When the opportunity came up to visit Paris for the second time, during Valentine's weekend no less, it didn't take much convincing for us to say yes. Is there any place more perfect to celebrate the holiday of love than the City of Love? But we did wonder, was it possible to do Paris on February 14th on a budget?
Paris is the second most expensive city in the world. A plain cup of coffee, without a cookie as I have come to expect in the Netherlands, on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées ran us a whopping seven euros. These days, that's over 10 Canadian dollars. Gulp.
But, there's hope. Although we cheated a little on this trip on account of travelling with friends, there are actually many free things to do in Paris that will not impact the amount of fun and sophistication you can find there. Dinner at the Eiffel Tower is lovely and an afternoon at the Louvre is captivating, but Parisians know that the city itself is the main attraction and unlocking it requires very little money at all.
If the weather's nice, hang out around the river with the locals. But if it's February and raining like it was for us, check out some of our suggestions for Paris on a budget.
1. Visit Eiffel Tower
This was our first destination after arriving, and it was no-less impressive. Seeing the Eiffel Tower never gets old. Going up Eiffel Tower costs money and time, but walking around and underneath it is completely free. It's also a great place for people-watching. Don't forget to catch the show at the top of every hour after dark until 1 a.m., when the Eiffel Tower erupts in sparkly lights.
2. Find your neighbourhood "boulangerie"
All those Parisians you pass in the street carrying baguettes are onto something. Little neighbourhood bakery shops called boulangeries make croissants and baguette sandwiches that are so tasty and affordable, you will be dreaming about your next meal all day long. Your stomach (and wallet) will thank you!
3. Take a free city tour by Discover Walks Paris
Choose from five daily city tours by Discover Walks Paris. The guides are all Parisians with their own areas of interest and specialty who will show you an hour's worth of Paris for free. We took the Notre Dame and the Heart of Paris tour with our guide Lucien who had a wealth of knowledge about Paris and a great sense of humour. The guides can answer questions and offer tips and recommendations, so take advantage of their expertise and remember to bring some cash as a tip.
4. Visit Notre Dame Cathedral
A plaque in front of Notre Dame marks the exact centre of Paris. Impressive from all sides, Notre Dame's intricate details are even cooler up close. It costs to go up the tower, but is otherwise free to visit. Make sure you check out the gargoyles!
5. Find the Love Wall (Le mur des je t'aime) in Montmartre
Montmartre is a bit of a hike, but because you're so high up, you'll have some great views! The Love Wall depicts the words "I love you" in 250 different languages, and can be found in a cute little park. It's the perfect place for a selfie and a snack before continuing to explore Montmartre. Place du Tertre Square is full of artists painting and selling their work, and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica stands impressively above if you can make your legs walk a little further up.
6. Walk Père Lachaise Cemetery
I wrote a whole post on this one because we came away with so many amazing photographs. A number of celebrities have been laid to rest at Père Lachaise Cemetery including Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Jim Morrison. You could definitely spend a few hours looking for their graves and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. It's a place of a thousand stories that merits some exploration with someone you care about.
7. Splurge on a cabaret
Being on a budget doesn't necessarily mean you can't "treat yo self". There's a lot to splurge on in Paris, but a good bet is on a night out at the cabaret. This time we tried a Valentine's Night show at the Crazy Horse, which was oddly dark and a little strange, but all the more to talk about afterwards! We got fancied up for the evening, and after the show was over, we were close enough to the Eiffel Tower to stop by for the light show.
8. Go hunting for an Easter egg
I started reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, and have become a complete fangirl of everything Paris and Hemingway. Yes, I'm a big nerd. The idea here is that Paris is the root of so much in history and entertainment that if you're interested in something, you can probably make it into a scavanger hunt. One romantic evening walk in the rain turned into a search for one of Hemingway's apartments at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, and it was a lot of fun. Indulge your inner nerd!
9. Picnic outside the Louvre
There's a lot of amazing stuff to see inside the Louvre, but the outside of it is pretty cool too. The sun broke out on this cool, grey day just long enough for us to bake in the courtyard with our baguette sandwiches from a nearby boulangerie, and when the sun disappeared again, we continued our walk through the gardens. One of a million perfect places to picnic in Paris!
10. Walk the Champs-Élysées to Ladurée for macarons
Champs-Élysées is a bit of a double-edged sword for those on a budget. It's luxury shopping on the city's most famous boulevard, but if you trust yourself not to burn a hole in your pocket, walk the whole avenue from the Louvre down to the Arc de Triomphe. Reward yourself with a healthy dose of macarons from Ladurée - they're not cheap, but they are delicious and decadent and really, really French.
There were a few things on our list we didn't manage to squeeze in this time, but remain on our list for next:
I was surprised to learn that there are several places that offer free dinner, often couscous, with the purchase of drinks. Good idea or not, I was intrigued enough to put this on my list to try in Paris. Depending on the day and time you want to go, check Le Grenier, Tribal Café, La Chope du Château Rouge or Les Trois Frères.
Le Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil
One of several beautiful gardens in Paris, des Serres d'Auteuil is a 19th century botanical garden with fountains and greenhouses. Outside the centre, it is a little harder to get to and therefore less likely to be overrun with tourists. By all accounts a peaceful, refreshing, and also pleasantly free place to spend a few hours.
Galeries Lafayette Fashion Show
Lafayette is a beautiful luxury department store, and even if you can't buy anything there, it's worth checking out the spectacular glass ceiling. For an added bonus, you might be able to catch a free fashion show (with advance reservation) if you visit Friday afternoon.
Transportation and accommodations
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few tips on the biggest Paris expenses:
transportation and accommodations. On this occasion, because we were travelling with others, we flew from Amsterdam to Paris. Depending on when and where you're travelling from in Europe, the train might be a better deal and not much extra travel time.
Once in Paris, we purchased a three-day unlimited transit pass called Paris Visite to help us get around the city in less-than-ideal weather conditions. A zone 1-3 pass will get you to most major attractions in the city. It will save you having to purchase extra tickets if you've made a wrong connection on the wonderful-but-complex Metro system, and you won't have to feel any guilt about hopping on the train if your feet are tired or it starts raining. For that peace of mind, it was absolutely worth it at this time of year.
We stayed in the trendy Marais neighbourhood at Hotel Georgette, a boutique hotel that was cute, simple, and in a great location. The choice of hotel was at the suggestion of our friends, and although it was not quite as "budget" as we would have chosen for ourselves, we happily recommend it.
It doesn't have to be Valentine's Weekend to enjoy a romantic visit to Paris, nor do you need a wad of cash. All you need is good company, a nice pair of walking shoes and a sense of adventure. Welcome to Paris!