From cycling adventures to theme parks, here are the best things to do with kids in France © margouillat photo / Shutterstock
Be it the cities, beaches or rural hinterland, France spoils family travelers with its rich mix of cultural sights, outdoor activities, and entertainment for children of all ages. Here's what you need to know about traveling with children in France, along with the best things to do to help you build the perfect family day out.
Is France good for kids?
With advance planning, savvy parents will find something for kids in almost every sight in France – blockbuster must-sees included. Skip the formal guided tour of Mont St-Michel, for example, and hook up with a walking guide to lead you and the children barefoot across the sand to the abbey; trade the daytime lines at the Eiffel Tower for a tour after dark with teens; don't dismiss wine tasting in Provence or Burgundy outright – rent bicycles and turn it into a family bike ride instead. The opportunities are endless.
There are endless options for family travelers in France © Imgorthand / Getty Images
Children's menus (fixed meals at a set price) are common, although after a while you may tire of the ubiquitous spaghetti bolognese or steak haché (beef burger) and frites (fries) followed by ice cream. An alternative is to ask for a half-portion of an adult main – restaurants generally oblige. It is perfectly acceptable to dine en famille after dark, provided the kids don't run wild. Many brasseries and cafes serve food continuously from 7am or 8am until midnight, making them an appealing option for families with younger children. Some restaurants have high chairs and supply paper and pens for children to draw with while waiting for their meal.
In Paris and larger towns and cities, serviced apartments equipped with washing machines and kitchens are suited to families with younger children. Countrywide, hotels with family or four-person rooms can be hard to find and need booking in advance. Functional – if soulless – chain hotels such as Formule 1, found on the outskirts of most large towns, always have a generous quota of family rooms and make convenient overnight stops for motorists.
Best things to do in France with kids
In addition to the obvious sights, tourist offices can tell you what's on that's suitable for kids – and the repertoire is impressive: puppet shows, children's theaters, children's cinema, street buskers, illuminated monuments after dark, an abundance of music festivals and so on. Here are some of the best things to do in France as a family.
There are five themed lands at Disneyland, Paris © Krzysztof Dydynski / Lonely Planet
Top of the French theme park list is Disneyland, Paris. Throw yourself into the magical world, with its five themed lands and bonanza of exciting rides and shows. Experience thrills, spills and highly educative stuff at Vulcania, which is all about Auvergne's long-extinct volcanoes. Futuroscope in Poitou offers space-age cinematic experiences for all ages at its huge, film-themed fun park. If the past is more your thing, then look to the Musée Parc des Dinosaures et de la Préhistoire in Bouziques, where you can take a stroll in the woods where life-size dinosaur models lurk.
Learn all about space at Cité de l'Espace in Toulouse © Sharon Wildie / Shutterstock
When buying tickets at museums and monuments, ask about children's activity sheets – most have something to hook kids. Many Paris museums organize creative ateliers (workshops) for children, usually on Wednesday afternoons and weekends. Another winner is to arm your gadget-mad child (from six years) with an audio guide. Older children can check out what apps a museum or monument might have for smartphones and tablets.
Toulouse's fantastic space museum, Cité de l'Espace, allows exploration of the depths of outer space where you can discover what life is like as an astronaut. If underground Paris appeals to you or your kids, take a romp through the sewage tunnels at Musée des Égouts or ogle thousands of skulls at Les Catacombes (not suitable for young children).
Monaco's world-renowned Musée Océanographique de Monaco is a stunning museum of biology and oceanography with an aquarium dating to 1910 as its centerpiece. Aquarium La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast is among France's finest. There are other aquariums in Paris, Boulogne-sur-Mer, St-Malo, Montpellier, Brest, Lyon and Biarritz.
In Lyon, immerse yourselves in the enchanting world of puppetry at Le Petit Musée Fantastique de Guignol. Any traveler with a sweet tooth will want to visit Musée du Bonbon Haribo in Uzès, which explores the sweets-making process from the early 20th century through to the present day.
