This year for our summer vacation, we went to France since my younger daughter (14) is a Francophile and particularly wanted to see Paris. We spent one week in Paris with three side trips and another week in Provence and Nice.
Currently, a Euro (€) is $1.17. Hide your valuables in a money bag or belt. Pickpockets are common. Two women tried unsuccessfully to rob me on the Paris metro on this trip and someone stole my credit cards and cash on my last trip to Paris at the flea market.
Most French speak at least some English. Tobacco stores (Tabacs) are the place to go for SIM cards and stamps.
France in the summer was surprisingly hot. Bring sunglasses and lots of suntan lotion. Always carry a water bottle. At restaurants, ask for tap water. Waiters are stingy with it but just ask for more. Ice was what we most missed about the United States.
Be sure to take advantage of museum and restaurant restrooms. Even the museums have far fewer restrooms than American ones. Some restrooms including those at the Paris train station charge. Restrooms are small and I only saw a couple of changing stations on the entire trip.
For breakfast, we always went to a Boulangerie/Patisserie for a pastry or croissant for about €2 and a fruit vendor for juice and berries. Boulangeries/Patisseries are also good places for lunch with Jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) on a baguette or other sandwiches and quiches or pizzas for €4 or less. Fromageries (cheese shops) and Boucheries (butcher shops) and food markets are a good place for cheese and Saucisson (sausages) for picnics. You do not need to tip at sit down restaurants. “Entrées” in French mean appetizers. Ordering a “Plat du Jour” (special of the day) is generally the best deal. Many restaurants had kids meals but our kids had aged out of them. Service is incredibly leisurely especially if you order more than one course. Some of our dinners lasted an excruciating two and a half hours which made early morning sightseeing impossible.
In our experience, the regular trains between cities ran on time but they were packed. You can pay extra to reserve seats but you will almost definitely need to kick someone out of your seat. The alternative is not to pay extra and have them kick you out of their seat.
Throughout France, we stayed in two bedroom apartments with one or two bathrooms through VRBO for around €150 per night. This rate was far lower than a hotel would have been. The apartments were roomier than a hotel room and had full kitchens and washing machines. You will usually have to dry your clothes on a drying rack. In the summer, try to rent a place with air conditioning.
We recommend purchasing the Paris Pass, which gives you free admission at over sixty popular attractions and allows you to skip the line at some of them like the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay, free public transportation, plus a cute little guidebook. You can purchase the pass in advance of your trip or at Tourist Offices and sites throughout Paris. Passes range from two to six days and must be used consecutively. Although we were in Paris eight days, we only bought the Paris pass for six days, the number of days we were doing significant sightseeing and sites with admission prices. Note: Many museums are closed on Mondays so check hours carefully; a Paris Pass might not be a good value on a Monday. Also, kids under 18 are free at most museums so it is probably not worthwhile to buy a pass for them. Kids accompanied by pass holders can stay with their families and skip the lines.
Although a friend of ours had great things to say about the Big Bus Hop On Hop Off Tour, we took the Paris metro everywhere. Both are free with the Paris Pass. The metro is somewhat confusing since there are far more exits than on the D.C. system. Warning: Even with the subway, there is tons of walking and escalators are rare.
The Bateau Parisian (on pass) is a good introduction to Paris. This hour-long boat ride along the Seine departs every half hour during tourist season from the dock near the Eiffel Tower. Sit on the upper level where you will get a far better view and have fun passing under the bridges. The ride is accompanied by music and some English commentary.
After our boat tour at around 10 p.m., we decided to see the nearby Eiffel Tower (not on pass). We got incredibly lucky as a second line opened up as we arrived and we were sixth on line. Even with our place, we had to wait 15 minutes for the next elevator and it took far longer for the elevator on the second floor. From the top floor, you can walk up a short flight of steps for a fantastic view of Paris. The Eiffel Tower took us over two and a half hours to visit. Waits to enter can easily be up to two or three hours, which I personally do not feel is worth it. Rates vary greatly depending on how high you want to go up and your age. The other iconic monument in Paris is the Arc de Triomphe (on pass), which offers another great view of the city. The arch was built to commemorate Napoleon’s success in battles. These two monuments were the highlight of our trip to Paris for our older daughter (18).
From the Arc de Triomphe, we walked along the Champs-Élysées, the most famous and exclusive shopping street in Paris. My younger daughter enjoyed it but I found the street marred by the chain restaurants.
