by Christina Ball
I just returned from a glorious trip to Paris with my best friend from college, novelist Martha McPhee, and our two teen daughters (Mila, 13 + Livia, 15). Here are a few of our discoveries and favorite activities. My hope is that they may help inspire your own visit to this magical, evolving city.
1. Cycle your Way around the City – by day or by night!
Our bike tour in London last summer was a definite trip highlight, so when we knew we’d be in Paris this year, we immediately began investigating the two-wheel tour options and came across the highly rated Blue Bike Tours. Tempted by the Best of Paris tour (it was my daughter Mila’s first time in this European gem), we eventually decided on the longer evening “bike and boat” tour, realizing that jet-lag would give us lots of extra p.m. energy. We were not disappointed! We met our lovely guide – a native Parisian university student – and about 10 other intrepid travelers in the Place St. Michel and walked to a garage to get our charming light blue vintage-styled (but very new!) bikes. We soared along city streets and then along the lively Seine (see #2 below) before stopping to board one of the many bateaux mouches offering one hour trips up and back down the Seine. The light was perfect and the boat very crowded. It was a bit hard to hear our guide with the boat’s multi-lingual guide shouting info in 4 languages over the loudspeaker, but it was still beautiful to see the golden light hitting the islands and the Parisians enjoying drinks, picnics and conversation along the banks of their river. My favorite part was when we rode our bikes into the darkness around pre-Bastille Day Place de la Concorde, around the miraculously empty Louvre courtyard and over many beautiful bridges. At precisely 11pm we stopped along the water and watched as the Tour Eiffel sparkled to magical life for several minutes – quite a show!
We then rode smiling back to the garage where our guide directed us to a nearby creperie – Mich Sandwich in little Place Saint-Michel – which was a name our girls repeated over and over during our stay in Paris. We adore both their savory (sale’) and sweet (sucre’) crepes. Mich makes savory crepes the authentic way – with buckwheat flour (farine sarrasin). Try the classic jambon et fromage (ham and cheese). For sweeter teeth, Livia and Mila loved both the simple beurre et sucre (butter and sugar) and anything (coconut, strawberries) with Nutella.
2. Stroll along the newly transformed Seine “playground”: Les Berges de Seine
Paris is beyond-a-doubt a city that invests heavily in being child-friendly. Walking along the Berges de Seine, a mile-long creative and artistic playground that runs from Port de Solferino to Port du Gros-Caillou (basically, from the Musee d’Orsay, descend the steps and walk towards the Eiffel Tower!), I couldn’t help recall the hours spent pushing Mila in her stroller around Florence or Pisa in search of a park or playground or any activity that would be safe, enriching and, basically, child-friendly. Slim pickings. Of course, I adore Italy, but Paris is certainly an ideal city to visit with kids. As we strolled past cyclists, skateboarders and children maneuvering along climbing walls and other play structures, Mila and Livia stopped to play tethered paddle ball or climb on the monkey bars or lounge in the hammocks that were part of a “City Camping” installation. There were also live musicians and abundant outdoor cafe’s and restaurants. .We enjoyed a snack of moules-frites and, for the girls – more crepes – on a bateau eatery before walking up to the beautifully renovated Musee’ d’Orsay for s few hours of wondrous art. Les Berges is reminiscent of NYC’s High Line is some ways except that it is much wider, more varied and certainly less crowded, except at sunset in the summer when Parisians come out in droves to enjoy drinks and dinner in this most perfect of settings.
Les Berges website
3. Contemporary Art and Architecture (aka an awesome photo-opp): the new Fondation Louis Vuitton
The new Frank Gehry-designed structure looks like a giant ship – sea or space-worthy – that mysteriously landed in a clearing on the edge of the Bois de Bologne woods. As we waited in the ticket line in the hot blue-sky sun that made the steel beams glow and the white “sails” gleam, the attentive staff offered us white umbrellas, fans and bottles of water to keep us cool and hydrated. While Martha and I waited, admiring the building and chatting, Livia and Mila took turns photographing each other with this most stunning of backdrops. Once inside the soaring atrium, we explored the building with its multiple terraces offering framed or open views of Paris (Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse) in every direction. We explored several of the galleries – intriguing video art, a fascinating and meditative installation featuring metronomes and lounge chairs by Marina Abramovic – but I think we were really there for Gehry. We were there to experience and interact with the building, a true visual and spacial delight.
By 2pm, it turns out, we were also there to enjoy a delicious lunch under the fish mobile in the museum’s minimalist-chic restaurant (indoor and outdoor seating) : Louis.
