Explore Paris on a Budget: Affordable and Authentic Experiences

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Explore Paris on a Budget: Affordable and Authentic Experiences

As one of the world’s top travel destinations, Paris has a reputation for elegance, designer clothing, and gourmet cuisine. Yet, despite this perception, not everything in the city is costly. There are plenty of inexpensive and even free things to do in Paris – strolling around different neighborhoods, visiting street markets, and taking advantage of free museum days. You may also find reasonably priced places to stay and eat, particularly if you go outside of the popular tourist locations. The secret is to make careful plans, explore local areas, and look for authentic experiences that haven’t become tourist traps. Read on for my favorite experiences in Paris that are both affordable and authentic. 

1. Museums 

Paris’s free museum days offer accessible cultural experiences for all on the first Sunday of each month. This eliminates financial barriers, encouraging diverse audiences of locals and budget-conscious tourists to explore art and history. The initiative fosters inclusivity, community engagement, and a deeper appreciation for Paris’s cultural heritage. It’s a practical and enriching way to connect with the city’s treasures without worrying about admission fees. What’s more, a wide range of the city’s museums, operated by Paris Musées, offer free admission to their permanent collections. 

Free museums on the first Sunday of each month: The Louvre, Musée Rodin, Musée Picasso, Musée d’Orsay, Musée Picasso, Versailles, and others. 

Free museums: Le Petit Palais, Musée Carnavalet, City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, Maison de Balzac, Musée Cognacq-Jay, 59 Rivoli, Musee Bourdelle 

Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris. © Cyrille Weiner/ Paris Musées

2. Hire a bike – Vélib’ 

The majority of central Paris can be cycled across in less than 30 minutes. As a result, a day of cycling is a fantastic idea that will allow you to see all of the main attractions. With an extensive network of bike lanes, cycling allows you to cover more ground while enjoying scenic routes along the Seine and through different neighborhoods, offering an intimate connection to local life and avoiding traffic congestion. With Vélib’, Paris’s public bike hire company, a 24-hour pass is just €5, making this an inexpensive day of exploration. 

3. Self-guided walking tours  

Ranked as the world’s third most walkable city in a 2020 poll, Paris boasts a compact 10km diameter and over 100 pedestrianized streets, making it easily navigable by foot. Walking lets you savor the city’s iconic sights at your own pace, while immersing you in its vibrant culture. With hidden gems, charming cafes, and the freedom to explore spontaneously, walking unveils Paris in a way that no metro or bus ride can. The mostly flat terrain, except for hilly Montmartre and Belleville, ensures a comfortable stroll. Navigate intuitively, and follow the alluring charms of the city. 

I’ve put together the ultimate three-day walking itinerary here.

Paris from above © Christian Jacquet

4. Bateaux Mouches  

A river cruise in Paris is a wonderful experience. Cruising along the Seine, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of iconic landmarks. The narration provides insights into the city’s rich history, and the leisurely pace allows for a truly immersive and enjoyable experience. It’s a delightful way to appreciate the beauty of Paris without breaking the bank, making it a great activity for any tourist. Adult boat trip tickets range between 12-16 euros depending on the boat company (such as Vedettes du Pont Neuf).

5. Picnic in a Park  

Head to your local food market and pack a wonderfully French picnic of crusty baguette, pungent fromage, charcuterie, olives, cherry tomatoes, and a bottle of wine to enjoy in a Parisian park. Join the locals and lay out your blanket, then watch the world go by. 

Here’s a list of my favorite places to picnic: 

  • Jardin du Palais-Royal 
  • Jardin du Luxembourg 
  • Parc Monceau 
  • Jardin des Tuileries 
  • Canal Saint-Martin 

Jardin du Luxembourg. Photo credit: Bonjour Paris

6. Café Culture  

Parisian café culture, born in the Enlightenment era, thrives in iconic spots such as the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. Rooted in the intrinsic French value of leisure, cafés offer relaxation, socializing, and outdoor seating. This romantic image adds to Paris’s global allure, drawing tourists to experience coffee, croissants, and the city’s unique ambiance. Recent changes see a surge in specialty coffee shops, transforming Paris’s coffee scene. 

Check out this article for 20 of Paris’s most iconic cafés.

