Conor Pope: A city break with kids? Mon dieu!

Not just for romance or partying, city breaks can be a great way to travel with the family, as Conor Pope found out in Paris

Child’s eye view of Place de l’Opéra, Paris. Photograph: Getty Images

There was a fleeting but memorable moment shortly after we were seated at a table outside a bistro in the warm, Parisian autumn sunshine when I started to feel, for the first time in a long time, that everything was going to be alright.

As a waiter filled my glass with cheap red wine, the world opened up again. And just like that I was able to breath a little bit easier. After 20 months, months that sometimes felt like years, travel with my family was back on the table, alongside the steak frites and the bread and the soup and the wine.

It didn’t even matter that we all had masks and hand sanitiser in our pockets and were eating within coughing distance of a pop-up tent offering rapid antigen tests to all comers. We were out of the country and in our element even if we were in Paris more by accident than by design.

The flights for five Popes had originally been booked to take us to a campsite near Barcelona last August but with vaccinations for two teenagers still someway off, we rolled the holiday into 2022. Ryanair was offering a free flight change up until the end of 2021, so Paris it was.


We were off to wander unfamiliar streets and marvel at the racks of pastries in the boulangerie and the racks of meat in the boucherie

Four nights in a swanky Hausmann-style Airbnb on the Rue de Liège in the 8th Arrondissement over the October mid-term break came in at just over €1,000 and we were off.

Almost as soon as I disembarked in Beauvais I found myself tangled up in the security doors, much to the delight of pretty much everyone in the airport. I blame the unfamiliarity of travel.

Once the screeching alarms had been silenced by men carrying guns, a shuttle bus took us to the Paris car park where Ryanair passengers have been decanted for decades. Unable to find a cab to accommodate five Popes, we travelled in a convoy of two to the swanky Airbnb.

With bags dumped, we were off to wander unfamiliar streets and marvel at the racks of pastries in the boulangerie and the racks of meat in the boucherie before sitting down in the bistro in the shadow of our new home and ordering the French onion soup and the wine and the steak.

Almost as soon as we were back in our new home we were out of it, walking the 10 steps to the metro to take a train two stops to the Champs-Élysées where we wandered towards the Arc de Triomphe before heading to Trocadero to gaze at the Eiffel Tower as it shimmered in the night.

While there is a lot to be said for exploring cities – particularly beautiful, walkable cities such as Paris – on foot, when you have three children in tow, one who is only three and not overly enamoured with her buggy, the open-top bus is always your best friend.

Sitting in my sun-kissed French home with its floor to ceiling windows, I booked a bus-and-cruise ticket and off we set. Up and down the banks of the Seine we went, passing poor old Notre Dame, still cloaked in its scaffold as it waits to be healed. We crossed the river and passed the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe, went under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and by the glass pyramid outside the Louvre.

From the bus we hopped on the boat and saw the city from a different angle. It was an effortless – if shamefully lazy – way to reacquaint ourselves with Paris and well worth the 100 quid or so that it cost.

Disneyland Paris: ‘We got up late, had a slow breakfast of fresh pastries bought from our local patisserie, before taking the hour-long train journey.’ Photograph: iStock

The following day we went with our pre-booked tickets to the Louvre, jostled with a not entirely socially distanced crowd to catch a glimpse of breath-taking art that almost always disappoints despite itself and queued for two hours to take a lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower. There was hot chocolate and cold champagne and a ramble around the top platforms as darkness fell over the city.

The next day was Disney day. We got up late, had a slow breakfast of fresh pastries bought from our – by now local – patisserie before taking the hour-long train journey to Disneyland Paris.

'Who am I?' I thought silently to myself as the young women shuffled away while my daughters looked at me and did that face palm thing

It retrospect we should have got there two or three hours earlier. I joined a queue to pick up the park tickets. It was the slowest moving queue I have ever stood in and, despite all my tutting, it never picked up the pace. Eventually we were inside, where it was just lovely if a bit confusing. It could really do with a few more "vous etes ici" type maps and some staff who could point the way from the Buzz Lightyear ride to the Indiana Jones one. Once we got our bearings and had gone on a few rides – using the almost essential speedy pass thing – we had lunch, did some more rides and watched a parade pass us by.

Then I shamed my two oldest children. I may even have shamed the whole of Ireland.

