With travel prices escalating regularly, it’s good to know that some of the best things in Paris actually are free. Inquisitive visitors willing to stray a bit off the beaten tourist path will be amply rewarded by discovering many of Paris’s lesser-known treasures, while saving enough euros to splurge on a great meal or a coveted memento. If you’re traveling on a budget, never fear, here’s how to save a bundle and see the real Paris.
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1. Admire the musée d’art moderne and the petit palais
Overshadowed by the Centre Pompidou and the Grand Palais, these two major institutions are worth a visit both for their world-class collections and stellar special exhibitions. The Musée d’Art Moderne, sister museum to the avant-garde Palais de Tokyo, traces the trajectory of the European visual arts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Special exhibits, like recent shows on Linder, Keith Haring, and Sonia Delaunay, charge a small entrance fee (€8-€11). The recently restored Petit Palais, a spectacular edifice designed for the 1900 World’s Fair, features early-20th-century decorative arts, murals, and mosaics. The circular inner garden’s charming café is one of Paris’s best-kept secrets for lunch or teatime. Recent exhibitions (€8) on the decorative arts and artists include Baccarat, the Legend of Crystal, and Carl Larsson, Sweden’s Most Beloved Painter.
2. Learn at small museums
At the edge of the beautiful Parc Monceau, Musée Nissim de Camondo is Paris’s greatest example of the art of gracious living. Once the home of banker Moïse de Camondo, it is a monument to the height of French and European decorative arts and remains exactly as it was when Camondo bequeathed it to France in honor of his son, who was killed in World War I. Another one-time family home, the Musée Cognacq-Jay is housed in a typical Parisian Hôtel Particulier (mansion) in the Marais and was once owned by the founders of La Samaritaine, one of Paris’s first department stores. Brimming with important art and objects, the museum is another testament to French art de vivre.
3. Walk around Père Lachaise
The final resting place for illustrious Parisians, the legendary Père Lachaise is Paris’s largest cemetery and one of the city’s most picturesque spots for a stroll, especially during Toussaints (All Saints’ Day) on November 1, when Parisians leave flowers for their dearly departed. Set on a steep hill in the 20th arrondissement, the cemetery’s winding cobbled paths and shady avenues are lined with graves that range from simple slabs to ornately sculpted mausoleum’s large enough to house an altar, stained glass windows, and all manner of sculpted imagery. Balzac, Colette, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Molière, Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, and Jim Morrison are just a few of the notables here in permanent repose.
4. Explore Paris’s historic churches
Few come to Paris without visiting the 12th-century Cathédrale de Notre Dame for its lovely chapels and sublime windows. Yet there are several more must-see churches within easy walking distance, starting with the exquisite Sainte-Chapelle, also on the Ile de la Cité. Across the Pont St-Michel in the sixth arrondissement lies one of Paris’s oldest churches, medieval Église St-Germain-des-Prés and the soaring Église St-Sulpice, with murals by Delacroix. Cross the Pont d’Arcole into the 4th for the glorious Église St-Gervais-St-Protais, surrounded by charming cobbled streets. Down scenic rue Miron the newly cleaned St-Paul-St-Louis houses Delacroix’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. Perched on the hill of Montmartre, the famous Sacré-Coeur offers monumental views of Paris, and a few steps away, lesser-known St-Pierre de Montmartre is the oldest surviving church in Paris, built over an early Roman temple to the god of Mars.
5. Visit the arènes de Lutèce
History buffs know Paris was once an important Roman outpost, but many visitors don’t realize the ruins of one of the world’s largest Roman amphitheaters lie a little ways southeast of the city center in the leafy fifth arrondissement. The Arènes de Lutèce—where Gallo-Roman citizens watched theatrical productions, gladiators, and circuses—was constructed in the first century AD, yet remained a myth to archeologists and historians until it was finally uncovered in the 1860s during excavation for a tramway. Large enough to accommodate 15,000 spectators, the amphitheater’s stone walls and terraced seats are remarkably preserved, and its inner terrace is now a favorite picnic ground and soccer field for neighborhood school kids.
6. Learn to cook
All you need is curiosity and a sense of adventure to benefit from a tantalizing range of free cooking courses offered by the Fédération Française de Cuisine. The FCC was founded in 2007 to promote French cuisine as a healthy and pleasurable leisure activity accessible to everyone, no matter what level of expertise. Best of all, courses are offered in several green markets and fairs around Paris, so you have the pleasure of experiencing a deeply French ritual firsthand. Though classes are in French, anyone can sign up and follow along for a pleasant and edifying hour-long course, with titles like 100% Chocolate, Celebrate Easter, and Vegetables of the Sun.
