If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s this: the spirit of France is always a good idea.
What France is all about
As Audrey Hepburn said in the movie Sabrina, “Paris is always a good idea”.
I had travelled to Paris and throughout France as a teen and then as a young adult. But it had been many years. I yearned to introduce this land of “savoir-faire” and “je ne sais quoi” to my daughters (aged 10 and 14). I hoped it might capture their hearts as it had mine.
Paris was an obvious choice with its worldly sophistication. But I also wanted them to see another side of France. Provence seemed like just the right place to explore beyond Paris. My husband and I had never been so we could explore with the kids for the first time.
This was quite an optimistic plan with only eight days. But we were determined to pack in as much as we could despite the time limitation.
Where to stay in Paris
Paris is home to some of the world’s leading hotels. Although the idea of staying within a quick stroll of all of the popular monuments appealed to us, it was advised that we consider staying on the outskirts of the city in the village of Montmartre.
This area of Paris is best known for being the location of the Sacré Coeur Basilica. It’s one of the most iconic landmarks in the city and definitely a must-see.
Sweet Inn offers a great range of stylish apartments both in Paris and on the outskirts. Their concept of booking the convenience of an apartment with the treatment of a hotel guest is evident in the apartment amenities (a Nespresso in every apartment!), the centrally located city lobby (equipped with free Wi-Fi, drinks and dedicated staff ready to give you insider tips on the city) and concierge services that would rival any 5-star hotel.
At first, we were hesitant to stay outside of the city centre, but in the end, living like a local for a few days in this quaint and historic suburb is what truly made the experience special for us.
Strolling these hillside streets and seeing the artists in the square was superb. At the end of each hectic day of touring the sights, it was a reprieve to get away from the hustle and bustle, and while still in close proximity to the city, it seemed like a world away. Evenings were spent perusing the whimsical shops and dining on a patio watching locals mix seamlessly with tourists.
Getting around Paris: Hop On/Hop Off bus
The Big Bus was an invaluable mode of transportation while in the city and one of the routes even took us back home to Montmartre.
Be sure to download the mobile app and keep an eye on when the next bus is passing by to take you to your next point of interest.
At times when the girls’ feet were weary from walking and the heat was taking its toll on everyone, we all enjoyed sitting on the top of the double decker, letting the sights go by, listening to the audio about the city while taking Instagram-worthy photos. The top deck was an especially great point for capturing the Eiffel Tower.
Purchase a one or two-day ticket and have unlimited access to two different routes in the city that includes all of the major landmarks.
We were in Paris before the tragic fire in the Notre Dame and my only regret was that time did not permit us to make a visit as the lines were very long. Instead, lunch was had on a terrace overlooking the famous cathedral while we explained its significance to the kids.
How to see the Eiffel Tower without the wait
The Eiffel Tower is arguably the world’s most popular attraction. Although it calls out from a distance at virtually every point of the city, you shouldn’t leave Paris without visiting the top.
Mon Beau Paris offers a solution to beat the crowds that swarm this iconic landmark with their Skip the Line Eiffel Tower Tour. This two-hour tour in a small group of no more than nine participants will take you to the second floor by elevator. From there your guide will accompany you to the top of the tower while entertaining you with tales of the tower’s history and construction, as well as fun facts about the World’s Fair. Your ticket also includes access to the 3rd floor and a spectacular 360-degree view of the city.
After the tour, go to a depanneur, buy a baguette, cheese and wine and have a picnic with the best view of the tower. The girls still talk about it as their favourite meal of the trip. Find a seat in Champs de Mars park and revel in the splendour of Paris.
Where to get the best vantage of the Eiffel Tower at night
A great vantage point to view the tower lit up at night is from the water. Cruise from the Pont Neuf (oldest bridge in the city) and watch Paris life along the famous banks of the Seine.
This hour-long tour runs both day and night and departs every half hour from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Book an open ticket that will be accepted upon availability or book a time slot to ensure a time that works best for you.
A moment of remembrance at the Arc de Triomphe
More than an iconic landmark, the significance of the Arc de Triomphe resonates with history buffs as it honours those who fought and died for France in both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Commissioned by French king Louis-Philippe and inaugurated in 1836, it has been inscribed with the names of all French victories and generals on its surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. If you are there in the late afternoon you can watch the flame of remembrance rekindled every day at 6:30 p.m.
