Paris, France has been called many things: “The City of Light,” “The City of Love”…unfortunately, it may also be called “The City of Potentially Bank-Draining Vacations.”
Millions of tourists visit Paris every year, and many spend far more money than they need to or plan to. Even though Paris consistently ranks as one of the world’s most expensive cities thanks to its unique pedestrian feel, its many parks, and its wonderful public transportation system, there are many ways to get a taste of France’s famous joie de vivre without spending exorbitant sums.
Whether you’re planning your first visit to Paris, or have been there several times, here are some tips on how to enjoy one of the most-visited cities in the world without emptying your bank account.
Paris might not be known as the most kid-friendly city in the world. But while it’s no Disneyland, Paris does have its share of family-friendly activities, ranging from amusement parks, to gardens, to even historical cemeteries.
1. Cité des Enfants
Parents will have just as much fun as their kids at this children’s science and industry museum. Cité des Enfants has it all: a planetarium, an Omnimax, workshops, theater shows, and exhibits that change every few months.
Families can explore the Argonaut submarine, a French vessel that traveled the equivalent of 10 times around the globe in the 1950s. The building houses two spaces, one for children aged 2 to 7, and another for children aged 5 to 12. Children under six years old get in free, and ticket prices range from €9 to €20, depending on which package you buy.
2. Jardin d’Acclimation
When President Obama visited Paris in June of 2009, his daughters chose to visit this family-friendly park. Located in the famous Bois de Boulogne, the Jardin d’Acclimation has undergone many changes since its inauguration by Napoleon III in 1860. Originally a zoo for animals, during colonial times it was converted into an “anthropological zoo,” where people from many overseas cultures were exhibited.
Today, the park is much more family-friendly, and features a children’s art museum, puppet shows, a house of mirrors, an apiary, an aviary, boat tours, an obstacle course, a small amusement park, a playground, a water park, pony rides, a Korean garden, and a host of other attractions.
Entry to the park is less than €3. Some of the attractions, such as the pony rides and the amusement park, require tickets as payment, with the cheapest ticket book running at €32. For a family of four, the ticket book proves to be a good deal, but those with fewer children might want to buy their tickets individually. Even if you choose not to purchase any tickets, the Jardin d’Acclimation has many free activities, including the apiary, the house of mirrors, and the water park.
3. Catacombes de Paris
Older children will get an eerie kick out of Paris’s most gruesome attraction, the Catacombes de Paris, where the remains of more than six million people are stored in what used to be the cities mines. To solve the problem of Paris’s overflowing cemeteries, millions of bones were moved to the underground caverns and tunnels in the late 18th century. Children under the age of 13 get in free, while people aged 14 to 26 pay €4.
4. Cimetière Père Lachaise
For history buff parents who seek to educate, a tour of Paris’s famous and beautiful Cimetière Père Lachaise will be an enjoyable trip. Some older children will enjoy visiting the graves of the famous people buried at Père Lachaise, and hearing about the lives of celebrities such as Honore de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Georges Cuvier, Jim Morrison, and Richard Wright. Even if parents aren’t well versed in the biographies of those buried at Père Lachaise, many will enjoy the beautiful, somber landscape.
Paris is well known for its beautiful, well-tended parks. Here are several of the best:
5. Jardin Luxembourg
Encompassing hundreds of thousands of square feet, Jardin Luxembourg was built by Marie de Medicis in the 17th century. The Medici Fountain, built in 1630, still exists, and tourists can come and appreciate the various sculptures that have been added over the years. There are more than 100 fountains and statues, including statues of Georges Sand and Beethoven.
6. Jardin des Tuileries
Located near the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries is not only a beautiful park, but also a historical one. Following the death of her husband in the 16th century, Catherine de Medici built the park to remind her of her native Florence. Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin spent their last days in captivity strolling in this park.
Today, happier, more fortunate people can enjoy the many sculptures and fountains. The park also serves as a beautiful walkway from the Louvre to the Champs Elysees.
