Have you ever wondered what it's really like to parent in Paris — or any of your other favorite cities around the world? Visiting is one thing, but actually putting down roots is a different experience altogether. To explore what it's really like to live with kids in some of our favorite international cities, Parennial Travel is kicking off a new series called Parenting Around the World.
Zoë Petit: My answer for this one is a bit cliché — I took the plunge and followed my French husband, without speaking the language or knowing anyone here. Fun fact – after getting married in France, I had to return home to request a visa… I spent the first three months of married life living in my high school bedroom at my parents’ house! When I moved to France, it was super scary, and really hard at first, but I was determined to make it work!
Originally from Texas, I've called Paris home for over a decade and know the city inside and out, thanks to my job as a family-oriented guide and travel planner. I’m now a maman of two kids – Paul, 5, and Lucie, 3, who are living their best lives in the City of Light.
PT: What part of the city do you live in? What do you like about your neighborhood?
ZP: I’ve always lived in the 18th arrondissement, in the Northern part of Paris. It is most famous for Montmartre – I LOVE the historical and artistic importance of the area. It is funny because Montmartre can be very touristy, but if you get off the beaten track of the most visited spots, you leave the tourists behind and find a very authentic, working class neighborhood, with almost a village-like feel!
PT: Do you think Paris is a family-friendly place? Why or why not?
ZP: I actually do! Although I may be in the minority in thinking this. Making Paris work for families is not as obvious as in other smaller cities, but it is possible, I promise! I love not having a car, and being able to just walk out the door and get to activities very quickly. Also, the national train system is great, so travel throughout the country is easy and cost-effective. Being a minimalist helps a lot, I think – as we are usually walking or in public transportation, we limit what we bring around with us and that way I don’t get frustrated carry big bags, etc.
If having a lot of space is important for you, it will be tough – apartments are notoriously tiny here. I’ve always thought of the city as an extension of our living space, and try to be outdoors as much as possible, taking advantage of the vast number of cultural activities and parks, many of which are free for kids! For me, having access to all the events and museums trumps having a huge living room.
I also really appreciate the subsidized childcare – almost all families count on it, and the general acceptance of using it from an early age means there is much less parental guilt. I feel like my life is very balanced between my kids, work, and hobbies.
PT: How do people treat children in Paris?
ZP: French people actually LOVE children. I find that their steely mannerisms often melt once they see kids. People stop to chat and say hello more frequently when kids are in tow, and storekeepers often offer a little treat to children – cheese at the fromagerie, or a chouquette at the bakery!
That said, there will be some grumpy folks who think the kids are too loud or disruptive, but those people can be anywhere, right?
PT: Are there any challenges to having a family in Paris? Things you wish were different?
ZP: Like in any city, yes, there are challenges to living here – it is a big city, and as I mentioned, living spaces are often small and cramped, and there is rarely outdoors space (especially hard during the two-month confinement we went through in the spring due to Coronavirus). As the cost of living is high, almost all parents work full-time jobs here. There is a four-month maternity leave, but after that – back to the office! I personally wanted to stay home longer, and found it a bit difficult. There were almost no organized events for mothers with youngsters, and I missed the sense of community that seems to be strong for new moms in the U.S. for instance. Also, contrary to popular belief, office hours are really long here! My husband usually gets home around 8 p.m., which is the norm – I wish there was more flexibility, so we could be together as a family at the end of the day.
Kids start school here at the age of 3. While this is great for so many reasons (no more paid childcare most notably!), I sometimes feel like kids are expected to grow up very early here, and I am a bit sad to not have more time at home with them.
PT: What is the cost of living like in the city? Any money-saving tips for families?
ZP: I think this is all relative – I have friends from California who consider Paris very inexpensive compared to the Bay Area. Certain things cost more here – on average, eating out is more of a formal affair here and it shows on the check – while others less – high-quality groceries, for instance, are less than in the U.S. Also, almost no one has a car here, so that is a huge money saver, along with the fact that the socialized healthcare means very low prices! Finally, childcare is heavily subsidized, and very affordable.
