Paris with kids: Canals and grottoes

What is better than April in Paris? I’ll tell you: April in Paris with kids. Although our most recent trip there was eight months ago, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it. And since April is a month that gets us all thinking of the City of Light, throughout the month of April I’ll be sharing stories, tips, and even some ideal itineraries for families interested in visiting Paris or just daydreaming about it.

Before we visited the Cité des Enfants I had never spent time in the 19th arrondissement of Paris before, which is why I planned something of an exploring expedition the day we were there. The Parc de Villette in which the museum is located is bisected by the Canal de l’Ourcq, and we followed it south and west toward the center of the city, stopping for lunch at La Bastide, a neighborhood bistro on the quay of what is called the “Bassin de la Villette” – a wider body of water that connects the Canal de l’Ourcq with the Canal Saint Martin.

Watching the pleasure boats in the Bassin de la Villette

Please click on pictures for full-size versions

We crossed the Bassin on a footbridge after our meal and stopped to watch the bridge at one end rise to let a ship through. It’s not a drawbridge; the entire bottom raises and lowers using hydraulics.

The way this bridge moves is pretty cool, although we had to stand for a while to see it

The whole area here is leafy and quiet – there are some small playgrounds on the quays and many of the pleasure boats dock here, so it makes a great spot to watch marine traffic.

We strolled on through the neighborhood until we reached Le Parc des Buttes Chaumont. This undomesticated 19th-century park is utterly different from its more refined cousin the Luxembourg Gardens. For one thing, it has a belvedere. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer that romantic name to “temple” or “cupola” or “gazebo”.

In more prosaic terms a belvedere is simply a building that is constructed to command a view. In this case Le Temple de la Sybille is perched on a sculpted island in the middle of a man-made lake. And a view it does offer.

I loved the view of Sacré-Coeur from the Belvedere

The statue of Sybil seems to have gone missing, so Matt decided to take up the duty.

I think he makes a nice goddess, don't you?

The boys loved climbing on the rocks around the temple, which I’ll admit made me nervous (and which is probably why it was so much fun).

Yeah, mom wasn't crazy about this

We wandered back across the bridge in search of the park’s puppet theatre, which, as it turns out, was closed. But immediately across the path we found the “Pirates of the 19th” – site of duck fishing and a big game hunt. The opportunity to shoot at lions and zebras isn’t something one general finds in American parks, so the boys were pretty excited especially since they both won prizes.

Love the old-fashioned amusements in French parks

Under normal circumstances I don't think he'd shoot at even plastic animals, but when there are prizes involved...

Tommy and Matt immediately had to play with the paddle and ball set. One big difference in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont as opposed to some other French parks is that lolling on the grass is not forbidden.

We were free to play in this park

Which is why you’ll find people relaxing, playing, and even juggling.

I'd never seen a juggler in a French park before

Although this park is of utterly human origin including all of the streams and the lake it has a slightly feral quality that my kids responded to immediately. It’s not scary precisely, but you don’t know what’s going to turn up around each corner.

For example, perhaps you’ll find a grotto with a large waterfall.

This waterfall is no less impressive for being manmade

Or someone watching you.

Paris with kids Buttes Chaumont statue

It feels like a place to run wild in, to play games and go adventuring.

Travel-with-kids tips

  • My 7- and 10-year-old boys are pretty good walkers and had no trouble handling the stroll from the museum down to the Bassin (which took about 15 to 20 minutes) and then over to the park (another 15 minutes).  If you want to visit both places and don’t want to walk all that distance, you could take the Number 5 train from Porte de Pantin to Jaurès, changing there for the Number 7bis line, which will let you off at Buttes Chaumont.
  • There’s an adorable café next to the bridge that crosses over to the Belvedere. We had just eaten lunch or I’m sure we would have stopped there for a snack or a drink. The park would also make a perfect place for a picnic.
  • The puppet theater has shows from the end of April through October. During the school vacations of mid-July through the beginning of September, there are shows daily. There is a small fee to view the performances.
  • Although I took no pictures of it the park does also have a small playground.

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Please see Paris in its proper order if you’re interested in a chronological list of posts from my family’s July 2008 trip to Paris, or visit my Paris page, which lists all of my stories and tips about my favorite city. If you enjoyed the photos in this post, please “like” The Mother of All Trips on Facebook where you can view even more.

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