My family of 4 went to Europe for spring break and had just the best time ever!!! We explored both London, England and Paris, France (with a day trip to Versaille) all in 10 days. As we traveled, I posted pictures on my personal Facebook page and got so many questions about how and what and tips, etc. So many that I decided to write a post on all the things that I could remember (oh that 40+ brain!) and all that I learned that helped me when traveling with my 9 and 11 year old children.
Here we go!
We each only had a small rolling carry-on and a small back pack. Everyone was responsible for carrying their own stuff (except passports which Scott carried all of ours). Tips and visuals on packing here!
Carry-on (for kids and me!):
- headphones (the airline stewards give them to you for free but not till the plane is off the ground and going. We got settled and were already enjoying our movies before the plane took off).
- Ipod (for the tween)
- cozy socks (to put on for the flight),
- eye mask,
- lightweight sweater/sweatshirt,
- large scarf (to use as a blanket or pillow—I had this, kids did not),
- neck-roll is helpful (adults had them, kids did not),
- origami paper (my son folded his way thru lines after lines), sketch book, journal (I wish we would have had the kids write each night about what they did that day, what their favorite thing was, etc.)
Tip: I packed granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, jerky sticks for the whole trip. You never know when you are going to be standing in a long line and a “baguette” stand is nowhere in sight. There is “less complaining” when the belly is satisfied 🙂 )
Itinerary for our 10 day trip:
Wednesday: fly to London, leaving the US west coast at 5pm.
Tip: kids only watched one movie, had dinner and then slept, because as soon as we got to Europe, we were go, go, going!
Once in London, we took the Underground (Or Tube, as they call their subway train) to Kings Cross and walked to our hotel.
Day 1: Harry Potter Platform 9 ¾, Walk the University Area, Dinner
We check into our hotel: The California (our darling hotel that was super close to train station), visited Platform 9 3/4, the Harry Potter store, then walked to dinner at Wahaca, a fun Mexican restaurant in the University area. Along the walk, we stopped into a few furniture stores and flower shops. It was good to be outside, in fresh air exploring. Helped to stimulate our tired bodies and brains. 🙂
Day 2: Train to Paris, Dinner Cruise on the Seine
We took the Chunnel train to Paris first thing in the morning (so nice, so easy. We had a travel agent book the tix for us ahead of time, but you could do it at the station too. I just don’t know how sold out the trains get. Anyone know? Please comment below!). When we arrived in Paris, we took an UBER from the train station to our VRBO (which was adorable! Check it out!), dropped bags and walked on the Seine (we were in the Latin Quarter, 1 block from the river); 6:30pm dinner cruise–booked thru Viator. HIGHLY RECOMMEND! It was the perfect way to acclimate to the layout of the city that we were going to explore for the next 5 days! Plus, it ended with a float past the Eiffel Tower all lit up at night!!! Talk about magical!!!
Day 3: Notre Dame, Shakespeare Bookstore, Luxemburg Gardens
First thing in the morning, we walked over the bridge to Notre Dame. It was one of our very favorite tours. The view from the towers was spectacular and the inside of the Cathedral was so old and historic. They even had a small replica made of balsa wood (the photo here) that was so small and detailed it took your breath away. I wonder if it survived the recent fire. 😦 After the tour, we strolled the streets of the islands. Lots of cute shops and cafes. We decided to stop and get crepes at one of the cafes for lunch. It was our first time ordering in french. Though we were stressed, we always started with Bonjour! And usually the waiter would start to speak in English. Most restaurants have English menus too. It was easier to navigate than I expected.
Tip: Greet everyone with Bonjour! and end with Merci!
Next, we headed back over the bridge to visit the Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore (So cool! My son bought a book and had it stamped—make sure to get that stamp if you get a book there!).
After the bookstore, we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens (you could also take Metro-we bought metro tix as we went. You could get a 5-day pass and save but we ended up walking a lot!) Long story short, we didn’t get to go IN the gardens. There were riots in and around the city that weekend and so they locked the gates and had armed guards patrolling the area. Quite different than in the USA.
