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Cheap Paris Travel: 21 Free Things To Do In Paris

Yes, there is such a thing as cheap Paris travel and no, you shouldn't miss out on this wonderful city just because it happens to be expensive.

The most visited city in the world isn't just for the wealthy - you can see much of what Paris offers without having to fork over a single Euro (well, you do have to eat but you can even do that for free sometimes).

cheap Paris travel Eiffel Tower by night

The ins and outs of cheap Paris travel - yes you can

Below are 21 kinds of things you can do for free or very cheaply in Paris - enough to keep you busy for a month. 

1. Don't pay to sleep.
It's no secret that most of our travel funds go first to flights and second, to accommodation. If you can eliminate or seriously cut back on your sleeping expenses, your spending will be more than manageable.

You don't have any friends in Paris with a spare couch? Your next bet is to try one of the many free couch-surfing type accommodation schemes. As of this writing (mid-July 2016), Couchsurfing listed 67,000 Parisians willing to provide sleeping accommodations. Hospitality Club has more than 17,000 listings in the Parisian region. If you plan well ahead of time, there's no reason you should have to pay - although you'll be expected to be a considerate and pleasant guest. And if you happen to be a writer, Shakespeare and Co may allow you to use one of the cots in the back of their bookshop... If sharing isn't conceivable, one of the cheaper paying options will be a hostel in Paris.

2. Choose your restaurant with care.
Your next expense is, of course, food. According to my friend Anna Hartley, an Australian writer living in Paris, the best way to save money in Paris is to avoid dining in tourist areas. "As a rule of thumb, if a restaurant advertises in 16 different languages and the menu is as long as a novel, it's not going to be good quality. Even in the super touristy areas (eg, the Latin Quarter) it's possible to find somewhere good just by walking a couple of streets back from the main thoroughfare. If you're not sure if you're looking at a quality place, check if they sell "Berthillion" ice-cream— the brand is incredibly picky about who they will deign to supply to so it's a bit of a secret code for good food."

Paris is a city of ethnicities and eating cheaply on the run is actually possible. While a 'tourist' crêpe on the Left Bank may put you back 8 Euros, a falafel sandwich in the Arab or Jewish neighbourhoods will go for a Euro or two. Not only that but you can eat a free couscous on weekends! That's right - a number of Parisian restaurants offer free meals on Friday and Saturday night, often to the sound of live music. You will have to pay for a drink though - but it's cheap Paris travel at its best.

3. Go one better and pack your lunch.
France is the country where a baguette - a loaf of French bread - costs less than one Euro (a little more in Paris). Most supermarkets have huge slabs of paté for 2-3 Euros. It may not be the healthiest diet, but for a week or two, it certainly is possible.

cheap Paris travel - baguettesThe perfect food

Top up your baguette by heading for one of the city's legendary markets to stock up (get there early-ish or brave the crowds). Try the Marché d'Aligre near the Bastille, the Marché de Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement (near where I lived decades ago as a student) or for something different, the West African Marché Dejean in the 18th. 

cheap Paris travel - food marketIt's hard NOT to find what you're looking for in a Paris market

4. Don't buy bottled water.
Fill your bottle of water before leaving your room (Paris tap water is safe to drink). If you forget, there are thousands of free water fountains in the city. Some of them are even for sparkling water! There are apparently 6... (And if you need a public toilet, here's a map.)

5. Pull out your walking shoes.
Flâner is a French word that means to stroll aimlessly, slowly - and that's where the word flâneur comes from. To stroll is free and there's no better place to do it than Paris. Pick a neighbourhood a day: the Latin Quarter, Montmartre, the Champs-Elysées, the Canal Saint-Martin... You won't run out however long you stay. By the way, most major museums have plenty of other sights within walking distance. 

Get your bearings by trying out a free audio tour of Paris. Download guided tours to your phone (Rick Steves has a series for Europe here) and start walking. Or why not try a free walking tour - a great three-hour bargain (though you should leave a tip). 

cheap Paris travel - view of the rooftopsSo many neighbourhoods to choose from!