Watch birds of prey soaring through the sky at some regional and national parks © StockByM / Getty Images
For animal loving kids, there are several places in France to keep an eye out for creatures of all kinds. Come face-to-face with ibex, chamois and cuddly, kid-pleasing marmots at Parc National de la Vanoise in the French Alps; have close encounters with scampering chamois, Greenland huskies, horned stags, yaks and wild horses in Parc Polaire, Jura; and there are wolves in semi-freedom at Parc Alpha in Parc National du Mercantour, Parc Animalier des Monts de Guéret and Les Loups du Gévaudan. Playful bottlenose dolphins splash around in the Mediterranean, and whales are sometimes sighted too. There's prime viewing from boat trips on the Côte d'Azur and Corsica.
There are several great bird-watching destinations too. Observe storks and kingfishers at Réserve Ornithologique du Teich, near Arcachon, hatchling storks at NaturOparC, Hunawihr in Alsace, and marvel at hundreds of local and exotic birds at the well-organized Parc des Oiseaux, in La Dombes near Lyon. You can also watch vultures soar through mountain skies in the wild Grands Causses at Maison des Vautours, the Parc National des Pyrénées, and the Gorges du Verdon in Provence.
Montpellier's zoo, which is free to visit, is laid out like a safari park, so be prepared to walk long distances. Paris' state-of-the-art zoo – home to lions, jaguars, rhinos and monkeys – focuses on the conservation of species and habitats.
Sail a boat in Jardin du Luxembourg like children did back in the 1920s © mkmakingphotos / Shutterstock
History and culture
Family-friendly spots where you can learn about French history and culture include MuséoParc Alésia, Burgundy, where you'll relive the battle between Julius Caesar and Vercingétorix at Alésia in 52 BCE at this first-class museum. Also in Burgundy, make believe as medieval builders at the medieval construction site of Chantier Médiéval de Guédelon. You can time-travel to 1920s Paris in Jardin du Luxembourg by chasing vintage sailboats with a stick like Parisian kids did a century ago. Older children may wish to learn about WWI on battlefields near Lille, Flanders and the Somme, and WWII with a road trip of Normandy's D-Day Beaches.
Older children may enjoy a lesson with a ski school © pixinoo / Shutterstock
Once the kids are out of nappies, skiing in the French Alps is the obvious family choice. Ski school École du Ski Français initiates kids in the art of snow plough from four years old, and many resorts open jardins de neige (snow gardens) to children from three years old. Families with kids aged under 10 will find smaller resorts including Les Gets, Avoriaz (car-free), La Clusaz, Chamrousse and Le Grand Bornand easier to navigate and better value than larger ski stations.
The French Alps and Pyrenees are prime walking areas. Tourist offices have information on easy, well-signposted family walks, or get in touch with a local guide. In Chamonix, the cable-car ride and two-hour hike to Lac Blanc followed by a dip in the Alpine lake is a DIY family favorite. As with skiing, smaller places such as the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges cater much better to young families than the big names everyone knows.
There are plenty of places for families to try water sports in France © Carol Kohen / Getty Images
White water sports and canoeing are doable for children aged seven and older; the French Alps, Provence and Massif Central are key areas. Mountain biking is an outdoor thrill that teens can share – try Morzine. Or dip into some gentle sea kayaking around calanques (deep rocky inlets), below cliffs and into caves in the Mediterranean, a family activity suitable for kids aged four and upwards. Marseille in Provence and Bonifacio on Corsica are hot spots to rent the gear and get afloat.
Son et lumière shows
Sure winners for all the family are the son et lumière (sound-and-light) shows projected on some Renaissance châteaux in the Loire Valley; the papal palace in Avignon; and cathedral façades in Rouen, Chartres and Amiens. Outstanding after-dark illuminations that never fail to enchant include Paris' Eiffel Tower and Marseille's Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée.
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