7. Sample wine at free tastings
Oenophiles and curious wine lovers will find free sipping at a few of Paris’s standout wine shops. Along with a series of wine courses in English (see the website for schedules and prices), La Dernière Goutte hosts free wine tastings on Fridays at 5:00 pm (with free cheese) and all-day Saturday (with the winemakers) starting at 11:00 am. Lucky you if you happen to be in Paris during one of Caves Augé’s famous dégustations. This bustling shop, known as Paris’s second oldest cave, rolls out the barrels for its monthly tastings with the vignerons from the important wine regions of France: the Rhone Valley, the Savoie, Jura, and Alsace, Loire, and Beaujolais. Best of all, Augé also hosts two splendid annual champagne tastings—les bulles.
8. Hunt through Paris flea markets
The inexhaustible Marché aux Puces St-Ouen, a.k.a. Clignancourt, is continuously reinventing itself. Village Vintage, housed in a courtyard off the rue des Rosiers, the market’s central spine, features a wonderful café, Tartes Kluger, art galleries, vintage couture, and a wealth of 20th-century design. Many bargain hunters still prefer the smaller Vanves, but be sure to get there early, it closes by 1 pm. Intrepid hunters willing to arrive early and sift through junk can be amply rewarded at the Porte de Montreuil (open Saturday and Sunday from 8 am to 1 pm). Those in the know head out to Foire de Chatou (otherwise known as Antiques and Ham), held one weekend every October and March. Known for being France’s largest outdoor market, it also features wine and, well, ham. Its located 10 minutes from Paris by RER.
9. Experience art at le centquatre
The hulking 18th-century building at La Villette sat abandoned from the late 60s, when it ceased functioning as the city mortuary, until 2008 when it opened as a soaring art space after a five-year of renovation. Le Centquatre is now among Europe’s leading contemporary art venues, with an international roster of artists in residence and exhibitions and performances encompassing every art form: visual arts, dance, music, theater, cinema, and video art. Guest DJs and live concerts rock the hall on weekend nights, and during the day Parisians from all walks of life flock to enjoy the center’s gourmet café, restaurant, pizza truck, and épicerie. Shoppers love the French charity Emmaüs’s vintage shop and Centquatre’s excellent bookstore. La Maison des Petits has activities for tykes from birth to age five.
10. Watch free cinema
Nothing like summer in the city to catch an outdoor screening of your favorite foreign and American flicks. In this film-centric city movie buffs are never at a loss for something to do. Grab your blankets and picnic gear and head to Parc de la Villette, Paris’s largest park, where Cinéma en Plein Air hosts a scintillating series of films—many in English—in July and August. At the end of July to mid-August, Paris’s Forum des Images hosts Cinéma au Clair de Lune featuring the French classics screened in public parks throughout Paris, from the heights of Montmartre to the Place des Vosges. Join the Parisians and head to La Peniche Cinéma, situated in a boat on the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette, which hosts a free year-round series of films and concerts every Friday and Saturday.
11. Gawk at le Panthéon
We may take views for granted, but in Paris they often come at the price of a meal or admission. Not so at the Panthéon, burial place of such French luminaries as Voltaire and Rousseau. From 2014 until 2022, the iconic domed structure will be undergoing one of the most extensive renovation projects in France, beginning with the cupola, which will reopen in March 2015, offering some of the most spectacular views of Paris from the city center. During the restoration the monument will not only remain open but will host a series of art installations, which you’ll find listed on the website.
12. Eat free food
With great food available on any budget, you’re not likely to go hungry in Paris. At these convivial nightspots, as long as the drinks are flowing, the food at the bar is free. Le Bouillon Belge’s party atmosphere, impressive beer list, and tempting, well-priced cocktails are accompanied by free moules and crisp frites (mussels and fries). Revel in the exotic atmosphere of Tribal Café on Friday or Saturday night and you’ll be treated to complementary couscous with your drinks—Wednesdays and Thursdays are free moule-frite nights. After 8:30 pm on Thursday, Les Trois Frères serves up platters of free couscous with merguez (lamb) sausage at the bar. Le Penty, around the corner from the popular Place d’Aligre, draws a rollicking crowd for its free kémia—and assortment of Middle Eastern-style amuses-gueules (appetizers) with your apéritif.
13. Listen to free concerts
Music is the universal language and at these historic churches a splendid program of year-round concerts means no barriers to total enjoyment. Though many classical concerts are ticketed, there are free concerts galore, beginning with the American Church in Paris, whose Sunday night concert series has been offered free to the public since the 1930s. At Notre Dame cathedral a program of Gregorian chants, organ music, and other concerts is offered year-round, along with a schedule of paid classical concerts. The Église de la Madeleine also offers a mixed series of free and paid performances. Other churches where the music flows for free: Église de la Trinité, near Gare Saint-Lazare, Église Saint-Eustache in Les Halles; the lovely Église Saint-Roch near the Palais Royal; and the Église Protestante Réformée de l’Oratoire du Louvre in the Louvre.