6. See all the sights - from the outside.
Why stand in line (and pay a lot) to climb the Eiffel Tower when you can get a stunning vista from its base? And at night, its 20,000 lights will take your breath away. The same goes for other major attractions. Sure, if you are flush, it would be nice to climb the Arc de Triomphe or the Montparnasse Tower but this isn't about doing everything in Paris - it's about doing a lot of things for very little money.

Explore the Seine and its more than 40 bridges. The Pont Bir-Hakeim is a classic, as is the Pont-Neuf on the Ile de la Cité, the oldest bridge in the city. Just cross back and forth all day... or all night. I remember a romantic walk through Paris when I was 18 that had me crossing bridges until the small hours of the morning... And the best views of Paris are to be had from her bridges.

cheap Paris travel - Seine RiverParis is best seen from its many bridges

7. Write down your expenses.
That's right, keep track. Some days, believe it or not, you may not spend your entire budget, especially if you're eating street food or fast food (don't worry,  it's not as bad as it sounds). Carry the extra over to the next day. At some point, you may allow yourself a splurge. Even a wonderful meal in a delicious restaurant or bistrot can be found for under €20 so if you've been careful, you can treat yourself more often.

8. Check the passes.
Cheap Paris travel comes in many sizes and shapes. There are some excellent pass deals - and others aren't. Museum passes may let you in to just that part you don't want to see, or the museums or exhibits listed might already be free. As for the bus and subway passes, the five-day pass is a good deal - about 50% of the one-day pass. If you're short on time but want to see a lot, consider something like the Pass 'Lib or the Paris Pass. In my experience, passes are usually worth it.

9. Be creative about souvenirs.
Don't fall for the tourist traps - be original. Make the most of cheap Paris travel by designing or creating your own postcard or memory book with entry tickets and photographs you've taken. Do you really need a T-shirt that says I love Paris?

10. Don't be afraid to ask people.
Once you're in an area, especially if it has a distinct culture or environment, people will often be delighted to share their knowledge with you - even if they don't really speak your language. If you show an interest, there's a good chance you'll be pointed towards other similar sites. Interest and curiosity are contagious! If you'd rather, use the instant translate apps for Android or iPhone.

11. Get an app!
Tons of free phone apps help you navigate Paris. There's a public transport app, a Velib' app to find bicycles and an offline Paris map for Android and iPhone.

cheap Paris travel - souvenir keychainsHow badly do you need yet another keychain?

12. Go sit in the garden.
Paris's magnificent gardens are all free: Jardins des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc du Champ de Mars, Jardin du Palais Royal and many more. A highlight is the Promenade Plantée, which may well have been the inspiration for New York's own Highline. It's now quite a garden but in summer, head for Paris Plage, the city's own beach by the Seine.

For €3 you can visit the Jardin des Plantes - a cross between a bird sanctuary, a botanical garden and a natural history museum. Most of the exhibits are free - but not all.

cheap Paris travel - VersaillesVersailles: you have to pay to visit the chateau but the Estate is free (Paolo Costa Baldi CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

13. Get spiritual.
The towers may cost but entering a French church is free. In Notre-Dame Cathedral, catch a free Sunday organ recital, free English-language tours or Sunday choir rehearsals. Take a photo of your feet at Point 0, where all distances in France are measured from. Visit other places of worship, such as the Synagogue or the Mosque.

Pay your respects at the Père Lachaise Cemetery: visit the tombs of such well-known former Paris residents as Molière, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde, Chopin... Really into cemeteries? For more famous graves, there's also the cemeteries of Montmartre (French literary giants) and Montparnasse (a mixture of famous French, literary and other arts). 

