Paris- one of the most beautiful, most visited, and possibly most expensive cities in the world. On our most recent Europe adventure, Paris was on the top of my list – I’d never been before. Rachel had the placed cased though, and again was able to be my guide (especially since my French is less than superb).
We knew going in that the money was going to flow. Not only is the Euro often one and a half times our Canadian dollar, in the capital city, prices skyrocket. But armed with that knowledge, and the fact that we’d already been on the road for a month, we made choices, and I think, we came out on top.
Here are some of the selections we made, and tips we have for taking on Paris on a budget, while still getting the best of the city:
(1) Save- Accommodation
Sure, there are amazing places to stay in Paris, and there are even less-than-amazing places that will still cost an arm and a leg. We knew we wanted a full week in the city, so we skipped all hotels, B&Bs, inns, and anything of that sort. We were willing to opt for a hostel, but found them to be very booked up by the time we started looking, and the rates were still high for a full week. We found success with Airbnb, and for just over $250CDN we had ourselves a room. It was a very, very small room, and we shared it with a Parisian business student. But remember – Paris is not where you come to stay inside. The accommodation is at the very bottom of the list, because you want to be out early in the morning, and often not return until late. Our pull-out in our host’s living room suited us fine, and we had full use of his kitchen – fridge, hot plate, and kettle, free wifi, and a very authentic Parisian living experience.
(2) Splurge- Delis, bakeries, and grocery stores
We bought croissants at our local bakery every morning. Expensive? Sure. Truly Parisian and well worth it? Definitely. Bakeries (Boulangerie or Pâtisserie in French) are a destination in themselves. Children will love all the intricate delicacies, and the staff are always happy to let you practice your French. If you stay in one place long enough, the owner may even become a new friend. Don’t come all the way to Paris and not eat well. Grocery stores are a must for us, because they tell you so much about a culture, how a country feels about food, and takes you out of the tourist mindset and into the world of the locals. Small fruit stands, major department stores, and little delis all have this effect, and give you great souvenirs to take home. We always pick up some kind of cheese, locally made jam, hot cocoa mix, and fruit to have in our room for midnight snacks and breakfast.
Make sure to purchase enough goodies to pack a picnic. We had dinner in a couple of nights, with food we got at the grocery, and no need to cook. Yogurt, macarons, bread and cheese, fruit and veg… save on the restaurant, and enjoy the grocery store. Bottles of wine are sold at the same grocery, and never go amiss either.
(3) Save – Museums
If you haven’t seen enough art in your life, by all means check out some of the many galleries in Paris. If you’re like us, though, maybe one is enough. Some Paris museums and galleries are free all day, all the time, like author Victor Hugo’s house, or the Musée Curie (Institut du Radium), home to Marie Curie’s laboratory and chemistry lab. In the low season (Oct. 1-Mar. 31), the Louvre offers free entry on the first Sunday of the month. The Musée d’Orsay is open for free the first Sunday of the month, all year round. A whole list of free entry times for Paris museums and galleries is available here!
We didn’t have a great urge to visit more museums after our time in Ireland, but we did wander the grounds of the Louvre, peeking through the glass pyramids at the crowds below. If you want to get inside the Louvre but are not loving the massive line, try entering via the Palais Royal–Musée du Louvre Metro stop. You may need a Metro ticket to get in, but it’s much cheaper than the entrance fee for the gallery. Once inside, there is a beautiful tiled mall leading to the museum, and you are able to see some art, purchase postcards and peoplewatch from indoors.
The Pompidou Centre is also accessible without paying a cent, and although you won’t be able to view any of the exhibits, the building itself is fascinating (all of the internal workings are on the outside of the structure, colour coded for plumbing, electricity, etc.). The gift shop is full of interesting books and home decor, and some art is visible. The grounds outside are often filled with buskers, and just around the corner is a little music themed water feature – a small reward for kids who may not find art to be all that exciting.
(4) Splurge – Metro tickets, and transport
This is definitely not a huge splurge. Yes, it isn’t cheap to get from Charles De Gaulle Airport to city centre. But the RER (the B line – blue – takes you to city centre) train is efficient, cheaper than a taxi, and thrusts you immediately into the French landscape,
giving you a taste of France that can be missed if the whole trip is spent in the busy city. It’s also become one of the simplest ways to travel, because the kiosks from which you buy tickets are in both French and English, the airport staff are friendly if you get really confused, and the RER lines connect to the regular Paris Metro (subway) so if you happen to find yourself in a summer rainstorm, you can transfer lines without going outside. Trips on the RER B are included in a Pass Navigo or Paris Visite Metro pass.
