tips for visiting Paris

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to France with my parents and my two daughters. This was one of my mom’s dreams — she’s been talking about it since my oldest daughter was born — and I’m so glad we were able to do it! We had an absolutely lovely vacation, and I’ll remember it always.

One of my favorite parts was watching my kids interact with and experience life in a different country. They loved trying to speak French and eating all the delicious food!

As with all trips, there were some things that went really well and some that could have gone better if I’d been more prepared. Here are some ideas for ways to make your next vacation to Paris as enjoyable as possible.

buy tickets in advance

Nowadays, most sites in Paris require tickets (some are free or very cheap, but they’re still required). Because I didn’t reserve tickets early enough, we couldn’t get into the Louvre or the Catacombs — both places were booked for weeks in advance.

By a stroke of luck, we ended up snagging tickets for the Eiffel Tower, and the kids absolutely loved the view from the top as well as our crazy decision to exit using the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. We walked down endless flights of stairs! But it was pretty cool to get an inside view of the tower.

For tickets to the Eiffel Tower, visit the government-owned website. If they’re sold out on the dates of your visit, try again at least once every day before you leave for your trip. I found that the ticket office generally opens a new round of ticket sales about a week before each tour date. If all else fails, you can pay a private company for a tour, but those tickets are much more expensive.

rent bikes

It might sound crazy for such a big city, but Paris is extremely bike friendly! Many of the streets have bike lanes that are separated from car lanes by curbs or concrete posts. I felt very comfortable riding in those lanes, even with the kids.

But the easiest place to ride is next to the Seine on the right bank. Follow the lovely, paved path for pedestrians and cyclists that hugs the river. In nice weather, outdoor cafes spring up along the path, and Parisians enjoy picnics next to the water. We rented Velib bikes near Hotel de Ville, crossed the Quad de l’Hotel de Ville at a stoplight, and found a pedestrian ramp down to the river path.

I found that Velib, a French company, offers the most reasonably-priced program. I’d recommend downloading the Velib app and creating an account.

eat delicious food

Everything we ate was fantastic! And we had no trouble drinking the tap water — we drank it all around France with no problems.

My favorite restaurant was Les Bougresses at 6 rue de Jarente in the Marais. It’s a cozy spot where all the food is amazing — pasta for the kids, fish and chicken for the adults . . . and the desserts were magnificent.

The salted caramel crepe at La Creperie mon ami in Montmartre (7 Rue Joseph de Maistre) was fantastic!! This place is a hole-in-the-wall that’s famous with locals and food tour guides for serving the most delicious crepes in the city. (While you’re in Montmarte, be sure to ride the funicular to Sacre-Coeur. And check out the I love you wall in a public park — it says “I love you” in hundreds of languages.)

One of my favorite things was walking down Rue Cler, a street near the Eiffel Tower that’s full of markets and small shops. There’s a cheese shop, wine shop, flower shop, produce stand . . . you can easily imagine a chic Parisian lady going from shop to shop to gather everything for her evening meal while chatting with neighbors and shopkeepers. It feels like a throwback to the Paris of old, plus it’s a great chance to buy small bites of cheese, desserts, fruits, and hot dishes and enjoy a picnic.

At my parents’ suggestion, we ate lunch at La Bon Marche, a department store that has the fanciest food court I’ve ever seen! If you sit at one of the counters (like the one pictured below), you can order the specialty of that food stall. We sat at the truffle counter and enjoyed white wine and pasta with butter, parmesan, and truffles — so delicious!! (Just FYI, I learned that if you buy a pre-made food item from one of their delis, you can’t sit at one of the counters inside to enjoy your meal. If you want to sit at a counter, you need to order from someone in a food stall.) Le Bon Marche is also a great place to buy food gifts for friends and family!

Before we flew home, the kids snapped a picture of me holding strawberries from a small grocery store and a baguette we bought at a service station on our drive to the airport. The strawberries were fresh and sweet, and the baguette was crunchy on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside — absolutely perfect. So different from buying food at a service station in the U.S.!

explore outside Paris

We did two quick trips to small towns outside Paris, and I highly recommend them both! First we went to Senlis, a beautiful walled city not too far from the Paris airport. (We took a bus, and the trip from the airport was about 30 minutes.) Senlis is small, walkable, and ancient. You get the feeling that everyone there knows everyone else, and there aren’t many tourists. There are some beautiful shops and a peaceful path along the river that’s perfect for an afternoon stroll. I felt comfortable letting the girls run around and explore, and they loved the freedom!

We stayed in a gorgeous B&B in the center of town. The owner was very friendly and accommodating. She runs a chic restaurant (pictured below) on the bottom floor of the building, and the food there was fantastic! Senlis turned out to be the perfect place to unwind after our flight and reset our bodies to the new time zone.

Due to my poor planning skills, the girls and I ended up unexpectedly staying an extra night in France. We decided to make the most of it, and we rented a car and drove to Hautvillers, a small town in the Champagne region.

The scenery was jaw-dropping! Everywhere we looked, there were ancient buildings and fields of vines growing some of the world’s fanciest grapes. This was the hometown of Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who founded the eponymous champagne company. We ate some delicious food, and I enjoyed some glasses of the local champagne (6 euros per glass)! We meandered through the peaceful streets, and the girls pretended they were spies. (turns out looking for a hideout is a great way to explore a small city.) One word of caution: we learned that restaurants in Hautvillers close relatively early, especially on Sunday nights, and this tiny town has no grocery store. Luckily, Epernay is a 10-minute drive away, so the early closures in Hautvillers didn’t create a big problem for us.

Let me know if you end up using any of these tips! Bon voyage!

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