Café de Flore. Photo credit: Arnaud 25/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

7. Explore Montmartre 

Explore the enchanting Montmartre district for a cost-free adventure. Wander the cobbled lanes past La Maison Rose and the Moulin de la Galette, witness lively street artists in Place du Tertre, admire the bust of Dalida, and enjoy free entry to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Though the scenic gardens below the gleaming white landmark offer panoramic city views, picnic in one of the secret gardens, such as Square Suzanne Buisson, hidden away from the tourist hordes. Montmartre promises a delightful, wallet-friendly escape into the artistic heart of Paris. Oh, did we mention the vineyard?

Place du Tertre, Paris. Credit: Pierre Blaché

8. Rooftop Reveries 

City skylines offer a captivating tapestry of architecture and lights, and none is as stunning as the skyline of Paris. There are a number of rooftops from where you can marvel at the Eiffel Tower, Palais Garnier, Sacré-Cœur, and other iconic landmarks– particularly in trendy hotels and restaurants like Madame Reve, TOO Hotel, and Bonnie– but you have to make a reservation to enjoy them. However, if you head to the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann department store, you can ogle the sites to your heart’s content– for free. A close second? The Centre Pompidou museum has gorgeous views framed by glass windows. 

9. Watch Salsa Dancing at Jardin Tino-Rossi 

One of my favorite things to do after work is to head to the picturesque Jardin Tino Rossi which lines the Seine in the 5th arrondissement. Here, with a backdrop of the sun setting on the river, you will always find people dancing – be that salsa, tango, or ballroom – in the light of dusk. Within the garden is also an outdoor sculpture museum that showcases sculptures by famous artists including César, Constantin Brancusi, Nicolas Schöffer, and Émile Gilioli. 

The quay of the Seine in the Jardin Tino-Rossi.. Photo credit: Moonik / Wikimedia commons

10. Watch the Eiffel Tower Sparkle

The Place du Trocadéro is a popular location for tourists to gaze upon and take pictures of the famous Eiffel Tower. The large square offers a remarkable view of the tower across the Seine. My favorite time to visit is in the late evening when the Eiffel Tower sparkles for five minutes every hour. Keep your ears and eyes peeled for performers who add to the magic of this location. 

The park fountains and Eiffel Tower seen from the Place du Trocadéro. Photo credit: Nick Loyless / Wikimedia commons

11. Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen 

On the weekends in Paris, markets on every street corner sell fascinating antiquities and treasures. The largest and most celebrated flea market in the city is the Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen (99 All. des Rosiers, 93400 Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine). This marché is a sprawling network of over 2000 vendors making it the largest concentration of antique dealers and second-hand dealers in the world. Here you will be sure to find a remarkable memento that no one else will have. My other favorite flea markets in the capital are the Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves, and Les Puces de Montreuil.  

Marché Biron at the Puces de Saint Ouen. © Laurent Krause

12. Browse the books of Les Bouquinistes 

In French, “bouquin” is a colloquial term for a book, and thus the bouquinistes refer to the booksellers who sell antique and second-hand books along the Seine, from Pont Marie to Quai du Louvre on the Right Bank, and from Quai de la Tournelle to Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank. Take your time scanning the pages of these endearing artifacts, and purchase a postcard to write to your loved ones back home. 

A bouquiniste on the Quai de Montebello. Credit: Benh LIEU SONG/ Wikimedia commons

13. Eat an Authentic French Meal for Cheap

Dating back to 1896, Bouillon Chartier is an institution known for reasonably priced, classic French fare served in a Belle Époque setting. The restaurant is well-liked by both residents and tourists because of its lively ambiance and vintage appeal. Eating a meal here capture the spirit of dining in Paris. 

7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 9th

59, boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th

5 rue du 8 mai 1945, 10th

14. Window Shopping 

Of course, the designer stores along the rue Saint-Honoré and the Champs-Elysées are definitely not budget-friendly, however, window shopping is always good for the wallet (provided you don’t get tempted inside!). Even if you’re not buying anything, experiencing the beauty and grandeur is worth a trip. Combine this activity with climbing the 284 steps of the Arc de Triomphe to admire the view of the city, and to learn more about this iconic landmark’s history. 

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré (1897), musée Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid)

15. Explore the Covered Passages 

Dating to the 19th century, the city’s covered passageways were built with glass-covered roofs to protect shoppers in inclement weather. They were once vibrant social hubs, and today many are still lined with lovely stores and restaurants, immersing the visitor in a bygone era, complete with beautiful mosaic floors. 

