We recently took a “trip of a lifetime” to see London and Paris over the holidays, and I came back with a renewed love of European cities and a clearer understanding that travel with family involves a careful balance of advance planning and spur-of-the-moment compromise.
My husband and I planned this trip as a Christmas gift for our kids (ages 16 and 14) and as a way to all spend some quality time together before my daughter graduates from high school and flies the coop, so to speak. We have been to Europe before, together and separately, but it has been almost six years since we were all there together as a family (for my brother’s wedding in Krakow) and this was an eagerly awaited trip!
The detailed report is below, and it’s pretty long, so if you want to jump ahead to the pictures, here’s the link.
We flew out of Logan Airport on Christmas night on Aer Lingus and made a connection in Dublin the next morning before continuing on to London, where we were met by a car and driver for the short transfer to our hotel, the Rubens at the Palace. We were able to check in early and eat breakfast at the hotel before taking a quick nap and a shower to recover from the overnight flight. And then we broke my first rule of European travel – rather than make the kids get up and get onto London time ASAP, we (wisely) gave in and let them sleep in the hotel room all afternoon while we went out and explored. It gave Everett and I time to get our bearings (and enjoy a pint in a local pub!) without having to drag reluctant, sleep-deprived teenagers along with us.
By the time we came back to the hotel to wake them up for dinner, they were ready to take the concierge’s advice and walk over to the Winter Wonderland carnival in Hyde Park for some street food (mulled wine, hot chocolate, hotdogs and “chips”) and people watching. As an aside, if you’ve ever watched “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” on TLC, I think they were all at that fair!
The next two days were spent exploring London, using the Tube and the hop-on-hop-off tourist bus to get around. We saw the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, we rode the London Eye, we took a walking tour of the Tower of London, we gawked at Big Ben and Parliament, we saw a play in the West End (Rock of Ages, which was fantastic!) and we split up at one point so that the boys could enjoy the British Museum while Mary and I explored the shops and restaurants in Covent Garden. We ate more than our fair share of fish and chips, and I made sure to taste a different beer in every pub we visited. Our hotel was a fantastic home base, just down the street from Buckingham Palace (across the street from the Royal Mews) and two blocks from the transportation hub at Victoria Station.
Our final day in London was supposed to be spent on a full-day trip outside the city to see Stonehenge, Salisbury and Bath, but the kids staged a bit of a mutiny the night prior. They were exhausted, there were things that they still wanted to see in the city, and they did not like the idea of getting up early to jump on a bus. So this is where the compromise came in. I took off my “travel agent” hat, put on my “Mom” hat, and agreed to skip the tour. We slept in, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and ended up having a really nice day in London. We toured Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, had a delicious lunch in a pub on the South Bank of the Thames, and explored Westminster Abbey (which was a highlight of the trip). The kids called it a day and went back to watch a movie in the hotel room, and Everett and I walked all over SOHO, from Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus to Regent Street and Oxford Street. For our final dinner that night, the concierge recommended a nearby Italian restaurant (Santini) which turned out to be one of our favorite meals of the whole trip.
On Friday morning we checked out of the hotel, took a cab to St. Pancras Station, and boarded the Eurostar train to Paris. The ride (through the Chunnel) took about 2.5 hours, and before we knew it we were in Paris! We had a car and driver meet us at the Gare du Nord station and take us to the Hotel St. Louis en L’Isle, on Paris’ Ile St. Louis, in the middle of the Seine. This charming little hotel really has the best of both worlds – it’s a stone’s throw (literally) from Notre Dame and within walking distance of the Louvre and tons of restaurants/boutiques on the Left Bank, and the island itself is an adorable little oasis of narrow cobblestone streets with neighborhood patisseries, creperies, and ice cream shops! We checked in, dropped our bags, and stopped at a nearby bistro for lunch – which turned out to be our worst experience in Paris. The stereotypically rude French waiter reprimanded my daughter for ordering her steak well done, and then pretended not to understand us when we paid the bill and said we needed change (he disappeared with our cash, and we eventually gave up and left)
Undaunted, we headed out to explore Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Cite, and then walked over to the Louvre to take advantage of the evening hours. Afterwards, we wandered into a restaurant down the street from the hotel (the Taverne du Sergent Recruteur) and enjoyed a fantastic French dinner in a really authentic, rustic environment. It more than made up for our lunch!
The next day we took a half-day excursion to Versailles, which included a motorcoach ride there and back, our admission to the palace and gardens, and the headsets with recorded commentary. The palace was amazing, and I’m very glad we went, but it was so crowded that we were all claustrophobic, and I can’t even imagine what it’s like on a busy summer day!