Paris has a huge number of museums of all kinds. English signage in museums varies greatly. Audio guides in English are often available. The most famous museum, of course, is the Louvre (on pass), once a royal palace. Ask for a free map, since it helpfully pictures the most famous artwork in the collection. The museum is like a who’s who of art history. We saw the “Victory of Samothrace,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Venus de Milo.” We focused on the museum’s amazing collections of French and Italian paintings and Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities. It took us five hours to see only about a third of the collection. We ate at the Mollien Café, which had a good view of the Louvre pyramid but awful food. Next door to the Louvre is the Musée D’Arts Décoratifs (on pass), which traces the history of furniture and tableware from the 12th century to the present. This museum was a little disappointing but I loved fashion designer Lanvin’s bathroom on display.
Smaller than the Louvre but still vast is the wonderful Musée D’Orsay (on pass), housed in a former train station. The museum traces the history of art from the 1850s to 1914. Start on the fourth floor, to see Europe’s best collection of Impressionist art with works by Monet and Renoir. The museum also has a noteworthy collection of Post-Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh. We especially enjoyed the Art Nouveau decorative arts and the scene sets from the Paris Opera. If you like Monet, do not miss L’Orangerie (on pass) which boasts two entire rooms devoted to Monet’s “Water Lilies” series—a breathtaking experience. The café here was abysmal and may have the worst sandwich in all of Paris.
Besides Monet, my husband’s other favorite artist is Rodin so the lovely Rodin Museum (on pass) was a must see. A number of Rodin’s masterpieces including “The Thinker”, “The Gates of Hell”, and the “Burghers of Callais” can be found in the museum’s exquisite rose garden. Inside the mansion, you will find works by him and his mistress Camille Claudel.
We also visited the offbeat combination Museum of Magic and Automation in the Marais district which was expensive and only accepted cash. Admission included a 20 minute magic show. Adults are €14; children 3-12 are €10. Close by and also in the Marais neighborhood are the lavish apartments (on pass) of Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables. He created some of the wall murals decorating his apartment. If we had more time in Paris, I would have loved to have gone to the Musée de Cluny, a medieval art museum known for its “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries and the Musée Marmotton, the world’s largest collection of Monet’s artwork.
Paris is also famous for its churches, notably Notre Dame. Notre Dame, the Conciergerie, and St. Chapelle (all on pass) are very close together. Notre Dame is the most impressive church in Paris with its gorgeous rose windows and creepy gargoyles. More to my taste is the smaller St. Chapelle. Its upper chapel with 15 separate panels of stained glass, depicting Christian history, creates the impression of being inside a jewel box. Next door is the Conciergerie, the former prison of the French Revolution. A memorial room commemorates the deaths of the 2,780 victims of the guillotine. You can see how tiny the prison cells were. A tiny chapel stands on the site of Marie Antoinette’s cell. On Sundays, there is a nearby bird market, which is a nice change of pace. Also close is Ile St. Louis a fun neighborhood to shop or just wander around.
We were too late for our tour of the Opera Garnier (on pass) so we bought tickets to the ballet The Wayward Daughter for €10 each with obstructed views (the same price as a tour would have been). We thoroughly enjoyed it. The historic opera house, completed in 1875, boasts a stunning staircase and an opera themed ceiling by Marc Chagall. Note: Make sure you are getting tickets to the Opera Garnier, not the newer theater in Marais.
Before the show, we visited the Fragonard Perfume Museum, a block away. We took a free and very informative tour of the history of perfume. Of course, perfume is for sale at the end of the tour. We promised our shopaholic 14 year-old some Paris shopping. Opposite the Opera Garnier, is the Galeries Lafayette, a huge department store with a stunning stained glass ceiling. The enormous first floor is devoted to makeup, jewelry, perfume, and leather goods, organized by designer. My daughter was in heaven. The upper level children’s section had designer brands for children that I was not aware of and could not possibly afford in a million years. A separate store devoted to men is across the street.
Parks abound in Paris and are great places to take a break with young (or older) kids. There are small playgrounds on the side of Notre Dame and across from Victor Hugo’s Apartments. The Tuileries Garden was the royal garden of the Louvre. In the summer, it has a small amusement park with a ferris wheel, which is supposed to give a great view of the city. The 60-acre Luxembourg Gardens have toy sailboats for rent, playgrounds, a toddler wading pool and sand pit, pony rides and puppet shows for little ones and gorgeous plantings, sculptures, exhibits and an elaborate Medici fountain for adults.
Food in Paris
We loved the food shops on Rue Cler—seafood, cheese, butcher, tea, and pastry—perfect for a picnic or take-out. However, the cafés there did not look special and we had our worst dinner of the entire trip in one of them. Our best meal in Paris was at Au Pied du Cochon, where Julia Child fell in love with French onion soup. The soup (9.50€) was indeed superior and could have served as a full meal. We enjoyed our main courses but were too timid to try the specialty of pig’s feet. After your meal, you will get adorable complimentary meringues in the shape of a pig’s face.