My top tips for saving money during a Paris vacation: limit restaurants, especially in the evening. Weather permitting, plan on plenty of picnics in parks, where you can enjoy French specialties like fresh baguettes and cheese for next to nothing. If you do eat out, plan for lunch, when you can take advantage of daily two- or three-course menus for reasonable prices.
Also, avoid hotels. It is difficult to find rooms that can accommodate families. I am a huge fan of renting fully equipped apartments on AirBnB — you’ll get a more authentic experience, have enough bedrooms for everyone, and can cook most meals at home!
PT: What are some of your favorite things to do with your kids in Paris?
ZP: I love visiting museums with the kids. Children under 18 are usually free, so there is no pressure to stay for a long time and get your money’s worth. One of my favorite museums to visit is the Petit Palais — it is actually free for everyone, has a manageable collection size, and a gorgeous garden and café for snack time. Otherwise, on most weekends, you’ll find us at one of our local parks. There is a huge park culture here, and they are my home away from home. In the summer when the sun sets very late, parents meet up for drinks and snacks while the kids play. It is so nice and a great way to socialize.
PT: Favorite restaurants? What are their favorite local foods?
ZP: For visiting families, there are three sure bets – laid back bistros, serving up traditional French fare, crêperies, and Italian restaurants. All of these options are fast (a relative term in France… count on at least an hour), and inexpensive as far as dining out here goes.
Our personal favorites are near our home in the 18th – In Bocca Al Lupo has the cutest kids’ pizza shaped like bunny, and Café Francoeur has kids’ menus, a friendly staff, and high chairs!
Kids will usually love croque monsieur sandwiches (or croque madame with a fried egg on top!). My son also loves confit de canard, or duck confit. Served with buttery roast potatoes, this is a hit with adventuresome eaters!
PT: Favorite shops for kids?
ZP: For clothing, I love the chain Monoprix – it is like the French version of Target, and their kids’ clothing is high quality and affordable. For splurges, hit up Bonton – they carry delicate Liberty print dresses for girls, and high-quality classics for the boys.
If you need some little goodies for the kids, head over to Hema – you’ll find plenty of inexpensive wooden toys, bubbles and chalk, and art supplies.
PT: Favorite parks/playgrounds?
ZP: So hard to choose – there are so many! The Jardin des Plantes and Luxembourg Gardens are the two quintessential Parisian parks. They are sprawling and filled with fun activities for little ones. Otherwise, my favorite hidden spot is the Marcel Bleustein park right behind the Sacré Coeur church. Kids play while parents take in a gorgeous view!
PT: Any places in the city you would avoid with kids?
ZP: Paris can change rapidly, even from street to street. For instance, I love the 18th district around Montmartre, but certain areas in the North of the neighborhood should in general be avoided. I personally find the 12th – 16th districts to be a bit sleepy, and far from tourist activities.
PT: For travelers, what neighborhoods do you recommend for a short visit?
ZP: To make the most of your time, stick to the inner arrondissements – the 1st through 9th districts will put you in the heart of city, with plenty of parks and sightseeing activities within walking distance.
PT: Top three things on your list for visiting families?
ZP: Spend an afternoon exploring the Jardin des Plantes – this complex combines public gardens with a couple kid-friendly museums and the oldest public zoo in the world!
Wander Montmartre! Get off the metro at the Abbesses stop, and then walk over to the base of Sacré Coeur for an ice cream at Bachir and a ride on the vintage double-decker carrousel, before climbing the steps to the church. Behind the church you’ll find the previously mentioned square Marcel Bleustein where the kids can let off some steam.
Lastly, this is really touristy, BUT the Seine river cruises are actually a great activity with kids! After a long day out walking, everyone will appreciate sitting down for a boat ride at dusk to take in many of the highlights of Paris.