Boat tour of the Seine: An excellent way to see the city (if you have a horror of all things touristy, get over it! This is worth it). We hopped aboard the Bateaux Parisians since they were conveniently located near the Quai de la Bourdonnais near the Eiffel Tower (7th arrondissement, where we stayed). Hand-held audio guides were useful for historical background and, on cue from the guide, a group of French schoolchildren broke into a rendition of Les Champs-Élysées. It was charming and kind of magical.
You can also take the larger Bateaux Mouches from near the Pont de l'Alma (8th), or the smaller, quainter Vedettes du Pont-Neuf from the Ile de la Cité (1st). There are others still. Though we bought tickets and walked on just before departure, it's probably best to book ahead during busier times of year.
Le Musée de la Poupée (doll museum) made a fun and strangely fascinating destination on the day we visited the Centre Pompidou, which is across the street (4th) – and has contemporary art installations and sweeping views of the city. The girls were also riveted by the street performers in the area, such as the man spinning giant bubbles from a piece of rope and a bucket of suds, and another man creating uncanny bird calls that reached us all the way atop the museum. But the real highlight for my daughters was making friends with a couple of panhandlers and their adorable puppies, one of which was wearing a miniature, leatherette biker vest.
Deyrolle: We never made it to the Musée D'Orsay because we got so entranced by this "cabinet of curiosities" in the 6th.
Luxembourg Gardens These gorgeous, sculpted gardens in the 5th are a delight for all ages. There's a merry-go-round, a lake for sailing model boats, and the famous Théâtre des Marionnettes de Paris (puppet theater). The surrounding neighborhood is also fertile shopping grounds, so my Mom and I peeled off while the men "babysat" — which was more than O.K. with them, since it involved sitting in the sun, enjoying a beer from a nearby kiosk while the girls played.
Champ du Mars was our neighborhood playground. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, this expanse of lawns, gardens and children's activities was in full splendor in April. Kids can ride a mini carousel and play the ring game, kick a ball around, or race pedal cars around a track. On the other side of the tower, next to the river, is a larger carousel (this area gets very crowded).
Notre-Dame cathedral had lines out the door and we didn't really fancy waiting in the rain, so we checked out the gargoyles and carvings on the exterior, and then strolled over to the Pont St.-Louis to the Ile St.-Louis. Berthillon, the famous ice cream shop at 31 rue St. Louis en l'ile (4th), was closed, but luckily dozens of smaller shops on the island serve up a smaller selection of the delectable frozen treat, in flavors such as melon and green apple sorbet, and salted caramel ice cream. Afterwards, we walked across the Pont de l'Archevêché, where the girls were fascinated by all the padlocks lovers had clamped to the bridge to declare their undying devotion to one another (how many are still together? I had to wonder).
Tasting new things: Before leaving, we gave our kids the "you-will-try-new-things-and-not-complain" speech. Apparently it worked, because my six-year-old, who would happily subsist on Annie's mac-n-cheese, ate an escargot, a raw oyster, and a cornichon (among other exotic fare). The seven-year-old, who normally loathes eggs, discovered she adores soufflés. We also tried to teach them the fine art of lingering at the table, as meals in Paris naturally seem to stretch out for half the day.
To Market, to Market: Taking kids through a market street such as the Rue Cler or Rue Montorgueil; an open-air farmers' market; or even the local supermarché G20 is a great way for them to get a sense of the food culture. Our daughters were fascinated by all the strange, colorful labels at the grocery store and the ripe smells wafting from local cheese shops like Marie-Anne Cantin (where they kindly shrink-wrapped a nice Epoisses and Camembert for us, for the flight back). We were delighted to discover that our apartment came with a granny cart, making light work of a shopping trip to the Saxe-Breteuil Saturday market (where my 6-year-old was traumatized by the sight of "half a piggy")…we never made it to my favorite of all markets, the Sunday Marché Biologique (organic farmers' market) on the Rue de Raspail. (Click here for a good list of roving markets.)
Night Walks are perhaps our favorite part of Paris, with or without kids. The city of lights really does live up to its hackneyed nickname after dark, when the sights and the river are at their luminous best. Rarely did the girls complain about these walks, and because they never quite adjusted to the time change we were up quite late roaming the city streets. We made sure to catch sight of the Eiffel tower, which twinkles every hour on the hour, from 9-1, and also took in the glowing pyramids of the Louvre (below).
Breizh Café: Organic crepes, cidre, and oysters in the Marais (3rd). Reserve for a Sunday lunch, then walk around the neighborhood; be sure and stroll through the Place des Vosges.
La Cigale Récamier Impeccable soufflés both savory and sweet (flavors change with the seasons), plus salads and some non-soufflé fare, in the 7th (St. Germain area). We often go here without kids, and although the girls loved the experience, it's a pretty hushed, grown-up scene and we were glad for the couple of pens and paper scraps we had brought along to keep them occupied.
Semilla The brand-new joint venture of Drew Harré and Juan Sanchez (Drew also owns Fish la Boissonerie across the street, as well as the original Cosi, next door; both are great bets). Flavors are light and clear, and Ben is still dreaming of the blanquette de veau he ordered.
Le Café du Commerce (51 Rue du Commerce, 15th). The food was nothing exceptional, but the space is fun and lively and feels perfectly preserved from 1921, when the restaurant first opened. We sat at the top of the 3-story space and looked down on all the diners below, and the level of energy and noise seemed just right. The menu offers traditional bistro fare and a small kids' menu.
The night we were on our own, Ben and I enjoyed dinner at Passage 53, set in the Passage des Panoramas (right), near the Bourse (2nd). This tiny place has only two seatings per night and a set 10-course menu – meaning you don't know what you're getting until it's in front of you. Minimal and seasonally-driven, the food was delicious, one of our favorite courses being St. Pierre (aka John Dory fish) with morels, asparagus, farro, and a colorful scattering of wild herbs and flowers.
If you are in this neighborhood, be sure and check out Juveniles restaurant and wine bar, where I used to uncork lots and lots of bottles – always a good time, great wine list and tasty food. Around the corner is the fantastic Willi's Wine Bar, and the gardens of the Palais Royal.
There was so much we didn't get to do. The Jardin d'Acclimation, Jardin des Plantes, and a day at Versailles, to name a few. We didn't make it up to Montmartre. A week sounds like an impossible wealth when you're on the plane with a trip stretched out in front of you, but soon enough you're back on the plane with a heavy heart and even heavier suitcases.
À la prochaine, Paris!