Paris Sans Regret
Paris is our first international destination on this trip, and knowing we were coming from two months of predominantly living out of our car, we decided a while ago that we would treat ourselves to a few weeks in an apartment to ourselves. We snagged our Airbnb deal 7 whole months before we hit the road... and paid for it at that time as well (when we were working 3 jobs between the two of us, aka, had an income).
But other than having a fully furnished home in a central part of town for 31 days, we are still tight-budget travelers. And especially for those of you who may visit Paris for closer to a week or two, we thought we'd compile all the ways we recommend enjoying this city as a tourist for very little spending. Paris has a reputation for being an expensive destination, and it certainly can be if you let it, but there are absolutely easy ways to be here for cheap!
Things to do in Paris for FREE
Notre Dame (or any other cathedral)
*Update: Due to the April 15, 2019 fire, Notre Dame is closed "until further notice." Check online to find out if it has opened at the time of your visit.*
No matter what time of year you visit, there will be a line to get into Notre Dame where security checks your bags, and the spring and summer you may be in line for a very long time, but it doesn't cost anything to go inside one of the most famous and incredible cathedrals in the world.
Notre Dame from a less iconic angle...
We also very much enjoyed Eglise Saint-Sulpice, which has an interesting story about two different architects, resulting in mismatched bell towers. This is also where Victor Hugo got married. Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the oldest church in Paris, and is near the Louvre and other major attractions. We talk about the Sacre Cœur later in this post, but that's a lovely one, too!
Certain days/times at Musee de Louvre
For a long time now, if you are 25 years old or younger, you can get into the Louvre for free on Fridays starting at 6pm. The museum is open until 9:45pm on these nights, and can be significantly less crowded. A new thing is that it is now also free for everyone on the first Saturday of every month after 6pm. If you are under 18, it is always free. Don't miss the Louvre if you're in Paris! (Major tip: if you are visiting during high season, it will be impossible to get into this museum without advance reservation, and even then the line will be long. Book ahead of time!)
The Louvre at night.
Walk the Champ de Mars by the Eiffel Tower
There are no coupons or discounts offered to go up into the Eiffel Tower, and there are other spots in the city to get incredible views, so unless being at the top is for some reason on your bucket list, you can skip this tourist attraction. Hang out in the park or along the Seine within view of the Tour Eiffel, and get all the iconic photos you want for no monetary cost to you!
They can't charge you for standing! (On the ground...)
Watch boats use the locks at Canal Saint-Martin
Canals are a classic European water feature, with frequent functioning locks to get the boats around town (sometimes underground!). If you're hanging out in the 10th Arr. with nothing to do, pop by Canal Saint-Martin Pont d'Amelie for a bit and you'll get to see the canal boats go through the locks--this is also a spot made famous by the delightful film Amelie.
Walk to the Sacre Coeur and enjoy the view
Famously situated at the top of the hill in Montmartre is the beautiful cathedral, Sacre Coeur. (This is where we attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve!) Not only is it incredible to be inside, but the view is amazing. The steps leading to it from all directions are quite a trek, so this is your cardio for the day, but this view is free, and depending on where you stand and how clear it is, you can see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Plus entrance to the Basilica costs nothing!
Pick your scenic park or building and picnic there
Especially when the weather is good, there is no better activity to soak in Paris than sharing a bottle of wine and baguette in front of the historic building of your choice, or along the Seine River. Like any city, picnicking itself is always free, but unique to Paris is the seemingly unlimited amount of green space and the understanding that wine is to be enjoyed with any and all meals. (And it's totally legal to drink it outside!) You BYOB of course, but a quick stop at a grocery store can get you a bottle for $3, and a baguette at a boulangerie is probably $1.50. Throw in a little charcuterie and cheese and you've got a full French meal. Our favorite spot is along the Seine--you'll be in great company, as this is a regular pass-time for the locals as well.
A douche-y summer picnic
Take yourself on an Amelie scavenger hunt
If you love the film as much as we do, this is a great activity! There are tons of sites and maps to help you out. In general, you can enjoy how stereotypical just about everything in Paris really is. (Fun fact: our first date and wedding were pretty much set to the Amelie soundtrack.)
In front of the cafe where the character Amelie works
Visit one of the many free museums and monuments
Some of the really famous museums you've heard about cost money to get in, but France (and Europe in general) values making history and art accessible to their population, so there are tons of amazing free places to visit. Some of these include the Museum of Modern Art, Petit Palais, Victor Hugo's house, Museum of Romantic Life, and more.
Explore city parks even larger than Central Park in NYC...
...Which is really saying something because Central Park is the largest city park in the United States. Take the Metro to the outer areas of Paris and visit the Bois de Boulogne (which kind of has multiple parks in one?) or on the other side, Bois de Vincennes. In both of these, you will find wooded areas, tons of paved paths for walking or cycling, lakes, great places to sit, and even equestrian schools. Bois de Vincennes, which is the second largest green space in Paris, is three times the size of Central Park. You might get lost.