Passage des Panoramas, 2nd

Passage Verdeau, 9th

Galerie Vivienne, 2nd

Passage des Princes, 9th 

Passage du Grand-Cerf, 2nd

Passage Brady, 10th

Gallery Vivienne, photo: Joe deSousa

16. Salle Ovale at BNF Richelieu 

The Richelieu location of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), a masterpiece by architect Pierre-François-Henri Labroust, captivates with its grandeur and history. Originally a palace, it became a library in 1721. After a 12-year restoration, the public gained access in 2022, revealing a stunning interior and courtyard. The Salle Ovale, a free public space, offers a breathtaking setting, housing 20,000 books and interactive devices. The café, gift shop, museum, and current Molière exhibition add to the rich experience. Working here feels surreal, combining history, literature, and architectural splendor. 

Salle Ovale at the Bibliotheque Nationale Richelieu

17. Explore a food market 

Don your most stylish tote bag and take a trip to one of Paris’s bustling food markets (both outdoor, and indoor covered markets). Expect rows of vibrant fruit and vegetables, countless cheese stalls, and the scent of fresh baguettes to flood your senses.  

  • Marché des Enfants Rouges (oldest covered market in Paris) 
  • Marché Saint-Martin (covered hall) 
  • Marché Mouffetard 
  • Marché Montorgueil 
  • Marché d’Aligre 
  • Marché Saint-Germain 
  • Marché Raspail 
  • Marché Bastille 

Cheese at the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Photo credit: Marian Jones

18. Explore Île-de-France with a Navigo Pass 

Tourists visiting Paris should get a Navigo pass to easily and affordably access the vast public transportation system, which includes the metro, buses, and RER trains. Compared to individual tickets, the pass saves time and money by providing unlimited transit within selected zones, with a weekly ticket being just 30.75. Not only does the pass cover Central Paris, but it also allows travelers to discover more of the Île-de-France region. Explore the following locations to make the most of your pass. 

Fontainebleau (Zone 5): 

Explore the historic Château de Fontainebleau, known for its grandeur and beautiful gardens. Accessible via Transilien train (R or P lines). 

Provins (Zone 5): 

Discover the medieval town of Provins, a UNESCO site with well-preserved ramparts and medieval architecture. Take Transilien P from Gare de l’Est. 

Chantilly (Zone 5): 

Visit the Château de Chantilly and its stunning gardens. Reach Chantilly-Gouvieux via Transilien H or K lines. 

Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Zone 4): 

Enjoy the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and its picturesque park. Take RER A to reach this historic town. 

Vincennes (Zone 2): 

Discover the medieval Château de Vincennes and its surrounding park. Accessible via Metro Line 1. 

Château de Vincennes. © Marian Jones

19. Palace of Versailles 

Tourists visiting Paris should not skip a visit to Versailles, as it reveals France’s illustrious royal past. The Hall of Mirrors, Louis XIV‘s lavish rooms, the apartment of Marie Antoinette, and the rolling gardens are unmissable gems, accessible via RER C on the Navigo pass. Fortunately, a trip to this UNESCO World Heritage site can indeed be taken on a budget. The whole estate, including the Estate of Trianon and the Palace of Versailles, is available to the public free of charge on the first Sunday of each month from November through March. Additionally, the park and gardens are free to enter from November to March. 

The Palace of Versailles. © Andreas H./ Pixabay

Lead photo credit : Pont Royal and Musée d'Orsay at dusk. Credit: Pierre Blaché/ Wikimedia Commons

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Inspired by the rich culture that France has to offer, Poppy Pearce moved to Paris as an au pair in August 2022. Having gained a degree in Theology and Religion with Arabic from the University of Exeter, Poppy has a passion for languages and experiencing new cultures. When she’s not working, Poppy loves to explore everything that Paris has to offer, from exhibitions and museums, to restaurants and second-hand clothing stores.


  • Pat Hallam
    2024-02-22 11:06:30
    Pat Hallam
    Very useful article for visitors, especially those who like to get away from the tourist traps. I'd just like to add a couple of things - the Passage Jouffroy which is one of my favourites & just across the road from Passage des Panoramas. Parc des Buttes Chaumont for a picnic in rolling parkland. The bouillon movement has really taken off in recent years & while Chartier is the most historic you'll get better food in other places: Bouillon Julien is still very atmospheric, while Bouillon Pigalle is a contemporary take on the genre. Lots of people rate Bouillon Pharamond near Les Halles as well, which has traditional decor.