, a gorilla posed in front of still-life paintings, and a pair of lifelike stuffed lions who appear to have wandered into a drawing room. One way to lure children to the museum: mention the wooden drawers containing the dung of various animals.
The Jardin des Plantes (Place Valhubert, Fifth Arrondissement) houses several separate, manageably sized attractions. Check out the live animals at La Ménagerie, an 18th-century zoo featuring a monkey house, reptile rooms and a Chinese panther. (It's on the far right as you enter from Place Valhubert.) Then visit the striking collection of animal skeletons at the Grand Gallery of Evolution on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History. You can break up these longer explorations with dashes through the 17th-century gardens, rides on the merry-go-round and lunch.
The Pompidou Center (19, rue Beaubourg, Fourth Arrondissement) has a hands-on children's area called La Galerie des Enfants, with rotating exhibits designed by artists (one devoted to Frida Kahlo opens in mid-October). It's free for kids; adults need a museum ticket. Add to that a brief tour of the main collections on Levels 4 and 5, a stunning view across Paris from Level 6, a jaunt through the terrific ground-floor gift shop, and lunch next door at one of the cafes opposite the fantastical Stravinsky Fountain, and you have yourself a très bonne journée.
To show children that there was life before the Internet, take them to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the museum of arts and trades (60, rue Réaumur, Third Arrondissement, arts-et-metiers.net). Its collections of antique movie cameras, televisions, cars, printing presses, construction materials and scientific instruments tell the story of the industrial revolution and the birth of mass communication.
Among the major monuments, Notre Dame Cathedral (notredamedeparis.fr), with its well-marked entrance and U-shaped tour, is both a speedy and awe-inspiring place for children. Make sure to take a breather at the shady little park in back. If it's Sunday, follow the tweeting to the nearby Marché aux Fleurs et aux Oiseaux, the bird market on the Place Louis Lépine (open Sundays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.). Obviously, when you arrive, you should tweet that you're there.
Let your child's love affair with Paris start with an authentic French breakfast. Any cafe will serve tartines, sliced baguettes with butter and jam. Kids can dip the bread in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate; a bit of chocolate in the morning is supposed to fortify children for the day) or spoon on some gooey oeuf à la coque, a soft-boiled egg served in the shell. (The egg holder, called a coquetier, makes a great souvenir.) Croissants and pain au chocolat are of course on offer too, though these tend to be occasional treats for French children.
Children are welcome in non-fancy restaurants, but they're expected to more or less behave. (Try the French habit of not letting them snack except in the afternoon; hungry children are more motivated to sit and eat.)
There are now some "kid-friendly" Parisian restaurants, a concept so new the French use the English expression. But in aesthetics-obsessed Paris, the restaurants are compatible with adult tastes, too. Les 400 Coups (12 bis, rue de la Villette, 19th Arrondissement, les400coups.eu/The-restaurant.html; closed through Aug. 21) has a play area for kids, and a weekend brunch made from fresh ingredients. It's a good springboard to an outing in the nearby Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Le Comptoir Général (80, quai de Jemmapes, 10th Arrondissement, lecomptoirgeneral.com) is an Africa-themed bazaar and canteen for the bourgeois-bohemian families known as bobo's, who live near the Canal St.-Martin. It's open daily from 11 a.m. On weekends there are mini flea markets, curiosity cabinets and, most important, brunch.
If you've had your fill of restaurant meals, Pink Flamingo Pizza (several locations, pinkflamingopizza.com) will deliver its exotic pizzas to your picnic blanket along the Canal St.-Martin or the Place des Vosges. You stop in, order, get the balloons, then bicycle delivery comes to find you. The Café Suédois inside the Swedish Institute (11, rue Payenne, Third Arrondissement) has freshly made sandwiches and desserts. You can eat in its spacious courtyard or walk to the grass near the playground at the nearby Parc Royale (Rue du Parc Royale, Third Arrondissement; until Sept. 1, the courtyard is closed and the Café Suédois is serving ice cream in the garden, whose entrance is on Rue Elzevir). For an afternoon snack, pick up handmade pastries from Du Pain et des Idées (34, rue Yves Toudic, 10th Arrondissement, dupainetdesidees.com). Its chausson à la pomme fraîche is actually nutritious: it contains half an apple.
