Be it the kid-friendly extraordinaire capital or rural hinterland, France spoils families with its rich mix of cultural sights, activities and entertainment – some paid for, some free. To get the most out of travelling en famille, plan ahead.
Interactive museums, choice dining for every taste and budget, and beautiful green parks seemingly at every turn make the French capital a top choice for families.
Beaches, boats and some great stuff for history-mad kids and teens give this northern region plenty of family allure.
More beaches, boats, pirate-perfect islands and bags of good old-fashioned outdoor fun. Enough said.
Winter in this mountainous region in eastern France translates as one giant outdoor (snowy) playground – for all ages.
A vibrant arts scene, a vivacious cafe culture and a beach-laced shore riddled with seafaring activities keeps kids of all ages on their toes.
Sailing, kayaking, walking, biking, or simply dipping your toes or snorkel mask in clear turquoise waters: life on this island is fairy-tale belle (beautiful).
Savvy parents can find kid-appeal in almost every sight in France, must-sees included. Skip the formal guided tour of Mont St-Michel, for example, and hook up with a walking guide to lead you and the children barefoot across the sand to the abbey; trade the daytime queues at the Eiffel Tower for a tour after dark with teens; don't dismiss wine tasting in Provence or Burgundy outright – rent bicycles and turn it into a family bike ride instead. The opportunities are endless.
Many Paris museums organise creative ateliers (workshops) for children, parent-accompanied or solo. Workshops are themed, require booking, last 1½ to two hours, and cost €5 to €20 per child. French children have no school Wednesday afternoon, so most workshops happen Wednesday afternoon, weekends and daily during school holidays. Most cater for kids aged seven to 14 years, although in Paris art activities at the Louvre start at four years and at the Musée d'Orsay, five years.
Countrywide, when buying tickets at museums and monuments, ask about children's activity sheets – most have something to hook kids. Another winner is to arm your gadget-mad child (from six years) with an audioguide. Older children can check out what apps a museum or monument might have for smartphones and tablets.
Once the kids are out of nappies, skiing in the French Alps is the obvious family choice. Ski school École du Ski Français (www.esf.net) initiates kids in the art of snow plough (group or private lessons, half or full day) from four years old, and many resorts open fun-driven jardins de neige (snow gardens) to children from three years old. Families with kids aged under 10 will find smaller resorts including Les Gets, Avoriaz (car-free), La Clusaz, Chamrousse and Le Grand Bornand easier to navigate and better value than larger ski stations. Then, of course, there is all the fun of the fair off-piste: ice skating, sledging, snowshoeing, mushing, indoor swimming pools…
The French Alps and Pyrenees are prime walking areas. Tourist offices have information on easy, well-signposted family walks, or get in touch with a local guide. In Chamonix, the cable-car ride and two-hour hike to Lac Blanc followed by a dip in the Alpine lake is a DIY family favourite; as are the mountain-discovery half-days for ages three to seven, and outdoor-adventure days for ages eight to 12 run by Cham' Aventure. As with skiing, smaller places such as the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges cater much better to young families than the big names everyone knows.
White-water sports and canoeing are doable for children aged seven and older; the French Alps, Provence and Massif Central are key areas. Mountain biking is an outdoor thrill that teens can share – try Morzine. Or dip into some gentle sea kayaking around calanques (deep rocky inlets), below cliffs and into caves in the Mediterranean, a family activity suitable for kids aged four and upwards. Marseille in Provence and Bonifacio on Corsica are hot spots to rent the gear and get afloat.
Tourist offices can tell you what's on – and the repertoire is impressive: puppet shows alfresco, children's theatres, children's films at cinemas Wednesday afternoon and weekends, street buskers, illuminated monuments after dark, an abundance of music festivals and so on. Sure winners are the son et lumière (sound-and-light) shows projected on some Renaissance châteaux in the Loire Valley; the papal palace in Avignon; and cathedral façades in Rouen, Chartres and Amiens. Outstanding after-dark illuminations that never fail to enchant include Paris' Eiffel Tower and Marseille's MuCEM.
French children, accustomed to three-course lunches at school, expect a starter (entrée), main course (plat) and dessert as their main meal of the day. They know the difference between Brie and Camembert, and eat lettuce, grated carrot and other salads no problem. Main meals tend to be meat and veg or pasta, followed by dessert and/or a slice of cheese. Classic French mains loved by children include gratin dauphinois (sliced potatoes oven-baked in cream), escalope de veau (breaded pan-fried veal) and bœuf bourguignon. Fondue and raclette (melted cheese served with potatoes and cold meats) become favourites from about five years, and moules frites (mussels and fries) a couple of years later.
