Paris

The trouble with going to Paris at Christmas is, unless you are rich, you can't go every year. Which presents a problem. We went to Paris last Christmas, and this year the holiday already feels anticlimactic.

Oh, I'm spinning the traditional stay-at-home holiday, with the big tree and the yule log, a feast for family and friends. I'm pointing out the Christmas parties we won't miss, the local traditions we can enjoy. But even I am having trouble buying it.

How can you beat a city alive with light and festivity. With two-story carousels seemingly by every corner, ice skating in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the bells of Notre Dame on Christmas night, fir trees in every square, branches glimmering with shiny bows?

How can even the most elaborately decorated house compare with the blazing avenue of the Champs-Élysées, the Louvre carved bronze against the night, or the Eiffel Tower suddenly fizzing with champagne light, reflected in the windows on every nearby street?

My famous date-nut bread and gingerbread cookies can't compete with a hundred bûches de Noël (yule log cakes) in every shop window, with macaroons and pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants), with sizzling crepes and croque-monsieurs (grilled ham and cheese sandwiches) beckoning. Not to mention the best bread in the world.

Paris is Christmas, bright, gorgeous and happy with every building, every street decorated in its own architectural charm. The lights and bows seem almost redundant.

Yes, it gets dark early in December, but it doesn't matter. Paris, the City of Light, is just as much fun in the dark as on a summer's day.

It's also just as much fun for kids as adults. We had heard the French would rather deal with dogs than children but found that nothing could be further from the truth. The city is dotted with playgrounds, carousels and parks. With 8-year-old Danny, 6-year-old Fiona and 2-month-old Darby in tow, we were treated with patience and courtesy everywhere we went. We didn't chance any fancy restaurants, but in every boulangerie the kids were encouraged to practice their French. In every museum line, we were pulled up to the front, told we could not wait. Non, non, not in the cold, not with the baby.

Fewer out-of-towners

We spent 16 glorious days, arriving the week before Christmas last year. It turned out to be an excellent time because virtually no one is in town except Parisians. (This changes the week after Christmas, so it's best to do all your touristy things early.)

We still faced lines, of course, but crowds were thin at many attractions during evening hours -- the Louvre stayed open until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the Musée d'Orsay until 9:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

Although we reserved some adult-only time for the Picasso and the Carnavalet museums, the two biggest draws have built-in kid attractions. The D'Orsay is an old train station, and the Louvre is, well, the Louvre, and even kids are impressed, especially by the evening; there's something exciting, forbidden almost, about being in a museum at night.

With our niece Katie along as a quasi-nanny, we needed some space, so we rented a wonderful three-bedroom flat in the Marais district. It was the quintessential Parisian apartment, with high, sculpted ceilings, charming fireplaces, wood floors and big shuttered windows looking out on a marvelous medieval street.

The Marais is one of the city's older neighborhoods, the former Jewish quarter. From our street, two blocks from the Seine, it was an easy walk to the Bastille, Île St.-Louis, Notre Dame, pretty much everywhere, actually, though a Métro stop was steps away.

We used the Métro for trips to the catacombs and Château de Vincennes -- a fabulous park and the only castle in Paris -- and occasionally at night when we were tired. Mostly, we walked. Because how can you not walk in Paris?

With 16 days to enjoy ourselves, we didn't have to jam a million sights into one day. We meant to get on one of the many double-decker tour buses that roam the city, but the streets were too seductive. On a bus, we would have missed the chestnut vendors, the crepe makers and all the lovely scarves.

Using Lonely Planet and the excellent "Paris for Families" (Larry Lain, Interlink Books) as guides, we headed for one or two major destinations each day. But we took our time, surrendering to distractions, especially those that made the kids appreciate where we were and what we were doing.

So we got to see Monet's "The Water Lilies" at the Musée de l'Orangerie, but first we explored the playground and cafes of the Tuileries Gardens and rode the giant Ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde. I was halfway up before I remembered I was afraid of heights. But the kids loved it so much, they went on it a second time at night, when, I was told, the views were spectacular.