Who hasn’t dreamt of going to Paris, the city of romance, with magnificent monuments such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, which have no other function but to be seen and admired. For many though, visiting it remains just a distant dream because Paris has acquired a reputation as one of the world’s most expensive cities. But Paris can be done on a shoestring budget, if you have courage and a sense of adventure. Aside from walking around absorbing the sights and sounds of Paris, there are plenty of other free things to do. Contrary to reputation, the French are an extremely helpful race and will go out of their way to give you directions about the most mundane things, like negotiating your way around the metro system. Locals become a bit standoffish if you speak English, so arm yourself with a phrasebook. Even broken French results in you facing the full force of their Gallic charm.
Your flight to Paris will cost 30 to 60 per cent more in the summer. Booking early and checking different dates before you buy those plane tickets can mean huge savings on airfare. If you are travelling to Paris from European cities like London, Boulogne, Amsterdam and Brussels, you could get a Megabus ticket with one-way fares ranging from just £1 to £40 depending on when you book. The coach services Eurolines and Idbus also offer great promotions and the Eurostar train is quick, comfortable and relatively cheap. Easy Jet flights from London are usually £40 to £60.
Paris favours pedestrians: it is an absolute horror for motorists, not least because of the endless traffic jams. A romantic stroll in the streets of Paris, taking in the beautiful architecture, people watching, admiring the fantastic window displays and visiting all the sights (only from the outside), will not cost you a penny. Don’t zigzag across Paris. Map out all the attractions in one area before you go so you don’t waste either time or money doubling back. Just download free guided tours to your iPod or MP3, arm yourself with a map, choose a neighbourhood – Montmartre, the Marais, Left Bank, or the Champs-Elysées, and start walking. Paris Tourism office also offers guides to free, self-guided walking tours.?The Vélib bicycle sharing system in Paris is a great idea. You can rent a bike and go all over the city for a week for €8.
If you are not fussy about sharing bathrooms you can get extremely cheap accommodation or even doss down for free for a night or two at some shelters in Paris. There are plenty of free couch-surfing accommodation schemes, which lists hundreds of Parisians willing to provide you a bed for free. Hospitality Club has more than 9,000 listings in the Parisian region, and Global Freeloaders has more than 500. If you happen to be a writer, Shakespeare and Co will allow you use of one of the cots in the back of their bookshop.
Since you will be in the world’s gastronomic capital, food will be uppermost in your mind. But other than a couple of out-of-this-world culinary experiences, which it is sacrilege not to allow yourself in France, stick to sandwiches and takeaway meals from the delicious patisseries, charcuteries, brasseries and boulangeries on every street corner. A market rotisserie at Place Monge Marche, the Sunday market, day sold me a plump, juicy chicken for a few quid, which I devoured on a stall bench. Bakeries offer simple sandwiches like the classic jambon fromage, which cost only a few euros.
Parisians have an enduring love affair with the Seine and I spent so many wonderful hours here, both on the river and on its banks, simply people-watching. There is no better way to while away the long summer evenings in Paris than by walking along many of the Seine’s 40 romantic bridges, watching the boats glide beneath you. Pack a picnic and head to the Pont des Arts (a pedestrian bridge just beside the Louvre), and watch families, friends and couples bunched on blankets, enjoying candlelit meals as the sun slowly sets behind the Eiffel tower further down the river and lovers hang locks on the bridge, throwing the key into the river to safeguard their love.
The Eiffel Tower stands on the left bank of the Seine (South bank), in a garden, the Champs de Mars. What more can one say about the monument, which was once dismissed as a trite tourist gimmick and almost dismantled, but is now Paris’ most enduring symbol? It is cheaper to climb (€8) than see by lift, but you are allowed on foot only to the first and second level (a total of 600 steps). Taking the lift to the third level at the peak of the Tower can squeeze the budget at €14 but offers stunning views. Carry a jacket because the wind can cut like a knife at the top.
MONUMENTS AND CHURCHES
The Arc de Triomphe on the Champ Elysee was commissioned by Napoleon as homage to his victories. At the base, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an eternal flame remembers those who died in the two world wars. Père-Lachaise is the celebrity cemetery – it has almost anyone talented and dead that you care to mention. It is the most visited cemetery in the world where admirers come to pay homage to such worthies as Oscar Wilde with lipstick kisses and Jim Morrison with cigarettes and alcohol, as well as illustrious Frenchmen such as Balzac, Chopin and Proust. There’s also the Montmartre and the Montparnasse cemeteries, with their own famous graves, of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett, perfect for a serene stroll. Notre Dame Cathedral is the Ile de la Cite’s unforgettable landmark. A masterpiece of Gothic art, it is a heart-stopping sight at night when lit up.
The first Sunday of every month, museums around Paris open for free. Sidle through the Louvre’s sculpture gallery and squint at the Mona Lisa, admire the Thinker in the lovely gardens of the Rodin Museum or exhaust yourself in the Musée d’Orsay. The Louvre, one of the world’s grandest museums, is free as well on Friday evenings if you’re under 25 and cheaper after 3 pm on Monday and Wednesday to Saturday.
Some of Paris’ unusual museums are always free–such as the Modern Art Museum, Fine Arts Museum, the Fragonard Perfume Museum or the Paris Fashion Museum. Also free is the Musee Carnavalet near the Place de la Vosges, one of the grandest mansions in Paris where you can find macabre attractions like the prison room where King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette were held before their execution, and the items they last used.
PARKS AND GARDENS
Paris is glorious in the summer, and the parks do full justice to its reputation as the city of amour. The Bois de Boulogne, a park through which the river Seine winds, is a must-see. If you want to make friends with the French, make sure you stroll through as many parks and gardens as you can, among them the sumptuous Jardin de Luxembourg on the left bank in St Germaine. Give your Paris trip a regal feel by sweeping through the historic Jardin des Tuileries between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. Jardin du Palais Royal, as its name suggests, are landscaped gardens set beside a palace, its famous forecourt screened with columns, opposite the north wing of the Louvre. Jardin des Plantes, the Paris botanical garden, contains more than 10,000 species!
Visiting local markets is considered tres chic these days and Paris is a great place for flea markets and brocantes. Best of all, entry is absolutely free. You can go around sampling the various wares on offer without spending a penny, and end up being too full to have lunch! In the Marché d’Aligre, one of the city’s most famous markets in the 12th arrondissement, you can find coffee cups, grandad’s trench coats, grandma’s lace blouses and jewellery, and can also pick up supplies of fresh fruit, delicious patés, and still-warm bread from the countless bakeries in the area. The Back Sunday market in the Bastille is a feast for the senses.
While Paris is a huge fashion capital and full of all the big designer names, you can shop in Paris without maxing out your credit card. Go window shopping along the Avenue Montaigne and Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré and nearby side streets, to get a taste of Chanel or Hermès. Around the Saint Supplice metro station are many affordable boutiques. The boulevard St Michel on the left bank of the Seine has numerous cheap clothes and shoe shops.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
There are few sights as romantic and thrilling as Paris by night – even when it’s pouring rain. When it’s lit up, the Eiffel Tower is a magnificent sight. So is the Arc de Triomphe. At night, the huge Champs Elysee avenue, the size of a football field, is a heart-stopping sight, lit up and throbbing with life and the buzz of traffic. The motto here is: see and be seen. Nightclubbers surge around the entrance of the `Queen’ disco, others make themselves up in the late-opening Sephora perfumery or buy CDs at the Mega Store music shop, open until 1 am!