Paris with Kids: Exploring Art and War

I recently took the four kids and my mother to Paris for 4 days. Katherine, the 4-year-old, spent much of the time asking, “Are we where we want to be?” which I think sums up perfectly the joy of bringing children, or anyone for that matter, to a city as beautiful and interesting as Paris.

The answer was and will always remain: yes and no. What makes a city like Paris so much fun is that no matter how carefully you research and plan an itinerary, travelling with children will inevitably force you to change things; the line is too long, the exhibit you hoped to see has moved, everyone is simply too hungry and tired to go the next step, or, most often in my case, I get lost. In Paris it doesn’t matter because the city offers so many delights, in missing one you always find another.

Eiffel Tower from Trocadero Terrace

For this trip we decided to explore art and war: specifically to see lots of paintings we had seen in books and at school and to give Napoleon a closer look. We also threw in a generous dose of magic, both literally and figuratively. What we didn’t see in Paris, would however, make an equally interesting and magical Parisian holiday. In a city like Paris, wherever you are is certainly where you want to be!

Day 1: Napoleon and his amazing ego

Arc de Triomphe

We travelled to Paris from London on the Eurostar, which while an easy journey, is often delayed. This was the case for us and we arrived much later in the afternoon than we had hoped. As a result, we limited ourselves (in quantity only I can assure) to one site, and this was the magnificent Arc de Triomphe. This arch, which stands at the top of the Champs l’Elysee in the Charles de Gaulle Etoile, was built (by Napoleon) to honour his victory in 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz, and many of the reliefs and carvings throughout celebrate other victories and the glory of the French troops.

For those of you not as fascinated with Napoleon and his antics as mine are here is a (very) brief description: Napoleon Bonaparte, born to a poor Corsican farmer attended the prestigious French military academy and rose swiftly through the ranks, ultimately taking advantage of the absence of strong power after the French revolution and its hard-working guillotine, and in 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of France. Despite the fact that he abandoned his armies twice, once in Syria and again in Russia, he was revered. The fact that he wrote his own reports from the battlefield describing his bravery and brilliance may have helped in this regard. However, when he lost to the British at Waterloo he was exiled to the island of St. Helen and died there in 1821.

Beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier honoured with an Eternal Flame. This soldier died on the battlefield in France in World War I and was interred on November 11, 1920, the same day as the British Unknown Warrior was buried at Westminster Abbey. I made a point of stopping and explaining this to the children as they then saw the conditions in which he had fought and died at the Army Museum. Despite the traffic and the crowds this is a deservedly solemn spot.

We climbed the 284 steps to the top. The stairs are stone and spiralled, so not ideal for those children just recently walking, but fine those slightly older. On the way to the top is a tiny museum about the arch with a flat screen on the floor filming the behaviour of the people down below. This voyeurism delighted all of my children, and the other visitors as well. Once at the top the generous viewing platform offers spectacular views of Paris, the most exciting of course being the Eiffel Tower. We jostled with the other tourists in an effort to take the perfect picture of the kids with the Tower behind … much easier said than done, but worth trying. After we made our way down we did walk back under the arch and wave enthusiastically to everyone looking down on us from above!

Day 2: Some magic and then more war

Going up the Eiffel Tower Elevator

Eiffel Tower

We started Day 2 with the Eiffel Tower. One thing to keep in mind: it is always crowded, even on a cold weekday in February. Try to get there as early as possible! You can book tickets ahead of time, but there are actually two lines for the Tower. The first on the ground (which can stretch for as far as the eye can see) and a second, more tightly packed line to ride the elevator from the first viewing level up to the top. There are no fast-pass tickets for this second line and it can move very slowly. But the waiting is worth it. The views in the elevators alone are amazing. My children spent most of their time in the second line describing their complete lack of fear and lamenting that if only they were allowed they would be scaling the Eiffel Tower with but a thin rope. Then we got into the second glass elevator and began heading up and the squeals of “its too high,” and “I can’t open my eyes” began, much to the amusement of the other passengers who had had to listen to all the earlier bravado. And the elevator is a bit scary (or really rather scary for someone like me who hates heights), but once on top none of us minded. It really is magic being on the top of one of the worlds most beautiful cities.

