I have a lot of people ask me what to do in Paris for free or for cheap considering how expensive the city is. But I’m going to show you it’s totally possible to enjoy Paris when on a tight budget.
First of all, if you have an EU passport (sorry, Brits…) and you are between the ages of 18 and 26, ALL the museums and monuments are free including stuff like the Notre Dame tours up the bell towers, going up the Arc de Triomphe, and even the castles outside of Paris including Versailles.
However if you’re tourist who doesn’t benefit from student discounts, there are still many options; This link will direct you to a list of monuments and museums that are free on certain conditions. But my personal favorites/what I recommend are as follows:
City Center – (1st – 4th Arr.):
This area is home to some of the oldest monuments in Paris. It’s also my favorite place to wander around. You can enter Notre Dame for free but you can also walk along the Seine, noticing the Hôtel de Ville or the Conciergerie where Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned, peer into the gates of the Palais de Justice, or sit somewhere along the Quai de Montbello, Quai aux Fleurs, Quai de Bourbon, or the Square du Vert-Galant (anywhere you see a bench, really) to eat a sandwich and read a book.
Is it your birthday? The Vedettes de la Seine river cruises offer a free ride (20 euro value) if it’s your birthday. Just bring your ID and you can enjoy a day on the Seine sipping champagne on your special day.
Shakespeare & Co., located across the cathedral at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, is a very old, cozy English bookstore. Head upstairs on a rainy day and find a variety of comfy places to lounge and dive into a book, all the while listening to the old out-of-tune piano being played by visitors.
Further north you can get onto the Rue de Rivoli which is the street notorious for its crowds of shoppers but wait! If you go into the Galleries Lafayette, go up the escalators until you reach the top and you’ll find yourself at the rooftop terrace where you have a (free!) spectacular view of the city, this time from behind the Opéra Garnier. If you have the patience you can go back into the mall and admire the rotunda with its stained-glass ceiling. Bonus points if you’re there around the holidays.
Overlapping with what I just mentioned, Le Marais is like the “old city.” Some of the most historic streets are located around here, as well as old town houses/mini estates home to famous pre-revolution nobles and writers, now either transformed into museums like the Musée Carnavalet or been preserved and belonging to rich foreigners. Explore the old Jewish neighborhood and eat kebab, wander the streets and end up in the Place des Vosges square where you can relax on the grass. Within this little park there are cute cafés and galleries under the arched walkways, as well as Victor Hugo’s house (worth it if you’re a fan of him like I am, however the entrance fee costs between 6 and 8 euros).
Canal St. Martin – (10th Arr.):
The Canal St. Martin is the canal that connects the Seine to the Ourcq Canal (a 50-mile tributary of the Marne River). The St. Martin is cool because of the canal locks that you can observe from the pedestrian bridges letting in boats. After the locks the boats pass through an underground tunnel that goes under the Bastille plaza before resurfacing in the Bassin de l’Arsenal and eventually into the Seine. Some would say the canal area is too hipster, but I disagree. I mean, yeah there are “hipsters” left and right eating their baguettes and playing guitar along the water, but I believe it’s all pretty charming.
There’s one awesome bar I know of, it’s a self-titled “ghetto museum” called Le Comptoir Général (80 Quai de Jemmapes). You can go inside and just admire the strange retro décor or come back after dinner for a drink.
To learn more, visit the Seine Saint-Denis tourism site here. They reached out to me to share their site where you can learn more about the history of the canal as well as activities that go on in the summer.
Montmartre – (18th Arr.):
Montmartre is actually much more than just the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Channel your inner Amélie Poulain and wander away from the tourists by walking behind the basilica where you’ll encounter quaint cobble-stoned streets, some antique cafés, a windmill or two, as well as large villas.
If you want to avoid hoards of tourists entirely, you can skip the basilica and take the métro directly to Abbesses (line 12) where you’ll find yourself at the “Mur des je t’aimes”(“I love you” wall), and you can wander further up, or get off at Lamarck-Caulaincourt (12) and walk down seeing if you can spot the “Passe-Muraille” sculpture of a man running through a wall.
If you happen to visit Montmartre in the evening, get some pizza à emporter and sit down on the grass in front of the Sacré-Cœur and watch the sunset, admiring the panoramic view. Now that’s priceless (just be sure to be out of there after dark! It gets sketchy real quick).
Père Lachaise Cemetery – Blvd. Ménilmontant (20th Arr.):
This famous cemetery is not only huge but also breathtaking especially in autumn. Spend an afternoon getting lost and seeing if you can find all the notable people buried here like Édith Piaf, Chopin, Molière, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde, to name a very small few. Be sure to pick up a map at the entrance!
Buttes Chaumont – (19th Arr.):
Paris is full of parks because of how dense and cramped the city is. The Buttes Chaumont is large and makes you forget you’re in an urban center. It’s a bit like Central Park in that way. If you are in town for a while and have extra time definitely take a stroll in this park. It’s a bit out of the way in the northeast of Paris (if you’re already by the Canal it’s really close), but it’s worth it especially if you make it up to the Belvedere lookout, however it may be closed due to limestone restoration or construction.
Arènes de Lutece – 49 Rue Monge
If you are visiting Paris in the summer and again have a bit of time to spare, take the métro to Jussieu (Line 7) bring a picnic or simply go read a book in the sun at the Arènes de Lutèce. There’s not much left, but this is the site of an ancient Roman arena uncovered in the 1800s that has now been transformed into a park hidden in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It’s a quiet place to sit and think and when you’re done you can wander around and enter the…
Jardin des Plantes – 57 Rue Cuvier
A garden home to all kinds of exotic plants, trees, and even animals in the zoo. There is a natural history museum and old greenhouses as well. Here you’ll find people jogging in the morning or pushing strollers, again going in summer is best so you see all the flowers in bloom!
Grande Mosquée de Paris – 2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite
Paris’ largest mosque. You can visit the inside for a few euros and see the peaceful gardens inside, or eat at the restaurant (Bonus: if you’ve seen the movie Paris je t’aime, the end of the vignette with Zarka and François takes place by the mosque).
Remember that simply walking around the city and admiring the architecture, history, culture and people is completely free. There is so much this city can offer that has no price tag. All you need is an open-mind, good walking shoes and an eye for discovery 🙂