Paris is one of my favourite European cities – I usually try and spend a few days out there most years, and was lucky enough to spend an autumn house-sitting there. But even though I had somewhere to stay, Paris is an easy place to spend money – with fantastic restaurants, shops and wine bars on every corner, and the entrance fees to all those world-class museums and attractions which soon start to add up. So can you enjoy Paris if you’re trying not to spend too much? Here are some of the tips I picked up to help keep my Paris travel costs down, and this time of year is one of the best times to try them out, with the low season between November and April having the lowest prices for travel and accommodation.
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Things to see and do
Paris has so many world-famous buildings and monuments – like Sacre Cœur, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower – and going to look at them won’t cost a penny. You can also go and watch the artists at work in Montmartre, browse the book stalls on the banks of the Seine and look around Notre Dame Cathedral for free. And if the weather’s good, there are lots of parks and gardens around the city – like the Promenade Plantée on an old elevated railway line, the botanical gardens at the Jardin des Plantes, and even the atmospheric cemeteries, like Père-Lachaise and the Cimetière du Montparnasse.
If you want to learn a bit more about Paris, Discover Walks offer free walking tours with local guides. They cover a range of different areas – from the Left Bank and the Marais to Notre Dame and Montmartre. Walks take about 90 minutes and off-season groups are usually small. In November, our group of three ended up with our own private guide on one of their Marais tours, who showed us some great local restaurants and bars as well as telling us all about the area’s history, all for the price of a tip.
There are also plenty of free festivals and events going on in Paris throughout the year – including the fireworks and military parades for Bastille Day on 14 July, the Paris Plages riverside beaches in August, the Nuit Blanche all-night arts festival, the Fête des Vendanges harvest festival in Montmartre in October and the Christmas markets in December. Check out the Bonjour Paris and About.com Paris websites for the latest information about what’s going on where and when.
Museums and galleries
If you time your visit to coincide with the first Sunday of each month, many museums are free to visit, including the Musée d’Orsay, Musée du Quai Branly, Pompidou Centre and Picasso Museum. Others are free only off-season (generally from 1 October or 1 November until 31 March), like the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and Sainte-Chapelle. You can find a full list here. They do get really busy though, so get there early.
It’s also worth checking out the museums’ websites for details of other discounts. Many museums offer free entry at any time to under 18s or 18–25-year-olds who live in the EU. The Louvre also has free entry to anyone under 26 on Friday evenings after 6pm. Admission to the Musée d’Orsay is reduced from €12 to €9 after 6pm on Thursdays or 4.30pm on other days. And you can get entry to the Rodin Museum‘s sculpture garden (which I thought was the best bit of the museum) for €4 (€2 for under 26s).
If you’re going to be visiting a lot of museums or attractions, it’s worth investing in a discount pass. There are a couple of different types. The Museum Pass gives free entry to 50 museums and monuments, including those listed above, and costs €48 for two days, €62 for 4 days or €74 for six days. Or there’s a the Paris Pass, which includes museum entry as well as lots of extras – fast-track entry, Seine cruise, hop-on hop-off bus tour, wine tasting session and unlimited travel on the metro, RER and buses. Passes cost €135 for two days, €199 for 4 days or €239 for six days (with discounts for children 4–11 and teens 12–17).
There are also plenty of lesser-known museums in the city that either have free permanent collections or are totally free all the time, like the Musée Cognacq Jay (with 18th century art in a beautiful building in the Marais), the Maison de Victor Hugo (the novelist’s former home that’s now a museum about his life) and the Musée Parfum (about the history of perfume-making).
Top city views
There are plenty of viewpoints where you can get a spectacular view across Paris, but climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower is high on the ‘to do’ list for many visitors. Tickets for the lifts to the top cost €17 or €14.50 for aged 12–24 (book in advance on their website to avoid the worst queues), but you can save money (and burn off a few pain au chocolats) by only paying €7/€5 to take the stairs as far as the second floor.
For free views across the city, some of my favourite spots are the steps outside Sacre Cœur Basilica, the top floor of the Pompidou Centre, the rooftop café at the Galleries Lafayette department store, the roof garden of the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Parc de Belleville out in the 20th arrondissement.
One of the best viewpoints when it gets dark is from the Montparnasse Tower, with a prime view of the Eiffel Tower when it’s lit up and sparkles on the hour. The lift up to the viewing platform on the roof costs €15. But for the price of a drink, you can take a separate lift up to the 56th floor and watch the lights from the comfort of the tower’s American Bar attached to the Ceil de Paris restaurant.
Eating and drinking
The French are passionate about food, but eating out in Paris can take a huge bite out of your budget, especially in touristy areas. For good-value meals, look out for prix fixe or formule menus in restaurants. You’ll get two or three courses – either from a fixed menu or with a couple of choices – for a set price. And if you want to splash out on a meal in a nice restaurant, it’s usually a lot cheaper to eat at lunchtime rather than in the evening. You can often get a similar meal for two-thirds of the price.
You can also save on drinks by ordering a pichet (a quarter, half or full litre jug of house wine) and a carafe of tap water – bottled water and soft drinks in restaurants can be more expensive than wine.
If you’re staying in an apartment or hostel with cooking facilities, you can take full advantage of the great range of produce in Parisian markets and supermarkets. There are plenty of simple dishes you can make without too much cooking – I lived off goats cheese salads and steak and frites. Supermarket chains to look out for include Monoprix, Franprix, Carrefour and Marché U.
Even if you don’t have any cooking facilities, you can always find cheap snacks and street food – like falafel in the Marais or crepes in the Latin Quarter – or pick up a French picnic lunch of a baguette, cheese and wine from a supermarket to eat in a park or on the banks of the Seine. The river’s banks and bridges turns into an informal party spot on warm evenings, lined with people chatting over a bottle of wine.
Paris has an easy-to-use Metro system, but it’s a really walkable city with a lot of the main sites located along the banks of the Seine. You can buy single tickets and passes, but unless you think you’ll use the Metro a lot, a carnet of 10 tickets is probably the best value. Carnets cost €14.50 and you can buy them from station ticket machines. If you’re travelling to Paris by Eurostar, you can also buy them on board to avoid the big queues at the Gare du Nord. It’s worth making the Metro trip on Line 6 between Passy and Bir-Hakeim for amazing views of the Eiffel Tower as the Metro crosses the river on a viaduct.
Boat trips along the Seine are really popular, with everything from five-course dinners to Champagne cruises on offer. But for a budget way to see the sights along the riverbank, the Batobus does a hop-on-hop-off loop up and down the river from the Jardin des Plantes to the Eiffel Tower. Tickets cost €17 for one day, but better value is the two consecutive day pass for €19 per person.
So those are my tips for seeing Paris on a budget – do you know of any more Paris bargains or have any money-saving tips?