Although the latest Economist ranking places Paris in the top spot for the most expensive city in the European Union, sticker shock does not deter over 35 million visitors a year from coming to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Luckily, an affordable and memorable Parisian rendezvous filled with world-renowned gastronomy, architecture, museums, and shopping is achievable with some advanced planning. After all, it is the first city in the world to install free sparkling water fountains — because still water is so last century.
1. Stroll through the City Of Lights.
The City of Lights developed over centuries in a spiral snail-like pattern of 20 arrondisements, or districts, with the Seine River at its core. Start off your trip by following Thomas Jefferson’s advice for a walk around Paris, which “will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” Volunteer ambassadors from Paris Greeters lead free walking tours along the Seine. Commercial tour operators such as Discover Walks and Sandeman’s New Europe also propose several free tour options conducted by local guides on a tip-only basis. Advance booking is recommended to secure a spot on your preferred date or if one of the special-themed walks piques your interest. Walking tours of the Montmartre district are especially popular. From April through October, a free historical walking tour of the Tuileries garden takes place at 3:30 on Saturdays and Sundays.
2. Take in the culture.
Entrance to national museums (with the exception of the Grand Palais) is free on the first Sunday of the month. The permanent collection at city-run museums like the Paris Museum of Modern Art is always free. National museums such as the Louvre and the Museé d’Orsay tend to be the most popular. If you have your heart set on viewing the Mona Lisa or Impressionist masters, it’s best to go early in the morning to avoid long lines. The Museé de l’Orangerie located within the Tuileries garden is a less crowded option for viewing Monet’s famous waterlilies. Once a year, the city also organizes a Nuit Blanche (white night) of free activities to promote contemporary art.
You can also visit many famous churches and monuments without spending a dime. Although there is a fee to climb the bell tower, admission to the main Notre Dame cathedral is free and often includes special exhibitions and holiday concerts. The Pere Lachaise cemetery houses the tombs of artists and literary giants such as Oscar Wilde and rock star Jim Morrison. For music lovers, Paris celebrates the summer solstice on June 21 with free concerts during Fête de la Musique. Festivities start at 5 pm and run all night long. The European Union designated 2018 as the Year of Cultural Heritage, so you can expect additional free special events throughout the year. Be aware that large bags and luggage are not allowed in most museums and monuments due to heightened security.
3. Admire French fashion at the Galeries Lafayette.
The Galeries Lafayette art nouveau flagship store in the ninth arrondissement is a must-stop for all fashion lovers and has one of the best rooftop views in Paris. Every Friday afternoon, the landmark department store hosts a fashion show highlighting the latest French runway trends. The seventh-floor terrace, open daily from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm, is the place to be for 360-degree views of the Eiffel Tower, the Garnier national opera house, and Montmarte. Grab a drink from the terrace bar and watch the monuments bathed in golden light at sunset.
4. Ring in your birthday with a Seine cruise.
Take advantage of Vedettes de Paris’s free one-hour cruise to ring in your birthday in style. To claim your free birthday cruise, all you have to do is bring along an ID and choose from two free cruise options: “sparkling” (with a free glass of champagne/wine) or “gourmand” (with a sweet crepe and hot/cold drink). Then sit back and enjoy panoramic views, while learning about the history of the monuments along the Seine.
5. Eat like a Parisian at local markets.
Food stalls at local markets are the best locations to sample a wide variety of French specialties and street food. Two of the best French local markets are the 400-year old Marche des Enfants (open Tuesdays through Sundays) and the trendy working-class Marche Bastille (open Thursdays and Sundays). Both are great for travelers looking to sample French delicacies at the food stalls or to pack up picnic baskets to go. You can pick up baguettes, wine, artisanal cheese, and meats at these markets without breaking the bank. Given the international nature of these markets, you will be spoiled for choices — everything from fresh oysters to rotisserie chicken and Lebanese sweets. The Federation Francaise de Cuisine also organizes free cooking classes at various local markets featuring recipes that take advantage of the fresh produce sourced from the market stalls.
6. Picnic like royalty.
Former royal parks and gardens are open to the public for picnics thanks to the French Revolution. Situated between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, the former Tuileries royal garden is considered one of the best free open-air museums in Europe with over 200 sculptures and statues. The Champs de Mars is the place to go for Eiffel Tower views. After sunset, you can view the twinkling light show for 5 minutes every hour on the hour. For a more intimate Sunday picnic, head to the Place des Vosges in the Marais district and make sure you grab a falafel sandwich from L’As du Fallafel on the way.