You can pre-purchase your ticket before leaving home as it is valid for one year. If you are visiting during high season, download the free Affluences app or check out their website for live wait times so you can plan your day as efficiently as possible. Download the guidebook and go independent with audio in nine languages or opt for a guided tour. Admission is free for those under 18 so it makes for a very affordable and educational experience for the whole family.
Fashion after any girl’s heart at Galeries Lafayette
If you have ever been to France, you are familiar with Galeries Lafayette, the upscale department store that rivals any Holt Renfrew in Canada.
Their flagship store offers daily fashion shows that will be sure to excite any fashionista. Reserve in advance and arrive early to ensure a good seat to check out what is hot in this year’s fashion.
Fashion not your thing? A number of other experiential activities are available, from French macaron baking to wine tasting.
How best to visit the Louvre Museum
Regardless of your level of art appreciation, the Louvre is a must. Once a royal residence, the building became a museum in 1793 at the time of the French Revolution.
It’s easy to get lost perusing the five levels in three interconnecting wings but be sure to go beyond the iconic Mona Lisa on level one as you will be truly inspired.
Download the free mobile app to help guide you through a truly unbelievable collection. Go early and buy tickets in advance to avoid the crowds and lines at the ticket kiosk.
Play detective to lift the curse of the Phantom of the Opera inside the Palais Garnier
Discover Charles Garnier’s architectural masterpiece with a unique and immersive twist that the kids will love.
More than an escape room, Inside Opera is a life-sized game that will take you through the rooms of the Palais Garnier guided by characters in period costumes while you uncover clues to lift the curse of the infamous Phantom of the Opera and set him free.
Play individually or in teams to solve a series of puzzles for people of all ages. Pre-book your tickets on any smartphone as there is no ticket office on site.
Hop on board the train to Provence
We wanted to rent a car for the flexibility of exploring the treasures of the Provence region. But we wanted to avoid the stress and traffic of finding our way out of Paris.
Hopping on the train from Paris Gare de Lyon station in downtown was the perfect solution. RailEurope offers access to rail products from over 50 European train companies. The express trip to Avignon takes under three hours. I would opt for this form of travel on my next trip to Europe for sure. Pay the extra and upgrade to first class for comfy seats with ample legroom, and a power outlet at each seat.
Download the My Train Companion app to both book and manage your trips. We headed south to Avignon in comfort and style. There are two stations in Avignon. Avignon Gare TGV is the station most centrally located. All of the major car rental companies have a location right at the train station so it’s very convenient.
Stay in a castle in Provence
If you are looking for somewhere to rest your head that is representative of the great charm of Provence, look no further than Le Château de Mazan.
With just 30 rooms, this former castle, now a family-run boutique hotel, has an unexpected and interesting history. Built circa 1720, it was once the residence of the Marquis de Sade and home to the very first theatre festival in France. Later it became a private residence, then a religious school, then a retirement home which closed in 1999.
Choose from 25 rooms in the castle or five rooms in the Provençal 18th century village house adjacent to the main building. Be sure to book a room overlooking the beautiful gardens.
An outdoor pool is ideally situated amongst the gardens. It’s a great place to meet other guests from around the world. Dine in the chateau’s gourmet restaurant on a delightful patio and imagine the colourful past of this elegant but cozy setting.
The Chateau de Mazan is a perfect base to explore several villages in the surrounding area. This is made easy with the freedom of a rental car.
Provence villages not to miss
Located on the Rhone River, Avignon has had a colourful history. It remains a city of significant architecture, cultural festivals and a place of refuge for the artistic at heart.
Origins of this important city can be traced back to ancient times, formally established in the 12th century. With the coming of the popes in the 14th century, Avignon soon became the capital of Christianity. At one time seven popes reigned in Avignon.
In 1378, the Papacy returned to Rome but the Palace of the Popes is one of the great monuments of France and is a must-see while in Avignon. Enjoyable for both parents and kids, 3D technology augments your tour of the biggest Gothic palace in Europe.
