My 14-year-old daughter has long been obsessed with all things French - its food (crepes, baguettes, macarons), fashion and the idea of one day experiencing these “for real” in the City of Light. While we’ve traveled extensively within the borders of our own country endeavoring to visit all 50 states as a family by the time our now 15-year-old son graduates high school, we’ve ventured abroad too few times for her (or my) liking.
This summer we made a concerted effort to remedy that with an unforgettable family sojourn across the pond. While flying for upwards of ten straight hours with a pair of teens in tow might not sound like much fun, Paris is one of the most family friendly places to travel. Look beyond Disneyland (though that’s a great option, particularly for families with littles) - think scenic river cruises along the Seine, more gorgeous gardens and verdant green spaces than you can shake a stick at, picturesque outdoor cafes and crepe stands around every corner and rife with both iconic and little-known landmarks rich in history and reflective of Paris’ vibrant art and cultural influences - past and present.
The Highlight Tour
I’d been to Paris as a single woman in my late 20s and spent the better part of a week wandering the City of Light; known so for being the first city in Europe to light its streets with gas lamps; I must have averaged 12 miles on my feet per day. Absolutely torturing my toes to ensure I saw every square inch of every arrondissement, I promised myself if I ever went back, I’d try to be less intimidated by the metro system and even indulge in other modes of public transportation.
This time around, swimming around online to put together ideas for our itinerary, I happily discovered Big Bus Tours (bigbustours.com). Offered in cities all over Europe, Central Asia, America, and the Middle East, their hop-on, hop-off tours give you a front row view of the sights you want to see, for a fraction of the footsteps. We used our ticket for our first day of adventuring, which proved to the perfect way to get the lay of the land, learn a bit of history/background on each of the 10 “stops” along the route and determine which were “must-see” destinations for the coming days.
Choose between a classic ticket, which offers a single day with 10 top landmarks, pre-recorded commentary, and a flexible ticket, or upgrade to a Premium or Deluxe ticket - with all the basics plus an additional day of touring and option for a river cruise as well. Incredibly priced, you can choose to hop off at a particular sight to explore a bit more, or stay on the bus the entire time to snap crystal clear photos from the open top deck for the duration of the 2.5 hour ride. Whichever way you want, the Champs Elysees, Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and more are waiting for you. Save your feet for an easy stroll along the Seine at night.
Green River Cruises
Isak Dinesen was famously misquoted as a man for her line from “Seven Gothic Tales,” in which a seaman tells his son “the cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea.” Though the Seine, when it travels through Paris like a great wet artery, contains less salinity than the Atlantic, its ability to soothe is unmatched. Green River Cruises (greenriver-paris.fr) offers comfortable, luxurious private river tours for two to twelve guests per pontoon boat. Customizable boats provide a relaxing environment for a sunset aperitif, a romantic dinner for two, a fun team-building experience or in the case of our family, an unforgettable experience of the city “in a different light” as we leisurely cruised past several of the city’s most iconic landmarks while our “captain” shared a bit of history and inside info from a local’s perspective.
With four electric boats in its fleet, Green River Cruises is dedicated to providing the most respectful experience for its guests and the planet alike. Sipping chardonnay as you tour one of the most enchanting cities in the world, you’ll see the evolution of Paris from its medieval heritage to the modern mecca it is today. Choose from a one, one-and-a-half, or a two-hour cruise and celebrate any special occasion or just a gorgeous day or evening on the water.
Hidden Paris Walking Tour
I have a personal rule when traveling abroad - no chain restaurants. Especially American ones. I stand by this for a couple of reasons - to experience the city and its newness, but also that as I’ve followed the advice of locals over the years, I’ve enjoyed better food, better wine, and better sightseeing experiences in general. After all, we know what we like where we live so the local perspective can make all the difference between vacationing like a tourist or experiencing the environs more akin to a native.
Hidden Paris Tours (hidden-paris.com) exists solely to give its guests the most unique and intimate view of Paris there is. Our guide, company co-founder Delphine and her partners have already done all the legwork over the years ... roaming the city in search of delicious cuisine and incredible locales with which to share the colorful history and beauty of their fair city. Choose from a private, group or customized tour, whether your interest is in fine art, gourmet food or haute couture fashion.
We chose to explore the neighborhood of Montmartre and indulged in stories only a local like Delphine knows to share. In addition to witnessing firsthand the postcard perfect landmarks we all associate with Paris, we discovered charming neighborhoods away from the typical tourist destinations, meandered down romantic side streets, viewed the studio spaces that were once home to some of the world’s most famous artists, painters, singers, dancers of years past. From Versailles, museums, and monuments, to the world’s most famous cemetery (Pere Lechaise), experience Paris as though you were born a local and grew up with curiosity as a companion.
One doesn’t necessarily travel to another country hoping to hear about widespread public health problems, especially these days. But deep underground the romantic streets of Paris lie another tale to be told, one you don’t want to miss. In the late 18th century, Parisian officials began to worry about the impact above-ground cemeteries were having on the population of the city. Following the first evacuations of the Saints-Innocents cemetery, which had been in use for nearly ten centuries, the tombs, graves, and charnel house were emptied of their bones, and transported nearly five stories underground to abandoned quarry wells, and stacked high by workers through the night. Tours began in 1809, and have continued ever since.
Welcoming nearly 550,000 visitors annually, the Paris Catacombs (catacombes.paris.fr) are an artistic contemplation on introspection, and a meditation on death itself. The ossuary was carefully organized by Inspector Hericart de Thury, and boast a monumental approach, much like that of the Egyptian pyramids and their masonry monuments. Tours last roughly an hour, and if you were worried about balancing a bit of exercise on your tour de cheese while in Paris, you’ll certainly work off the morning’s baguette with 131 steps into the depths, and 112 steps back up into the sun. Grab a timed ticket, your sweetheart or history-loving counterpart, and drop back a couple of centuries this vacation.
Cirque Bormann Moreno
Who doesn’t love a good circus? Cirque Bormann Moreno (cirquebormann.fr) is a lively throwback to an earlier era when circuses were held in a traditional big top and the performers loved interacting directly with the public. The current “A Journey Through Time” themed show - performed in French - travels from the prehistoric era to ancient Egypt, Africa, the roaring 20s and modern day Paris.
It was such a treat to experience this cirque de la belle Epoque - this seven-generation family of performers work together to entertain audiences of all ages with three weekly shows (Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays) featuring acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns and an array of impressively trained animals including a quartet of magnificent horses. Before each performance, there is free access to “initiation and animation” workshops where the visitors are afforded a “behind the scenes” experience - the younger attendees especially love this artist-supervised aspect.