Children's menus (fixed meals at a set price) are common, although anyone in France for more than a few days will soon tire of the ubiquitous spaghetti bolognaise or saucisse (sausage), or steak haché (beef burger) and frites (fries) followed by ice cream that most feature. Don't be shy in asking for a half-portion of an adult main – restaurants generally oblige. In budget and midrange places you can ask for a plate of pâtes au beurre (pasta with butter) for fussy or very young eaters.
Bread, specifically slices of baguette, accompanies every meal and in restaurants is brought to the table before or immediately after you've ordered – to the glee of children who wolf it down while they wait. Wait for the fight to begin over who gets the quignon (the knobbly end bit, a hit with teething babies!).
It is perfectly acceptable to dine en famille after dark provided the kids don't run wild. Few restaurants open their doors, however, before 7.30pm or 8pm, making brasseries and cafes – many serve food continuously from 7am or 8am until midnight – more appealing for families with younger children. Some restaurants have high chairs and supply paper and pens for children to draw with while waiting for their meal.
France is fabulous snack-attack terrain. Parisian pavements are rife with crêpe stands and wintertime stalls selling hot chestnuts. Galettes (savoury buckwheat crêpes) make for an easy light lunch, as does France's signature croque monsieur (toasted cheese-and-ham sandwich) served by most cafes and brasseries. Goûter (afternoon snack), devoured after school around 4.30pm, is golden for every French child and salons de thé (tearooms) serve a mouth-watering array of cakes, pastries and biscuits. Or go local: buy a baguette, rip off a chunk and pop a chunk of chocolate inside.
Baby requirements are easily met. The choice of infant formula, soy and cow's milk, nappies (diapers) and jars of baby food in supermarkets and pharmacies is similar to any developed country, although opening hours are more limited (few shops open Sunday). Organic (bio) baby food is harder to find.
Buy a fizzy drink for every child sitting at the table and the bill soars. Opt instead for a free carafe d'eau (jug of tap water) with meals and un sirop (flavoured fruit syrup) in between – jazzed up with des glaçons (some ice cubes) and une paille (a straw). Every self-respecting cafe and bar in France has dozens of syrup flavours to choose from: pomegranate-fuelled grenadine and pea-green menthe (mint) are French-kid favourites, but there are peach, raspberry, cherry, lemon and a rainbow of others too. Syrup is served diluted with water and, best up, costs a good €2 less than a coke. Expect to pay around €1.50 a glass.
Consider the season and what you want to do/see: teen travel is a year-round affair (there's always something to entertain, regardless of the weather), but parents with younger kids will find the dry, pleasantly warm days of spring and early summer best suited to kidding around the park – every town has at least one terrain de jeux (playground).
France's festival repertoire is another planning consideration.
In Paris and larger towns and cities, serviced apartments equipped with washing machine and kitchen are suited to families with younger children. Countrywide, hotels with family or four-person rooms can be hard to find and need booking in advance. Functional, if soulless, chain hotels such as Formule 1, found on the outskirts of most large towns, always have a generous quota of family rooms and make convenient overnight stops for motorists driving from continental Europe or the UK (Troyes is a popular stopover for Brits en route to the Alps). Parents with just one child and/or a baby in tow will have no problem finding hotel accommodation – most midrange hotels have baby cots and are happy to put a child's bed in a double room for a minimal extra cost.
In rural France, family-friendly B&Bs and fermes auberges (farm stays) are convenient. For older children, tree houses decked out with bunk beds and Mongolian yurts create a real family adventure.
Camping is huge with French families: check into a self-catering mobile home, wooden chalet or tent; sit back on the verandah with glass of wine in hand and watch as your kids – wonderfully oblivious to any barriers language might pose – run around with new-found French friends.
Sling France's cobbled streets, metro stairs and hilltop villages were not built with pushchairs (strollers) in mind. Several must-see museums, notably Château de Versailles, don't let pushchairs in.
Portable changing mat, handwash gel etc Baby-changing facilities are a rarity.
Canvas screw-on seat for toddlers Only some restaurants have high chairs.
Car seat Rental companies rent them but at proportionately extortionate rates. In France children under 10 years or less than 1.40m in height must, by law, be strapped in an appropriate car seat.
