An American Family in Paris: Our Top 10

DSC03381Two lucky friends and their even luckier teenagers are traveling to Paris next week. Their upcoming trip has us reminiscing about our own stay in the City of lights two short years ago. Paris was our second-to-last stop on a three-week family tour through six European countries and it was the hottest.

Hottest, as in record high temperatures. Paris was sweltering that summer and we stayed in a 5th floor walk-up with no air conditioning. A/C is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to find in European cities – at least in the price range for our travel budget. While we liked the cozy Parisian feel of our one-bedroom apartment and neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement (the same one as the Eiffel Tower), sleeping was difficult, even with the fans the manager was kind enough to set up for us.

The heat, and restless nights, meant we had to rethink the long list of sights we wanted to see. It was just too hot to pound the pavement all day. Of course, we still took in the sights, just fewer of them and that was OK with us. My husband and I had been to Paris once before and I knew my daughters would one day go again.

There was an unexpectedly lovely upside to our change of plans: we became more Parisian. We slowed down. We lingered at cafes, we picnicked, we sat beside the Seine people watching and we strolled with no agenda other than the strolling itself.

Here were our favorite Paris sights and experiences, plus a few from a previous trip for my daughters to discover next time.

1. The Eiffel Tower, of course. There are few European experiences as exciting as that first glimpse of this iconic landmark and I wrote a whole blog post about it, Eight Not-to-Miss Views of the Eiffel Tower.

The magic of Paris. Yes, that is a full moon.
Saint-Michel fountain in the Latin Quarter.

2. The Latin Quarter: the heart of the Left Bank. So what if it’s full of tourist shops and restaurants? This was my favorite part of Paris and if you’re a book lover, it will be yours, too. Wander over after visiting Notre Dame, it’s just over the river via Pont de l’Archeveche. Walk along the left bank of the Seine and check out the booksellers (called bouquinistes) with their familiar green boxes. Chances are good you’ll recognize them from photos and paintings. They’ve been a permanent Paris fixture since the 1890s, but their history goes back all the way to the mid-1500s.

Keep walking until you see the ultimate book-lovers store, Shakespeare and Co. And then when (or if) you ever emerge from its book stacks, continue into the crooked lanes of the Latin Quarter — home to students at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) since the 12th century and some of the most celebrated writers, philosophers and painters of the 19th and 20th. Grab a bite to eat at any of the cafes here or go to Les Deux Margot where the likes of Hemingway, Satre and Picasso hung out — and now mostly tourists do, but it’s still cool.

What else to see in the Latin Quarter:  The Pantheon, where in 1891 French scientist Leon Foucault proved — by suspending a pendulum from the domed ceiling — that the Earth rotates. Unfortunately, the Pantheon was undergoing restoration work when we visited and it still is. The pendulum is off display until 2016. The building was still impressive though and the crypts were open. Many notable French citizens are buried there, including Voltaire, Marie Curie and Victor Hugo.

Grab a photo op Saint-Michel fountain (pictured upper right) and take a breather  at the Luxembourg Gardens (pictured below).

A Parisian relaxing in the Luxembourg Gardens. There’s also a large pond here where children sail toy boats.

3. The Louvre. The Louvre is the biggest art museum in the world. How do you see it all? You don’t. We booked a 90-minute family tour and followed it up with some wandering on our own. That was plenty for our 11-year-old daughter’s attention span. We saw the highlights: Winged Victory, the Wedding at Cana, Venus de Milo, the ornate painted ceilings of the Apollo Gallery, ancient Egyptian antiquities, and of course, we joined the throngs of people crowded around the surprisingly small Mona Lisa.

We weren't the only ones who came to see the Mona Lisa. Look at this crowd. Worming her way through it was my youngest daughter's best memory of the Louvre.  Look at all those phones, and all those selfies being taken. It gives a whole new meaning to Mona Lisa's sly smile.
Can you spot the Mona Lisa? Yes, that’s her. That small painting on the back wall with the huge crowd assembled around her. Pushing her way through the masses was the part of the Louvre my non-art-loving youngest daughter liked best.

Another part of the Louvre my daughters really enjoyed was in the lower part of the building. Archeologists excavated here in the 1980s and uncovered parts of the original fortress from 1190.

Underneath the Louvre are the walls of the original fortress that stood there nearly 1,000 years ago.
Playing around outside the Louvre pyramid, the museum’s main entrance.
Playing around inside the Louvre pyramid.
Playing around inside the Louvre pyramid.

