This is part of a series of posts on our summer 2016 trip to Europe, marking our first family vacation outside of the U.S. With passports in hand, we spent nearly three weeks between London, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.
Day One – Arrival
Our train pulled into a chaotic Gare du Nord just before 2 p.m. We joined the taxi line and luckily got a car big enough to hold four of us plus our baggage, then headed to our rental apartment in the 7th arrondissement.
Our landlords arranged to have someone meet us and show the the layout, then we were on our own, heading out by foot toward the Eiffel Tower. I figured the kids should see the towering symbol of Paris as soon as possible. It was hot, but the caretaker for our apartment said it was a welcome heat after a gray June. (Fast forward to later in the week when we saw her again and even she agreed that the heat was unbearable.)
We walked via Rue Cler, picking up bread, cheese and meats for a picnic dinner, then on to the Eiffel Tower. Shady spots to eat near the Eiffel Tower were crowded, but we bought some water and found spots. Once finished, we headed to the base of the tower, where two of us bought tickets to walk up to the second level, while the other two bought more water and sat down for people watching. The walk to the second floor took forever due to foot traffic. I’ll admit, I was one of the two who stayed behind to drink another bottle of water. After waiting an eternity, I wish we would have all climbed together. This wasn’t my first visit to the Eiffel Tower, thus I initially didn’t jump at the chance to go up, but I’m impatient and the waiting drove me crazy.
We walked back home, stopping at a corner store along the way for drinks and basic foods to stock our kitchen. The walk home was notable because one of the main streets was suddenly blocked by the police. Tourist buses were unloading, people came out of cafes to look, but no one knew what was happening beyond the swarm of police. We had to walk around several blocks to avoid the police lines and head home, and while we never found out what happened, we saw the police with a handcuffed man wearing a white robe and Kufi, up against the Military Academy. The man and the police with him looked calm, unlike everyone else. This would not be the only encounter that reminded us to be aware and showed us Paris was on edge.
Day Two – Latin Quarter
The heat was punishing. We walked to Notre Dame, through Shakespeare & Co., and popped into local shops before it was time for lunch. It was so hot that some restaurants had signs in their window in English, saying, “WE HAVE A/C!”
We hadn’t planned on burgers for lunch, but I knew FrogBurger was well liked and when we walked by, I noticed the door was closed. This was golden because that meant a/c, and sure enough, it was cool inside. Not cold, but cooler than the outside, and they had water. We were ready to move in.
FrogBurger is American-style, and we each got a burger, soda (with ice!), and fries. They were nice, the food was good, and the air was cool. All good.
After lunch, we walked toward the apartment, stopping at shops, including La Maison du Chocolat, where we bought chocolate to take home, and little cups of chocolate ice cream that we ate in a corner park across the street.
Near the park was what I view as my mecca: La Grande Epicerie de Paris. We decided to pop in – the first grocery store I’d been in requiring a security check at the door, as is the way with much of Paris now – and we could have spent hours there, easily. We decided to have a picnic dinner in our apartment with treasures we found there, including truffle gouda, fresh bread, amazing salmon spread, and more. Everything was fabulous and the kids were adventurous, even trying sardines.
Day Three – Museums
The temperature dropped ever so slightly, but it made us realize we were going to survive. We headed out early to Musee de l’Orangerie, not sure whether we were more eager to beat the heat or the crowds. We immersed ourselves in Monet, then headed downstairs for other great works, including a model of the museum, which my son loved. After studying it for awhile, he asked to show me a secret he’d discovered in the model: a lesser known bathroom.
We walked from the museum to the Jardin des Tuileries, stopping at a playground where the kids ran around with a group of Parisian kids. (“They kept trying to talk to us in French!” my son said, baffled.)
Lunch was at one of the casual park restaurants, which aren’t the best, but the hot sun turned to rain, and we stopped to eat sandwiches under the umbrella-covered tables. The food wasn’t special, but the view was.
We walked farther down along the Seine, slowing walking past the vendors and artists set up along the riverside, before boarding our Seine River boat tour. The rains may have scared off the crowds because the boat was fairly open. It was tourist, but we saw Paris from a different vantage point. Plus, it was inexpensive if tickets are purchased online.