Angelina’s, a tea house, has the best hot chocolate I have ever had (chocolate Africaine). The original one is at 226 Rue Rivoli, but there are other branches as well. I have been telling people about this hot chocolate for over 25 years and my kids and husband were not disappointed. Ladurée, also sold at a few places, has the best macaroons we tried although Fauchon, the gourmet food shop, is a close competitor. Ladurée now has branches in Georgetown and Union Station. We were unimpressed by Berthillon’s famous ice cream.
Galeries Lafayette Gourmet Food Hall, across from the Galeries Lafayette, is a perfect spot for a meal before the opera. We had a very good steak dinner at their butcher shop for €19. Other choices included Mediterranean and Asian food. The Hermes pastries were excellent.
You could easily spend weeks and weeks in Paris without seeing everything. We were exhausted with the amount of sightseeing that we did.
Paris Side Trips
Although there is lots to see and explore in Paris, we took three very different side trips. All of them require a full day.
Versailles (on pass) is 45 minutes by train from the Gare (Station) Musée D’Orsay. Versailles is about a half a mile from the train station. It was the home of Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Louis XV. Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were the last residents there. We had an hour and a half wait to get into the Chateau (main palace) and it was stifling hot. Note: There are two fountains on the far right and left sides of the entrance where you can refill your water bottles. Versailles is one of the most opulent palaces you will ever see. Highlights include the Royal Chapel, Hercules Drawing Room with a ceiling painting by Paolo Veronese, and the Hall of Mirrors with 17 arched windows. We had an excellent but non-nutritious lunch of Angelina’s hot chocolate and Ladurée macaroons.
On days with special fountain shows, there is an extra fee for the gardens 8.€50 each but they are well worth it. The gardens, designed by André Le Notre, feature 15 hidden groves decorated with fountains, vases and statues. Also, included in your pass are the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon, and the Queen’s Hamlet, properties where royalty could be more casual. Unfortunately, it was too far to walk. You can get there by an electric car €32 or by taking the petit train for €8 for adults; 6.€10 for children 11-18 and free for under 18. I was devastated because the train closed sooner than advertised so we missed all three buildings. A couple of blocks away, Rue de Satory has a number of restaurant options.
More low key and less crowded than Versailles, the Palace of Fontainebleau (on pass) is nevertheless rich in French history. The train from the Gare de Lyon takes about 40 minutes. Note. You must buy your tickets from the ticket office not a ticket machine. From the Fontainebleau-Avon station, transfer to a number one bus, which takes another fifteen minutes. Fontainebleau was a dream come true for my older daughter who had seen pictures of it in a coffee table book on palaces and always wanted to see it. The palace was built in 1528 by Francis I as a hunting lodge. Napoleon Bonaparte gave his abdication speech on the famous horseshoe-shaped staircase. The Napoleon I museum there has the crib of his son and a re-creation of his camp on the battlefield. Other highlights included Napoleon’s throne room and bathroom and a bedroom meant for Marie Antoinette.
We took a miniature train to fully explore the formal gardens by Le Notre (€7 for adults; €3 for children 4-18). A family of swans glided on the man-made pool. Pony rides are an additional fee. The palace is right in the middle of the town, which has a carousel and a number of shops and restaurants.
A trip to Monet’s house and garden (Maison et Jardins de Claude Monet) was a must see for my husband since his favorite artist is Monet. The train from Gare Saint Lazare to the Vernon stop takes 45 minutes. You can take a miniature train or a shuttle bus from the train station to the town of Giverny. The miniature train seems like the better option at €8 rather than €10 roundtrip. The town is almost like a Monet theme park, full of galleries, gift shops, cafés, and ice cream trucks.
Waterlilies at Giverny
Combination tickets with Monet’s house are available with L’Orangerie, Musée Marmottan Monet, and the Musée D’Impressionismes Giverny. Visit the house first as it is relatively small and becomes crowded quickly although you will definitely be distracted by the beautiful walled gardens, depicted in many paintings. The gardens have arched arbors and tons of colorful flowers. Children will love the chickens that reside next to the cottage. Monet lived here with his family from 1883 to1926. His home is charming with vibrantly colored rooms like his bright yellow kitchen. You can view replicas of his painting in his studio. His collection of Japanese prints is on display throughout the house. Afterwards return to the front garden. Then, take a pedestrian tunnel to his water garden with its famous Japanese bridges and water lilies. We visited in July a superb time of year for both gardens. Note: The house is closed from November to Easter.
