Travel is but one of the few expenses that will make you both richer and poorer at the same time. Right? But what if I told you there was a way to avoid the dreaded post-trip bank statement? Unlike other European capitals, there actually are a vast quantity of free things to do in Paris. In fact, the City of Lights is actually fairly easy to visit on a budget.
In addition to the city’s walkable-size (adios expensive taxi fares) and the many affordable dining options, there are also hundreds of free things to do in Paris that will both delight your senses. And spare your bank account from a mild heart attack. You’re welcome.
If you’re visiting Paris on a budget or if you’d simply rather save your precious euros for a dinner splurge, why not schedule your visit to tie in with the first Sunday of each month? Several world-class museums are free to visit then, including musée national Eugène Delacroix, Centre Pompidou, musée de l’Orangerie, and Orsay, to name a few.
Other attractions are also free to visit on Sundays, but in wintertime only. Consider adding Arc de Triomphe, the Panthéon, Sainte-Chapelle and other historic monuments to your winter in Paris itinerary!
While it may seem odd to promote a high-end department store as a free activity, Galeries Lafayette is perhaps the one stop that offers the best value with two different things to do!
Firstly, marvel at the splendid stained-glass dome, a heritage of the Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau eras. Secondly, go up to the last floor and enjoy gorgeous views of Paris from the terrace (summer only).
Jardin du Luxembourg
The gardens were created by regent Queen Marie de Médici in 1612 to complement her newly-built residence Palais du Luxembourg. They are inspired by the widow’s Italian roots with lavish tree-lined promenades, lush flowerbeds and intricate fountains. It’s also one of the best places to enjoy an al fresco breakfast or lunch, procured at one of the many local bakeries.
Oh and you know, that stunning building you see in the distance? Palais du Luxembourg has been the seat of the French Senate since 1958.
Notre-Dame de Paris
Obviously, the cathedral is closed until further notice (with scheduled reopening in time for the 2024 Olympics) due to the tragic fire that broke out in 2019. But you can still enjoy Notre-Dame’s stunning facade!
The large medieval Catholic cathedral is often said to be the finest example of French Gothic architecture. As such, it requires very little presentation as one of Paris’ top attractions! Firstly, this is where Napoleon I was crowned. Secondly, where Joan of Arc was canonised. And thirdly, where Mary, Queen of Scots married Francis II of France.
Jardin du Palais Royal
The inner courtyard is flanked by lavish French gardens, the iconic striped Colonnes de Buren and a grand palace. It was built for Cardinal de Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief minister and powerful bishop; he is often considered to be the father of the modern French society.
Upon scouting locations on Instagram, I stumbled upon this adorable rainbow-coloured city in what is otherwise a typically Haussmann-beige city. Welcome to Rue Crémieux, which is not unlike a striking resemblance to London’s Notting Hill.
The Seine banks
These beautiful river banks often goes under the tourist radar. Sadly so, because it’s quite an amazing place to sit, relax and eat a macaron on a sunny day. Moreover, it offers a unique perspective of Paris! The Seine banks are now largely pedestrian, making it lovelier than ever to stroll upon. Or have a romantic post-lunch stroll!
Not to forget: the historic bouquinistes that have set up shop along the Seine with rare and second-hand books.
Free views of the Eiffel Tower
One does not have to pay expensive observatory fees to get smashing views of Paris. If your visit coincides with the free entry at Arc de Triomphe every first Sunday of the month in wintertime, then you’re in luck. If not, there are other valuable options to consider.
- Head to Trocadéro at any time of the day, although sunrise is arguably the most magical time to be there.
- Walk to Pont de Bir-Hakeim, the colonnades made famous by the Inception movie. From there, admire the view of the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower at the same time.
- Go to the very top floor of Printemps department store on Boulevard Haussman. Take in the free view of the Eiffel Tower, as well as Opéra Garnier and Sacré-Coeur.
- For a classic shot of the Eiffel and the River Seine, there are two options. Head to Passerelle Debilly or walk atop the steps of Rue de la Manutention.
- For a view of the Eiffel tower from a distance, hike up Parc Belleville.
The Tuileries are wedged in the enviable 30 hectares along River Seine separating Place de la Concorde and the Louvre in Paris’ posh 1er arrondissement.
The gardens are named after the tile factories that stood there before Queen de Medici built the palace in 1564. They were designed by King Louis XIV’s preferred gardener, André le Nôtre, who opted for a French formal style. Nowadays, amongst the leafy trees, visitors will find various Rodin and Maillol sculptures.
Forget New York’s High Line — the real deal is the Promenade Plantée, which existed long before its NYC counterpart. In essence, what used to be an elevated train track linking Place de la Bastille to Varenne-Saint-Mauris is now home to a beautiful, serene 4.5-kilometres long park. Keep an eye out for interesting pieces of street art.
Covered passages in Paris
As much as the city is gorgeous when the sun shines, it wouldn’t be pessimistic to assume that it’s going to rain at some point during your time in Paris. And when indeed it does, you’ll be prepared: head to the historic 18th century covered passages of central Paris. Some of my favourites include:
- Passage des Panoramas
- Galerie Vivienne
- Passage du Grand Cerf
- Passage Verdeau
Maison de Victor Hugo
Surprisingly, the permanent collection at Maison de Victor Hugo is free to visit for everyone. This is the home where the illustrious author lived from 1832 to 1848 and wrote his most acclaimed novel, Les Misérables. That was well before he turned to politics, got elected to the Parliament and was momentarily exiled to Guernsey for fear of treason by Napoleon III!
