Brace yourself: your day will probably have to start with the Paris Metro. Hold on tight to their hands, try not to inhale too deeply, and, if it’s peak hour, leave enough time to allow a few over-crowded trains to go by before you venture on in (here is a fun guide to surviving the metro in Paris).
Be a tourist
Take the Metro to somewhere close to a tourist attraction. I know, I know, you’re cooler than that. You want to explore off-the-beaten track alleyways and hole-in-the-wall one-dish-only Michelin star restaurants only Parisians know about. But you only have one day, and you are travelling with small children. There’ll be places they’ve seen in movies or read about in books that they are just desperate to visit. My friend, you are going to the Eiffel Tower!
The goal is that you emerge from the dark, smelly Metro-cesspit and watch your kids’ eyes grow wide and hear them breathe “Wow!” as the true beauty of Paris rises all around them. That “Wow” is worth a thousand super-cool secret bars, trust me.
Depending on which part of the city you’re staying in (i.e. the most convenient Metro lines to you), you could aim for any of these Metro stations:
To see Notre Dame first: get off at Saint-Michel Notre Dame (RER lines B or C), or Cité (pinkish-purple line)
To see the Louvre Museum first: get off at Louvre Rivoli or Palais Royal Musée du Louvre (yellow line), or Chatelet Les Halles (RER line A)
To see the Eiffel Tower first: get off at Champ de Mars/Tour Eiffel (RER line C)
To see the Arc de Triomphe first: get off at Charles de Gaulle Etoile (yellow, blue or aqua lines, or RER line A)
To see the Opéra Garnier first: get off at Opera (olive, pink or purple lines), Chausée d’Antin La Fayette (pink or lime lines), or Auber (RER line A)
To see the Tuileries garden and Place de la Concorde first: get off at Tuileries (yellow line)
Buy a croissant
Get yourself out of that Metro station, and look around. Wherever it is you emerge, it’s a fair bet it will be beautiful! Let the kids stretch their legs, and take a ramble over and around wherever it is you’ve decided to start. (For my kids, this means racing around the forecourt at The Louvre).
Now find a nearby cafe and prepare to overpay outrageously for a coffee and a croissant. It’s worth it. The kids are hungry, and you’re in Paris. Order them a pain au chocolat and they will be over the moon. (Remember to use the loos here because you’re going to hit the road again soon).
Hop on a bus
Look around for a hop-on-hop-off bus and buy yourself a day ticket. These buses are a fantastic way to look around a city if you don’t have much time. They hit all the top tourist destinations and the name pretty much says it all: you can hop on or off all day, using these buses to make your way around the city.
If you’ve emerged at any of the places I listed above, a hop-on-hop-off bus will be nearby, so just grab the next one: this is how you’re going to get around for the rest of the day. Sit upstairs if the weather is fine.
Especially if your children are quite young, the hop-on-hop-off bus will work with their moods. Do their little legs need a rest? Hop on the bus and drive around, seeing the sights while giving them a break (bring snacks if you need to). Are they growing restless? Jump off at the next stop and let them explore - another bus will be along whenever you need it to continue on your journey.
Let the kids set the itinerary
Now let the kids set the itinerary. As you drive past the bouquinistes (those green market-stalls along the Seine), tell them about the antique postcards and books and trinkets they can find there and, if they like the sound of that, get off at the next stop. If Notre Dame fascinates them, hop off there, then take a walk to Shakespeare and Company afterwards. Or if they are art-lovers, hop off at the Musee d’Orsay and visit all those lovely impressionists. (Notre Dame tip: you can book online to climb to the top and skip the lines. Musee d’Orsay tip: book your tickets online to skip the queues).
Climb that tower
Let’s face it, assuming you do let the kids take charge, at some point or another today you are most likely going to the Eiffel Tower. (If you definitely know they’ll want to do this, try to make the Eiffel Tower your first stop, because the lines only get longer as the day goes on).
Hop off the bus, and prep the kids. Tell them that yes, they can climb it, but it is a long way up, and there’s no changing their minds half way. Would they prefer to take the lift? (If you like, you can buy a ticket that allows you to walk up to the first level, then take the lift to the second. You can choose to take the lift back down as well).
Half an hour later, ask incredulously, “Are you sure??” when your 4yo and 6yo declare that they want to climb both levels. Now moan and pant behind them as they set a cracking pace ahead of you, and you follow as best you can, carrying all the bags and coats they shed along the way. Have a tarte au pomme or a hot chocolate at the top. You’ve earned it.
(Let them buy that crappy Eiffel Tower snow-globe keyring. You are making memories.)
Take a break
When you need a break from exploring, hop off the bus near one of Paris’ many beautiful parks. Take a breather here, and let the kids race around if they need to, or lie in the grass and make shapes out of clouds if that’s more your speed. If the weather is hot, float a paper boat in a pond, or let them dance through sprinklers to cool off.
Optional extra: after receiving a thorough soaking from the sprinklers, allow them to treat you and half-a-million other tourists to a dance performance on the Trocadéro to dry off. (Oh yes, they did). Or bring a change of clothes.
Ride a carousel. Buy crepes from an outdoor vendor and eat them for lunch under a tree or beside the river.
Hop back on the bus, and visit as few or as many more sites as you want to. When you’ve had enough, hop back off at Notre Dame, and take a short walk along the Seine and over the bridge to the picturesque Ile St-Louis, to enjoy a cone of the best ice cream in Paris, from Berthillon. It’s seriously worth it. Sit in the gutter if you have to. You’re not shy.
Have dinner with the artists
How is your energy? Are all of you flagging? If you have the stamina (or if you have a spare morning the next day), take the Metro once again, up to Montmartre.
The closest stations are Abbesses (green line), Anvers (blue line) or Lamarck Caulaincourt (green line). If you’re not sure which way to go from the station, just head up hill. Depending on which direction you come from, you’ll either pass winding lanes with artists selling wares that spill out onto the sidewalk; or there’ll be buskers, hawkers, tricksters performing that old cup-and-coin trick, and way more pedestrians than cars. Each walk is equally fun.
At the base of Sacre Coeur is a carousel that (joy of joys!) has two levels. This will make your children very happy indeed. When they’re ready to leave it, take the funiculaire up to Sacre Coeur (go in or not depending on their interest - it’s the actual funiculaire that they will love, and the cost is a standard Metro ticket price).
Now walk around the corner to Place du Tertre for dinner. Choose one of the restaurants facing onto this lovely public square (once a favourite haunt of all your favourite artists) and order something delicious. I love moules-frites with a crisp rosé, but you do your thing.
There will be loads of amateur artists wandering around, offering to draw or paint or cut portraits of you and your little ones, and selling landscapes of all the places you have visited and admired today. I know, it’s cheesy, and the likeness is not exactly the best. But what a great memento of your day in Paris with your family, having your children immortalised forever in the style of a mid-century-mod portrait. You could take a wander around and pick up a souvenir for not too much if you like, or settle in for that dinner and let the artists come to you.
As dusk settles and the café lights come on, snuggle those tired kids onto your lap and ask them, “What was your favourite part of today?” They’ll tell you it was the ice cream, and the sprinklers. Stuff you could just as easily have done at home.