We left the boat and walked back up the Seine to the Louvre. This was Wednesday, one of the two days that the Louvre is open later (Friday is the other). We didn’t line up at the glass pyramid, but in the mall underground. The line there was still long, but much shorter than outside. The later in the day, the shorter the line, and even though the line was fairly long at 3 p.m., it moved fast enough.
Once in, we quickly made it to the pieces we wanted to see most, of course, including the Mona Lisa. By chance, we walked in with an American family who had a private guide. The guide told them that the best way to enter the room was to walk to the front with a sense of purpose, which they did. We followed along, with our sense of purpose being following their lead to the front. We made it among the crowds, gawked for awhile, then moved on.
Tired now, after we wrapped up the Louvre, we exited through the mall again, but this time stopping at Starbucks.
We stopped by our apartment for a brief rest, then headed out to a nearby restaurant: Cafe Varenne, which was fantastic. After, when looking up the name, I saw that it’s a favorite place of Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. This was making up for our touristy lunch spot.
After dinner, we were ready for bed.
Day Four – Day Trip to Disneyland Paris
Our outing to Disneyland Paris has its own post.
Day Five – Everyone’s Favorites
After starting the morning with the most amazing chocolate croissants bought from a bakery around the corner, we split up for the morning to pursue conflicting interests. My son and husband were eager to visit the Musee de l’Armee, while my daughter and I couldn’t imagine anything worse. (I’m sure the museum is great, and my husband and son loved it, but the Churchill War Room in London had maxed out my military history interest for some time.)
I’d promised my daughter macarons, and we set out to get the best. Before we left for Paris, I thought that meant Ladurée, but after some research, we were pointed to Pierre Herme. We set out, stopping in at little stores along our walk, making our way into the cramped Pierre Herme store, squeezing in with other tourists. My daughter picked out macarons, and we added a dessert and two Ispahan croissants to share with the whole family, which was a small order compared to the major purchases going on around us. Definitely buy the Ispahan croissants. I’m not a big raspberry fan, but I have since dreamed of this pastry.
Reunited in the afternoon, we headed to one of the most lovely places on the planet: Luxembourg Gardens. I’ve always wanted to see the puppet show after reading Paris to the Moon over a decade before, and the last time I was in Paris was the fall and the theater was closed. We got in line early for the show – earlier than needed as there were plenty of seats for everyone. Make note that the first few rows are reserved for kids only. The locals in attendance had the most trouble with this and were lectured a few times by the man running the show. The Parisians ignored the rule not to take photos of the show, openly holding up their cameras, while I sheepishly tried to take a few photos while pretending to check my phone.
After the show, we bought drinks and sat in a grassy, quiet part of the park before heading toward the palace. After watching for a little while, my son asked to rent one of the little sailboats, turning this afternoon into pure magic. For next to nothing, he was able to rent a sailboat and stick for 30 minutes at a few Euro. Each sailboat represented different countries, and my son came running back from the rental booth so excited that he practically yelled, “Guess which one I got?” It was the pirate ship. Ahoy.
We walked on after the park, stopping at Monoprix in the 6th arrondissement to buy some French school supplies, a flannel shirt (despite the heat, teen fashion cannot be stopped), and a ton of Kinder Eggs. It was the French equivalent of a small Target.
Dinner was items picked up at La Grande Epicerie de Paris – our third visit there of the trip – then home to wash clothes and pack up.
Day Six – Au Revoir
We packed up, met with the contact person sent by our landlords, called Uber and headed to Gare du Nord. We left early after our rushed experience in London and remembering the chaos of the station when we had arrived days before, but this time we were ridiculously early. The station was cramped, but there was a Starbucks in a far corner that has a seating area for customers only. We camped out there until it was closer to board our train.
Boarding was typically chaotic and we felt like steerage being herded onto the crowded train. Again, the reservation system worked beautifully and we were soon in our seats, waiting to leave for Brussels.
Where We Stayed
We rented our Paris apartment through VRBO. I wanted most excursions to be walkable, limiting my search to the central arrondissements. Like in London, our search was for two bedroom, two bathroom places with a washer/dryer. Not only did this location have that, but all of the reviews mentioned the responsiveness of the property owner from start to finish, which was very true. That safety net made me feel good.
Much like in London, again we walked most places, used Uber, and the train on our day trip. We didn’t ride the Metro at all this trip.