If you want jet-lagged little diners to eat dinner before 7 p.m., cafes are usually the only option. Near the Bastille, Café de l'Industrie (16, rue St.-Sabin, 11th Arrondissement) is a decent choice; its two locations are across the street from each other. And while you will no doubt want to eat lots of French food, it's just as authentically Parisian to go ethnic. The Marché des Enfants Rouges (39, rue de Bretagne, Third Arrondissement), which claims to be Paris's oldest market, has food stalls serving delicious Japanese, Lebanese and North African fare. The market is mobbed on weekends, but you'll often have the run of the place around 6 p.m. on weekdays (it's closed Mondays). On Sundays, when the city gets sleepy, head to the rowdy Rue des Rosiers in the Marais for falafel.
One general tip: To economize at restaurants, order "une carafe d'eau" -- a carafe of tap water, which is fine to drink, and free. And note that the tip is always included. If your server has been especially helpful or your children have been especially messy, add another 5 percent.
If your gang just needs to cool off, try the Piscine Joséphine Baker, a pool that sits on a barge in the Seine (Quai François Mauriac, near Metro stop Quai de la Gare, 13th Arrondissement). There's a sun deck, a shallow children's pool (called a pataugeoire), a lap pool for adults, a retractable roof for sunny days, and a generally festive atmosphere. Changing areas and lockers are available. Tickets are 5 euros per person, or about $6.50 at $1.30 to the euro, for the first two hours. Check opening hours carefully: paris.fr/pratique/piscines/piscine-josephine-baker/p6085.
The Tuileries Garden (Place de la Concorde, First Arrondissement) is one of the most kid-friendly spots in Paris, and also one of the most beautiful. While you delight in its symmetry and designer lounge chairs, your children will enjoy the in-ground trampolines, merry-go-round and enormous sculptural playground. Before leaving, walk to the park's western edge to see the Luxor Obelisk, a 75-foot column (my kids call it the "giant crayon") that once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt and now stands with an air of mysterious calm at the center of a swirling traffic circle.
Your children can mingle with the offspring of the French cognoscenti at the Luxembourg Gardens (Sixth Arrondissement, museeduluxembourg.fr/en/le-musee/jardin), a park that's appealing to all ages. There's an excellent enclosed pay-to-play area (with bathrooms), pony rides and toy sailboats in the central basin. The park's storied puppet theater puts on shows, in French, daily at 4 p.m., and at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekends.
Where to Set Up Base
Paris is compact and has excellent public transportation, so it's best to stay in the center where you can easily walk, take the bus or go by Métro to most places (if you have a stroller, buses are best).
Renting an apartment is more of a hassle but generally cheaper and cozier than a hotel. Myboutiquehotel.com lets you choose hotels by neighborhood; I'm partial to the Marais, Opéra and St.-Germain-des-Prés: myboutiquehotel.com/en/boutique-hotels-paris.
How to Feed Picky Eaters
Cafes serve basic sandwiches, plain omelets, chicken dishes or croque-monsieurs, essentially grilled cheese with ham. Increasingly, children's menus are available in some cafes and restaurants, usually with hamburgers (sometimes called steak haché), fries and dessert. In a pinch, McDonald's is never far away.
Where to Go for a Pit Stop
There are small parks and squares throughout the city, many of which have shaded playgrounds ringed by benches. Most major monuments are ringed by green spaces, too. When morale really starts to ebb, remember these two words: ice cream (in French it's just one word, glace).
Where to Find a Potty
The nearly 400 futuristic-looking silver kiosks plunked on Parisian sidewalks are actually free, self-cleaning public toilets, or Sanisettes (children shouldn't go into these alone). Many parks have bathrooms, too; best to carry a pack of tissues for such occasions. Cafes have restrooms for customers, though saying "Bonjour" while clutching a desperate child will often suffice (otherwise buy an espresso at the bar for about $1.50). Department stores have restrooms, though a flashy new one on the mezzanine floor of Printemps now charges for the privilege, and tries to upsell you with designer toilet paper.
Which Must-Sees to Miss
You could spend half a day getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or you could just admire it from afar. Ditto with the Louvre, especially with small children. Instead, walk past the museum's glass pyramids and into the Tuileries, where you can lounge on the grass and teach them French vocabulary words like flâneur (a wanderer and "passionate observer" of Paris).
Pamela Druckerman is the author of "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting."travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.