Paris for lovers, tick. Paris for gastronomes, tick. Paris for the fashion-conscious, obviously. But children? Funnily enough, I find it one of the most child-friendly cities we go to. The proprietors of grand boutiques and restaurants who cold-shoulder grown-ups are all smiles when it comes to children. Propping up a bar with my two on the Rue St Honoré on a damp Sunday evening, the young man sitting next to us with his girlfriend chatted with my five-year-old daughter, treated her and the brother to an orange juice, presented her with €10 to buy a croissant and was rather hurt when I gave it back. Not many people dish out cash to strangers’ children and I’m not saying it’ll happen to you, but Parisians do treat children well — if they’re well-behaved in turn. After one weekend, mine were begging to go back.
The downside is that you’ll probably be made to go up the Eiffel Tower. My advice is just to say no. The view is all very well, but the black-hole horror of the lifts up, the queues, the interminable descent when you avoid the lifts by going down the stairs and the mile-long walk to the nearest station are so not worth it. If you do give in, book your tickets online in advance.
But there are genuinely wonderful things to do with them which you wouldn’t do for yourself. The little museum of magic in the Rue St Paul, for instance, is worth a visit even if you’re unaccompanied by a child. It’s an extraordinary collection of old magic and mystery artefacts in the way of distorting mirrors, machines that roar and flash lights when you stick your hand in their mouths, and optical illusions. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that contemporary children would find this stuff old hat? Mine loved it.
Most Parisian children are hauled to the Jardin du Luxembourg on a regular basis, and their minders know what they’re doing. It’s fabulous. Not just for children, obviously, but for them there are special treats: horses, merry-go-round, theatre. You have to pay for the playground but it’s worth it. And the beauty of being with children is that you’ve got an excuse to visit the puppet theatre. It’s old-fashioned, slapstick-funny, clever and delightful. The chorus of singing frogs in the performance we went to has stayed with me since.
I can’t think of a child who wouldn’t fall for the Ménagerie du Jardins des Plantes, or Botanical Gardens, which is utterly unlike London Zoo, being charming, compact and eccentric. It was set up for exotic animals orphaned by the French Revolution and some of the buildings date from the early 19th century. The Snake House is sublime. It’s got vultures, sloths, crocodiles, marmosets in a curiously romantic setting.
But when it comes to animals the runaway success of my children’s trip was seeing them stuffed. Deyrolle, on the Rue du Bac, is the most wonderful shop in Paris, masquerading as a harmless garden retailer on the ground floor but one floor up turning into the Natural History Museum. You know those Victorian cases with stuffed mammals, from hummingbirds to whales? Well, this shop is like that, only more random, and the exhibits are for sale.
The Palais Royale is another unexpected hit with children: the black and white striped pillars by Buren are impossible to pass by without jumping on them and running round them. And while you’re there make for the model soldier shop at the north end of the arcades, which has fabulous battle scenes, and the little music box shop next to it. On the subject of must-see shops, don’t miss Pain d’Epices, near the Opera, which has everything a chic doll’s house could possibly need, including the most covetable inmates.
There are two ways to go when it comes to accommodation specifically for children. One is a smart hotel that has a children’s package. The Hyatt Regency Paris-Madeleine has a very good formula including a present for the children on arrival and a three-hour babysitting service for parents. The other is a self-catering apartment, where the children do their own thing and you can make meals at your own leisure. We stayed in a little apartment in Les Halles, with a tiny kitchen and a communal restaurant in which the real hit was the waffle-making machine at breakfast. Both options work well.
Actually when I say Paris is a child-friendly city, that applies to children who can walk. Don’t even try negotiating the Paris Metro with a buggy.
Hyatt Regency Paris-Madeleine24 Boulevard Malesherbes, 8th. Tel: 0033 1 5527 1234. Kids’ package from €460 a night (min. two nights)
Citadines Prestige Les Halles ParisTel: 0800 376 3898. One-bed apartment for four, €300 (lower rates online)
Musée de la Magie11 Rue St Paul, 4th. 2-7pm, Weds, Sat, Sun
Deyrolle, taxidermists46, Rue du Bac, 7th. Tel: 0033 1 4222 3007 Pain d’Epices 29–33 Passage Jouffroy, 9th. Tel: 0033 1 4770 0868