One of the great things about visiting Paris in the off season is how easy it is to find affordable, central accommodation for the family. Paris is one place where rental apartments are great value. For example, mid range hotels in Paris that were close to the sights started at about $250-$300 Canadian per night, even in mid March while a quick search on VRBO turned up dozens of one bedroom apartments for less than half that price. Since we prefer the space and amenities of a rental it seemed like an easy choice.
I ended up sorting through the apartment options by narrowing my choices to about ten that looked nice and were centrally located and then just going with the one who’s owner responded quickly and seemed nice. We ended up on a pedestrian street just off a busier main street in the 3rd arrondissement, part of the Marais district, and it turned out to be a great base for exploring the city.
Now, the city of Paris is divided into 20 of these districts, called arrondissements, and it can be a bit tricky to sort them out. For one thing, the word arrondissement is usually shortened on maps to “e” for some reason. Also, the districts are numbered in sort of a spiral, working your way outward from the centre of the city. But not always. For example, our apartment was in the 3rd district, but to get to the very centre of the city we had to cross through the 4th district before coming to the 1st district. This spiral pattern also meant that if we walked north we’d end up in the 10th district, east would take us to the 11th, west would bring us through the 1st and 2nd to the 8th and south of the river from us was the 5th and 6th. Simple, right?
But even though the neighbourhood layout was a bit confusing, we found the 3rd arrondissement to be a great place to stay. Paris is a great city for walking and we were able to get to the Notre Dame cathedral in about 20 minutes and the Louvre in around twice that. There was a metro stop right around the corner and several others within a few minutes walk as well as a major transit hub, the Les Halles/Chatelet station about ten minutes away.
The street we were on was actually part of a sort of mini Asian district with quite a few Asian restaurants and specialty stores in the immediate area. The local streets seemed vibrant with lots of people out shopping and frequenting restaurants in the area in the evenings so we never felt unsafe, even though there were a few homeless people on the streets and some of the smaller side streets seemed a bit rough looking. There were also quite a few small to medium sized grocery stores in the area as well as some of the specialty food stores Paris is so famous for; bakeries, seafood shops, produce stores, specialty cheese shops, etc. We may have missed out a bit on the local food scene by eating most of our evening meals at the apartment, but I really enjoyed being able to do my grocery shopping as a temporary local.
The Marais district also had some excellent parks and playgrounds to explore. With their high rents and small apartments, families in Paris make good use of the city’s green spaces and we found the local parks to be filled with people of all ages enjoying the outdoors. One thing that we found very useful in Paris was a DK Eyewitness Travel book called “Family Guide to Paris”, which I had received for Christmas last year. Not only does it highlight family friendly sights and restaurants, but it’s maps mark the locations of playgrounds throughout the city. As any travelling family knows, a good playground can instantly improve the day for the whole family. Paris has some great ones and one of the best we found was near the Temple metro stop, only a few minutes from our home base.
But along with the shops, parks and restaurants, the Marais district also has some world class sights that we didn’t want to miss. Almost every day we walked past the eye catching Pompidou Centre, an enormous modern art museum. It is a bold, futuristic building set in a large, open plaza where the kids could run around chasing pigeons and we could watch the interesting mix of tourists, art lovers, vagrants and school groups that moved through the area.
I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of modern art, but we couldn’t be that close to a place like the Pompidou Centre without checking it out for ourselves. It helped that we had purchased Paris Museum passes that allowed us to visit nearly all the major sights in Paris for one price. We started with a ride up the external escalator to the top floor where we did our best to interest the kids in the art that we liked most, the post impressionists and cubists. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I recognized from Art History class so many years ago. The kids, on the other hand, seemed drawn to the surrealists and dada exhibits. We rounded up the visit with a visit to a children’s hands on area where they made their own abstract creations.
Another stop that we enjoyed was just around the corner from our apartment, an interesting museum called the Musee des Arts et Metiers, which loosely translates to the museum of art and industry. Sounds sort of dry and boring, right? But it turned out to be a fun and slightly quirky place to visit. It had a wide ranging collection of exhibits, from the re-creation of an 18 century chemistry lab to models of various factories to collections of antique mechanical toys. The museum is housed in a former abbey and the highlight of the collection is the former church sanctuary, it’s stained glass windows and soaring ceiling intact, now filled with antique cars, airplanes and other vehicles. We had a fun morning checking out the fascinating exhibits.
We had a great time exploring the Marais district over the week we had in Paris. There were so many things to do that we felt like we barely scratched the surface. It was interesting and vibrant and we’d love to come back and spend some more time there next chance we get.