When we got back to the city, Mary wanted to try an Italian restaurant she had read about in one of the guide books, so we found our way to Olio Pane Vino, and both kids actually tried pasta with duck! From there, we wandered through Les Halles to do a little window-shopping, and then we had to decide what to do that evening, since it was New Year’s Eve. The front desk at our hotel advised us that Paris no longer does fireworks at the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve (boo!) and that the crowds tend to congregate along the Champs-Elysees instead. Fearful of rowdy crowds and finding ourselves all the way across town at midnight, we decided to go stroll the Champs-Elysees early in the evening to enjoy the lights and the growing crowds, and then make our way back to Ile St Louis for dinner and a quiet night watching the festivities on TV. We grabbed a light dinner in the creperie across the street from the hotel, picked up some wine and snacks at the local market, and rang in the New Year watching French TV and trying to figure out what they were saying. “Dix, neuf, huit, sept…”
Our last day in Paris (New Year’s Day) began with a delicious breakfast and some café crème, and then we queued up to tour Notre Dame. We were lucky enough to be inside the cathedral while they were celebrating Mass, and I have to say it was an amazing experience. With the vaulted ceilings, the stone walls, and the light slanting through the stained glass windows, it actually took my breath away.
From there, we hopped in a cab across the city to the Eiffel Tower. The crowds were huge (I’m not sure why everyone had said that New Year’s Day would be a quiet day in Paris!) so we didn’t wait in line to go up the tower, opting instead to take some pictures outside and then stroll along the Seine to the Quai D’Orsay and the Place de La Concorde. We crossed back over to the Right Bank and made our way to the Pinacotheque to see an exhibit of Giacometti sculptures (Mary had just studied his work in art class) and then walked back to the hotel along the Rue de Rivoli (popping into La Maison Angelina along the way, for some of their world-famous hot chocolate.) Our final dinner in Paris was at a little bistro on Ile St Louis, and we had to stop for some Berthillon ice cream afterwards (we had earned it, with all that walking!)
The next morning we checked out of the hotel and were driven to Charles de Gaulle airport for our morning flight to Dublin. We connected there, and were back in Boston by about 4pm.
Overall, it was an amazing trip, and we found things to love about both cities (although I will confess that London stole my heart just a little bit more) We did not spend nearly enough time in either place, but that just means I’ll need to go back some day!
As far as specific impressions, and tips for other travelers, here’s what I can tell you:
- The connecting flights saved money (which makes a difference when there are four people) but if you can spring for a nonstop it would be much more enjoyable
- Our flight left Boston at about 6pm, and next time I would choose a later departure. With the 6pm flight, we arrived in Dublin at about midnight (our time), so we never slept. I think a later flight would have been more “in sync” with our sleep cycle.
- We splurged a little bit on transfers, using a car and driver to take us to and from the airports (rather than using public transportation) and it was well worth it. Arriving bleary-eyed in a strange city, there is nothing more comforting than seeing that sign with your name on it, and a friendly driver to carry your bags J
- European hotel rooms are SMALL. And we made the right choice to book two rooms in each hotel. As it was, there was barely room for two of us and our bags. The same goes for European elevators, by the way, and we had some comical moments cramming the four of us into “the lift” in our hotel.
- Pay careful attention to whether your electrical devices need an adapter AND a converter, or just an adapter. I burned out my hairdryer on the first day in London (and almost set off the fire alarm) because I thought it was plugged into a converter…and it wasn’t. FYI – this explains why I have a ponytail in every photo from this trip J
- On a related note, bring a power strip. We were glad we had one to plug in our phones, laptops, camera batteries, etc.
- Bring comfortable walking shoes. We easily walked 5-10 miles every day, and could not have done it if we were nursing sore feet.
- Choose conveniently located hotels. You can often save a few dollars by staying outside of the main tourist areas, but you need to factor in the time/effort saved by being right in the thick of things. I would highly recommend both of the hotels we used – and not just for their location. The Rubens, in particular, had the most helpful and friendly staff that I’ve ever encountered, in any hotel.
- Don’t over-schedule yourself. It’s tempting to try and cram too much into a short visit, but some of the best experiences will come when you’re just wandering or exploring without an agenda. I would have loved to have seen Stonehenge, but I’m glad we blew it off and kicked around the city for one more day. And I know that my son appreciated the fact that we let him spend some “down time” in the hotel room one afternoon, rather than insisting that he sightsee with us.
- Make an attempt to speak the local language (obviously, this applies to Paris). I studied French for six years in school, and tried to brush up it before this trip, and I definitely found that people were more receptive when I spoke a little bit of French to them. Even just “good morning”, “please” and “thank you “ goes a long way.
Make sure everyone has a stake in the trip. We had asked the kids to help plan our itinerary, but they really didn’t take an active role. It wasn’t until we were in London that they spoke up and said they wanted to have more of a say in what we did each day, so we asked them to make a “wish list” for each city, and we tried to hit as many of those places as we could. It worked, but I think it would have been better if we had had that input in advance.
Here’s the link to all the photos from the trip. If you have any specific questions about either city, please feel free to email me. And if you’re ready to plan your own “European Escape”, just let me know!