Day 4: Eiffel Tower, Musee d’Orsay
Next stop: Eiffel Tower! We booked a guided tour thru Viator that took us to the second level (we did not go to the top). That tour guide was great! Lots of scandalous rumors included with the history of the city. He was funny but also, he wasn’t too hard to look at. (Tee hee hee)
I thought they were crazy, but my family wanted to take the stairs DOWN!!!!! We were told it takes only 10 minutes vs. the wait for the elevator could be up to an hour! I pulled up my big girl panties and spiraled down the steel stairs. As long as I wasn’t looking sideways or down at the trees below, I was fine. (At least that what I was telling myself!!!)
Once on solid ground *sigh*, we strolled the Seine gazing at the golden statue covered bridges, grabbed lunch at a Parisian restaurant along the way, and finally made it to the Musee D’ Orsay. I can’t brag enough about the Musee d’ Orsay. We ALL LOOOVED IT! Bought tix at door (but you might want to buy them ahead of time if you are going during the summer. They also have a deal where for $5 more, you can get into the Orangerie as well). The Orsay is open late on Thursdays which would be a fun evening activity with kids and probably less crowded.
Tip: I always felt safe walking thru Paris, even at night. It’s a big city but very different than the big cities of the USA.
Day 5: Louvre, Montmartre
We took the advice of other travelers and entered the Louvre thru the underground entrance on the back side/opposite the river side. Once in, we headed STRAIGHT to the Mona Lisa and were able to get in the 3rd row back from the ropes, waited our turn to get to the front, then quickly took our picts/selfies, and headed out of the room to wander the reset of the museum.
This place was massive. We bought only one guided headset. We mostly just wandered and enjoyed what we saw, grabbed lunch in the Louvre cafe’, got lost a few times, and then when we had enough we left. Low-pressure. Afterward, we got some fresh air. The kids played hide and seek in the Jardin Des Tuileries while we sat on a bench enjoying the moment.
Next stop was Montmartre/Sacre Couer Basilica! OUR FAV!!! We grabbed the Metro, got off and took the steep walk and stairs to the Sacre Couer Basilica. Grabbed an ice cream for the kids as we sat on the steps taking in the most BEAUTIFUL view of Paris.
I pulled out or tour book and followed the Rick Steve’s walking tour of Montmartre. There is a beautiful little courtyard where local artist display, sell and paint their artwork. We circled twice and decided to grab lunch at one of the open air restaurants overlooking the square. Before my rose’ was finished, my husband and son decided that one of those momentos of Paris, an ink painting by an artist in the square, needed to come home with us. (Now I just need to get it framed!)
We continued the walking tour, (all down hill–whew!), which brought us past Van Gogh’s apartment (there’s a plaque out front)and finally down to the Moulin Rouge. I hear the show is fantastic for ADULT eyes. 🙂 From there, we popped on the Metro home.
Day 6: Palace of Versaille
Time to get out of the city! We grabbed a crepe from the local creperie (OMG! Nutella banana, lick your fingers ’til every last spec is devoured!) We took the RER train to Versaille (I bought our entrance tickets online before we left the states which eased our entry–I hear they SELL OUT during the summer!) There was so much to see there. Included in your ticket is an audio guided tour of the Palace, which took about an hour. After turning in our headsets, we walked the garden, down the step of the fountain, strolled past all the marble sculptures down to The Grand Canal. There are rowboats for rent, a food stand and even restaurants if you want to sit and enjoy a formal lunch in the gardens. We continued our walk to The Grand Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s home (bought tickets at the door). Those gardens are beautiful too! The house was used to host world representatives all the way thru the 70’s. President Carter stayed there. 🙂
After The Grand Trianon, we went back to the Grand Canal and grabbed a baguette from the food stand and had a “picnic lunch” gazing at the duck-filled canal, and tourist filled rowboats.
Note: We didn’t see half there is to see at Versaille! There’s a little village M.Antoinette had built, lots and lots more fountains off the main avenue behind the marble sculptures. You could seriously stay all day!
Day 7: Palace de Opera, Gallerie Lafayette, Eiffel Tour at night
Our little buddy (my son) woke up not feeling so hot. But…we had places to see! A dose of Children’s Tylenol for the little guy and we hopped on the Metro to Palace de Opera where my daughter and I did the self-guided tour. (Buddy and dad rested on the velvet covered benches in the foyer of the theatre).