Stroll the Champs-Élysées and view the Arc de Triomphe
You have to pay for a ticket to go up the Arc (which is totally worth it, by the way) but it's wildly impressive to see from the bottom as well. The Champs-Élysées is a famous avenue chock full of shopping and restaurants, and at Christmas time, the trees are all lit up. This is the wealthy part of town.
If you want a good picture of the Arc on a less crowded side, approach it from the opposite side of the Champs-Élysées.
Cheap Paris tricks
Get a museum pass
If you will be in Paris for at least 6 days and are a high-energy individual with an interest in museums and monuments, the Paris Museum Pass may be a great option for you. The 6-day pass is definitely the best deal, opening the door for you to visit almost any of the museums and monuments that cost money (including the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, Centre Pompidou, the Pantheon, and tons more). HOWEVER, understand that the pass is only valid for the number of days you purchase, consecutively, which means to get your money's worth you will have to visit more than 6 attractions. The attractions have a closing time, many take several hours to enjoy, and everyone--regardless of pass or ticket status--has to go through the security lines that can take a while. Be ready to have some action-packed tourist days with your pass, but if you're up for it, it could save you some cash.
Or, a crash-course in Parisian art collections
If you didn't study art history (and therefore don't care deeply about particular paintings or collections) but also want to visit some of the most famous art museums in the world while you're in Paris, here is my personal recommendation as an art teacher:
Musee de Louvre - Entrance is $17.16 at the current conversion rate (December 2018) for full price, and in just a few hours you can see tons of ancient artifacts including Greek and Roman sculptures, lay eyes on the Mona Lisa, walk endless halls of Renaissance paintings, and so much more. I found their Islamic art exhibition to be beautiful and enthralling, and though some of the halls were closed during our last visit, they cover art from all over the world. Honestly I can't even list all the stuff the Louvre has, as it's a MASSIVE building and it's impossible to see it all, but there's definitely something for everyone. Plus, you know, that glass pyramid.
Centre Pompidou - The Louvre covers ancient stuff, and Pompidou is more contemporary art history. Here you'll find your Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and Duchamp, etc. There were even a few Van Gogh's here! Entrance is $16, and it's a totally different experience from the Louvre. If you find religious paintings to be dry, you will at least find more colorful and abstract works here.
*While it's a bit ambitious, the first time we visited Paris together, we did the Louvre and Centre Pompidou in the same day! Totally possible if you're okay with not seeing everything.
Musee d'Orsay - Another one you've probably heard of, Orsay covers some of the gaps between the Louvre and Pompidou. There are always interesting temporary exhibitions here, but of course, a large collection of the most famous impressionists and post-impressionists (Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, etc.). Tickets are also $16, like Pompidou.
If you hit up all three of these, you will definitely feel like you can say you've seen famous European art in Paris, covering many centuries.
Van Gogh at Musee d'Orsay
Try local bakeries and fromageries
Contrary to popular belief, it is not that expensive to eat in Paris--as long as you aren't eating at restaurants for every meal (especially in the tourist-heavy areas). If you enjoy bread, fine cheeses, dry-cured meats, and wine, you'll find Paris much more affordable than anywhere else you've probably been. For less than $2 you can pick up a baguette, get some thinly-sliced charcuterie meat at the grocery store for $3, and a small round of camembert or a wedge of brie for less than $4, and you've got bread for a day and meat and cheese for several! (These are the prices at Auchan, our local grocery store; there are more expensive places to shop. Do a little looking around and it can be quite cheap.)
An assortment of wines and... wines
Eat out smart
While we haven't done a ton of eating out, the times we have, it's been surprisingly affordable. The key is avoiding restaurants in major tourist areas, and doing your research ahead of time. Paris is like any other city--it can be hit or miss--but we've found that your dollar can go a lot farther the farther away from big attractions you go.
Unlike what you'd expect in America, "Happy Hour" in Paris is often during peak hours, so it's not too hard to get good drink deals. We enjoyed Le Valois in the 9th for mojitos for around $4, though the drink menu was huge! (Drinks came with a free bowl of potato chips.) Many restaurants also offer "menu" dining options, which can be anywhere from an entree (called a "plat") and dessert or starter (expect to spend between $15 to $25 a person), to an elaborate multi-course meal for a bit more. At the Wepler at Place de Clichy, we enjoyed a spectacular dining experience: an apéritif (a "digestive" pre-dinner drink; ours was a sparkling wine called "kir"), a starter (French onion soup or fois gras, for example), a main dish (a brilliantly done steak with fries, or braised pork in a vegetable stew), an assortment of after-dinner fine cheeses (seriously amazing), dessert (we both picked chocolate mousse), and a cup of espresso to top it off. Each of our meals came with a half-bottle of wine as well, with a choice of red, white, or rose. To recap, this was a four-hour endeavor, with 4 food courses and 3 different beverages, we had a seat by the window, and our waiter wore a tuxedo shirt; our total bill for two? Drumroll please.... $87.00. (Not including the non-obligatory tip we left, because we had great service.)