Popular Paris markets
Paris is not a market-driven town in the same way London is, for example, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Here are a few of my favourite markets in Paris (full list of markets in Paris is available here, in French):
- Puces de Saint-Ouen: The largest flea market in Paris with just about everything, from furniture to jewellery to trinkets and vintage designer labels.
- Marché des Enfants Rouges: Former orphanage turned into food market with amazing Moroccan eateries. Did you know? The name means “Red Children Market” because kids wore clothes donated by Christian charities.
- Aligre market: Known as the market who survived the Revolution, the atmospheric stalls sell produce from all over France.
- Marché du livre: For vintage French books.
- Raspail: Open air market with 40 stalls filled with fresh produce, from vegetables to breads and cheeses.
- Marché aux timbres: Browse vintage stamps and postcards from all over the world.
Jardin des Plantes
This is France’s most significant botanical garden and, as such, includes twelve distinct gardens featuring 85,000 plants and a ménagerie. It’s technically part of the Natural History Museum of Paris, which however isn’t free to enter.
It was built four centuries ago by orders of King Louis XIII as a medicinal garden — some of the herbs planted at the time still exist to this day. Consequently, it’s now one of France’s most esteemed monument historique. It is located in Paris’ underrated 5e arrondissement, close to the Grande mosquée and Lutèce, Paris’ very own roman amphitheatre.
The 4.5-kilometres long canal located in east Paris was built by orders of Napoleon back in the early 19th century. Why? To supply the city with fresh water amidst growing concerns for public health, notably cholera and dysentery. Funnily enough, a new tax on wine almost entirely financed the construction — only in France, right?!
Nowadays, it’s a lovely area and a popular place to watch barges navigate the locks. Its banks are lined with trendy cafés with sprawling terraces, bakeries and wine bars.
Additional and underrated free things to do in Paris
Musée du parfum de Paris
One of the few entirely free museums in Paris! The perfume museum is dedicated to one of the oldest and most esteemed French perfumeries and is located in a lavish Napoleon III townhouse. It features a highly ornate decor that will leave very few indifferent.
Carnavalet Museum is nestled in the heart of Le Marais. Opened since 1880, it depicts the history of Paris spanning from its very beginnings to our day. Housed in a lovely 11th-century mansion, it welcomes acclaimed temporary exhibitions that really shouldn’t be missed.
Why not spice up your Parisian getaway with skyscrapers, ultra-modern architecture and a fast-paced central square? Indeed, just a few minutes outside the city lies the most important business centre of Europe, La Défense. Expect gorgeous, colourful fountains and surprising buildings that you typically wouldn’t expect to find Europe, much less Paris.
Père Lachaise Cemetery
At 110 acres, Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in all of Paris. It’s also the most famous, thanks to a few noteworthy residents — Honoré de Balzac, Molière, Marcel Proust, Eugène Delacroix, Édith Piaf, Georges Bizet, Jean de la Fontaine, Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison. In addition, it was Paris’ first garden cemetery! It makes for a wonderful stroll through cobblestone alleys flanked by mature, leafy trees.
Parc de la Villette open air cinema
The open air cinema in the verdant Parc de la Villette is a great option for those warm, romantic Parisian summer nights. But only if you can understand French explicitly or don’t mind reading subtitles! Entry is free and it’s possible to rent deck chairs or blankets.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
The eastern wing of the bold Palais de Tokyo is Paris’ premier modern art museum and commands attention with its concrete walls. Markedly, it focuses on the various art movements of both the 20th and 21st centuries. As such, it features over 8,000 artworks — including household names like Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and Modigliani, to name a few.
Amazingly overlooked by most tourists,17th-century Parc Monceau is one of Paris’ loveliest and most unique greens. Enter through imposing gold wrought-iron gates in one of the few English-style gardens in France! The curved walkways are dotted with Greek sculptures, a Rotunda, a Renaissance colonnade, Corinthian pillars, a Dutch windmill and even a large pond.
Musée de la Vie Romantique
Located in dodgy-meets-sexual Pigalle at the bottom of Montmartre, the quirky Romantic Life Museum is dedicated to the Romanticism art and intellectual movement that sprung all over Europe in the 1800s. The hôtel particulier used to be the setting of weekly salons where great minds of the time, for example George Sand and Eugène Delacroix, met, painted, and discussed ideas. This one of the more offbeat yet fascinating free things to do in Paris.
Not just a huge poster in Monica’s and Chandler’s apartment! Butte Chaumont really does exist and offers unobstructed views over Paris from an angle that few visitors get to see. The hike up the park is very steep; to clarify, it’s called a butte which is French for hill. But the reward far outweighs the effort.
Hôtel de Ville
Welcome to the largest city hall in Europe! Most of the 16th-century building is closed to visitors for security reasons. However, there are many interesting exhibitions throughout the year as well as free guided visits of the State Rooms (by reservations only).
The sumptuous Beaux-Arts Petit Palais was purposefully built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, for which the Eiffel Tower was also erected; likewise the Louvre, the galleries at Petit Palais are as grandiose as the artworks they welcome. The collections are very diverse and span several centuries of visual art history. Highlights include Delacroix, Monet, Cézanne, Rembrandt and Rodin.