In the "Paris Practicalities" series, I lay out some basic advice for the foundation of a trip abroad for the well-informed and savvy traveler.
Paris has a reputation for being a notoriously expensive city to visit. While it is pricey - especially when compared to neighboring countries Spain, Italy, and Germany or even the rest of France - it doesn't have to be a ridiculously pricey destination. Here are 15 ways you can maximize your budget during your time in Paris:
1. Rent an apartment.
Renting an apartment through Airbnb or HomeAway is a great way to save some money on accommodations. Plus the savings only increase with the number of people in your party gets larger. (More about that in my general traveling tips.)
But besides saving some money on the accommodation cost, it also can save money on the food budget. A kitchen makes it convenient to have some meals in instead of eating out all the time. Even for those who don’t enjoy cooking or are focused on relaxing during vacation, all you have to do is focus on the three major French food groups to come up with dinner: wine, bread, and cheese. If you’re against going vegetarian for dinner, stop by the boucherie or supermarket and pick up some cured meats or pâté, and voila! Dinner is ready.
2. Don’t eat breakfast out.
If you are renting an apartment (see #1), eating breakfast in is an easy way to save some euros. Most cafes charge €7-8 per person for a formule of a croissant/pain au chocolat/tartine (toasted baguette served with butter and jam), a hot beverage, and orange juice. Even if you save a little by ordering a la carte, I have yet to find a café that serves pastries just as good as the ones you can get at a boulangerie. Besides, getting pastries to go means you can try some of the best in Paris - check out Paris by Mouth's list of the best croissants in town and Le Figaro's round-up of where to find the best pain au chocolat [latter link in French but the list is manageable to read].
If you have your own coffee set-up, go to a boulangerie, get a better selection of yummy freshly made pastries, and bring them back to have with your coffee. Even if you’re staying in a hotel, go eat a pastry from a boulangerie, and then go into a café for a coffee (or caffeinate before, immediately upon leaving the hotel if you’re anything like me in the morning). Save additional money by standing at the bar instead of sitting down. You can often get an espresso for €1 at the counter!
3. Use public transportation to get around the city.
For urbanites, this seems natural. But for people less familiar using public transportation, the thought of the metro or bus system can feel intimidating. Don’t be put off by it. Embrace the full Paris experience and live like a local by taking public transportation, and save money instead of taking cabs.
The bus and metro are easy to use, and take the same type of ticket. Save some money by buying a carnet, a pack of 10 single-use tickets, for €13.70 (otherwise one ticket is €1.70). Here’s a little travel guide on how to navigate the metro on RATP’s website. Use the RATP website to figure out where to get from point A to B - simply go to this page, type in your departure point and destination, and it will show you the fastest route. And install the app on your phone to refer the maps on the go.
Also, another way to get around is by bike. Paris has a great bike-share program called Velib which is another cheap and easy way to get around. (And it's one of the cheapest ways to get around the city after the metro closes at night, along with the night buses.) Information is on the website on how the system works.
While you probably will use public transportation somewhat during your time in town, remember that Paris is a very walk-able city. Try to plan your day by choosing sights and activities in the same area and tackling one section at a time. This way you’ll save money and time on transportation, and it will allow you the opportunity to walk around a bit as well - one of the best free things to do in Paris!
4. Take advantage of free entry to sights on the first Sunday of the month.
If you happen to be in Paris on the first Sunday of the month (like this one coming up on the 7th of September), take advantage of the many museums and monuments that open their doors for free! (See a great list here on Parisinfo.com.)
There are two approaches you can take. One, you can maximize your savings by going to some of the more expensive museums that are free on this day, like the Musée du Louvre (€12, free first Sunday Oct-March only), Musée d'Orsay (€11), or Centre Pompidou (€13 or €11, depending on the period). But keep in mind that these places attract crowds on free Sundays as everyone wants to save some euros.
The other option is to use the free entry to check out a smaller museum that you might have not been willing to pay admission to visit. I've discovered the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (hunting and nature museum) and Musée National Gustave Moreau this way. Both offer really interesting collections as well as beautiful architectural spaces.
Whichever approach you take, this is a great opportunity to avoid paying some entry fees!
5. See if there is an exposition on at Hôtel de Ville.
The Hôtel de Ville (Paris’ town hall) often has free expositions that are really well-done and worth checking out. Take a look to see if there is something going on while you’re in town. Right now until September 27th there is an exhibit about the liberation of Paris. In the past I’ve enjoyed exhibitions on fashion and photography, to give you an idea of the variety of subjects. The queue to enter is on rue de Lobau. (Note that the expos are closed on Sundays.)
6. Visit some of the Marais' free museums.
You can combine a walk through the beautiful neighborhood of the Marais with a visit or two to some of its free museums. There are four museums within walking distance of each other that are open to the public for free, all year round (at least for the permanent collections). The Carnavelet is a great free museum that focuses on the history of Paris. Nearby on Place des Vosges is Victor Hugo’s house which is now open to the public. Also very close by is Musée Cognacq-Jay. Filled with decor from the 18th century, this museum paints a picture of what the stately Hôtel Donon might have been like back in the day. Last but not least is the Memorial of the Shoah. This museum opened in 2005 and focuses on Jewish history, especially pertaining to the Holocaust. If this museum interests you, continue a little further south to the Deportation Memorial, behind Notre Dame, which is a memorial to those who went to concentration camps never to return.
