France has so much for families: a sprawling countryside, cultural treasures, gourmet foods, and an enchanting language. Spend a week there, and your kids will return with a multitude of memories, a world awareness, and maybe even a budding French vocabulary.
Where to Go
You’d need months (years, really) to explore all the regions of France. If you have a week or two, this is a good start.
Paris, Île de France
While it’s true that the City of Light is an ideal, romantic getaway, why not let your kids fall in love, too? They’ll be enchanted climbing the spiral stairs up the Arc de Triomphe, scaling the Eiffel Tower, seeing Notre Dame Cathedral, and cruising down the Seine. The Louvre isn’t mandatory — big and overwhelming are understatements — but popping in to see the Mona Lisa is a snap if you buy tickets in advance. Note: Kids get free admission to most Paris museums.
Essential Paris can be found in its captivating parks: the Jardin des Tuileries and Jardin du Luxembourg. Check out the playgrounds’ play structures only found overseas, teach your kids how to play the ring-and-baton game as they ride antique carousels, and watch them revel in the fun of pushing miniature wooden boats across a pond as you sit peacefully in enchanting surroundings.
Dotted along miles of winding, country roads throughout this northwestern region are local farms and guesthouses called chambres d’hôtes, where host families teach you about local traditions, cook for you, and happily let your kids run free on their farmland. Staying here makes you feel like a local rather than a tourist, and it’s through the eyes of your hosts that your family can gain a truer understanding of the French culture.
Don’t miss the bounty of Normandy’s specialty foods that have major kid appeal, like galettes (crêpes), apple cider, and teurgoule (creamy rice pudding).
For an impactful experience, visit the 50-mile stretch of coastline where, in 1944’s D-Day invasion, more than 100,000 soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler. Don’t miss the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where there are 9,387 graves of American soldiers perched on a hill overlooking the expansive Omaha Beach.
For the French, the Alps are the place to be during the holidays. The Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions are filled with ski chalets, lakeside villages, and bustling cities.
Annecy, a charming, lakeside town at the foot of the Alps, is sure to please the whole family with stunning mountain views, a 7,000-acre lake, ancient buildings, and cafés lining pedestrian walkways and river canals. Nearby Chamonix, a resort town at the base of Mont Blanc, is in its glory in winter. It boasts snow-covered mountains, tramway rides, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and dog sled rides. When you’re done playing in the snow, enjoy dinner at a café with stunning mountain views, then cozy up in a rustic chalet with your kids, a pile of warm blankets, and a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
The food in France is divine and plentiful.
Start with a breakfast of warm, buttery croissants and pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants) from a local boulangerie. Street foods like crêpes with Nutella are convenient on the go. A picnic lunch assembled from a local market — a fresh baguette, perfectly ripened cheese, sausage, pâté, sweet strawberries, éclairs and mille-feuilles (a.k.a. Napoleons) — is the ultimate French experience, especially when topped with a bottle of local wine.
Most bistros open for dinner later than your family’s usual mealtime, and dining is often a long, drawn-out affair. Cafés are more casual and flexible and serve kid-pleasers like croques monsieur (essentially grilled ham-and-cheese) and omelets. If you want to eat earlier, say 6pm, look for a café with continuous service.
If you’re staying in one area for a week, rent an apartment through Airbnb.com or VRBO.com. For an authentic, locally guided experience, book a chambre d’hôte or gîte (www.chambres-hotes.fr or en.gites-de-france.com). American hotel chains can be expensive and removed from the culture; European hotels are more authentic. Rooms are typically smaller and more streamlined, but Booking.com can locate properties with a family room, which often includes bunk beds.
Riding the rails is the most romantic way to travel through Europe. With high-speed trains like the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), you can go from one city to another in a flash. But be prepared to lug suitcases through narrow aisles and multi-level train stations. Renting a car (try www.carrentals.com) allows you to travel at your own pace and venture off the beaten path. The highways, called autoroutes, are easy to navigate, safe, and clean. You’ll need extra money for tolls and gas, and a GPS is worth the expense. In Paris, forget the car and use the easy-to-navigate Métro system instead.
- Be friendly. The French, rude? Not necessarily. Manners are essential to the French, and they rarely skip a “merci” or “au revoir.” They also appreciate travelers’ efforts to speak their language. A simple “Bonjour, madame” or “Bonjour, monsieur” when you walk into a café or shop goes a long way.
- Prepare to picnic. Save money by shopping at street markets and eating in your apartment or outdoors. Stowing utensils, napkins, and a corkscrew in your bag makes impromptu picnics easier.
- Comfort goes a long way. Don’t limit your ability to walk, wander, and discover. Get everyone a pair of high-quality walking shoes. Try the new line of stylish-yet-supportive ballet flats recently introduced by Dr. Andrew Weil Integrative Footwear (www.weilbeing.com).
- Easy does it. The famous sights are important — who wants to travel all the way to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower? — but journeying as a family can be tiring, so schedule plenty of downtime.