Updated 16 January 2018 – 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). Allow me to show you what to do in Paris on a tight budget.
Is Paris cheap? It entirely depends on what you do!
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 (or pay as little as you can)
It's no secret that most of our travel funds go to flights and accommodation. If you can eliminate or seriously cut back on your sleeping expenses, your spending will be more than manageable.
Want a cheap trip to Paris but 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-January 2018), Couchsurfing listed 180,000 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 it's rumored that 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... but I have no idea if it's still true!)
There are cheap hotels in Paris but they tend to be of far less quality than a good hostel in Paris - and there are several of those. A few worth looking up: The Vintage Hostel and Smart Place near the Gare du Nord, Oops Boutique Hostel near Place d'Italie and Arty Paris in the 15th arrondissement, where I once lived. These aren't free, but given high Paris prices, they might as well be! Or research by comparing prices on HotelsCombined.
2. Choose your restaurant with care.
Your next expense when you travel Paris is, of course, food. According to my friend Anna Hartley, an Australian writer who spent years 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 definitely what you'd call a Paris deal.
3. Go one better and pack your lunch.
France is the country where a baguette - a loaf of French bread - costs around one Euro (a little more in Paris). Most supermarkets have huge slabs of paté or a chunk of cheese for 2-3 Euros. It may not be the healthiest diet, but if cheap travel to Paris for a week or two is what you're looking for, it certainly is possible.
Top up your baguette by heading for one of the city's legendary markets (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) or for something different, the West African Marché Dejean in the 18th.
4. Don't buy bottled water.
Fill your bottle of water before leaving your room (Paris tap water is safe to drink). A good quality reusable water bottle is one of your must-have Paris travel accessories: 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. The cheapest way to travel in Paris is... on foot.
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.
Looking for cheap Paris tours? I’ll do even better and give you a freebie!
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).
6. See all the sights - from the outside.
Entering the main tourist attractions are not on my list of cheap things to do in Paris.
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.
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.
Planning a trip to Paris is hard work but it may be easier if you've got your bases covered. You can get a Museum Pass for two days or four days (the four-day pass tends to be a better value). The best way to travel in Paris is on public transportation with 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 Paris Pass. In my experience, passes are usually worth it if you're a careful planner – they are a cheap way to travel.
9. Be creative about souvenirs.
Don't fall for the tourist traps - be original. Turn your visit into a Paris on the cheap vacation by economizing on high-priced souvenirs. Design or create your own memory book with entry tickets, menu swatches or fallen leaves. Add a few old-fashioned postcards for fun - or make your own. Do you really need a T-shirt that says I love Paris?
10. Don't be afraid to ask people.
Parisians have an (often deserved) reputation for rudeness towards anything or anyone non-French. Often, it's embarrassment at not speaking your language but it can also be that they're fed up with the crowds in the most visited city in the world. Don't let that deter you because it isn't the norm and you'll find plenty of incredibly friendly people when you travel to Paris. What goes a long way is a bit of the language - proper French, which you can easily get nowadays from a translation app (check out the ones for Android or iPhone).
12. Go sit in the garden.
Looking for free things to do in Paris? Its 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).
13. Get respectful.
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.
15. Become a bookworm.
What can you do in Paris if you're a bibliophile? Because I live in a rural part of France, I don't have easy access to English books so whenever I travel to Paris, I head for one of several decent English bookstores. Some are open Sunday, which is rare 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, as tourists have done for centuries.
16. Go antiquing.
The Puces Saint-Ouen is my favourite antique market in the world. Tiny streets and huge 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 for the perfect cheap Paris trip.
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.
Museums not your thing? There are plenty more arty things to see in Paris.
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.
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, which has free dancing late nights starting at 2am on weekends.
19. Places to visit in Paris at 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 twilight - even when it's pouring rain.
20. Time for a ride.
More cheap places for Paris on a budget? 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 Google translation help.
21. Stay indoors.
Don't want to sightsee today? Surf the web: Paris has 478 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.