14. Stop by palais royal
Hidden behind the stately walls of a 17th-century palace, these manicured gardens are one of Paris’s true hidden gems. From royal palace to nighttime pleasure zone, the Palais-Royal’s colorful history is laid out under its elegant archives, from the Grand Véfour, among Paris’s oldest restaurants, where Napoléon, Balzac, Proust, and Colette dined, to the shops that once comprised Paris’s first outdoor shopping mall. Nowadays the Palais Royal has quietly transformed into a major fashion destination, where the likes of Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, and Rick Owens rub shoulders with a dozen exciting French luxury brands: perfumer Serge Lutens, Maison Fabre gloves, Pierre Hardy shoes, Maison Bonnet handmade glasses, Maison de Vacances housewares, and many more. Lounge around the central fountain or read among the rosebushes, as Simone de Beauvoir did as a schoolgirl.
15. Lounge at Place de Vosges
In the heart of the Marais, the lovely Place des Vosges—another one-time royal palace—is a favorite spot for young Parisians to lounge about on a pleasant day. Surrounded on four sides by the graceful brick and limestone walls of the early 17th-century palace, the park’s wide-open square, central fountain, and walkways are an oasis in the heart of Paris’s chicest shopping Mecca. Surrounded by art galleries and cafés, it’s a great place to stop for a bite or a drink and watch the world go by.
16. Stroll along the canal St-Martin
Strolling under the plane trees and over the bridges lining the picturesque Canal St-Martin is a true Parisian pleasure. There’s no definitive roadmap here, but you’ll want to cover the quays on either side of the canal, where you can enjoy a picnic or dine at a canal-side café. Other streets not to miss: on the canal’s west side the teeming rue des Vinaigriers is the go-to place for chic cafés, bakeries, and coffee; rue Beaurepaire, rue Marseille, and rue de Lancry for fabulous shopping; and rue Lucien Sampaix for a mix of both. On the canal’s east side, take rue de la Grange to a lovely little chapel, part of the early 17th-century Hôpital Saint-Louis, founded by Henry IV in 1607, it’s one of Paris’s oldest hospitals and a pretty place for a stroll.
17. Exercise at the Berges de Seine
Along the south side of the Seine, extending the steps of the Musée d’Orsay all the way to the Pont de l’Alma, the new Berges de Seine offers a multitude of free activities for all ages. A great place to stroll, jog, or bike while taking in riverside views of Paris, along with its gardens and walkways, cafés, games, and performance spaces, les Berges offers a continuous series of outdoor fitness classes with coaching, including running, jump rope, yoga, Nordic walking, skiing, boxing, and even free personal training sessions to get you motivated. In the summer, there are also free concerts and outdoor films. A comprehensive website (in English) gives you all the details for this wonderful space.
18. Wander through gardens and parks
A visit to Paris isn’t complete without a leisurely stroll in one of the city’s glorious parks. The most Parisian of the options, the Jardin du Luxembourg, offers lush gardens and trees, a picturesque basin (where French kids sail their boats), tennis courts, an apiary and orchards, a huge play area for kids of all ages, a Guignol puppet theater, Paris’s oldest carousel, and so much more. In Paris’s fifth arrondissement, the Jardin des Plantes is France’s primary botanic garden, with exotic and medicinal plants from the world over. Along with its lovely shaded pathways and miles of flowerbeds, the park contains the world’s oldest zoo, historic greenhouses, the Museum of Paleontology, and the incomparable Musée de l’Histoire Naturelle.
19. Explore Paris’s vineyards
The Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre takes place every October on the heights of Montmartre. Its one of the best parties of the year (with revelry of all kinds and, of course, a tasting of last year’s cuvée) to celebrate the grape harvest at the Clos Montmartre. But regardless of the time of year, you can enjoy the views from Paris’s oldest vineyard by taking a stroll on the rue des Saules. Tucked away in the vertiginous Parc de Belleville, you’ll find breathtaking views of the city along with a vineyard of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes, planted in 1992 on a beautiful swath of terraced park. Although Belleville’s days as a vineyard date back to the 13th century, wine production tapered off in the 1900s. Now, the vignerons produce a dry rosé from Belleville’s harvest that can be found in some of the neighborhood wine shops.
20. Admire the promenade Plantée
The inspiration for New York City’s highline, this beautiful 4.5 kilometer (2.8 mile) walkway elevated three stories above the Paris streets extends from Place de la Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes. Built in 1988 over a graceful arched viaduct, whose arcades now house the art galleries and artisan studios of the Viaduc des Arts, the Promenade Plantée’s lush, overgrown gardens and trees take walkers eye-level through an architecturally rich part of the city. A jogger’s paradise, the promenade is a favorite route for walkers and Sunday strollers.