Off-Peak Paris Is Cozier, Quieter, And Perfect For Families
The romance of the City of Light isn’t lost on kids — quite the contrary. But you need to time the trip right.
Ah, Paris in the late fall and winter, when the sky is a dark, rain-streaked sheet torn from the pages of Madeline, and the Parisians are hustling everywhere with an unmistakably cosmopolitan back-to-school vibe. The crowds — the literal millions of others determined to enjoy Paris all summer — have long since gone home, and the cafes are warm and glowing. Everything from the museums to the markets feel somehow both cozier and more expansive.
Visit Paris in the quieter seasons (generally, October to November and January to March) and what you “lose” in warmth, sunshine, and bursting flower gardens, you more than gain back in time and space in which to explore more and stress less. It’s the time to wander a bit aimlessly through a city in which beauty unfurls in just about every direction, and it’s a time (best of all) to feel swept up in the authentic, timeless routines of Paris itself.
Long walks, indoors and out, punctuated by fresh bread, café, and chocolat chaud. Yes, you can be pleasantly swept up in the anonymity of a great city going about its business again — and, more important, you can save big on airfare, Airbnbs, and hotels, many of which can be had for a fraction of the prices that are on offer in high season. For a family of four, that can add up to thousands of dollars in savings.
And while it goes without saying that Paris — like any great international and historic city — is great year-round and in every season, visiting Paris during the moody in-betweens of late fall, winter, and early spring can feel like stumbling across a great secret that’s been hiding in plain sight. Those of us who live in places that are popular with tourists in the summer know that the far slope of the shoulder seasons is every local’s favorite moment in the life of the city. It’s wonderful to feel let in on that, as a visitor, even for a day.
WHAT TO SEE IN THE CHILL OF THE OFF-SEASON
Established nearly 400 years ago as the royal medicinal herb garden and formally founded as a research and educational institution during the French Revolution, the 75-acre Jardin des plantes is home to Paris’ oldest zoo — the 220-year-old Ménagerie — as well as an incredible array of botanical displays, gardens and museums. It’s home to the four galleries of the Natural History Museum (Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle) — including the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution and its unusual parade of animals — and the four Grandes Serres — greenhouses in use since 1714 — that are open to visitors and that feature winter gardens, tropical rainforests, Mexican and Australian hothouses, and a whole greenhouse dedicated to the New Caledonia archipelago.
Practically its own planet, the Louvre has some 35,000-plus objects spread over 15 acres of space. Especially with kids, it’s best to go in with a strategy. Map it out, plan your meals, and see what’s on offer for young visitors that week — as the Louvre offers all kinds of special programs for kids.
WANDER LE MARAIS
It’s great to get a little lost in the Marais — the 800-plus year-old neighborhood of winding cobblestone streets, former aristocratic enclaves, boutiques, galleries, cafes, and Paris’ historic Jewish neighborhood. For kids, in particular, the Musée des Arts et Métiers offers tons of fun interactivity, and the truly unusual Musée de la Chaise, which combines a thoughtful history of hunting with installations from contemporary artists, all housed in gorgeously renovated 17th century buildings.
GO TO THE MOVIES
Paris takes going to the movies seriously, with English-language releases playing at both beautiful theaters like the Max Linder Panorama (opened in 1912) and Studio 28 (1928), and at newer multiplexes like MK2 Bibliothèque cinema with 14 screens, and a host of other diversions, from a candy store to a bookstore to a dozen virtual-reality pods. Seeing a movie in Paris is as culturally distinct (the subtitles! the architecture! the teens snickering and bantering en Français!) as stopping in somewhere for a cup of coffee.
Sites like AngloInfo offer a continually updated list of English-language movies playing in Paris, or you can go directly to theaters’ sites to look for English-language movies listed as “VO” (version originale) or “VOSTFR” (original language with French subtitles).
HIKE AND CLIMB
The Ludo Jardin in the Jardin Luxembourg can be accessed for a small fee year-round. A playground unlike any other, with natural play structures — sand, wood, rock — designed to be attuned to the environment (and a few that look more like sculptures plucked from the Centre Pompidou), it’s a place to spend hours on a decent day.
Just outside Paris is the Chateau de Fontainebleau, a 12th-century fortified palace (open year round to visitors) that’s surrounded by the forest of Fontainebleau — for a centuries a playground for royals and now a favorite retreat for Parisians. Hike, explore, and climb — the forest is home to some of the greatest bouldering in the world, some of which is accessible to kids.
DINNER TO GO
Paris’ open-air markets — offering incredible bread, cheese, meat, and produce — are open throughout the year. The Marché Bastille is famously central, but there are beautiful markets throughout the city that are the best place to grab some greens and cheese before swinging by the nearest bakery for a baguette and grabbing a poulet roti and potatoes for a cozy dinner “at home.” No need to find the “best” place — just go to the nearest. It’s all great.
VERY PARISIAN TOY STORES
Paris is well known for its toy stores. Since they’re curated like museums and stocked with toys that are more precious objects than obnoxious technological trends, browsing a toy store — any you happen upon, really — is time well spent. Be sure to check out Pain D’Epices, a mainstay stocked with just every mini thing you can imagine.