Thursday, May 28, 2009

Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes: Step Back in Time

The centrally-located Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes is worth a stop as you make your way across the left bank, especially if you have children in tow. Housed within the walls of the Jardin des Plantes, the Menagerie dates back to 1789 (making it the oldest continually-operating zoo in the world) when it was founded as a home for Marie Antoinette's unusual collection of animals after the French revolution. Though its foundings may not have been under the most positive of circumstances, the zoo is now a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Stepping in the front gate of the zoo is like stepping back in time-- instead of being greeted by the glass and high walls found in most modern zoos, you are met with mahogany-stained wood and forged iron. The fences have been there long enough that many of the trees have actually grown around them. It may be old, but the well-maintained space continues to hold an exotic collection of animals as atypical now as it must have been in 1789. The current animals-in-residence range from the traditional monkeys and flamingos to yaks, rheas, and red-tailed pandas (as well as many others you may never have heard of!). Many of the signs are written in both French and English, giving foreign visitors a fighting chance.

The rest of the Jardin des Plantes is also worth visiting-- especially the Natural History Museum located in the opposite corner of the garden. There are playground areas for the kids to run in and a beautiful collection of flora for picture-taking. The only thing missing is good food nearby, so grab a sandwich to eat while you're there or plan on leaving before mealtime.

(Note: There is also the Paris Zoological Park located in the Bois de Vincennes. It is currently closed for renovations, but it is a bit of a hike unless you are in Paris for an extended time.)

Jardin des Plantes

Price: 8 euros/adult; 6 euros/child
Address: Jardin des Plantes, 5th arrondisement
Metro: Jussieu or Gare d'Austerlitz

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Jardin du Luxembourg: Postcard Perfect

There are a few places in Paris where time and space seem to merge into an idyllic, sepia-toned postcard. It seems it is often a combination of natural beauty, complementary architecture, and a perfect balance of activities and open space. The Jardin du Luxembourg is one of these places. This large garden on Paris' left bank is so-well landscaped that one must search to find all of the things that make it truly special. Within its fences, it hosts orchards of apple and pear trees, a puppet theater, a large playground for children, a beekeeping school, a large gazebo with free public performances, and a pond in which children sail model sailboats.

The chateau and garden were initially built for Marie de Medicis in 1615, though there have been many changes since its beginnings. Due to the large number of sculptures now found in the garden (French queens, Beethoven, and the first model of the Statue of Liberty, among others) it is sometimes called the outdoor museum. In addition, exhibitions are posted on the exterior of the garden fence several times a year-- "small talk" among Parisians is often whether or not they've seen the latest exhibition and what they thought of it.

While sailing model boats around the pond is perhaps the most well-known past time in the garden, I've spent significantly more time in the playground, which has play areas for nearly every age group. It is a fantastic space that enables children to run free for a few minutes in the City of Lights-- a perfect afternoon escape. Note that there is an entrance fee, though it is quite reasonable. Also, if you plan to leave and return later in the day, get your hand stamped for re-entry. (Note: By contrast, the puppet theater is a bit more expensive and not nearly as impressive-- it is a fun activity if you have time to spend, but otherwise I'd skip it.)

While the children are playing in the garden, perhaps you can take a minute and write that sepia-toned postcard. Just make sure you keep it with you as a souvenir for years to come.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Price: 2,60 euros/child, 1,60 euros/adult
Address: 75006 Paris
Metro: Odeon, Cluny-La Sorbonne or Pont Royal (RER B)


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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cite des Enfants/ Parc de la Villette

This "City of Children" as it's called contains a wide variety of child-focused activities- cinemas, parks, a science museum, a mini aquarium, and even a concert venue. Like most family venues in Paris, you buy a separate ticket to each activity, though they do coordinate it so you only need pay once.

The highlight for the under 12s is the Cite des Enfants, a hands-on science museum where various rooms enable children to conduct their own experiments on water, wind, movement, etc. You purchase a ticket to either the 2-7 year olds' museum or the 5-12 year olds' museum. The tickets are timed, so you line up in a queue and once you are in, you have about an hour to explore the space.

There is also a larger science museum which older kids find interesting. At this time there is a Crime Lab exhibition which encourages kids to use science to do their own detective work. There are also exhibits on the human genome, energy consumption, and the effects of light and shadows. In addition there is are movie theaters featuring science-related shows, the IMAX movie theater, a large park with a few playground spaces and a small aquarium.

While the newer spaces are well-done and up-to-date, the older areas are beginning to look a bit dated. In addition, I found the queue spaces to be lacking in things to keep kids interested, which is disappointing. If you are in Paris for more than a week, it may be nice to let the kids air out a bit at this child-focused venue. There are a variety of restaurants/cafes on site for easy access (though the Quick across the square has a substantial play space). If you're here for less than a week, however, it seems a waste of time to leave the city to do something you could do at home (it is basically an all day event- similar to Versailles- up to 2 hours travel time round trip).

Cite des Enfants/ Parc de la Villette

Address: Avenue Corentin-Cariou, 19th
Metro: Porte de la Villette


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Monday, May 04, 2009

The Perfect Guide to Paris- Time Out

I am generally not one to subscribe to the idea of a guidebook. I find that my ideas/tastes are sometimes different than those of the writers and I end up spending my precious time in a new location discovering someone else's idea of what is interesting. In addition, the guidebooks generally present much more information than I have time-- or desire-- to read (I don't have that much information about my hometown!) and I then have to lug all 200+ pages in my handbag while I travel. All that said, there is one guidebook that I readily recommend to everyone who asks. It is the TimeOut Paris guide, an annual publication available for $6.95 (7.99 euros). Inside, the magazine presents a detailed description, along with contact information and updated hours. It's all broken down into five basic categories:

- Sightseeing (by area)
- Consuming (restaurants, cafes, and bars)
- Arts & Leisure (cabaret, children's activities, music, nightlife, etc.)
- Hotels
- Essentials (resources and emergency information)

In addition, the back pages contain a full-page size metro map for easy viewing, a separate map showing the layout of the arrondisements in Paris, and more specific street-maps to be found on the pages describing the area they represent. The magazine is well layed-out, lightweight, informative, and generally well-written.

If you are looking for a keepsake, I recommend buying the TimeOut guide and a separate book of photography after you return (that way it doesn't add to your luggage weight on the return trip!). Either way, be sure to have this handy when you step off the plane. It will leave you informed, save you time, and keep you from needing a chiropractor's appointment after your trip!

Note: There is a separate TimeOut Paris book, which covers the same information, but costs more and is heavier to carry around. I prefer the magazine.