We’d just come off a rollercoaster and were pretty exhilarated when two young women approached us. “Oh my god, we were behind you on the rollercoaster and we love your accents,” they say. “Where are you from?”

"We're from Ireland," we told them. "Where are you from?"

"Hawaii, " they responded.

I heard the words “Hawaii? That’s where Moana’s from” coming out of my mouth followed almost immediately by “And Lilo and Stitch”.

I was like an American meeting some Irish people and telling them proudly that Darby O’Gill was from Ireland. And the little people.

"Who am I?" I thought silently to myself as the young women shuffled away while my daughters looked at me and did that face palm thing the young folk do.

The train journey home was more terrifying – for me – than any of the rides. We were literally the last people to leave the second- or third-happiest place on earth and the only people in our carriage for the first two or three stops. Then people started to join us in dribs and drabs. I pictured how vulnerable we looked – innocents abroad – and imagined all the terrible things that could befall us if any ne’er-do-wells boarded the train and decided to help themselves to our money and phones.

That didn’t happen and eventually we go back to our apartment without anyone else in our travelling party realising how freaked out I was.

Chocolate mousse

The next day we wandered the Marais before heading to one of my favourite restaurants in the world, a place called Chez Janous. It is not fancy in the Michelin-stars sense but the food is brilliant, the chocolate mousse comes in a giant bowl and the staff are lovely. It is pretty cheap too.

That probably explains why it was booked out until midnight and we were sent on our way. We made an alternate plan and booked lunch for the following day – our last in Paris. Chez Janous was as good as I remembered it.

From the restaurant we took a cab back to the bus depot and on to Beauvais and home to Dublin, tired but as happy as I can remember. It was good to be out in the world again.

Five other city breaks with kids

ROME: One of the most child-friendly cities in Europe, if not the entire world. It is both accessible and – if you do your homework – cheap. Airbnbs in places such as Testaccio where locals live are easily found while the restaurants in the local neighbours are spectacularly good value for money. The Roman ruins, the bloody history and the art make it an enthralling place even for the young while the weather – outside of the dead heat of summer – is just lovely. Oh, and given that that pizza and pasta are among the national dishes, feeding children could scarcely be any easier.

LISBON: One of the cheapest capital cities in Europe, value for money is a big draw for the city when travelling with a family. But it is not all that it has to offer. The weather is gorgeous, the city centre small and easy to explore and the public transport system uncomplicated and cheap as chips. The lovely beaches of Cascais and the surrounding towns are an short train ride away.

AMSTERDAM: What once might have been best known as Europe's Sin City is not necessarily one that springs readily to mind when thinking of family breaks but it is a perfect city for travelling with children. The canals and its cruises are magical, its science museum a thing of wonder and the museums and galleries are wonderfully accessible for children of all ages. The Ripley museum will be of particular interest to kids of a certain age and a certain appetite for gruesomeness. It also has some of the finest playgrounds in Europe built for families who actually live in the city. And the food is excellent and brilliantly varied. Rather than staying in the city, basing yourself in nearby Harlem or Zandvoort en Zee comes highly recommended. You get all the benefits of a big city break with all the relaxed comfort of a small town experience.

LONDON: The closest big capital to Ireland, London is a place that should not be overlooked when it comes to family breaks despite its familiarity. It has a huge range of activities that kids will love including the obvious ones including Madame Tussauds, the Tower Of London and the dungeons. The Thames cruise is good craic and the open-top bus tours rarely disappoint children although their parents might be forgiven for cursing all the traffic snarl-ups along the way.

MADRID: The best tip we can give for travelling to Madrid is do not take your family here in July or August. While temperatures of 40-plus degrees might sound pleasant when you are living through a cold and dark Irish winter, it is miserable and you will find yourself dodging the rays of the sun like you might dodge rain at home. But outside the heat of the summer, Madrid is lovely. You can handily feed a family of four for less than 50 quid if you are canny about it – patatas bravas, tortilla and the odd bowl of gambas in a sometimes unpromising-looking bar will set you up nicely. The San Miguel food market is an easy way to eat on the hoof while ubiquitous and incredibly good value menu del dia can still be found with three courses – including wine – to be had for not much more than a tenner just slightly off the beaten track. The museums – most notably El Prado and the Reina Sofia – are great while a punt on the Retiro lake followed by a picnic is a memory that will endure. The bustling flea market at El Rastro is fun too, although please don't lose your wallet. Or your children.