City Travel

Paris with kids, or shabby-chic on Montmartre with a sprinkling of pigeon poop

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Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

I fondly recall our apartment in Paris’ 18th Arrondissement the summer I took the kids on a frenzied Europe-by-rail tour. Everything about it was quaint: The mismatched furniture, the alarmingly slanted floor, the cramped space inviting the kids to interact rather than retreat to nonexistent bedrooms. The advertised view of the Eiffel Tower was glorious, even if one had to lean out the window to attain it, and I was thrilled with the plaque announcing that this very building had housed Pablo Picasso’s first studio in the year 1900.

paris picasso

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

But when it comes to travels with my family, our recollections can differ vastly. What my kids remember most about my proud VRBO bargain are the creaky floorboards every time somebody used the toilet at one end of the apartment, and then marched to its only sink, strategically placed at the other end, tripping over the three chairs we fought over during mealtimes. They remember tossing and turning on the paper-thin futon mattress we rolled out every night because there were only two actual beds for five people. They remember the window they had to lean out – not to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, but to angle for a single bar on the promised Wi-Fi connection. And they remember the kitchen appliances and shower curtain dating back to, well, the early 1900s, it seemed. “I bet they were Picasso’s very own,” joked one.

I will forever stand accused as the cheap mother booking us into such a dump, but in my defense I suspect most Paris apartments are fashioned in similar style – shabby chic, as a well-traveled friend likes to call it. It’s the way Parisian landlords are programmed. Why upgrade a place you can get good money for without any investments? Plus it makes a perfect home for that mismatched cutlery and lumpy futon mattress you’re embarrassed to give to Goodwill!

paris metropolitan

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

Once we had lugged five suitcases up five flights of stairs and stowed them in corners not taken up by the sleeping arrangements, and once I had gathered everyone around a subway map to make sure each child could find their way back to Rue Gabrielle via the Abbesses Metro stop if they got lost, we stepped into its original glass-covered Art Nouveau entrance and down into the bowels of Montmartre to catch a train into the city beyond.

paris mona lisa crowd museum

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

Even though my kids would rather visit a prison than a museum, they had lobbied vehemently to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, our first destination. But unless you enjoy forking over 55 Euros to spend hours having your feet trampled and being crushed in a funnel of human congestion and body odors while clutching your purse to your chest because you’ve been warned that the Louvre is the world’s capital of pickpockets (it is), I have a better suggestion: Plan your trip for the first Sunday of the month when kids have free entry to all of Paris’ museums, send them to the Louvre on their own, and use one of the few functioning free Wi-Fi hotspots in Paris at the Starbucks around the corner to Google images of the Mona Lisa without the claustrophobia. Just go there secretly or you might have to spring for four more Frappuccinos at five euros a pop.

Here are the museums I can recommend: The Musee d’Orsay is a must, if not for the world’s best collection of Impressionist paintings, then simply for its exquisite architecture, including the spectacular clock window overlooking the Seine. Before becoming a museum it was the Gare d’Orsay, a train station; in fact it was the world’s first electrified urban rail terminal finished in time for the 1900 World’s Fair. We also enjoyed the Musee Rodin, especially its beautiful gardens filled with sculptures, such as the famous “Thinker.” And, if you have boys, they will love the military museum in the Hotel des Invalides, featuring everything weapons and war related from medieval times through World War II, with Napoleon’s grave as a bonus.

Other sites not to miss are the Arc de Triomphe, for a spectacular view in all directions, the church of Notre Dame on the Isle de la Cite, along with its lesser known sister attraction Sainte-Chapelle, and the Basilique du Sacre Coeur just two minutes from our apartment. But perhaps my fondest Paris memory is huddling on park benches over messy Nutella crepes while watching the street painters dip brushes into their palettes much like Picasso did all those years ago.

The Jardin de Luxembourg was a bit of a disappointment. Getting to it without an expensive taxi entailed a lot of walking, and just as we were dragging our exhausted bodies through the exit, a pigeon added insult to injury and pooped on my daughter’s head. That’s the moment I pointed out the virtues of our apartment, forest green shower curtain and lukewarm water notwithstanding, because at least it had a shower as opposed to what else I had researched online.

paris eiffel tower

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

The highlight of our trip, to no one’s surprise, was the Eiffel Tower. Being ghastly afraid of heights, I admit that I did not partake in the climbing of it. I ignored the accusing stares from the American family next to us when I snuck out from the queue and left my excited kids on their own, using the opportunity to take photos of the illuminated tower from below. I can highly recommend a night visit, even if it was unplanned. A suicidal man free-climbing to the second platform had shut down all operations during our earlier attempt.

On the way home that night, we were stopped by police at the Metro exit. I had warned the kids to hold onto their ticket stubs, and for once they had listened. In addition to keeping you out of jail, Metro ticket stubs also make useful tools for scraping pigeon poop off of someone’s head. I just thought I should mention that.

We would have liked to see much more – Versailles, the catacombs, and Centre Pompidou—but four days simply weren’t enough. We might have to go on Tripadvisor soon to scout out more shabby chic Parisian bargains.

Eva Melusine Thieme is the author of the travel memoir Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life. You can follow her on her blog, Joburg Expat, where she has been chronicling her family’s adventures while living in South Africa, or you can learn more about her next book about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car on She currently resides in Brentwood, Tennessee, with her husband and four children.

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