The Musée des Impressionnisme is a 10 minute walk away. We enjoyed this small, intimate museum, which displays exhibitions on all aspects of Impressionism. This museum also has lovely gardens and a carp pond. At the Musée Natural Mechanic, the enthusiastic owner showed off the mechanics of an old victrola and other 19th century machines. Donations accepted.
My husband and I had never been to Provence and on this trip, we only allowed three days there. We wish we had far more time. Provence is known for its lavender and sunflower fields, food markets, wine, fine cuisine and its association with the artist Van Gogh.
My husband rented a car to explore the different towns in Provence. Lanes were narrow, parking was tight, and we had never seen so many round-a-bouts. He would not have dared rent a car on the Cote D’Azur, with even narrower roads and hillier.
We stayed in an apartment in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a town known for its fine wines. My husband and I sampled some excellent red wines at a tasting room. We plan to return one day without the kids to explore the wineries. I ordered duck breast seasoned with lavender at La Maisouneta, one of the best meals on our vacation.
Avignon was one of our favorite towns in Provence. A medieval wall encircles the old city. Avignon is most famous for its bridge that inspired the song “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon.” Five € allows you to walk on the bridge. I regret that we did not pay the fee since the accompanying audio guide advertised reggae, acid rock, and country versions of the song. But you can hear the versions online, here.The other major attraction is the Palais de Papes, the largest Gothic cathedral ever. In the 14th century, it served as the papal palace. The palace is mostly empty but it was great fun exploring it. A carousel is near the center of town (most of the towns seemed to have carousels including Arles, St. Remy, L’Isle-sur-la Sorgue and Nice). Nearby, a puppeteer maneuvered marionettes that painted pictures and blew bubbles. Avignon was a great mix of the old and the new with many gift shops.
We arrived in Avignon during their arts festival, the largest one in France, which takes place for three weeks every July. Performers danced, sang, and somersaulted in the street to advertise their shows. The festival program was enormous and featured many events for kids and many others where the language difference would not matter like circus or dance. We attended Ballet 2 Rue, a joyous five-person troupe performing hip hop dance to classical music. Most shows were reasonably priced at 12 to €19 per person.
Our other favorite town was the picturesque L’Isle-sur-la Sorgue, known as the “Venice of Provence” for its river running through the center of town. We visited two gourmet shops that specialized in olive oil and a lovely bakery. An antique/food market is held every Sunday.
Our second full day in Provence, we followed in Van Gogh’s footsteps. Van Gogh produced 300 paintings when he lived in Arles from February 1888 to March 1890. In Arles, we visited the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, which features contemporary exhibitions with a few Van Gogh originals. A family pass is €15. Next, we walked down to the Espace Van Gogh, once a mental hospital, where Van Gogh was incarcerated. Beside the courtyard garden, you will see a reproduction of a painting Van Gogh produced here. The courtyard often has free performances and art exhibits. Le Bigouden Creperie, overlooking the courtyard, was a nice spot for lunch. We concluded our day at the Monastery St. Paul in St. Remy de Provence, the asylum where Van Gogh stayed before his suicide. The monastery has reproductions of his works in the garden and in his bedroom. Signage describes Van Gogh’s family, his biography, his mental state, and the treatment of the mentally ill in the 19th century. Outside, you will see a view of the Alps and a reproduction of Van Gogh’s painting of them. This site gave us a much better understanding of Van Gogh than the sites in Arles. Admission was €5 per person. Note: The monastery is still a mental hospital and we could hear the screams of patients which was unsettling.
Monastere St. Paul
Our last day in Provence, we went to Camargue, known for its white horses and flamingos. On the drive to the Parc Ornitologic, we saw a number of white horses. We loved the Parc Ornitologique. It was chock-full of various types of flamingos, herons, and ducks that you could see up close. We even saw a beaver and otter. The ground was level and little walking was involved; I have never seen so much wildlife with so little exertion. There were benches everywhere. My younger daughter took photo after photo. Children under 4 are free; 4-12 are €5; adults are €7.50.
Flamingo at Camargue
Next, we drove to Carrieres de Lumieres, a natural cavern with projected light shows with artistic themes. We saw “Picasso and the Spanish Masters” and “Flower Power Pop Art.” but the artists featured vary. Shows are about 20 min. long with a couple of minute break in between and you can stay as long as you want. The family rate is €40. Note: This site had one of the best restrooms of the entire trip.
We loved Provence and wished we had way more time to explore. It was so much more relaxing than Paris.
Cote D’Azur/French Riviera
For the final stop on our trip, we visited the Cote D’Azur with Nice as our home base. We enjoyed Nice so much that it was hard to build up the desire to explore other places on the coast.
