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France with Family

Hello - My family of 5 (6, 5 & 18 month old) are planning on visiting France next late March for ~8 days. We're trying to devise a trip which would allow us to spend a few days in Paris but then also drive somewhere beautiful outside of Paris that would be under 3.5 hours to limit the amount of schlepping required. We'd love to get the big city feel of Paris but then also enjoy a smaller more manageable environment with the idyllic winding cobblestone streets, bakeries and brasseries. Any recommendations for towns? We've been toying with the Loire valley (maybe Amboise?) or Normandy (Bayeux perhaps?) but that is all just based off googling. I'd love to go somewhere like Aix en Provence but i think logistically with the kids that would require too much travel.

Posted by
20797 posts

France has many charming towns that would meet your specifications, but it would help us to know approximately what you mean by "smaller" in terms of population. Experience has shown that we have wildly divergent ideas of what words like "small", "smaller" and "village" mean. Also, how important is it to end up somewhere that isn't full of other visitors?

Normandy tends to be coolish and wet even in the summer, so that could not be my first choice of destination in late March. Not that it would be cold, but I prefer to wander around in sunny weather. I don't know how much better Amboise would be.

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks acraven. That's a good point about Normandy weather. I don't have a hard definition but I think maybe somewhere from like 5,000 to 20,000 people with lots of other towns nearby.

Posted by
6503 posts

St. Malo? Could take the train.

Myself with kids this age, I'd get an apartment in Paris and enjoy the quite varied experiences available in Paris .

March is not a particularly pleasant time of year and traveling with small kids is difficult; cities are good winter destinations; small towns not so much. What would you do with three little kids on a rainy day in a village? Paris has lots of indoor options for nasty days like a big kids science center in Villette. And the two older kids can probably get a lot out of museums if you have the knack for working with their interests and attention span.

Posted by
20797 posts

I haven't been to many places that small in northern France, but I remember recommendations for medieval Provins as a day-trip from Paris. Its population is 12,000, and the town has regional rail service. The latter isn't especially fast, but the tickets wouldn't be expensive.

This is what Google serves up if you search for photos Provins:

https://www.google.com/search?q=photos+provins&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKEwj89478u8v1AhVJMM0KHbwPCocQ2-cCegQIABAA&oq=photos+provins&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzIECAAQHjIGCAAQCBAeMgYIABAIEB4yBggAEAgQHjIGCAAQCBAeMgYIABAIEB46BQgAEIAEUJgLWKYiYKglaARwAHgAgAFViAGqB5IBAjEymAEAoAEBqgELZ3dzLXdpei1pbWfAAQE&sclient=img&ei=ayzvYbwWyeC0BryfqLgI&bih=625&biw=1280

I'm sure there are many other good possibilities not terribly far from Paris.

Posted by
2924 posts

Will you have 8 full days on the ground, or do parts of your first and last days involve arrival and departure? Even with 8 full days, that's not much time when you consider getting over jet lag, adjusting to the language and money, etc. With that little time, I wouldn't want to waste energy packing up repeatedly, checking in and out of lodging and moving from one place to another.

I agree with the suggestion to stay in Paris, for all the reasons given. If you want to experience a place outside the city, you could take the train to any of many destinations that are within an hour or two of Paris. Chantilly is one that comes to mind, and of course there's Versailles. If you want a big huge park where your 5-year-old can run around and let off steam, the Parc de Sceau is on the southern outskirts of Paris and has a wide open feel to it.

Posted by
6503 posts

What K2 said. Provins will not be up and running with the hawk shows and such. You can take a train there and walk through the medieval walls and get a hot dog, but the hassle to joy factor in March with an 18 mos old to manage and nothing much for the little kids to see is not going to pay off.