4. Musee d’Orsay. My daughters seemed to like this museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings (Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat) better than the Louvre. The museum size was more manageable and it’s housed in an old train station so there are some cool old clocks, including one that is a giant window overlooking the Seine. Also don’t miss Degas’ dancers, favorites of both my daughters who are dancers themselves.

5. Bethillons for ice cream. After a visit to Île de la Cité, where Saint-Chapelle, Notre Dame and the Deportation Memorial (see #6) are located, head over to the next island — the quiet and charming Ile Saint Louis. Berthillons original ice cream shop is there and it’s world famous for good reason. Miam-miam! Encoure un s’il vous plait. Ile Saint Louis is nice for boutique shopping, too. We bought a miniature chess board with pieces carved for the major Paris landmarks and it’s become one of our favorite travel souvenirs.

The best parts of a vacation are the unexpected, unplanned moments. We still talk about these cool-cat street performers we ran into during our visit to Île de la Cité in 2005.
The best parts of a vacation are the unexpected ones. My husband and I still talk about these cool-cat street performers we ran into during an earlier visit. They were on the bridge connecting Île de la Cité with Ile Saint Louis, which I’ve read is a frequent stop for musicians and other performers.

6. Deportation Memorial. The city’s memorial to the 200,00 Parisians who died at the hands of the Nazis is also on Île de la Cité, directly behind Notre Dame cathedral. I’ve been there twice and I’ll go again when I’m next in Paris. It is well done and so deserving of a short stop. Only a handful of people are let in at a time, but we’ve not encountered a long wait.

All the sights and sounds of Paris disappear as you descend into the memorial through a tunnel-like hall with its walls rising high above you. At the end is an iron gate with a narrow view of the Seine through the bars. The only other thing you can see is the sky above, nothing else. The interior of the memorial contains 200,000 illuminated crystals, each light representing a soul who died in the concentration camps. It is haunting.

7. Notre Dame. The lines were so long, and the weather so hot, that by the time we toured the inside of the cathedral, no one wanted to climb the towers of Notre Dame. My daughters missed out. They didn’t get to see this…

One of the famous gargoyles at Notre Dam, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
One of the famous gargoyles at Notre Dame, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I took this picture on a 2005 visit to Paris.

Instead, we got ice cream nearby (see #5) and played it cool.

Outside Notre Dame.

8. Paris plages. When one of my daughter’s was feeling a bit nauseous, we let my husband and other daughter go on a boat tour of the Seine without us. After we waved bon voyage, we sat by the river for a while and then walked together across the nearest bridge – one of 37 that cross the Seine. That’s when we stumbled upon one of my daughter’s favorite Paris moments, the Paris Plages (beaches). Every summer, Paris brings the seaside to the riverside. Sand and palm trees are trucked in, beach chairs are set up, and Parisians come out by the droves to listen to music, play games, picnic and watch their children play in the sand. It was so unexpected, it was just cool.

9. Arc de Triomphe and the Champs d’Elysee. Paris’ grandest shopping street and the even grander Arc de Triomphe on one end, are a must see. The grand arch that Napoleon had built as a monument to his victories — and that now honors all of France’s war heroes, from the French Revolution through WWII — has one of the best views in the city. Equally impressive is the traffic circle below, where 12 boulevards converge.

Make time for stop at Lauduree on the Champs d’Elysee for a taste of their colorful macaroons. Eat them there. We tried to mail ours home and what we got was a box of crumbs.

A small glimpse of the crazy traffic circle that circles the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs-Élysées.
A small glimpse of the crazy traffic circle that circles the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs-Élysées.
The Eiffel Tower as seen from atop the Arc de Triomphe.
The Eiffel Tower as seen from atop the Arc de Triomphe.

10. Do as Parisians do. Go to the grocery store (my kids swear by the ready-made meat, cheese and butter sandwiches that came in a triangle box — they made me write that), buy street crepes and ride the Metro.

Wander. My youngest daughter loved the movie we saw spontaneously at a theater on the Champs d’Elysees. It was so hot that day the air conditioning was calling us. At the time, it seemed like a waste of our vacation dollars to see an American film in Paris, but the French subtitles in World War Z (oh yeah) were a fun twist. Zombies in Paris? That’s what your family will feel like if you try to do too much.

One of my oldest daughter’s favorite Paris memories was shopping in a dusty old art store next to the Seine. We never would have found it had we not allowed ourselves to “get lost.
One of my oldest daughter’s favorite Paris memories was shopping in a dusty old art store next to the Seine. We never would have found it had we not allowed ourselves to “get lost.”
Art deco Metro stop.
Art deco Metro stop.

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