My family took our first vacation to Europe at the end of last summer, spending two weeks with three anchor spots: London, Normandy, and Paris in that order. It was time. Our daughter, Elena, was 16, and our son, Adam, was 12. Between their life experience and schooling, they were ready to embrace the trip not only with the excitement of going somewhere faraway and famous, but also with a mature level of curiosity and appreciation. As you read our travelogue, please keep in mind that while I’m focusing on the highlights, we also built in a lot of time for meandering about and for resting. When you’re with your kids 24/7, even older kids, a little downtime goes a long way. Also, please note: Because of my position as the editor of New York Family, my family and I were guests or recipients of discounted rates at the hotels featured in the story.
After flying overnight, we eased into our London adventure with a brief afternoon visit to the British Museum, mostly limited to two of its most famous holdings: The Parthenon Sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles) and the Rosetta Stone. Later, in a when-in-London spontaneous move, we were walking around Piccadilly Circus and decided to board the last double decker tourist bus of the day (from the Big Bus line). Good move! The ride previewed many of the attractions we would be experiencing in more depth in the days ahead, and it helped us get our bearings, making our later jaunts around the city more comfortable and familiar.
In the history column, London’s big winners for us were Buckingham Palace (which is only open to the public in summer) and Westminster Hall and the Houses of Parliament. The Palace’s public rooms and spaces were magnificent and it was interesting to learn about their uses for state occasions and other official business. Westminster Hall and the Houses of Parliament offered a deep dive into British political history, which of course helped inspire our own system of governance. Among the city’s other iconic history attractions, I’d also recommend Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London (home to the Crown Jewels) as must-see spots, but I will report that the tours at the Tower, which are led by Yeoman Warders (aka Beefeaters), were a little too long on schtick and short on historical context for my taste. But I’m sure other tourists would adamantly disagree with me!
We had a couple of wonderful cultural and educational adventures, two of them day trips. Located at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, a London suburb, “The Making of ‘Harry Potter” is not a section in an amusement park but truly the ultimate behind-the-scenes tour of the “Harry Potter” movie series in all its cinematic magic, with featured sections on props, costumes, sets, animatronics, and much more. Thumbs up to the Get Your Guide tickets and tourism service for our last-minute tickets and great guide.
The perfect segue to our other day trip is a shout out to the grand King’s Cross railway station, which has set up an entrance to the mythical Platform 93/4 for Potter fans. We came upon it on our way to Cambridge, where we had a fascinating tour of the town’s famed university (led by a dry-witted academic retiree, of course) that took us from its origins in the early 1200s to the University’s present system of learning. When in Cambridge, everyone goes punting on the Cam (a kind of raft ride on the slow-moving river behind the university). We did, too, and so should you. On another day in London, we visited Shakespeare’s Globe, a contemporary reconstruction of the famed theater where most of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. Though we saw “The Making of ‘Harry Potter” earlier in the week, learning about the Elizabethan theater and the no-tech magic used to put on Shakespeare was quite compelling. So was lunch at nearby Borough Market, the best and oldest collection of food stalls I’ve ever experienced.
Accommodations: St. Ermin’s Hotel: A long courtyard driveway with a view of the boutique hotel’s classy façade is the first signal to visitors that they’re about to have a welcoming stay in a lovely hotel. Then the gorgeous lobby, resonant in royal purple hues and comfy couches, confirms it. The historic St. Ermin’s went through a £30m renovation before re-opening in 2011, and, from the elegant lobby to the well-appointed rooms, it shows. It’s located in Westminster within walking distance of many of the city’s historic sites, but it’s also a nice place to settle into, with an excellent restaurant (Caxton Grill) and a proper British Tea that is perfection. Cheval Three Quays: With its luxurious apartment lodging, the Cheval Three Quays had the feeling of a new and upscale Manhattan residential building whose apartments have all the latest and best amenities. Our spacious suite was, in a word, unbelievable—and we also had a terrace that looked out on the Thames and Tower Bridge, a view which was unbelievable squared. Some of our most enjoyable moments of our time in London were spent resting on that terrace.
Favorite Meal: The Wright Brothers in Old Spitalfields Market.
One More Food Tip For The Road: Brick Lane is famous for its Indian restaurants. But as New Yorkers, we made a special pilgrimage (after our meal at Wright Brothers) to check out Beigel Bake, a locally famous bagel shop which British friends in New York always brag about as being better than our city’s bagel spots. Please. #GodSaveYourBagels.
Links Of London
British Museum britishmuseum.org
Buckingham Palace royalcollection.org.uk
Cambridge University cam.ac.uk
The Making Of Harry Potter wbstudiotour.co.uk
Shakespeare’s Globe shakespearesglobe.com
Tower Of London hrp.org.uk
Wesminster Abbey westminster-abbey.org
Westminster Hall and Houses of Parliament parliament.uk
London and Paris were our grand opening and closing acts, and Normandy was the diverting middle act, a break from the big cities to pursue an important piece of American and European history and to enjoy the area’s country charms. It’s worth highlighting how we got there. We took the Eurostar through the Chunnel! That train really is a game-changer for facilitating travel between London and Paris. Once in Paris, we rented a car and drove to Normandy.
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The story of D-Day, the unfathomable and ghastly sacrifices, the incredible acts of heroism, all the little and big miracles that ultimately led to the defeat of Nazis in WWII, is a story I knew in broad strokes, but I came to Normandy to reconnect to that history and fill it in with a lot of good information and inspiration that would hopefully be of interest to my children, too. Mission accomplished. We spent a very special day visiting a number of the key beaches and towns where the initial fighting took place—and also spent a good deal of time at the incredible and moving Normandy American Cemetery. We came a long way and wanted to get the most of our experience, so we hired a private tour company, called Normandy 44, run by a married French couple who originally met while working in Walt Disney World in Florida. Our guide, the wife, Magali, led us through a great day and was very knowledgeable, pleasant, and helpful.