Binoculars For young explorers to zoom in on wildlife, sculpted cathedral facades, etc.
Pocket video camera Inject fun into 'boring' adult activities.
Activities Books, sketchpad and pens, travel journal and kid-sized day pack.
Water bottle Always handy (and great fun to fill up at water fountains found all over France, marked 'eau potable')
Kite For beaches in Brittany, Normandy and on the Atlantic Coast with strong winds.
Mask, snorkel and flippers To dive in from a multitude of magnificent beaches on the Atlantic Coast and Med; only two or three marked trails countrywide rent the gear.
There is no rule on how much and from what age children pay – many museums and monuments are free to under 18 years. In general, under fives don't pay (a noteworthy exception is Paris' must-do Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie which costs from two years). Some museums offer money-saving family tickets, worth buying once you count two adults and two children or more.
Familiscope (www.familiscope.fr) Definitive family-holiday planner: endless activity, outing and entertainment listings.
Tots to Travel (http://totstotravel.co.uk) Self-catering properties vetted by a team of trained mums.
Baby-friendly Boltholes (www.babyfriendlyboltholes.co.uk) This London-based enterprise specialises in sourcing charming and unique family accommodation.
Baby Goes 2 (www.babygoes2.com) Why, where, how-to travel guide aimed squarely at families.
Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse Explore the depths of outer space and discover what life is like as an astronaut.
Disneyland, Paris Throw yourself into the magical world of Disney, with its five themed lands and bonanza of a-thrill-a-minute rides and shows.
Vulcania, Massif Central Thrills, spills and highly educative stuff too about Auvergne's long-extinct volcanoes.
Futuroscope, Poitiers Space-age cinematic experiences for all ages at this huge, film-themed fun park.
Musée Parc des Dinosaures et de la Préhistoire, Languedoc-Roussillon Take a stroll in the woods but be warned, life-size dinosaur models lurk where you least expect them.
Les Machines de I’Île de Nantes Fly on a heron or ride a house-sized mechanical elephant at this fantastical workshop like no other.
Cité des Sciences, Paris Sign up for a hands-on science workshop at the capital's leading science museum (from three years).
Palais de la Découverte, Paris The other key address for budding young scientists (from 10 years) in the capital.
Le Vaisseau, Strasbourg Science is never boring at this interactive science and technology museum in northern France.
Jean Luc Lagardère Airbus factory, Toulouse Learn how planes are built (from six years).
Cité de l'Automobile and Cité du Train, Mulhouse Enter wannabe-mechanic heaven at these two museums.
Funiculaire du Capucin, Massif Central This 100 year-old funicular is one mighty cool way to climb the mountain of Le Mont-Dore.
L'Aventure Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand Map-making, shiny cars, flashy TV screens and lots of interactive displays geared towards kids.
Fort St-Jean, Marseille Crazy about castles? No fortress is finer to explore.
Route des Vins d'Alsace, Alsace Watch fairy tales come to life before your eyes in half-timbered, castle-topped villages.
Miroir d'Eau, Bordeaux Frolicking barefoot in the world's largest reflecting pool. Fountain dipping is also big in Lyon (place des Terreaux), Dijon (place de la Libération) and Paris (place de la République).
Dune du Pilat, Atlantic Coast Run wild on the largest 'sandcastle' any child is ever likely to see.
Maison Natale de Pierre Fermat, Toulouse Area Learn about the life and works of 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat through puzzles and games at this fun house museum.
Pointe du Hourdel, Baie de Somme Admire colonies of sandbank-lounging seals in northern France.
Parc National de la Vanoise, French Alps Come face-to-face with ibex, chamois and cuddly, kid-pleasing marmots.
Parc Polaire, Jura Close encounters with scampering chamois, Greenland huskies, horned stags, yaks and wild horses.
Réserve Ornithologique du Teich, near Arcachon Observe storks and kingfishers.
NaturOparC, Hunawihr Discover the springtime joy of hatchling storks in Alsace.
Réserve de Bisons d’Europe, Mende Watch European bison at close quarters.
Parc des Oiseaux, La Dombes Marvel at hundreds of local and exotic birds at this well-organised bird park near Lyon.
Maison des Vautours, Haut-Languedoc Watch vultures soar through mountain skies in the wild Grands Causses; the Parc National des Pyrénées and the Gorges du Verdon in Provence are other spots vultures love.
Musée des Égouts, Paris Romp through sewage tunnels with rats.