This place was SOOO BEAUTIFUL!!! I am so glad we didn’t skip it. In fact, if I had investigated ahead of time, I wish we could have seen a performance there. Afterward, we grabbed the boys and headed to the Gallerie Lafayette for a nibble and to see the magnificent ceiling! If you go, don’t miss the rooftop view! There is a wonderful gift shop on the top floor as well as a food court. Then behind the food court, there is an escalator to the roof. Take the escalator up from the food court and check out the rooftop view. It was a fun way to end our trip in Paris, pointing out all the monuments and places we had visited.
That night, we wanted to have an authentic French meal for our last night in Paris. We made a reservation at L’Auberge Bressane which was just a few blocks from the Eiffel tower. Reservation was for 7:30pm, the first reservation of the night (Parisians eat late!). We had frog legs (so crunchy!), cheese souffle, fresh greens, chicken with morel mushrooms (Morels were in everything–I guess they were in season), beef wellington, and the sampler dessert souffles. It was DEVINE!
After our bellies were significantly full, we walked over to see the Eiffel tower “twinkle lights”. The Eiffel Tower is always lit up but at the top of the hour, the lights twinkle for about 5 minutes. It’s so magical. This is a MUST SEE! As we strolled to the Metro, hand in hand, we reminisced about all the wonderful things we did and saw during our visit to Paris.
Day 8: Train ride to London, Kensington Palace & Gardens
In the morning, we closed up our VRBO, popped on the RER/Metro to catch the Chunnel train back to London. In London, we tubed it to The Baron Hotel.
Tip: In London, KEEP your metro ticket. Unlike in Paris, you have to use it to get OUT of the turn-style in the London Underground!
Once we were checked into our hotel, we walked over to the Princess Diana’s playground, continued thru Kensington gardens to view the Kensington Palace, circled the pond filled with ducks and swans, then headed back to our hotel to find a spot for dinner. We ended up eating at a fantastic Thai food restaurant called Nipa which was within walking distance of our hotel.
Day 9: Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abby, War Rooms, Convent Garden, Musical: School of Rock
Buckingham Palace, changing of the guards— We got to the gate 1 hour and 45 minutes early to get SECOND row seats on the left side of the main gates. To put it mildly, it gets really crowded. We chose a spot next to another American family whom we chatted with, played the A-B-C game with, etc. It was really pleasant UNTIL “gametime” when the crowds started pushing in. Let’s just say, choose where you stand wisely for you’re standing pretty darn close to those people for up to 3 hours!!!
Next, we grabbed a burrito from a “food cart/tents” area on our walk towards Westminster Abby. Never have I had a better burrito! (and the guy taking orders was…um…very easy on the eyes. 🙂 My husband even made a comment, and he NEVER makes comments. I totally wanted to take his picture! LOL!).
After drooling over multiple things 😉 …we went and did the Westminster Abby self-guided tour. (They have a “kids version, family version and full version” as to make it interesting for all ages.) We all loved it. There is so much history and intricate detail–Shakespeare, Dickens, and other familiar names have plaques there. Mass was going on as we were walking thru which was also interesting.
Next we headed to Winston Churchill’s War Rooms which is not more than 2 blocks from the Abby. It was so fantastic! My son could have scanned the touch-screen timeline for hours. Sticking to our food rule, we grabbed a beverage and a snack in their cafe then walked to the Covent Garden area where we shopped and had another beverage (see tip below). Fell into a hamburger and ribs restaurant for dinner at about 5:30 then headed to the theatre to see School of Rock the musical–we bought tickets maybe 2 weeks prior to our trip and had fabulous seats, about halfway back on the orchestra level.
Tip: The theaters are small so you could purchase seats in the last row of the balcony and still have excellent seats to view the stage and all the actors.
Day 10: Thames River Boat Tour, Tower of London
We had breakfast at a cute coffee shop near our hotel (though we saw a cockroach walking up the wall!!! No bueno!!!) then took the public bus to Westminster and grabbed a boat tour from there to the Tour Of London. The tour guide was so funny. He provided a lot of history and “insider scoop” from a locals perspective (ie. making fun of their government as we boated past the House of Parliment–Brexit was going on–and is STILL going on 😉 ). Hindsight, it would be smart to do this on the first day in London because we learned a few tips and sights that we may have been able to squeeze into our itinerary.
