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How to do Paris without breaking the bank – A budget guide to the City of Lights

Ah Paris.

The city of lights. The city of love. The city of empty pockets?

There’s no doubt that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The entire metropolitan area is a living monument to human ingenuity and creativity. From dreamy views along the Seine, to impressive architectural monuments, to world-class music, art and food – Paris is everything you’ve heard and more.

But while it’s the third most touristed city in the world, many budget backpackers choose to avoid Paris.

I get it.

Paris can be as expensive as it is romantic. It’s huge. It’s sprawling. And getting around can be intimidating ­ – especially for solo travelers that don’t know a lick of French.

All that said, I’m making a case for any on-the-fence backpacker that isn’t sure if they can afford to stay a while in the city of lights.

You can afford it. Please go.

I can assure you it’s possible to enjoy the best of Paris and hardly spend a dime because last summer, I did just that.

Musée du Louvre

DO MORE – 

National Museums – What would a trip to Paris be without visiting some of the world’s most renowned museums? Still pretty awesome, I’m sure. But even if top-notch art exhibitions and classical history aren’t your cup of tea, the Parisian government makes museum going ever-so tempting. That’s because many of Paris’s national museums offer free entry. A select few like Musée d’Art de la Ville de Paris and the Petit Palais are free to enter all year round. Others popular exhibits like Musée d’Orsay and Centre Pompidou (Museum of Modern Art) offer free entry on the first Sunday of every month. Even the most popular museum in the world, Musée du Louvre, is free to visit on the first Sunday of every offseason month (October-March). If you’re patient enough to wait through some long lines, you can get an up-close look at some of the world’s most famous works of art without spending a dime.

Click here to see a free entry dates and costs for all Parisian Museums.

A view of Paris from the Sacré Cœur

National monuments – There’s only one word that comes to mind when trying to describe Paris’s national monuments. Iconic. Even if they’re crowded with a million other selfie-stick waving tourists and savvy swindlers trying to steal your identity with a clipboard, Paris’s monuments remain as enchanting as ever. And believe it or not, you can see most of them for free – as long as you don’t want to get too close (or too high). Simply observing the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Sacré-Cœur from a moderate distance is a perfectly legitimate way to spend your time. But if you must take things a step farther, there are plenty of savings to be had.

Eiffel Tower – You can save 4-5 euros by climbing the 704 stairs to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower as opposed to taking the elevator. Plus you’ll be able to access the ”secret” first floor only by stairs. Note: Eiffel Tower general admission (7-11 euros) tickets do not include access to the third floor. Those tickets are an additional 17 euros.

La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre

Sacré-Cœur – For a sweeping view of the city of lights, climb the stairs to the top of the Montmartre neighborhood where you’ll find the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – a 19th century Catholic church that sits on the highest natural point in the city. Entry to the basilica is free, but if you want the best view possible, you can enter the dome for around 5-7 euros.

Arc de Triomphe – Standing at the center of Paris’s famous étoile (star) intersection is my personal favorite monument in Paris – the Arc de Triomphe. It serves as the Tomb of the Unknown soldier from World War I and honors those who fought and died in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. As with other Parisian monuments, it’s free to view from afar. If you want to get closer and climb the 40 stairs to the top, you’ll need to pay 8 euros. Entry to the arch is free on the first Sunday of every month from November through March.

Notre-Dame de Paris – Another one of Paris’s iconic wonders – gothic cathedral Notre-Dame, is free to enter. Entering the massive towers costs 10 euros per person, but admiring its massive gargoyles and mesmerizing stained glass can easily be done from the ground floor. Entry to the towers is free on the first Sunday of every month from November through March.

Disclaimer: The few monuments listed hardly scratch the surface in terms of free sightseeing in Paris. I’d also recommend a trip to the Grand Palais, the Panthéon, Place de la Concorde and so much more. 

Click here to see a free entry dates and costs for all Parisian Monuments.

Jardin des Plantes

Parks and Gardens – Paris is a concrete jungle of a city. That said, it isn’t exactly known for its access to nature. Still, there is plenty of gorgeous greenery hidden away within the urban sprawl. And by the way most of these free-to-enter spaces are crowded, it’s clear that Parisians cherish them. If you’re already spending time in the Louvre, it’s worth walking through the Renaissance-inspired Jardin des TuileriesJardin du Luxembourg is another romantic Italian-style garden that hosts Paris’s oldest public museum – Museé du Luxembourg on its grounds.

My personal favorite Parisian garden is the Jardin des Plantes. This botanical garden contains a variety of species of colorful plants and flowers, and is the site of Paris’s Museum of Natural History. There’s also a labyrinth and a small zoo on site. One of Paris’s most popular parks, Bois de Boulogne, is a large English-style landscape garden on the western edge of the city. At over 2x the size of Central park, Bois de Boulogne has plenty of room for two lakes, a cascade, a zoo and multiple botanical gardens.

For an off-the-beaten path experience, try the somewhat hidden Jardin Atlantique. This park is situated on the roof of Gare Montparnasse (train station) and is surrounded by tall office buildings on every side.

Click here to see more Parisian parks and gardens.

Jardin des Tuileries

Walking tours: In my opinion, the best free activity available in Paris is simply walking around and taking in the history and splendor of its many unique neighborhoods. That said, there are several companies and hostels that provide free walking tours. I was fortunate enough to be visiting friends in Paris so I was treated to my own private guides. But I can recommend Discover Walks for free guided tours of the Latin Quarter, Montmartre and a Hidden Gems excursion. Just remember to tip your guide!