Nice had a very rocky beach but the water was a perfect temperature. Our girls had a blast collecting sea glass, which they have never found on any other beach. We had to drag my younger daughter away. Nice had a number of public beaches, some with lifeguards and some without. Note: Bring closed water shoes or buy them at a nearby vendor. Some beach towns can be boring with little to do but Nice is rich in museums, history, and food. We also liked the tram that ran through town with its floor-to-ceiling windows. The Miroir d’Eau at Place Massena, the border between Old Nice and new Nice has a free waterpark with fountains perfect for young kids on a hot day. Like Avignon, Nice blended old world charm with modern stores and conveniences.
The cours Saleya (market square), centrally located in Vieux Nice (Old Nice), has a wonderful flower and food market everyday but Monday (antique market day). The food market closes at 1:30 p.m. but the flower market remains open all afternoon. We were especially taken with the dried and candied fruit vendor. Other vendors sold olives, cheese, bread, crepes and more. We bought most of our souvenirs here—mustard, soaps, and tea. The cours Saleya turns into a craft market in the evening.
Fruit at cours Saleya
Old Nice is filled with great shops, street entertainment, and restaurants. Near the entrance to the cours Saleya, you will find Patisserie Henri Auer Confiserie, a beautiful 19th century candy store, which was once frequented by Queen Victoria. Side streets seem to boast the better restaurants. For €30, at Le Maquis, I got a delicious, traditional onion tart, lamb shank with honey sauce, and a strawberry rhubarb tart. My older daughter loved her traditional fish soup. Fenocchio is the exception to my side street theory. In the center of everything, it has terrific ice cream and sorbets in many flavors, some unusual like thyme, avocado, and tomato basil. I am lactose intolerant and have never had so many sorbet options anywhere. We had to go twice. Fenocchio definitely had the best ice cream of our trip.
We were so entranced with the food market and the beach that we did little sightseeing. We did visit the Parc du Chateau, a large and free park, with a little of everything—a great view of Nice, the remains of a medieval castle, a large children’s playground, souvenir shop, and café. Take the Ascenseur (elevator) at the foot of the park to avoid most of the stairs. We also saw Palais Lascaris, a Baroque residence with an impressive collection of musical instruments. In addition to the Palais Lascaris, the Nice pass covers eleven other museums, including a renowned Matisse Museum. Admission fees are €10 for a one-day pass and €20 for a seven-day pass. Kids under 18, students, teachers, the disabled, and a few other categories are free, making sightseeing in Nice a great deal. The Musée Marc Chagall is not a part of the pass. The French Riviera Pass might be a better choice if you are going farther afield.
Villa Ephrussi di Rothschild was our favorite side trip from Nice. Take the 82 Bus. This lovely pink villa, commissioned by Rothschild heiress Beatrice, has the reputation of being the most beautiful mansion on the entire Riviera. She collected Fragonard paintings, Louis XVI furniture, and Sevres porcelain. This villa with its stunning views of the coast is my dream house. I liked the musical fountains show here even better than those at Versailles. The property also boasts a Spanish Garden, Provencal Garden, Exotic Garden (cacti), and Rose Garden. Admission is €44 for a family.
To see even more cacti, we visited the Jardin Exotique d’Eze. This garden sits on the uppermost peak of this tiny village perched upon a mountain. On the tiring and winding journey up, you will see charming galleries and shops. The cactus gardens on the site of a medieval fortress offer a fantastic view of the coast. The garden is €6 for adults; 3.€50 for students; and free children 12 and under. Eze has a huge Fragonard perfume store at the foot of the hill but the tour was way more commercial than the one in Paris.
We could not miss Monaco, the home of the rich and famous on the Riviera. Go early in the morning and catch the 100 bus at the earliest spot possible. It fills up quickly and we missed three buses in succession because it was so crowded. An alternative is taking the train from Nice. We arrived at 11:20 a.m., the perfect time to start lining up for the daily changing of the guard at 11:55 a.m. Stake out a corner in the front. The guards allow little kids to sit in front of the ropes. Next, we visited Old Monaco with its souvenir shops and the Cathedrale de Monaco, where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace are buried. Large scale photographs of Princess Grace are everywhere. If we had more time, we would have visited the renowned Musée Oceanographique of Monaco (aquarium). Monaco, with its abundance of high-rise apartment buildings and hotels, lacked the charm of our other side trips. We are glad we went but Monaco is one of the few places on our trip that we would not return.
We had a wonderful time in France. The incredible attractions of Paris—Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Musée D’Orsay, the laid back charm of the Provence countryside, and the beach scene in Nice equaled a perfect vacation.