7. Parque des Buttes-Chaumont
Buttes-Chaumont is one of Paris’s best-kept secrets. Grottos, bluffs, and cliffs distinguish Buttes-Chaumont from other Parisian parks, and you will not see the dreaded pelouse en repos (literally, “lawn at rest,” or “keep off the grass”) sign here. You can loll about on the grass, reading or napping, or explore the 30-meter high waterfall.
A suspension bridge and the belvedere of Syblil in the middle of a lake are other unique attractions. There’s also a puppet theater located at the south end of the park, where parents and children alike can get a taste of some good ol’ Punch and Judy action.
Deciding which museum to go to while in Paris is not easy, as the city houses more than 100. If you’re looking for the quintessential Parisian museum tour, try visiting these museums, which offer free admission on the first Sunday of each month:
8. The Louvre
A visit to Paris would not be complete without viewing La Jaconde, the French name for The Mona Lisa. The most visited museum in the world, the Louvre was originally a fortress, built by Philip II in the 12th century. It was later turned into a palace, and then, following the French Revolution, became a museum. I would not recommend trying to see everything in one day, as the Louvre houses around 35,000 objects dating from prehistory to the 19th century.
9. Centre Georges Pompidou
The Centre Pompidou is one of my all-time favorite museums. Since its opening in 1977, this modern art museum (the largest in France) has had more than 150 million visitors. The building features unorthodox architecture; all the piping is on the outside. Inside, you can view works of art by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, along with new, emerging artists.
10. Museé d’Orsay
This tourist staple is located on the Seine’s left bank in a beautiful, 19th century train station. Opened in 1986, Museé d’Orsay features a vast collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings by artists such as Monet, Manet, Cézanne, Gaugin, and Van Gogh. Its size makes the museum perfect for a morning or afternoon outing.
Thanks to Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a city planner who worked for Napoleon III, Paris is one of the most walkable cities in the world. Under Haussmann, Paris’s narrow streets were converted to wide, open boulevards, and today tourists in Paris experience none of the jostling and pushing that characterizes some New York City streets.
While the Metro is always a great option, before you descend into those subterranean tunnels, consider taking one of these tours:
The DiscoverWalks website states, “Give us an hour, we’ll give you Paris.” DiscoverWalks offers five free walking tours guided by a native: Paris Landmarks, Notre Dame, Montmartre, Latin Quarter, and Marais.
12. Paris Rando Velo
If you’re into bicycling, why not tour the City of Lights on a bicycle at night? Paris Rando Velo offers year-round, free biking tours every Friday evening at 9:30pm, starting at the Hotel de Ville. Rides usually last a few hours, ending at 1am. For morning people, the group offers tours that start at 10:30am every third Sunday of the month. The website is in French, but if you use Google Chrome, you can get a pretty accurate translation of the website for free.
13. Pari Roller
For a similar tour of Paris on a different set of wheels, try a gander about the city on a set of Rollerblades. Pari Roller offers free, year-round tours on Rollerblades every Friday at 10pm. Participants meet at Place Raoul Dautry in the 14th arrondissement. Tours often last three hours, ending at 1am. Routes change weekly, so check the website before you go.
I’m usually short on cash when I visit Paris, but I always make a point to go to one nice (sometimes expensive) restaurant. Besides, France’s gastronomical appeal is a big draw for many tourists. However, there are still ways to save money while enjoying the city’s world-famous food culture.
14. Food Carts
There’s nothing more quintessentially Parisian than the crepe carts that dot the city’s landscape. Try one of their many sweet or savory flavors for less than €5.
Paris is rife with beautiful public plazas, squares, gardens, and parks to enjoy a picnic. Buy your groceries at an open-air market or at a non-centrally located grocery store, such as Monoprix. If you are able to cook, you can prepare your meals beforehand; if not, you can opt for some more portable items such as cheese, sausages, and baguettes.
