One of the consequences of our aborted trip to Lisbon is that we found ourselves with a few free days to spend in Paris. This is not a very common occurrence, as we tend to go away during vacations and on weekends we don't usually organize anything beyond lunch out at a restaurant (this is less due to laziness than to the fact that I can't stand how crowded things are in Paris on weekends).
But we figured we owed the kids at least one cultural experience, so we made our way over to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. The Natural History Museum in Paris is actually a collection of museum buildings around city, many of them set in the Jardin des Plantes, a large botanical garden in the 5th arrondissement.
This complex includes the Gallery of Minerology and Geology, the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy, and the Grand Gallery of Evolution. This last is my favorite and I have written about it before, so I won't go into a full description. But I will say it is one of the most child-friendly museums of Paris, further evidenced by their current exhibit, "Nuit" ("Night").
"Night" is split into four parts: A Night under the Stars, a Night in Nature, a Night of Sleep, and In the Shadow of the Night. The interactive stations and dioramas using the museum's collection of stuffed animals give clear and lively explanations of everything to do with nighttime, from the surface of the moon to why flamingos sleep on one leg (only half their brains sleep at a time! who knew?)
I know the mention of stuffed (as in taxidermied) animals may put off some, but it is far less creepy than it sounds. Most of the animals died of natural causes (the ones that didn't date from long ago) and they really do allow you to get up much closer than you would in a zoo or animal park.
The exhibit strikes just the right balance of science and imagination, giving facts and figures about our solar system while also recounting the myths behind certain constellations. Nocturnal animals are a big focus of the show, but it also touches on the legends of vampires and werewolves and their origins. The interactive stations focusing on the sounds and smells of nature were a big hit with the kids, as were the touch-screen quizzes about various aspects of the exhibit. The show will be running for a while, so visitors to Paris, especially those with children, don't forget to put it on your list.
All that said, if I asked my kids about their favorite part of our day out, I'm guessing both would say our lunch at the Grande Mosquée de Paris. That's right, the oldest mosque in Paris has a couscous restaurant/tea room and it is one of the city's hidden gems. If you go, try to get a place in one of the semi-enclosed gardens, where you can sit around copper-tray tables sipping mint tea while the fountain trickles gently and swallows hop on and off your shoulders. It really is something out of a Disney cartoon. (Plus, the couscous is really good!) You can also tour the mosque or take a steam there (women only), although I have not yet done either. Maybe on our next staycation.