Musée Océanographique de Monaco Stunning museum with aquarium dating to 1910.
Le Petit Musée Fantastique de Guignol, Lyon Immerse yourself in the enchanting world of puppetry.
Aquarium La Rochelle This Atlantic Coast aquarium is among France's finest; find others in Paris, Boulogne-sur-Mer, St-Malo, Montpellier, Brest, Lyon and Biarritz.
Les Catacombes, Paris Ogle at thousands upon thousands of skulls (from 14 years).
Aven Armand, Languedoc Discover the world's largest collection of stalactites.
Vézère Valley, Dordogne Play cavepeople in caves riddled with prehistoric art.
Cité de l'Océan, Biarritz Delve into the depths of the ocean in southwest France.
Micropolis, near Millau Inspect insects, lots of insects, in Languedoc.
Musée du Bonbon Haribo, Uzès Sweeter than sweet, sweet museum.
Le Train Jaune, Pyrenees Watch spectacular Pyrenean scenery unfold aboard this mythical mountain train.
Citadelle de Besançon, Besançon Far more than a fabulous set of rambling ancient walls: insect house and zoo too.
Ladurée, Paris Cakes too beautiful to eat over afternoon tea at this historic tearoom.
Berthillon, Paris Ice cream in dozens of different crazy flavours; regional master ice-cream makers include Geronimi and Raugi in Corsica; La Maison du Glacier in Bordeaux; La Martinière in St-Martin de Ré.
Meert, Lille Waffles with sweet vanilla cream, served since the 18th century.
La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux Grape-juice tasting; parents taste the alcoholic equivalent.
La Bicyclette Bleue, La Dombes Frogs' legs and a lakeside bike ride.
Moutarderie Fallot, Beaune Hand-mill mustard seeds with stone at this mustard factory.
Musée du Champignon, Saumur Get acquainted with fabulous fungi at the mushroom farm in a cave.
L'Atelier du Chocolat, Bayonne Watch chocolate being made in this Basque chocolate factory and museum.
Roquefort Société, Roquefort Taste 'mouldy' cheese after a visit to the cheese-maturing cellars dug into the Languedoc hillside.
Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris Time-travel to 1920s Paris: chase vintage sailboats with a stick like Parisian kids did a century ago.
MuséoParc Alésia, Burgundy Relive the battle between Julius Caesar and Vercingétorix at Alésia in 52 BC at this first-class museum.
Grasse, Provence Become acquainted with the fine art of perfume in Grasse; kids aged four to 10 can create their own perfume at a Molinard workshop.
Chantier Médiéval de Guédelon, Burgundy Play medieval builders for real at this medieval construction site.
Ludo, Pont du Gard Go Roman (over five years) near Nîmes in Provence.
Romagne '14-'18, Lorraine Learn about WWI on battlefields near Verdun with an excellent guided walk for kids.
Cité des Machines du Moyen Age, Larressingle Watch medieval siege machines in action.
Château de Chambord, Loire Valley Search for virtual golden coins on a HistoPad (tablet computer) treasure hunt.
Ecomusée d’Alsace Fascinating excursion into Alsatian country life and its time-honoured crafts.
Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix Glide up this mountain peak by gondola and cross glaciers into Italy (from four years).
Pont du Gard, Nîmes Canoe (over seven years) beneath a Roman aqueduct, or along the Dordogne River around La Roque Gageac.
Parc National des Cévennes, Languedoc Donkey trek (over 10 years) like Robert Louis Stevenson.
Camargue, Provence Ride horses with cowboys.
Acrobastille, Grenoble Zip between trees on wires (from five years).
Val Thorens, French Alps Fly along the world's highest zip wire (from eight years).
Domaine du Rayol, Corniche des Maures Embark on a snorkelling safari on the French Riviera or snorkel off island shores on Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Corsica (from six years).
Fort Bayard, La Rochelle Sail or sea kayak around France's most incredible island fortress.
Les Calanques, Marseille Sea-kayaking in France's most spectacular coastal national park.
Bonifacio, Corsica Sail around caves and pearly-white cliffs.
Gorges du Verdon, Provence White-water rafting along pea-green waters in southern France's iconic high-drama gorges.
Château d'If, Marseille Fun ferry trips from port city Marseille.
Gouffre de Padirac, Lot Valley Underground river tours.
Sète Croisières, Sète Lagoon tour around oyster and mussel beds.
La Roque Gageac, Dordogne Valley River boating aboard a flat-bottomed gabarre.