How to do Paris with the kids

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Strolling down elegant boulevards, dining in atmospheric brasseries and admiring world-class art in Paris can be heaven when you’re keeping the company of adults. Add children to the mix and those joys quickly become a “why do we have to walk?” whinge, an “I’m not eating that!” whine and a “Why are we looking at boring pictures?” moan.

How, then, do you “do” Paris, its art, architecture and food without breaking the bank and in a way that makes every member of the family happy? The answer lies in the lesser known attractions.

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When it comes to art, the Musee d’Orsay, the Orangerie and the Louvre are all free to under-18s, and their timed-entry tickets will help you beat the queues.

But my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son were unlikely to appreciate the Mona Lisa from behind a crowd of iPhone-wielding tourists, or gaze enchantedly at Monet’s water lilies for more than three seconds.

Thankfully, a different kind of arty experience awaited us in the 11th arrondissement, at the Atelier des Lumières.

This vast warehouse, a former iron foundry, first opened in April 2018, and showcases art with an impressive son-et-lumière (sound and light) show across its 10-metre walls.

When we visited this dark and magical space, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers towered above us, projected in full technicolour on to the walls. Over the next 45 minutes, we sat on the floor, mesmerised by giant versions of Van Gogh’s legendary works while elements of the paintings moved in time with the jazz music soundtrack. It was followed by another film celebrating Van Gogh’s admiration of Japanese art, which had us gazing, wide-eyed, at an animated version of Hokusai’s Great Wave as it rolled to the soundtrack of Claude Debussy’s La Mer; giant, beady-eyed fish jumping in the waves. What made it even more special was the fact that the children could touch the artwork – the lights danced on their hands as they reached out to the walls to touch them.

In summer, the Jardin des Plantes is a haven for children: fountains, parquet gardens and paths to run around, and a small zoo with orangutans, snakes, birds and insects. The garden is a different story in the winter drizzle though.

Thankfully, there’s as much to explore inside the Galeries d’Evolution, where exhibits tell the story of earth’s animal kingdom. The ground floor is all about life in the oceans and there we learn how the narwhal (with the help of an impressive life-size model) inspired legends of unicorns; we giggle at films of penguins’ hilarious antics; and learn how coral is formed. Up a level, and we get close to the parade of taxidermied animals from the African plains in the centre of the floor. Elsewhere, we see how different the animals living in South America are.

The “galerie” itself is impressive, too: dating from 1889, it still has its original glass roof, which spans 1,000 square metres and casts gentle light into the enormous space. Additional effects add to the drama and, as we stand at the top of the three floors of balconies, the sound of a simulated storm fills the hall with the boom of thunder and patter of rain.

A 20-minute walk away (we risked the whinging) is La Felicitá. It’s tagged as the biggest restaurant in Europe, but the immense glass-roofed warehouse (it covers 4,500 square metres) is more a food hall than restaurant. With a variety of freshly prepared foods from different counters, it offers families the holy grail of serving something for everyone. So while the kids each munched on a burger, my husband and I tucked into crunchy poke bowls served in the train carriage parked in the centre of the hall. I resisted a drink from the oh-so-Instagrammable bar – where five decks of bottle shelves tower above the mixologists below – but I vowed to return sans enfants for that.

Over the weekend, the kids murmured the “D” word a few times, testament to the fact that for the under-10s, Paris is synonymous with Disney. In a bid to distract from it, we went over to Bois de Boulogne, the huge wood and parkland on the western edge of the city where the Jardin d’Acclimatation offers fairground rides with a good old-fashioned vibe. The attraction dates from 1860, when it was a zoo for animals to acclimatise to the chilly Parisian weather after being kidnapped from the colonies. These days, the animal magic comes in the form of donkey rides and the exotic bird aviary – but it’s the fairground rides that proved most popular.

The park costs €5 (€2.50 for kids) to get into, with a book of ride vouchers at an additional cost.

Given it was a chilly winter day, queues were either short or non-existent. We whirled around on the flying chairs, zipped up and down on the rollercoasters, and the kids bumped each other on the dodgems. Elsewhere, we tried our luck at the shooting galleries and duck-fishing, and won vouchers for surprisingly decent prizes. The park was immaculate, the rides smart – beautifully designed with a hint of steampunk having been refurbished in summer 2018 – and the staff were friendly. Not a princess was to be seen but, after that afternoon, Disney wasn’t mentioned again, while the whinges and moans were pleasantly absent too.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Eurostar has tickets to Paris from London from £29 each way.

Staying there

Mama Shelter East, in the 10th arrondissement, has 170 rooms with B&B doubles from €95. A B&B family room costs from €219. Mama Shelter West opened in December 2019 in the 15th arrondissement. It has its own bar-restaurant and is close to two Metro stations.

Hotel Gavarni in the 16th arrondissement is another great family option and is a short walk to Trocadero and Passy Metro stations. The Eiffel Suite has a great view of the rooftops and the Eiffel Tower. Room-only doubles from €160 with Sawdays, family rooms from €400.

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