Enjoy street performers – Ah street artists. Every city has them. But I found Paris’s eclectic array of musicians, artists and other street performers – yes even mimes – to be top notch. You can find these performers on just about every crowded street, public park or tourist attraction. And who knows, they might even ask you to join in on the fun. The only downside is that you might not always be in the mood to listen to a French trip-hop track while taking public transport.

Just drink by the river – I’d have to say the most Parisian thing I did while in Paris was having some drinks with friends on the bank of the Seine. Forget the pub crawl. Buy a few Kronenbourgs and head down to the docks. Of course, you’ll need to befriend a couple of true Parisians to get the full experience. And before you know it, you’ll be rolling your own cigarettes, arguing over football and shouting at the many tourist boats floating by.

EAT MORE –

Eating out in Paris is by far the easiest way to break your budget. For a city that is renowned for its fine-dining, truly great and cheap food can be hard to find. Paris’s busiest neighborhoods are full of tourist trap brassieres where the façade and price doesn’t always translate to quality. In fact, I found it quite difficult to find affordable FRENCH FOOD IN PARIS. That said, there are many ways to dine on a budget and enjoy the flavor of a city that’s as diverse as it’s people.

Boulangeries – One of the easiest ways to save money on food is skipping the restaurant and heading straight to a bakery. The French take their bread very seriously and it shows in the ridiculous amount of boulangeries found in every neighborhood. You can grab a sandwich to go or simply buy a baguette to take back to your hostel and munch on throughout your stay. Du Pain et des Idées is an excellent and affordable bakery with delectable croissants. Paul, located just south of Notre-Dame, is an excellent option for an affordable breakfast.

Pâtisseries (sweet bakeries)– The French just do pastries right. The tartes, biscuits, macarons and eclairs you’ll find on almost any street corner in Paris put most American pastries to shame. I’m looking at you cupcake. Some of the more reputable patisseries are Pain de Sucre and Pierre Hermé. But honestly, just wander into any inviting shop and prepare to have your mind blown.

Bistros – While affordable options are limited, there are a few places you can grab authentic French cuisine on the cheap. Mersea offers a sort of fine-fast-food hybrid menu created by a 3-star Michelin chef. La Petite Rose des Sables is a popular family-owned establishment offering discount French cuisine with a down-home touch.

Street food – To really take in the flavor of a city, street food is a must. It’s no surprise that the most common street vendors in Paris were crêperies. Savory or sweet, you can’t go wrong with these distinctively French fast foods.

Supermarkets – Despite all the aforementioned delicious eats, if you really want to eat on a budget, just head to one of Paris’s countless supermarkets and prepare your own meals in your place of lodging. Sure, trying the local flavor is part of travelling, but hey, sometimes money is tight.

A fountain at the center of Restaurant la Mosquée

*Hidden gem – Restaurant la Mosquée – Paris is an international city and obviously has much more to offer than just French food. The café attached to the Grand Mosque of Paris offers incredible Middle Eastern pastries and Moroccan mint tea in a serene and peaceful environment. If you’re not in the mood for sweets, the restaurant also boasts a full menu of middle eastern classics like tabouli, kebabs and more. And after indulging in the sweet flaky goodness, you can tour the mosque and Islamic center. Just be sure to wear appropriate clothing. Click here to see the menu. 

STAY LONGER –

Arty HostelFor the price, there’s no beating Arty. It’s not exactly walkable to the city center, but a quick ride on the tram and the metro and you’ll be in the heart of Paris by no time. The staff is friendly, the atmosphere is quaint and the facilities are adequate. During my stay, I was upgraded from a 6-bed dorm to a 4-bed dorm for free simply because they “had room.” Dorms start at 16 euros per bed. Click here to book.

Vintage Hostel Gare du NordLocated right next to Paris’s north train station, Vintage Hostel is in a prime location for quickly getting in and out of the city. The hostel is walkable from Montmartre and the staff is helpful and friendly. Dorms start at 23 euros per bed. Click here to book.

 Air B&B – The most obvious choice when traveling to Paris with a group would be to snag an apartment on Air B&B. While the French government has cracked down on residence-sharing services, you can still find plenty of excellent rentals available in and around Paris. For an even better deal, try searching for rentals just outside the city (near the airports).

Click here to save $25 when you book your first stay with Air B&B. 

The Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées

GET AROUND

I’ve heard Parisians laud their public transport system as both the best in the world and the most frustrating – in the same sentence. There’s no doubt that the often crowded (and sometimes smelly) web of metro tunnels can be daunting to master for a tourist – especially one who, before his trip to Paris, had only used a subway one or two times in his life. I took the wrong line in the wrong direction more than once during my stay. But once you get the hang of things, the metro is by far THE WAY to get from here to there. Don’t waste your money on Uber or taxis. The tickets you can buy at any public transportation kiosk (marked Vente) or tourist information centers can be used on the metro, trains, trams and buses throughout Paris. You can buy an all-day pass, but I’d recommend a cheaper book of 10 tickets unless you plan on taking transport more than six times per day. You can find a map of all public transportation routes here. You can download the public transportation app here. When buying a metro ticket, make sure to note the zone you’ll be traveling to. Ticket prices vary depending on where you are traveling. 

STAY SAFE

As with any massive city, crime is always a possibility. Most street crime in Paris boils down petty theft and pickpocketing. It’s always a good idea to have a hidden money stash or credit card in addition to what you keep in your wallet purse. Pay close attention to your belongings on public transport and in crowded areas. For the most part, use the same good judgement you’d use in any metropolitan area and you’ll be just fight.


Also published on Medium.

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