Practicalities: There are two ways to get to this site: metro or free shuttle bus.
1. Metro: We took the easy-to-navigate metro to Les Sablons and walked, following the evident signs, to the Fondation – about 10 minutes through a lovely residential neighborhood which also houses the 49 acre outdoor zoo-amusement park Jardin d’Acclimatation (est. 1860) – I can’t imagine a more perfect summer day with kids than the duo of art and outdoor play that the Jardin and the Fondation LV make possible! We strolled through the park on our way back to the metro and I found it absolutely charming (and wished our kids were a few years younger!).
2. Shuttle Bus: during museum opening hours a free shuttle operates from Place Charles de Gaulle every 15 minutes. More info here.
Fondation LV website.
4. Explore the Marais District – and get a haircut, too!
The Marais – a former swamp and now one of the most chic and pleasant neighborhoods to explore in Paris – was by far our favorite. We adored the window shopping (p.s. July is sale season!), the hidden courtyard gardens (the beautiful and historic Place des Vosges and the many cafe’s and restaurants. It’s just the perfect place to wander, as we did on our first afternoon (after a long nap, of course). Martha was eager to get her haircut here, so we returned a few days later to our new friend Stephanie’s salon – Il Fait Beau at 51 Rue des Archives – where both Martha and Livia got quick and very chic cuts before our lunch on Rue Rambuteau : savory and sweet crepes (once again!) at Crepe Story followed by fairy-like desserts at Les Fées Pâtissières next door.
5. Bon Appetit: Dine with Chefs – like a Local.
Allison Zinder is a Paris-based chef originally from Richmond. I had the pleasure of meeting her several years ago while she was in Virginia visiting family and leading some cooking classes. She taught a class for our Speak! French students all in French and to rave reviews. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch and I’ve watched her blog and her business grow from the sidelines. Through her company – Paris on the Edge – Allison offers cooking classes as well as guided walking tours of a fascinating, historically-rich and now up-and-coming area of eastern Paris – Belleville (check out the video below!). She is both entertaining and very much in-the-know when it comes to French culture and cooking. Which is why her History of French Pastry event last month in Charlottesville sold out in a matter of days!
Needless to say, getting together with Allison was one of the first things I scheduled when I knew we’d be in her new home town. Since she was staying just a few blocks away from us in the 6th at the time (her boyfriend, David Nicholas, has a family apartment there), we decided to meet for dinner nearby at a little bistro that I am already recommending to everyone I know who’s headed to Paris: the perfectly charming Le Petit Lutetia on Rue de Sevres. Although the waiters (popular with our teen daughters;) all speak English, I didn’t hear this language spoken at any other table that night as the restaurant was filled with locals, including at least one four-legged regular. Actor and gourmand Gérard Depardieu, who lives in the neighborhood and owns a few restaurants, is frequently sighted at Le Petit Lutetia.
The six of us sat at a long table on the short sidewalk with a view of the 1920’s elegance of the candle-lit interior and shortly after handshakes and introductions, David Nicholas began spreading butter on bread and topping these pieces with thinly sliced radishes and a dash of salt. He handed these to Mila and Livia, then to their moms, and we all immediately asked for seconds, then thirds.
Next, Allison said we had to try the escargots, which were giant and delicious and coated in scrumptious parsley butter. Mila, an adventurous eater thanks to the many years her mom spent as a dining editor, was a bit suspicious at first but as soon as she took a bite she admitted to a serious foodie crush. The steak au poivre, though delicious, was a little too peppery for her so she ended up gobbling up most of my cuisses de grenouilles (yes, frogs legs), much to my dismay as I wanted more! Martha’s sole meunière was perfectly delicate as were the other dishes and the sparkling conversation that went on and on into the night, enlivening the suddenly silent streets of our temporary neighborhood.
But the best was yet to come in the form of a single glass mixing bowl filled with just-made mousse au chocolat. Martha, who has been mastering chocolate desserts since she was 10 or 12, declared it the best she’s ever tasted. That’s saying beaucoup! We love how there is just one size and it’s the same price (16 euros) no matter if you are one person or, in our case, 6. The mousse and our instant seduction by this little eatery is the reason why, on our last night in Paris about a week later (after a 6 day trip to Normandie) we made a point of stopping back in, just for dessert. We wanted Le Petit Lutetia’s chocolate mousse to be our last decadent taste of Paris.
Check out this short video to find out more about Allison Zinder and her Belleville neighborhood. I highly recommend a walking tour or cooking class with Paris on the Edge during your next visit to Paris!