Helpful Hint: The best place to take pictures of yourself with the Eiffel Tower in the background is on the terrace of the Trocadero, across the river.

Hotel des Invalides, Napoleon’s Tomb

We had planned to take a boat ride down the Siene but we got the timing wrong and everyone was fainting with hunger. Instead, we began to walk along the river, stopped in a café for lunch, and, admiring all the not-famous but still beautiful buildings we passed, made our way to Hotel des Invalides, the site of Napoleon’s tomb, the Army Museum, and, as it turned out, another bit of magic.

Invalides was built during the reign of Louis XIV to house wounded soldiers and a small number of veterans do live there today. It is also the location of Napoleon’s tomb, when he was brought back to France 19 years after he died, and buried in splendour. His enormous coffin (actually six stacked one inside the other) stands majestically surrounded by the (much smaller) tombs of other great French military heroes. The opulence of it alone made even my children roll their eyes. This was a man who thought very highly of himself, and persuaded many others to as well.

The Army Museum

Also in Invalides is the Army Museum. It is split into two sections: Louis-Napoleon and WWI-WWIIThis is a must for any children (or adult) who finds military paraphernalia interesting, and my 9-year-old son Joseph couldn’t get enough of it. The Louis-Napoleon section features lots of swords and uniforms, including several of Napoleon’s, and yes, you do say when standing in front of it, “wow he really was little”.

The WWI-WWII was the preferred section with an excellent diorama of what trench-warfare really looks like and some great propaganda posters “now that is persuasive writing” said my 11-year-old daughter, along uniforms, weaponry, and other wartime paraphernalia. There are black and white photographs along all the walls of soldiers during both wars which do an excellent job of depicting what being in these wars was like. “Not nice,” was the response we came up with.

Throughout the time we were at Invalides, French soldiers had been grouping in the beautiful central courtyard and at one point late in the afternoon a ceremony complete with military band and lots of flags took place. We never did discover the reason for this display. But we all greatly enjoyed the pageantry and magic of it. It also served as a good reminder that war is not just something you see in a museum, but a grim reality for soldiers today.

Day 3: Time for some art and more magic too

Musee D’Orsay

This old train station is full of some of the greatest art in the world, especially for those admirers of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionists. However, when we visited, it was very crowded with people doing everything but actually looking at the art. At best, they were chatting to each other (maybe about the paintings?) at worst photographing each other standing in front of the art work, or even worse, videotaping their casual stroll through the galleries never once letting an unfiltered eye gaze on a masterpiece. The idea of shuffling along hoping to be allowed more than a few seconds in front of something beautiful is terribly grim to me. And I don’t think there is a child in the world who would stand for it. Instead, (and I believe this of all art museums, not just crowded ones) that it is far better to look at a few paintings well then hundreds in a bored cursory manner.

To that end, I gave all of my kids a notebook and pencil and set them to find something they wanted to sketch. This accomplished (at least) 3 goals, 1) in choosing what to sketch (and what not to sketch) they are looking at art and making a decision about it 2) it forces them to look at the painting or sculpture in at least enough depth to copy it 3) I look like a brilliant mother.

And the kids set straight to work. Katherine, the 4-year-old, produced page after page of vague stick-like figures which she then pronounced to be exact replicas of the Renoir or Pizarro before her. She ended up being photographed by other tourists as much as the art work did. Granted, under this plan you only see a fraction of what a museum like the Musee D’Orsay has to offer, but the whining and complaining is eliminated. Children seem to find sculpture more accessible sometimes than paintings, and the sculpture along the central gallery is very much worth a look, especially as there are many places to sit. In the belief that less is more, the museum was a success.