7. Find some peace and quiet at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.
It may seem odd to list a cemetery as a point of interest, but this large plot of land in the eastern part of Paris offers a lot to see. It is full of evocative sculptures and the graves of famous people. I mentioned it in my free activities list for summer 2014, but it is a peaceful place to walk through at any time of the year. With La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) coming up on November 1st, the cemetery will be quite colorful to see, full of flowers and visitors paying their respects. If you need a moment of quiet reflection, head over to this free sight in town.
8. Go on a picnic.
I admittedly am slightly bitter writing this one in given the unseasonably cool and rainy summer we’ve been treated to in Paris this year. But even though prime picnic-season feels like it was cut short, hopefully it will come back around because it is one of my absolute favorite things to do! And it is a cheap meal - as I mentioned (see #1), build a picnic on the foundation of bread, cheese, and wine, throw in some meat, pâté, veggies/hummus, maybe even a decadent dessert if you’re feeling like jazzing it up a bit, and you’re done! You can hang out with the locals along the Seine or Canal St Martin, explore a park, or even set up camp on the lawn of the Champ de Mars. Don’t leave until you see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at least once (see #13 for more on that)!
9. Pause in one of the many gardens or parks of Paris.
Paris’ parks and gardens are sights to see in themselves, and it is free to do so! These green spaces make up the “backyard” of the city. Follow the Parisians’ lead and go to relax, rejuvenate, play, connect with others, and get a breath of fresh air. The Left Bank’s Jardin du Luxembourg and the Right Bank’s Jardin des Tuileries are the two most iconic parks of Paris. But don’t stop there - there’s much more to see! Take a look through my Park it in Paris series for some ideas of other interesting parks to explore.
10. Walk, walk, walk.
In French there is a verb, flâner. It encompases the idea of a stroll, but is more casual and less intentional. It’s the concept of just walking around without having any firm idea of where to go. Paris is the perfect place to flâner. It really is an event in itself. If you’re looking for an area to start a walk, the Marais is full of beautiful old buildings and quaint boutiques, the Canal St. Martin makes for a great route, or the Promenade Plantée offers a path elevated above street level. It sounds so simple, but it is one of my all-time favorite things to do in Paris. And with so much to discover, it never gets old.
11. Climb for a view of the city from above.
I’ve said it and I’ll say it again. I love getting views from above of cities, whether it be Paris or elsewhere. So you know you can count on me to know where to get some great view of Paris. If you don’t want to pay to get a view from say the Arc de Triomphe or the tower of Notre Dame (both actually free on the first Sunday of the month, November-March only), there are still other spots to consider. Two free options are the top floors of the Institut du Monde Arabe, which offers a nice (though limited) view of the city, or Printemps, with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower and Sacre-Coeur. Printemps (a fancy department store) actually has a surprisingly affordable self-service cafeteria on the same floor called Déli-cieux so you can also stop for an inexpensive lunch or snack while you’re up admiring the view.
Or combine getting a view with a drink or snack. Take a trip up the Tour Montparnasse to its restaurant, Ciel de Paris, and get an afternoon pastry or drink. While the prices are inflated, you get something additional for the money spent instead of just paying an entry fee. And look at that view!
12. Get a taste of French food culture at an open-air market.
One of my happy places in Paris (or anywhere else for that matter) is at a market. Go to an outdoor market to watch the locals in action shop for food and get a better sense of French food culture. Heads still attached to the chickens and fish? All to prove the freshness of the products. Massive cheese counters at the dairy stands? Welcome to France. This sensory experience is free...but you may of course consider picking up some things for a little picnic or for an inexpensive dinner for later on. And while you’re at it, grab a bite to eat for lunch. My favorite stand, a Lebanese stand called Zaatar Zeit, makes a delicious vegetarian wrap for only €3.50 (I’ve seen them at Marché Popincourt and Bastille). What a deal!
Take a look at the list organized by day of the week on Parisian Local or this helpful map of markets on Chocolate and Zucchini to select the best market for you. I always recommend the Marché Bastille on Thursdays and Sundays as a great market to explore because it offers a vast selection and lots of stands to peruse.
13. Watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night.
Sure, the Eiffel Tower is the tourist destination of Paris. Beautiful during the day, it kicks up its romance factor at night. As night falls, the tower is lit up and every hour on the hour it sparkles for five minutes. It is one of the most memorable and magical things I've done as a tourist in Paris, and is one of the top highlights of my friends and family who have come out to visit me. Head over to the Champ de Mars (lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower) or to the viewing platform at Trocadéro to watch it sparkle.
14. Forgo the Rodin Museum and opt for the garden instead.
If you like the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin but don’t want to pay the €9 entry fee to go inside the Musée Rodin, there is a way you can still enjoy his works. (And in my opinion, this option is more pleasant anyway as long as the weather cooperates.) For only €2 you can walk through the museum’s gardens. There are plenty of Rodin’s sculptures outdoors so you can still see some art, enjoy the lovely green space, and get a view of the golden dome of Les Invalides. And if you do want to go to the museum, it does participate in granting free entrance to the public on the first Sunday of the month, year-round (see #4).
15. Admire the churches inside and out.
There is so much gorgeous architecture in Paris to enjoy. When you’re tired of walking around (or you’re faced with some typical Parisian rain), head indoors to see the interiors of some churches. Notre Dame is of course the most famous Parisian church. It just turned 850 years old last year and certainly deserves a peek inside, if not for a bit longer. But don’t stop there and underestimate the numerous other churches throughout the city. They are free to walk in and are quite different from one another.
This is one of my favorites in the city - Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, located in the 5th arrondissement. I love its unique carved choir screen. If you walk up to this church, you may recognize its exterior from a movie (its steps were the ones Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris sat on while waiting for his ride).
Do you have any favorite budget-saving tips for a trip to Paris?