Paris is filled with and surrounded by parks many of which include lakes with rowboats for a nice day (not sure about March availability-- both Park Vincennes and Bois de Bologne have lakes with boat rentals) and carousels. There is a zoo and a natural history museum in the Garden of Plants in the 5th. Parts of Paris have a village like aspect --- e.g. Butte Aux Cailles. Small attractive towns tend to have a tourist economy and be pretty much shut down in winter. Many of them don't have much to do but look pretty and even the cafes and restaurants tend to close in winter. I have visited small towns in April where we couldn't even get a cup of coffee.There are lots of small towns near Paris that on a very nice day might be interesting. Cressy la Chapelle comes to mind with its venice like canals and picturesque wash houses. Senlis is a lovely medieval town visited by train and bus from Paris. And of course Chartres has the Cathedral and is a lovely little town. All of these can be day trips but never go to a small town with a tourist economy on a Monday as they shut down those days. In winter many places will shut down for weeks at a time -- but Monday is the usual closing day even in summer.

I don't know how up and running it is in March but Jardin Acclimatation in the edge of the Bois du Bologne and adjacent to the Louis Vuitton Foundation museum is a fantastic antique amusement park for children the age of yours. You could even take the 18 mos old on the amazing deconstructed merry go round where horses gallop through the field on tracks rather than in circles. You can carry the littlest in front of you on your horse. There are lots of rides for small kids and a few animal exhibits. We found the rides up and running in October, so maybe it would be going in March. If you go to the Louis Vuitton exhibit first and visit its amazing Gehry building, you can walk free into the Garden. Tickets for rides can be purchased from machines with credit cards throughout the park. Take a picnic. Here are some shots from our first visit in May -- we went again with friends in late October last year.
https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/delights-of-jardin-acclimatation-and-fondation-louis-vuitton/

Posted by
8263 posts

I thoroughly agree with the others. The furthest you can get south in 3 hours from Paris is Beaune or its nearby villages. March in Burgundy is cold, damp, even still dreary. My in-laws lived in Burgundy, so I used to visit a lot. It's not where I'd choose in March. I wouldn't go any other direction, either, for the same reason. At least in Paris, you have bakeries and brasseries, but also something to do. Perhaps you could find a house or apartment to rent in an outer district that has some winding streets and little stone houses: 13th, 20th, 15th, 17th

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks everybody! What do you think about taking a high speed train to Colmar to spend a few days? Looks like an incredible place.

Posted by
3607 posts

Colmar sure looks incredible, but late March is also a bit early there - not quite Spring yet - and there's not that much to do.
Also, the trip is only about ~1 hour quicker than your initial idea of Aix en Provence, which would actually be a good choice if you must leave Paris for 3 nights or so.
But I agree with the others who are suggesting to stay in Paris.

Posted by
8263 posts

One day as I stood on a cute cobblestone street in Aix freeeezzzzing, I wondered what was going on. I was visiting one of my kids who was studying at the university, while we were living in Cassis 30 minutes away for six months. The answer was a wind called La Mistral, which blows out of the Alps about every third day, including in March. You have to go further west onto the Languedoc coast toward Spain or east around Nice in order to avoid it. We avoid the Rhone Valley in winter.

Posted by
20797 posts

It's unfortunate that the train trip from Paris to Nice takes so much longer than the trip to Avignon. Nice is about 6 hours from Paris, or longer.

Posted by
3607 posts

While the Mistral is indeed freezing, by late March the coldest days are typically over, and at that time of the year I would take Mistral over rainy/grey days (not so in January when it can really be freezing with the wind).
In any case, I think the best advice here is probably to stay in Paris the whole time. Moving around with children/toddlers is tiresome.

Posted by
5221 posts

Paris -- parks, playgrounds, boat rides, bakeries, it's all there. Versailles has an enormous park if the big Paris parks aren't enough. Get an apartment if you can so you can spread out, have some meals there, give each parent a chance to get out and about while the other one tends to the kids. As suggested above, look for a place near one of the big parks or outside the center where things are more spread out == the "manageable environment" you're looking for. No schlepping at all required, except the big schlep between continents which hopefully the kids will mostly sleep through.

Posted by
6503 posts

Exactly. I love medieval towns but there is NOTHING to do in them in winter. Not great with small kids.