Quick tip for you: most places will offer you bottled mineral water or sparkling water, but you do not have to accept! This costs extra...sometimes more than your average glass of wine. You can get a free carafe of tap water if you ask.
Public transit, aka the Metro, is the only way to go
American cities (excluding like, New York) usually have disappointing and ineffective public transit. Americans visiting foreign destinations may also feel flustered or intimidated, and naturally gravitate towards the all-familiar Uber. There is no reason for this in Paris! Paris is home to the densest metro system in the world, and it is fantastic. A full-price ticket is about $2, and they get cheaper if you buy a "book" at once (10 or 20 tickets). That gets you all necessary transfers for your trip. The maps are super easy to use, and the stations are well-signed. If you use Google Maps for your navigation, it will even tell you which trains to take to which stops. The trains come every 2-4 minutes most of the time, so you don't even have to worry about timing.
It is my personal belief that renting a car and driving it in the city would be absolutely terrifying, and totally not worth it.
Andrew gleefully on the RER, despite just getting off a redeye aka zero sleep
Other ways to make it financially possible
While a nice hotel in Paris could certainly cost you upwards of $200 a night, an Airbnb booked at the right time can cost you $1200 for a one-bedroom for the month. (Studio apartments and places closer to the outskirts are even cheaper!) Even when you can't spend a whole month, Airbnb is a great way to go, as you can pick amenities--like having a full kitchen--that can greatly reduce your daily spending. Airbnb also provides options like renting a room in someone's occupied home if you're on a tight budget and don't mind meeting a great local host! And did you know there's a 2-week discount on Airbnb? Paris is a popular destination and places book fast, but far enough in advance, you can find great deals. Also check VRBO!
Hostels in lots of cities can be really cheap options, but Paris isn't the cheapest for these. You can probably get a bed in a mixed dorm for about $20 a night, but private rooms aren't worth it; better to find a hotel or Airbnb. However, if you're a young solo traveler, hostels are the best way to make friends and have a built-in traveling community.
If you're really up for an adventure, and traveling alone or as a couple, give Couchsurfing a try! Really, it's not as scary as it sounds to meet a complete stranger and crash in their home for free. We've attended several Couchsurfing social events while in Paris and the community is friendly and thriving. Just make sure your host has lots of positive reviews, don't overstay your welcome, and be willing to spend time with your host and probably cook them a meal (or at least buy groceries) in exchange for your stay.
*Update: we returned to Paris in the summer of 2019, and stayed a few nights with a friend we made at the Couchsurfing events we'd attended in December!
The courtyard at our hotel from our May 2017 visit to Paris. Awesome? Certainly. Expensive? Yes.
The kitchen featuring stove, oven, sink, fridge, and coffee center in our Airbnb PLUS washer and drying rack. $$$ saver.
Ahh yes, usually the biggest obstacle in the way of a European vacation. Sure, Paris itself can be as cheap as any American city if you do it right, but getting there? Turns out, in the days of modern commercial flying, flights aren't as crazy expensive and inaccessible as they used to be. If you look up a flight on your favorite airline for next week to France it will probably still be the $1500 you're expecting, but it doesn't have to be! Our proof: Andrew and I spent only $200 per person for our one-way flights from JFK Airport to Charles du Galle. No joke.
Take the time to look out for deals, and be willing to fly budget airlines. Iceland Air or XL Airways are great ways to go; we've flown both of these for good prices. You may have to fly at unappealing times of day, and be willing to adjust the exact dates of your vacation to get the best rates.
DO NOT FLY ON WEEKENDS! And try as hard as you can to fly out of super major airports. JFK is such a big airport, as is Charles du Galle, it isn't hard to find affordable flights in and out. If you live in a smaller city, even if you have an international airport, see if there are any airports within a few hours' drive that can save you hundreds and hundreds of dollars. The gas and time might just be worth it.
Delete your cookies during your searches! Or better yet, use Google Chrome's "Incognito" feature. Airline websites can save your searches and raise the prices every time you search for similar flights to scare you into purchasing a ticket right away.
The simplest way we've found is using Google Flights. It's a search engine... so it will show you multiple flight options, including the cheapest ones. You can even do multi-city searches if you want to hit a couple places on your vacation!
While most people can't get a full month abroad, we would stress that spending as long as you can is the best way to get the most out of your money. The flight itself is a major cost (in time as well as money), so if you're going to be here at all, you might as well stay as long as you can. The shorter your visit--and this is true for anywhere--the more you will have to spend per day. For example, if you're only here a few days, you won't have time to cook at home, and will spend money at restaurants. You may not have time to take advantage of even weekly promotions at major attractions. Hitting up many activities in one day means requiring faster transportation, and less time to leisurely walk and explore. This bit of our trip is only one portion, but (international doctor's visit with prescription medication included) our spending in Paris has come out to be just a little less than what we were spending in a month of normal living at home.
TL; DR: We love Paris. You can afford it, probably, or not--but do it anyway? Come here! (Also, there's TONS of cool stuff we haven't mentioned in this post. Still come, and do your own thing!)