Each visitor receives a tactile tablet (Histopad). The tablet lets you immerse yourself in each unique room of the palace and visualize how it was during the 14th century. This was a big hit with the kids (and the adults). We competed to collect coins and treasures as we moved from room to room.
If you have more time, add on a tour of the historic Pont Saint-Bénézet. It’s the bridge that inspired the song “On the Bridge of Avignon”. Discover the curious legend of the young shepherd Bénézet who came down from the hills and said he was sent by God to build a bridge. Completed in 1185, at one time this was the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean to cross the Rhone. Today only four of the magnificent arches remain. But you can still tour the bridge and walk until it ends in the middle of the Rhone.
Entrance to the Palace of the Popes is free for children under eight and discounted for those under 18. Be sure to ask for family ticket pricing if you are combining the palace and the bridge in one visit.
Avignon on two wheels
A great way to experience the city is with a one-hour Gyropode Segway tour with Mobilboard. After a brief safety demonstration, Philipe, our guide gave us an “insider’s view” of the city centre. This included the streets of Avignon and the papal palace and park. Philipe was knowledgeable and very flexible to stop when we wanted to take a photo or admire the view. It was a fun and educational overview of a city that won’t soon be forgotten.
Vibrations light and sound show
We ended our tour of the Palace of the Popes with a truly enchanting and completely immersive experience of light, sounds and vibrations. The result is something almost dream-like or right out of a fairy tale.
Images are simultaneously projected on all four façades of the courtyard thanks to 14 projectors. The multisensory, 30-minute show takes you through the history of the Popes in Avignon and of the palace where they resided. The show runs during the summer months with one show at 9:15 p.m. followed by one at 10:15 p.m.
Translated to mean “Pope’s new town,” the name speaks to the history of this village. It has a population of less than 3,000. The popes of Avignon built a summer palace to escape the more hectic life in Avignon in the 14th century at the request of Pope John XXII, who was the second pope to call Avignon home.
Today, this castle sits in ruins at the top of a hill overlooking the village. But it still offers a fantastic point from which to view the surrounding lands and vineyards.
Although our visit was motivated by great wine, we were quickly charmed by the village itself. There are around 350 vineyards producing the wine permitted to don the label of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Many of the shops in town sell the wine and offer tastings.
You’ll find picturesque homes and outdoor cafés as you walk down Rue Joseph Ducos. Climbing the steps to the castle ruins is a great way to burn off the wine and cheese of the day. But if you are not up for the trek, the castle is accessible by car.
The best way to visit this cute village of canals, known as France’s “Venice of Provence,” is to park your car on the outskirts of the main entrance and explore on foot.
Although anytime is a great time to visit, the Sunday market is a highlight. It is the largest outdoor market in the area of Luberon with everything from food and antiques to fine art. If you are an antique collector, you have found your haven any day of the week. Although I’m not an antique collector, I was surprisingly intrigued by all of the interesting stalls.
Market day is by far the busiest and makes for an interesting experience as you mix with locals. If you opt to visit another day of the week, there is still plenty to occupy you. Cross bridges connecting the canals and take in the retro wooden water wheels and colourfully painted shutters of the village buildings.
Perched on the foothills of the Vaucluse Mountains, Gordes has to be one of the prettiest villages in France. You can see why it has been the inspiration of so many artists.
The white stone architecture and dramatic cliffs make strolling the intricate network of “calades” (narrow cobblestone streets) a breathtaking journey. I found myself wandering off from the family as each time I turned a corner or climbed a set of stairs, I stumbled upon yet another wonderous discovery.
Houses are built on many levels; restaurants are strategically situated on cliffsides and the village is crowned by its Renaissance castle at the top. This was one place I would have loved to spend more time. We grabbed a light bite at a café and felt like we were one of the villagers.
Take a few minutes to visit the castle dating back to the 11th century and the museum it houses. If time permits, take a tour of the fascinating system of caves and cellars under the castle. This is where much of the olive oil production once took place.
Paris to Provence
Experiencing Paris through the eyes of my daughters and discovering the many charms of Provence as a family made for an unforgettable vacation. I still can’t believe how much fun, food and sightseeing we were able to pack into eight magical days.
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