Posted by
152 posts

We just did a 24-nigth trip to France with our 4 year old. I'd agree that a week in Paris would maximize your fun and minimize disruptions. My kiddo takes at least 1-2 nights to acclimate to sleeping in a new bed, so we try to stay in destinations for at least 4 nights when possible. If you rent an apartment in Paris for your entire trip, you may be able to get a weekly discount of up to 10%, when compared with staying fewer nights.

If you're set on getting out of Paris, I would do a day trip versus an overnight stay, which will allow you to pivot if the weather takes an ugly turn one day. We has originally planned to do a day trip to Chartres from Paris, but the weather was awful so we skipped it and headed for a museum in Paris instead.

One place in Paris my kiddo LOVED (we actually went back three times haha) was the Ludo Jardin inside Luxembourg Garden. It's a fully-enclosed playground that has a wide range of activities for all ages.

Posted by
20797 posts

Colmar is lovely. I liked it a lot despite the heavy tourist load (in the summer) in the central part of the historic district. The major sight is the quite good Unterlinden Museum, but that's obviously not a plus for your three children. I have no idea how lively or not it would be during your time frame.

If you really, really want to spend some nights outside Paris and hope for warmer weather, I'd consider Avignon. There are TGVs making that run in as little as 2 hr. 37 min. It looks as if the average daytime temperature would be about 6 degrees (F) higher in Avignon than in Paris, but you'd have to expect the same sort of nighttime temperatures.

You can find climate-summary charts in most cities' Wikipedia entries. If you want more than monthly averages, go to timeanddate.com instead. It has actual, historical, day-by-day weather statistics that allow you to see how good or bad it might be during your proposed travel period. Do check multiple years, though.

Posted by
5 posts

Coming from Chicago we aren't typically too deterred by weather but certainly warmer climates are appreciated :). It looks like Colmar is a pretty big town, is the concern with March that attractions would be closed or just that it'd be too cold to walk around and enjoy oneself? We were hoping to do a mix of big city (Paris) and subdued, quaint France - at least how I imagine it in my head. We were hoping to rent an airbnb or villa that would allow the family to immerse itself as much as possible and just casually enjoy the smaller towns/villages without feeling the need to see every attraction.

Posted by
6503 posts

The problem is that touristy quaint French towns are pretty locked up in March. There just isn't anything to do. We visited Colmar years ago and didn't find it terribly interesting. Strasbourg nearby had a lot more of interest in its compact center but again in March I would be surprised if the canal boat trips and such are up and running. WE have visited small French towns like say Moret sur Loing in November and were lucky to find lunch. The nice thing about Paris is that there is a variety -- there are parts of town much like villages and lots of parks etc but also the indoor venues of a big city and things to do with kids indoors. In June

Posted by
6503 posts

PS. you will not find hotel rooms for 5 so definitely be planning on apartments. And the French are very strict about occupancy so if you found a family room for 4, you could not add in the 18 mos old. In the US you can jam a whole family into a hotel room but that is not possible in France (unless it is the almost impossible 5 person family room or a suite.)

Posted by
8263 posts

To give you an idea of what a French town is like for visiting or staying in winter, watch this video from Véro that she recorded five days ago. She shows the tourist highlights, but this town itself is dead, stirring only during market hours. My in-laws lived in a village with a chateau, food store, cafe, and a couple other things. It's was nice visiting June-September.

https://fb.watch/aPGW8JRjzf/

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you all for the feedback and advice, it is truly appreciated! I did want to clarify we're planning on going late March so this would technically be the beginning of Spring, not Winter. Not sure if that makes a difference..

Posted by
6503 posts

Late March is cold and rainy no matter what you call it and small quaint touristy villages will be pretty much shut down.

Posted by
8263 posts

Even in the south of France, where you have sunnier days, many, many restaurants and cafes don't reopen until Easter weekend or April 1.

Posted by
6503 posts

We have found restaurants, hotels etc in small villages still closed for the season in early May -- thought we'd have to sleep in the car on one trip after being turned away from several places not yet open for the season.