Deciding we needed a treat, we went to lunch in the beautiful museum restaurant. Much to our delight we discovered that the excellent children’s menu cost only E6.50. The first real bargain we had in Paris. The adult menu was rather more expensive, but of excellent quality.

Notre Dame

From the museum we walked along the river to Notre Dame. The cathedral was very crowded but we succeeded in making a full round of it and then sat in the chairs for a while looking at the amazing windows. Notre Dame has some of the most beautiful, and famous, stained glass windows in the world. Elizabeth, my eldest, was especially taken with them and wanted to stay much longer than we did. Even when crowded, Notre Dame has as peacefulness to it, or magic maybe, that allows weary travellers, even children, a bit of well-earned rest. You could spend hours examining all its treasure but I am not convinced of the value of that with younger children. Instead, I think it is the atmosphere rather than the objects that should be absorbed.

Musee de la Curiosite et de la Magie (Museum of Magic)

Having regained some of our strength we continued along the other side of the river to the Museum of Magic, housed in the basement of the Marquis de Sade’s home (one of the reasons I wanted to visit, just so I could say I had been!). This is a tiny, funny old-fashioned place that provided much more delight to my children that I would have imagined. A magic show, featuring all the standards (balls in a cup, the 3 ropes, the missing card etc.), amazed the children. Even in French the children could understand that the magician was pretending all the tricks were very straight-forward whilst producing balls from visitors pockets and making ropes tie themselves back together. The fun house mirrors absolutely delighted Katherine, who would still be playing in front of them now I am sure, although Stephen, age 5, found them disconcerting. Several optical illusions, of the kind found in science museums, are also there to enjoy. I am afraid I was at a loss to explain any of them, which just increased the wonder. It cheered me to see that in this day of Playstations and other electronic entertainments there is still a place for simple fun.

Day 4: Are we where we want to be and tackling the Musee du Louvre

One our last day in Paris, Elizabeth requested to see the Mona Lisa, so off to the Louvre we went, with notebooks in hand. The Louvre was also very crowded but the rooms are more spacious so, apart from the room holding the above — which is ridiculously packed — you feel less boxed in then the Musee D’Orsay. I rather optimistically believed we could dash about and just see the most famous things — something you realize quite quickly isn’t a good plan at all.

This was where Katherine’s call of “Are we were we want to be?” proved the quality of beauty in Paris. In the Louvre on the way to see one treasure you can not help but be stopped by another. For example, the children particularly enjoyed Arcimboldo’s fantastic flower and vegetable seasons which may not have been on my “masterpiece” list, but we would have been crazy not to stop and really look (and draw) them.

Similarly, the faces in the Botticelli’s are so beautiful that they caught all my kids’ attention. But poor Elizabeth, the Mona Lisa was a disappointment, not least because you simply can’t get anywhere near it for the people and the security. We saw as much as we could (I think at the very most 2 hours in a museum for anyone) and felt happier for it. We left the museum, collected our luggage at the hotel and caught the Eurostar home from Gard du Nord. As always, we felt we hadn’t had nearly enough time in Paris, but just think what we can see next time!

Relevant Links:

Anne stayed at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe — we are in touch with them now to add this hotel to Ciao Bambino. She described it as one of the best family hotels she has experienced.

Paris with kids – savoring the simple pleasures of Paris

Paris with kids – favorite online resources

Paris with kids – 10 off-the-track places to take kids

Paris with kids – tips on kid-friendly events and places

Paris with kids – favorite activities with toddlers

Paris with kids – favorite parks with toddlers

Paris with kids – favorite kid-friendly restaurant

Downloadable and customizable Introduction to Paris with Kids on

Ciao Bambino recommended Paris family hotels

Winter in Paris with kids

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  • What a wonderful city for a family trip! I really enjoyed the overview.
    I find that giving the kids information regarding the sights AND activities to help them solidify the information helps keep them engaged. I’ve written $3 downloadable guides for kids for several world class museums like the Louvre and overviews of countries like France.
    Visit for tips on visiting the City of Light with kids! See the $3 downloads for visiting the Louvre and France with children.

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