14. High fashion - it IS Paris after all.
If you're feeling fashionable, window shop. Stroll along the Avenue Montaigne and the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré and nearby side streets and get a taste of Chanel or Hermès. And if you're a true fashion fan, take in the free show at the Galeries Lafayette department store every Friday afternoon (don't miss the architecturally magnificent ceiling dome). Or visit Paris's other luxury department store, Le Printemps, for a stunning view of the rooftops of Paris.

cheap Paris travelA close-up of the domed ceiling of the Galeries Lafayette

15. Become a bookworm.
Because I live in a rural part of France, I don't have easy access to English books. There are several decent English bookstores in Paris, and you can pick up books to your heart's content. Some are open Sunday, which is unusual in France. If you'd rather be outdoors, linger among the bouquinistes - the booksellers along the Seine River's Left Bank. Browse through first editions, second-hand books and antiques, just as others have done before you for centuries.

cheap Paris travel booksellers along the SeineThe bouquinistes - antique booksellers - along the banks of the Seine (Benh LIEU SONG CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

16. Go antiquing.
The Puces Saint-Ouen is my favourite antique market in the world. Tiny streets and huge market stalls mix to provide you with an overview of the best in French antiques. You don't have to buy anything - just wander around, pick things up, and admire one of the city's great treasure troves. 

17. It's time for art.
Go to one of Paris's many free museums - the Modern Art Museum, Fine Arts Museum, the Fragonard Perfume Museum or the Paris Fashion Museum and many more. The Louvre may not be free, although it is free the first Sunday of the month, as are all other national museums in Paris. Beware, though, the lines will be long so get there early. 

cheap Paris travel Louvre museumThe Louvre - not just about the Mona Lisa

Museums not your thing? Uncover street art or visit the hundreds of art galleries that dot the city - free of charge, of course. Don't miss the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, where painters come to paint - mostly paintings of you for you to buy, these days.

cheap Paris travelPlace du Tertre, Montmartre (Olivier Bruchez CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
cheap Paris travel - street artStreet Art on the Rue rue de l'Ourcq By couscouschocolat (Flickr: DSCF1644) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

18. Celebrate and tap your feet.
Visit the tourist office online to find out when the best festivals and events take place. Many will have free food and attractions. One of the best is the Fêtes de la Musique on June 21, with free concerts all over Paris (and across France).

Take advantage of the dozens of other free concert venues: the National Conservatory of Music stages hundreds of student recitals each year; Saturday and Sunday free concerts at the St. Merry Church and the American Church of Paris; or Radio France's 180 or so free concerts every year - get a free ticket half an hour before the show. Like jazz? 7 Lezards in the Marais provides free music with no cover charge.

Love to move? Dance the night away at Quai Saint-Bernard all summer long with an open-air dance party when weather permits. Or try the Caveau de la Huchette jazz club in the Latin Quarter has free dancing late nights starting at 2am on weekends.

19. Paris by night.
Paris is wonderful by night. When it's lit up, the Eiffel Tower is a magnificent sight. So is the Arc de Triomphe. And the shores of the Seine. There are few sights as romantic and thrilling as Paris by night - even when it's pouring rain.

cheap Paris travel - Paris at nightParis at night, beautiful, divine

20. Time for a ride.
For more cheap Paris travel, take a free bicycle ride with Paris Rando Velo on Friday nights at 9:30 pm starting in front of the Hotel de Ville or every third Sunday at 10:30 am. More of an independent spirit? Buy a day, week or year-long ticket for the Velib, Paris's city bike system: Pick up a bike at a stand, drop it off at another, and see Paris at eye level. And don't forget to pick up a free bicycle map at any Paris tourist office.

If you'd rather walk, join the French hiking club for their Paris walks. The site is in French only so you'll have to get a bit of translation help.

21. Stay indoors.
Don't want to sightsee today? Surf the web: Paris has 296 free wifi hotspots and that's without counting the many fast food outlets, cafés and restaurants that offer free wifi.

This isn't free... but invest in a weekly edition of Pariscope - the best Paris entertainment listings of what's on in the city. It's a great old-fashioned magazine and has been around since my own student days - and, no website!

And finally, to find the cheapest hotel rooms in Paris, compare search engines at HotelsCombined.

Any more free or near-free activities I've left out? Something out of date? Please let me know in the comments below or email me.

cheap Paris travel pinnable

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