How to do Paris on a budget

Who doesn’t love Paris in the springtime? Your wallet, perhaps, if you’ve been feeling the financial squeeze lately.

But that doesn’t mean France’s beguiling capital is off limits if you’re not rolling in it.

Strolling along its wide boulevards and admiring the city’s graceful Belle Epoque architecture costs nothing. And there’s no shortage of free places to visit, writes Paris insider, Mary Novakovich.

Where to stay on a budget

Start off with an affordable place to stay – preferably one that’s within walking distance of some of the main attractions.

The three-star My Hotel in France in the trendy Marais district has airy modern rooms with tea and coffee-making facilities – a rarity in French hotels.

Book online and you can get breakfast included. Or just pick up some fresh croissants from the bakery next door and put the kettle on.

Between Montmartre and the Opéra is Hotel Arvor Saint Georges, a friendly three-star that shows you can still get stylish rooms on a budget. Gaze upon the rooftops of Paris from the brightly decorated rooms, some of which have views of the Eiffel Tower.

Where to eat on a budget

While Michelin stars litter the streets of Paris – more than 125 at the last count – not all of its restaurants are quite so astronomical.

If you’re hungrily wandering the streets of Montmartre and want to avoid the tourist traps, head to the cosy Bistrot Tifinagh (17 Avenue Rachel, 75018 Paris). Two courses of classic dishes including duck terrine and sirloin steak come to about €12 – astonishing value in a city where steaks regularly break the €20 mark.

If you want a quick but filling lunch, refuel with a huge falafel at l’As du Fallafel (pictured left; 34 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris). You’ll probably have to queue, but it’s worth it for a big plate of falafel with hummus, tahini, aubergines and salad for about €5.50.

Middle Eastern – Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli – and North African restaurants in general offer good-value food that’s packed with zingy flavours.

What to see on a budget

If you’re in Paris on the first Sunday of the month, take advantage of the free admission to all of the city’s museums. Otherwise, one of its most fascinating museums happens to be free all the time. Musée Carnavalet tells the compelling history of Paris in exhibits spread throughout two handsome 16th-century buildings in the Marais quarter.

Paris is particularly rich in beautiful parks, including the Tuileries by the Louvre and the Luxembourg Gardens.

If you’re feeling energetic, head east to Parc de Belleville – the highest park in Paris at 105 metres – for panoramic views of the city. From there, it’s only a 15-minute walk to the captivating Père-Lachaise Cemetery, the place of pilgrimage for fans of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among many others.

For a different perspective, take a walk along the Promenade Plantée, or Coulée Verte, a disused railway line that’s been transformed into a 4.5-kilometre elevated landscaped walkway. Tucked into the arches below are shops and galleries, but the main attraction is the close-up view of Parisian rooftops.

If the Eiffel Tower is on your must-see list but you’re put off by the queues (and the prices), buy a ticket for the second-floor entrance. It’s only €9 rather than the €15.50 fee to go to the very top, and the views are still spectacular. Order online and you book a specific timeslot, saving you from joining the never-ending queues.

There’s a variety of Paris passes (via the tourist board’s website) you can buy that will give you free admission to museums, attractions and free public transport.

The Paris Museum Pass for adults costs €42 for two days, and you could make this money back by the time you’ve visited your sixth museum – depending on what you visit. If you’re a keen museum-goer and want to take in as many cultural riches as Paris offers, this could save you money.

But you could end up cramming your schedule with visiting sights and leaving little time to enjoy one of the most pleasant things to do in Paris: merely ambling along and enjoying the atmosphere.

You could go the whole hog and spend €99 for a two-day Paris City Pass. That adds public transport, a hop-on-hop-off bus tour and a boat trip along the Seine to the mix.

That sounds like a lot to squeeze into two days – plus all those museums you’d have to visit to see any savings. And none of the passes includes the Eiffel Tower.

If you’re under 26 and a European Union national, you get in for free in many of the museums – so don’t forget to bring your ID.

How to get around on a budget

If you’re staying somewhere fairly central, it’s easy – and a great pleasure – to explore much of Paris on foot. It’s also just as easy to use the Métro if you want to cover more ground.

Single Métro tickets cost €1.80, but you save money if you buy a carnet of 10 tickets for €14.10. You can use these on the Métro and RER suburban trains within Paris’s zone 1, as well as buses and trams. If you take the Eurostar to Gare du Nord, you can buy the tickets at one of the machines – but never buy them from people trying to sell them to you while you stand in the queue.

There are travel cards available, but unless you’re chronically hopping on and off the Métro for much of the day, they’re not always value for money. A day pass within Paris costs €12.30, and it’s valid only for a 24-hour period – unlike a carnet of 10 tickets.

If you’re arriving via Charles de Gaulle airport, you can take the direct Roissy bus to the Opéra for €11, the RER into the centre of Paris for €10, or a slower bus to the Gare de l’Est or Nation for €6.

My insider tips

Save cash – and the environment – by not ordering bottled water in restaurants. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for tap water (une carafe d’eau). And don’t forget that all bills automatically include 15% service charge, so don’t assume that you’ll have to add another 15% for a tip. If the service is outstanding, you can round it up or add a couple of euros.

Lunchtime menus are often the best bargain of the day – offering excellent value for two or three courses as well as a well-priced special.

The French like their happy hour – time for an apéro – when drinks are usually half price and some bars do the Italian thing and bring out free nibbles.


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