David Hochman finds visiting the City of Lights in autumn means saying adieu to summer crowds and discovering a kid’s paradise that will charm adults as well.
Somewhere between Babar and Madeline, “Ratatouille” and Hugo Cabret, my eight-year-old felt he knew Paris before we even got there. To Sebastian, the city was a place of roving accordionists, incandescent railway stations and pachyderms in impeccably tailored green suits. We adults have our fantasies, too. Each year, 27 million people visit Paris and most mistakenly clog the city in summer, when the swelter off the Seine sends every true Parisian to the countryside. Far better for visiting families is to savor the autumn shoulder season, from October to December, when temps (and airfares) are lower, attraction lines are shorter and even elephants won’t sniff at your high school French.
Here’s everything fall travelers with kids need to know – in 715 easy steps.
Step 1: Respect the Beret
Seriously. Kids don’t care about the fall fashion shows. They’re not interested in four-hour meals at Le Jules Verne. And Hermès shmermès. What kids want is the Paris of their imaginations. Give over to the cheese and board a Bateaux Mouche river cruise (there’s no finer first outing for the jetlagged, actually), ride the Ferris Wheel at the foot of the Champs-Elysees, hug a gargoyle atop Notre Dame, and buy schlocky art – and, yes, kid-sized berets – in très touristy Monmartre. Louis Vuitton will still be waiting at duty free.
Step 2: Put it in Park
Nothing typifies Paris like its elegant, immaculate parks, and there’s nowhere to make a kid happier or more engaged than Jardin du Luxembourg. We strolled in for a quick ice cream break and ended up staying all day. And then went back the next day. “Luco” has it all: a marionette theater, rattling old go-carts, carousel and pony rides, a pond with miniature sailboats to rent, beekeeping stations, croque monsieur and crêpe stands, and a playground so quaint and wonderful, you’d swear it was run by animatronic Pixar rodents.
Step 3: It’s All About the Chocolate
Paris’s high-end chocolate scene is booming right now. Make your kids feel like you’re doing them a favor on a running of the bonbons. Chocolatier Patrick Roger’s tinted glass windows keep his massive chocolate sculptures from melting in the sun. Tokyo-born chef Sadaharu Aoki makes truffles that look like Crayolas. Jacques Genin turns out the city’s finest caramels (they should be, at $65/pound). For the ultimate chocolate rush, savor the sweetness at A l’Etoile d’Or, a tiny shop around the corner from the Moulin Rouge that’s run by adorable, pigtailed Denise Acabo, a Parisian schoolgirl of a certain age. Hers is the only place in Paris to find what’s arguably the world’s best candy bar: Bernachon’s dark-chocolate tablette oozing with buttery salted caramel.
Step 4: Date Night With Mona
Yes, your kids must see the Mona Lisa but it’s easy to avoid the throngs if you know how. First, go at night. The Louvre is open Wednesday and Friday evenings until 9:45 and admission prices are reduced. Skip the lines at the Pyramid entrance by entering instead at the Porte des Lions just east of the Pont Royal or directly from the Metro station Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre. Keep the kids focused by following signs to Mona Lisa (or maybe take in Venus de Milo as an amuse bouche), have them squirm their way to the front of the viewing line and let them flash their best mysterious smiles.
Step 5: Sleep well
Paris has more than 75,000 hotel rooms, though it’s hard to imagine any more astonishing than the 81 at Shangri-La Hotel Paris. Your kids won’t care that this is Europe’s first outpost of the luxe Asian chain or even that Napoleon’s grandnephew used to sleep here. What hooked Sebastian was the polo shirt waiting upon arrival with his name monogrammed in elegant script. The kids’ robes don’t just have terrycloth hoods; they have tassels on top to shake after showering. The floors are heated. There are TVs hidden in the bathroom mirrors. And, oh Sweet Gustav Eiffel! The views! Short of bungeeing off the Tower itself, there’s no thrill like opening that curtain the first time to behold the so-close-you-can-kiss-it landmark across the way.
The Final 710 Steps…
Speaking of the iconic landmark, it’s nice to know you can now avoid epic long lines by booking Eiffel Tower elevator reservations online (just be sure to do it weeks or months in advance). Still, Sebastian’s lasting memory of Paris (and ours, too, frankly) might turn out to be our walk up the tower, counting all 710 steps along the way. It’s actually much easier than it sounds. There’s almost never a line to walk and it’s a great way to feel part of the structure Parisians once derided as “the metal asparagus.” And up there at the top, peering through one of those Euro-fed observation scopes, Sebastian insists he saw a certain well-known, well-dressed elephant.