Tour of London was PACKED but very interesting. We bought tix there. As you enter the gates, there is a free tour lead by a Beefeater. He was a fantastic storyteller. So funny! My kids were so intrigued and totally laughing the whole time. There are about 3 stops on the tour and it lasts about 30 minutes. Don’t skip it, even if there’s a large group.
We grabbed a gelato (remember that food tip?) and then headed to the line for the Crown Jewels.
Crown Jewels were amazing. We had lunch at another “carts/tent” area at the base of the Tour Bridge. Burritos, bowls, greek food, hotdogs, etc. Lots to choose from. After bellies were full, we headed back on our boat tour.
Tip: with a public bus pass, their are boat “taxis” that leave every 15 minutes or so. We sat in line waiting for our tour boat for about 40 minutes and saw at least 3 of those bus taxis come and go! I also hear it’s FREE with the public bus card.
For our last dinner, we headed back to Covent Garden (we LOVED that area), strolled the craft market and then had dinner at an outside cafe, sipping wine and having a lovely vegetarian meal. (The food was so good, you don’t even miss the meat! 😉 )
Tip: minors may not be allowed in the bar, but you can send your hubbie in to get you a beer in a “to go” cup and enjoy a beverage as you stroll the streets 🙂
Day 11: Fly Home
To get to the airport, we rode the Underground. It takes you right to the airport. (Keep your tube ticket to get out of the turnstile!) We arrived 4 hours early, but checking in was totally different than in the states.
Tip: liquids need to be in THE PROVIDED clear ziplock bags which are about sandwich bag size. We didn’t check any bags for our trip so it was a bit of a pain to pull out all my liquids. Actually, I only pulled out the ones in my backpack (my hand sanitizer, some Aquaphor, & lip gloss). My suitcase with my travel size shampoos, medicine, face creams all got thru the x-ray check (but I was ready to be searched).
Take-aways & What We Learned
Our biggest take-aways:
- Schedule one thing in the morning and one thing in the evening. This way you are committed to a plan but you could also add to the plan if your family was up to it (not too tired, etc.)
- Stop and eat! Break all your normal eating rules. We tend to eat fairly healthy at home (no juice, soda, only milk and water). But on vacation, we splurged, especially since we are walking EVERYWHERE!!! (Can you say 20K+ steps every day?!!!) If we were tired or hungry, we’d stop at a café and have a fun beverage (bubbly for the adults and hot cocoa for the kids) and a little nibble (cheese or charcuterie tray to share was perfect). YOLO!
- Book dinner reservations 1-2 days ahead. Once we got to an area, we would plan where we wanted to eat. While you are walking to your activity for the day, take a picture of a fun restaurant (or PACKED, which is always sign of a good spot) and get reservations for later in your stay. Scott and I also noticed in Paris, there seems to be only one seating. Restaurants open at 7/7:30 and close at 10pm. Because of this small window, the places do fill up. However, it was very easy to look up the restaurant’s website and use OpenTable to book reservations.
- Book some things before you leave the states. Tours tend to sell out especially during peek season. I felt reassured I had my tickets to the main attractions before I went. You may pay more by going thru a service like Viator, but for peace of mind and being in charge of my whole family, it was worth it.
- Bring a small backpack. I love a fashionable purse, but I can’t tell you how handy my backpack was—and it has LOTS of pockets! Snacks, hand sanitizer, your travel folder with all your tickets, a map of the city, extra layers, etc. It was all in there!
- Passports. Leave your passport in your room or VRBO locked in a safe. If there wasn’t a safe, I carried mine, in a passport sling, under my clothes. Again, total grandma move but I’d rather be safe than sorry.
- Money. Most places take Visa/MC. Even the small bakery in Paris. We only withdrew from ATMs for small things like ice cream stands and tipping.
That’s it! Have I inspired you to venture across a sea or two to explore new lands? I hope so! You and your family will come back with a new perspective and appreciation for this beautiful world we live on.