The other blockbuster attraction in Normandy that we dedicated a full day of travel to is Mont Saint-Michel, the island town dominated by an august and formidable looking medieval abbey and monastery, an architectural masterpiece that has been part religious center and part fortification through much of its storied past.
Normandy is a very big region, with all sorts of attractions which we would have liked to visit if we didn’t also make plans to return to Paris. So while I can report first-hand not to miss the Bayeux Tapestry (an immense embroidery depicting the events leading up to and culminating in the Norman conquest of England), and to spend a few hours having lunch and sauntering around the picturesque fishing village of Honfleur, there are also some key places on our checklist that we didn’t get to, including the Monet gardens in Giverny, the white chalk cliffs of Étretat, and the beaches of the swank resort town of Deauville.
Accommodations: Château La Chenevière: I hesitate to place this perfect countryside boutique hotel only under “accommodations” because it turned out to be one of the great attractions of our stay in Normandy. Not kidding: I seriously considered passing up our day to trip to Mont Saint-Michel (considered by some to be a world wonder) just to spend a quiet day walking around the château’s transporting landscape and having another dinner at its top-tier restaurant, Le Botaniste. An 18th Century mansion and farm that was fully-restored in 1988, the property includes a walled garden with a heated outdoor pool, rose gardens with many exotic trees, and a vegetable garden that provides fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables to the restaurant. If you’re thinking of visiting Normandy, another key virtue of Château La Chenevière is that it’s close to the D-Day beaches but also a reasonable drive to Mont Saint-Michel in one direction and Honfleur in the other. For all these reasons—the food, the gardens, the lovely rooms, the proximity to the beaches—the chateau attracts a lot of Americans and is an especially welcoming and solicitous oasis.
Links of Normandy
Normandy Tourism en.normandie-tourisme.fr
Accommodations & Dining
Château La Chenevière lacheneviere.com
It won’t surprise anyone that, when in Paris, we followed a similar script every day: Some wandering, some art, and some food. One of our favorite places to wander was actually the quiet pocket of St. Germain between our hotel (the Hotel Pont Royal on Rue Montalembert) and the Seine, where the charming 17th Century side streets are filled with boutique shopping and art galleries. Of course, we also spent a good deal of time enjoying the more populous parts of St. Germain and Le Marais, two areas noted for their lively mix of bistros and boutiques. For art, we lost ourselves in the Louvre, literally and figuratively, and loved our visits as well to the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou. I appreciated how game my children started out in each museum, pushing the limits of their aesthetic interest and museum tolerance before seeking refuge in their cell phones. The Picasso Museum was a much more self-contained treat than the big art institutions, but worthwhile as well. And the Notre-Dame cathedral—immense, gothic, stirring—was anything but a self-contained treat. Still, I think my favorite work of art was Paris itself. I’m such a city dweller. I want to live in one of those white-brick walk-ups and open my shutters in the morning and look out and see blocks and blocks of Paris—but in New York.
Oh, wait, I’m forgetting something. It’s called the Eiffel Tower. We went on two nights because the first time we missed the final elevator ride. I’ve seen the Tower up close before, over two decades ago, and yet I was still overwhelmingly impressed by its perfect symmetries, its towering finely-wrought beauty. I’m not sure if it was because it was the end of summer, or just night-time, but the lines weren’t so bad either. When we got to the observation deck, we embraced the moment by celebrating with a mash-up of old and new, drinking champagne and taking selfies.
Accommodations: Hotel Pont-Royal: In the artsy spirit of the surrounding neighborhood, our lovely boutique hotel has cultivated a literary flavor, with photos of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir incorporated into a pantheon of muses in the main lobby and around the hallways. Mixing and matching with the hotel’s otherwise chic décor, the effect is at once savvy and hip. I suspect everyone who stays there looks at the photos at least once and tries to play “Name That Writer.”
Favorite Meal: One of my favorite tips in this article—indeed, one of our favorite experiences of the trip—was to eat dinner on the outdoor veranda of Café de l’Homme, an upscale restaurant in the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind). The outside tables look out at the Eiffel Tower, about a 1/2 mile away (I’m guessing), allowing you to enjoy your food as the sky fades to night and the Tower’s lights and light show come on.
A Few More Food Tips For The Road: For crepes, we loved Breizh Café in Le Marais. For feeling like we’re were soaking in the café life (because we were eating outside) but we’re actually eating at an upscale brasserie, we loved Le Petit Zinc in St. Germain (uk.petit-zinc.com). For a wonderful foodie experience, we loved Chez L’Ami Jean, in Les Invalides, where the chef is fierce and rice pudding is deservedly world famous. And for seeing an old friend who left her job and life in the US (she was an amazing public high school teacher in LA) to move to Paris for love, there’s nothing like a picnic lunch at Place Des Vosges, a true square (140-m x 140-m) that was an early example of royal city planning and is now just a lovely green in the middle of the city.
Links Of Paris
Paris Tourism en.parisinfo.com
The Eiffel Tower toureiffel.paris/en
The Louvre louvre.fr/en
Musée d’Orsay musee-orsay.fr/en
Notre Dame notredamedeparis.fr/en
Picasso Museum museepicassoparis.fr/en
The Pompidou centrepompidou.fr/en
Hotel Pont Royal leshotelsduroy.com
Eric Messinger is the editor of New York Family.