Picking up a pack of 10 or 20 metro tickets may seem like an unnecessary expenditure, and the Metro can seem confusing at first glance. But having the freedom to take the Metro anywhere, at any time, saving hours of walking from destination to destination, is well worth the expense. Many of the Metro stations should be destinations in themselves, covered with art or mosaic tile, filled with musicians, and giving you a taste of Parisian life you would surely miss by staying above ground.
Don’t forget to keep your ticket with you until you exit the station completely. Some stations require you to reenter the same ticket to exit, and if you’ve discarded it already, you’ll have to waste a new ticket, just to escape the station.
(5) Save- Restaurant meals
Main entrées in Paris restaurants can be a huge drain on finances. Not that they aren’t delicious, and if you’re feeling flush, by all means eat away. But if you’re feeling strapped, skip the entée, and go straight for shared appetizers. Oeuf mayonnaise (hard boiled eggs with French mayo), soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup), salads, and other delicacies are all a fraction of the cost of a main dish, and perfect for sharing. Bread is often included with the meal, and coffee at a restaurant is a special treat, so sharing starters saves not only money, but room for dessert.
Our favourite stopping place is at L’As du Fallafel at on Rue des Rosiers, in the Marais. The falafels are excellent, and if you eat in, not only is it super speedy, but the atmosphere is really something to see. We took our dinner to go – even though it was raining – and ate them under a tent at a market. They are massive, so sharing is definitely possible, and for the vegetarians, there’s nothing better.
(6) Splurge- Arc de Triomphe
Yes, that’s a lot of stairs to climb and yes, that does seem like a lot of money just to climb all those stairs (5 euro each for students with valid student ID, or 8 euro for adults, children 17 and under are free!) but the view is worth it. Not only can you approach via the Champs-Élysées, where the window shopping is spectacular, but once you reach the top, just watching the traffic is amusing. The Arc de Triomphe is located in the centre of Paris, with all the districts or arrondissements branching out from it. The traffic moves around the traffic circle in what really does look like no sense of order. The honking horns at rush hour can be deafening. But if you have a poor sense of direction after wandering the city for a few days, the whole geography will become clear. It can get crowded, and very hot, so choose your time of day wisely. Every day at 6:30pm the torch at the base of the Arc de Triomphe is rekindled to honour the unknown French soldier lost during World War I. Often, veterans come to lay wreaths, so if you time your visit right, you might get a slice of patriotic history along with your stunning view.
(7) Save- Eiffel Tower
For me, the Eiffel Tower is no match for the Arc de Triomphe. The view isn’t as good, the crowds are bigger, and the touristy-ness doesn’t do it for me. But if it’s on the top of your list, save by taking the stairs the first two floors, visit at the end of the day as the sun goes down, and really make sure you want to go all the way to the top (not for those who are remotely afraid of heights).
Once you’re up, take your time. There is no limit on how long you can stay, and make sure to ask a fellow tourist to take your photo. Sure, selfie sticks are great, but if you’ve gone all the way up, get a proper photo. Seriously.
(8) Splurge- Day Trips
To me, there is nothing better than getting out of the city for a day. Try Monet’s gardens, the Palais Versailles, or just pick a small town at random and hop on the train. It may be a bit of a pricey venture, but you’ll see so much more France once you leave the city. We didn’t get to do this on our last trip, and really missed it.
(9) Save- Souvenirs
The entrepreneurial Parisians would love to sell all you English tourists cheap souvenirs for triple their worth. Instead of indulging in a plastic Eiffel Tower model, try grocery stores for chocolate, funny snacks, and drink mixes to bring back (check your customs policies first – usually animal products, fruit and veg, and other related items are not allowed back into your home country). The department store Monoprix has everything from groceries to clothing to colouring books and stationary, and for kids especially has loads of fun activities to entertain on the plane, and they are guaranteed to be different from what you’d see at home. Outside of the touristy neighbourhoods, dollar stores are common, and have similar offerings, perfect for bringing back for a large group of family or friends.
Sit on a patio, or in those wicker chairs on the street. Watch the people. And go all out on a coffee. Afternoon coffee is not the most expensive purchase you’ll make, nor is it the cheapest. But it is possibly the most Parisian (and potentially cliché) thing you can do. While you’re at it, have dessert, or really savour the little chocolate that comes with the café au lait. Strike up a conversation with the people next to you, pretend you’re a local, and enjoy.