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? Paris, unlike other European capitals, is actually fairly easy to visit on a tight budget, contrary to popular beliefs.
In addition to the city’s walkable-size (adios expensive taxi fares and metro tickets) 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.
While it may seem odd to promote a high-end department store as a free activity, the Galeries Lafayette is perhaps the one stop that offers the best value with 3 different things to do!
First off, marvel at the splendid stained-glass dome, a heritage of the Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau eras. Then, revel in French haute-couture at one of the weekly 30-minutes fashion show on the 7th floor (advance booking only via email or telephone at +33 (0)1 42 82 36 40).
Lastly, go all the way up on the last floor of the store and enjoy gorgeous views of Paris from the terrace (open in summer only).
Jardin du Luxembourg
Created by regent Queen Marie de Médici in 1612 to complement her newly-built residence Palais du Luxembourg — since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate — these gardens 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 bakeries and shops in the area.
Good to know: all museums part of Paris Musées are free to enter.
Notre-Dame de Paris
Unbeknownst to many visitors, entry to Notre3Dame-de-Paris is entirely free of charge, 365 days a year. The large medieval Catholic cathedral, often said to be the finest example of French Gothic architecture, requires very little presentation as one of Paris’ top attractions.
This is where Napoleon I was crowned, where Joan of Arc was canonised and where Mary, Queen of Scots married Francis II of France.
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 without a striking resemblance to London’s Notting Hill.
I couldn’t find any relevant information as to why the small stretch of street is so uncharacteristically colourful in comparison to the rest of Paris, but you should definitely visit nonetheless.
Why not spice up your Parisian getaway with skyscrapers, ultra-modern architecture and a fast-paced central square?
Just a few minutes outside the city lies the most important business centre of Europe, La Défense, with gorgeous, colourful fountains and surprising buildings that you typically wouldn’t expect to find Europe, much less Paris.
The Seine banks
Did you know the Seine Banks are the only UNESCO listed site in Paris?
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. It also offers a unique perspective of Paris.
Take advantage of the new legislation that forbids car traffic on the most of the banks to have a romantic post-lunch stroll.
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, 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.
- Wander in the colonnades made famous by the Inception movie and 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 and enjoy 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, head to Passerelle Debilly or from atop the steps of Rue de la Manutention. For a view of the tower from a distance, hike up Parc Belleville.
The Tuileries, technically part of the Louvre, are wedged in the enviable 30 hectares along River Seine separating Place de la Concorde and the outstanding museum in Paris’ posh 1er arrondissement.
Named after the tile factories that stood there before Queen de Medici built the palace in 1564 and were designed by King Louis XIV’s preferred gardener, André le Nôtre, who opted for a French formal style with strong cultural ties thanks to various Rodin and Maillol sculptures.
Jardin du Palais Royal
The inner courtyard, flanked by lavish French gardens on one side and a grand palace — 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 — on the other, is now home to the iconic striped Colonnes de Buren.
Forget New York’s High Line — the real deal is the Promenade Plantée, which existed long before its NYC counterpart. What used to be an elevated train track that used to link Place de la Bastille to Varenne-Saint-Mauris is now home to a beautiful, serene, linear 4.5-kilometres long park that’s especially popular with the locals.
Keep an eye out for interesting pieces of street art.
Covered passages in Paris
It wouldn’t be pessimistic to assume that it’s going to rain at some point during your time in Paris. And when it does, you’ll be prepared: head to the historic covered passages of central Paris, which have been around since the last 18th century. 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, in large part before he turned to politics, got elected to the Parliament and was sent in exile to Guernsey for treason by Napoleon III.
Most national monuments in Paris are entirely free of charge for European residents under the age of 26.
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.
Whether you simply want to flâner like the French do, shop for trinkets or discover new flavours, here are a few of my favourite markets in Paris (full list of markets in Paris is available here, in French):
- Marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen: The largest flea market in Europe where you will find just about everything, from furniture to jewellery to odds and ends.
- Marché des Enfants Rouges: Former orphanage (the name means “Red Children Market” because kids wore clothes donated by Christian charities) turned into food market with amazing Moroccan eateries
- Marché d’Aligre: Known as the market who survived the Revolution, the atmospheric stalls sell produce from all over France.
- Marché du livre: If you can read French or are simply fascinated by vintage books.
- Marché 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
Part of the Natural History Museum of Paris (which unfortunately isn’t free to enter, but utterly fascinating nonetheless), this is France’s most significant botanical garden and, as such, includes four wings, twelve distinct gardens featuring 85,000 plants and a ménagerie.
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. As such, it is one of France’s most esteemed monument historique.
It is located in Paris’ underrated 5e arrondissement, in the vicinity of the Grande mosquée and Lutèce.
The 4.5-kilometres long canal located in east Paris was built by orders of Napoleon back in the early 19th century in order to supply the city with fresh water amidst growing concerns for public safety, notably cholera and dysentery, with the rapidly growing population. Funnily enough, the construction was almost entirely funded by a new tax on wine — only in France, right?!
Nowadays, it’s a lovely area whose banks are lined with trendy cafés with sprawling terraces, bakeries and wine bars, and a popular place to watch barges navigate the locks.
Most museums and art galleries offer free guided tours, based on specific collections or simply their most popular highlights.
Additional and underrated free things to do in Paris
One of the few entirely free museums of the city! Dedicated to one of the oldest and most famous French perfumeries, the museum is located in a lavish Napoleon III townhouse and features a lovely ornate decor that will leave very few indifferent.
Nestled in the heart of Le Marais and opened since 1880, this fantastic museum depicts the history of Paris from its very beginnings to our day and is located in a lovely 11th-century mansion. Not to be missed for the hardcore Paris lovers or the neophyte.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
The eastern wing of sober yet bold Palais de Tokyo is Paris’ premier modern art museum. Dominating this portion of the River Seine with its austere concrete walls, it focuses on the various art movements of both the 20th and 21st centuries, featuring over 8,000 artworks — including household names like Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and Modigliani, to name a few.
Père Lachaise Cemetery
At 110 acres, Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in all of Paris and, 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 — also the most famous. It was Paris’ first garden cemetery and as such, makes for a wonderful stroll through cobblestone alleys flanked by mature, leafy trees.
Amazingly overlooked by most tourists,17th-century Parc Monceau is one of Paris’ loveliest and most unique greens. Visitors enter through imposing gold wrought-iron gates and enter one of the few English-style gardens in France, whose curved walkways are dotted with Greek sculptures, a Rotunda, a Renaissance colonnade, Corinthian pillars, a Dutch windmill and even a large pond favoured by a myriad of birds.
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 where it is now located used to be the setting of weekly salons where great minds of the time, such as George Sand and Eugène Delacroix, met, painted, and exchanged ideas.
Not just a huge poster in Monica’s and Chandler’s apartment, the 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, unsurprisingly, very steep – it is 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! While most of the 16th-century building is closed to visitors for security reasons, there are many interesting exhibitions throughout the year, as well as free guided visits of the State Rooms (by reservations only).
Parc de la Villette open air cinema
If you can understand French or don’t mind reading subtitles, the open air cinema on the verdant lawns of Parc de la Villette is a great option for those warm, romantic Parisian summer nights. Each edition has a different theme; 2017’s is “cooking”, so if I were you I would bring along a few nibbles. Entry is free but it’s possible to rent deck chairs or blankets.
The sumptuous Beaux-Arts Petit Palais was purposefully built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (for which the Eiffel Tower was also erected); much like 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 painters such as Fragonard, Delacroix, Monet, Cézanne, Rembrandt and Rodin.