Getting to Paris
The biggest expense in any vacation is usually the cost of getting there. Use these tips to save money on airline tickets:
- Go During the Off-Season. November through March is Paris’s slow season, and tickets are much cheaper. If you must go during the summer, avoid going during August. The city becomes flooded with tourists, prompting its residents go to the country, travel, or visit relatives. Lines are long with tourists and there are few locals to be found.
- Buy Your Tickets and Travel on the Right Days. A popular adage among travel experts states, “Tuesday is the best day to buy, Wednesday the best day to fly.” Many airfare sales begin on Tuesday, and Wednesday is smack-dab in the middle of the week, lowering ticket fares, as most people prefer to fly on Fridays or weekends.
- Book in Advance. Another traveler’s adage states, “The sooner you buy, the less you spend.” This is generally true – buying months in advance can save you significant amounts of money compared to buying at the last minute.
- Take Advantage of Compare Shopping Sites. Sites such as Priceline or CheapOair pull deals from a variety of different airlines and discount sites, so you can easily compare fares.
Free & Cheap Accommodations
Paris is best enjoyed when avoiding costly hotels, and believe it or not, cheap lodging is available. By opting to stay with strangers, swap houses, or stay in a hostel, you save a lot of money – and also avoid the temptation to take refuge in your isolated hotel room. There are several websites you can check to find free or extremely affordable accommodations that will make your travel experience one of a kind:
By creating an account at CouchSurfing.org, you are joining a network of millions of potential hosts (and guests, if you’re open to it). You can see who’s hosting in the city you are planning to visit, and once you find an available couch, send the couch’s owner a request asking if they can host you.
Don’t let the name mislead you – there is a diverse pool of hosts to choose from, ranging from students to married couples with kids. Accommodations range from couches, to guest bedrooms, to floors. In addition to having free lodging, you can stay with someone who knows the city well and can recommend local hangouts not included in the guidebook. You may even make a lifelong friend.
In terms of safety, CouchSurfing.org takes negative reviews very seriously. If you consider becoming a couch surfer, be sure to stay with someone who has a lot of vouchers, positive reviews, and is CouchSurfing verified, which means their name and address have been checked.
HomeExchange.com offers its users thousands of houses in 146 countries. Users can live in each other’s houses, apartments, or condominiums, either through what the site deems as “home exchanges” or “hospitality exchanges.”
In home exchanges, both parties travel and live in the other’s house simultaneously. In hospitality exchanges, parties host their guests at designated times. There are benefits to either arrangement: Home exchanges offer privacy, while hospitality exchanges offer a window into a new culture with a native. Whichever you choose, you have free lodging, and can save money by making your meals at home.
Many people think that hostels are only for the young. This, however, is not true. When I stayed in a hostel just off the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro stop, I shared a room with two students, a 35-year-old filmmaker, and a 65-year-old Swedish woman.
While many people don’t like the idea of sharing living quarters with strangers, there are many benefits to staying in a hostel. It’s cheap (cheaper if you stay away from the Eiffel Tower), and it allows you to share space with people similar to you: adventurous, curious, and excited. In all my hostel experiences, boarders have become travel buddies, exploring the city with a kindred spirit they met in their room or in the courtyard. Hostels.com offers over thirty thousand hostel listings, complete with descriptions and reviews.
Going off the pricey, beaten path will not only benefit your wallet, it will benefit your experience. By traveling frugally, you can see the Paris that doesn’t make the pages of “Vogue.” Yes, Paris is baguettes, Hermes scarves, crepes, the Mona Lisa, and the Eiffel Tower. Many people come to Paris wanting to see these Parisian staples and leave happy; others take the road less traveled and have a much richer experience.
Instead of limiting yourself to the traditional assembly line of supposed Parisian must-sees, your money-saving adventure can spur you onto unorthodox experiences, new foods, and interesting encounters.
What other money-saving tricks do you use when you visit Paris?
(photo credit: Bigstock, John Hellewell)