Paris has no equal. Arguably the most famous city on the planet, the French capital has lured tourists by the millions for decades.
Endlessly romanticized, for better or worse, its popularity is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. And with good reason – art, fashion, food, music, and style run rampant, while its incomparable atmosphere is a culture unto itself.
But there’s no denying that Paris’ popularity and luxurious trappings mean a visit can be eye-wateringly expensive. It’s the reason so many view it as once in a lifetime trip. But it doesn’t need to be. With proper planning and some flexibility, a frolic through the City of Lights can be as affordable as it is memorable.
Here’s the best way to enjoy Paris on a budget.
France is the culinary capital of the world, and Paris, is the gleaming gem on its crown. Chefs the world over travel here to master the culinary arts and its sprawling boulevards are packed with bistros, cafes, restaurants, patisseries, boulangeries, and markets.
But it can get expensive fast, especially in the tourist zone. Here are the best ways to keep the food budget intact.
Focus on lunch
If you want to try some of the best French food, turn lunch into your main meal. Almost every good restaurant will have a significantly reduced lunchtime menu, even in the tourist districts. Many of the menus are identical to the evening selection, giving you the chance to eat well for a fraction of the price.
Paris has 118 fabulous Michelin-starred restaurants, and you may be tempted to try one. Auguste is one of those and has a three-course lunch menu for $44. That’s a great deal for a world-class restaurant – dinner would cost up to $180 a person.
Ready. Set Menu
If you’re searching for value, always swing toward a set menu. Most bistros and restaurants will have a predetermined selection for the day – some with a choice, some not – that always work out at better value than going a la carte.
In these situations, you’ll typically be offered a two or three-course meal that’s price often works out far cheaper than paying separately for everything. Of course, you sacrifice choice, but this is a budget guide!
Boulangeries are your friend
Unless you’re a little strange, bread and pastry will be a major part of your Paris adventure. But if you’re on a shoestring budget, they’re even more important.
Nowhere else in the city will you find so much filling food for so little. Even with prices soaring everywhere, a plain baguette barely scrapes a dollar. If you have a few extra bucks to spare, go for a Jambon Beure and tear into that buttery delight. If you understand the breadth of French boulangeries, you know you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Ditch the wine bottle; embrace the pichet
You’re in France. Drink all the wine. But don’t blow your budget. Ordering by the glass or bottle is fine if you know what you’re doing, but if your palette is a little less discerning, go for the value option – the pichet.
A pichet is about halfway between a glass and a bottle in terms of volume and is typically whatever the house pour is that night. It’s generally significantly cheaper than the alternatives and is rarely a bad wine.
Well, you can if you want. But the servers really aren’t expecting it. You might get a few cheeky workers in the tourist zone trying to capitalize on American culture, but just remember; they’re paid well, have health insurance, and don’t get tipped by the locals. If anything, leave the change or a few euros, but don’t go dropping 20%.
Things to do
If you’ve never been to Paris, it’s important to know that the major tourist attractions are usually going to cost money. There’s no easy way to get around it, although I can offer a few hacks here.
If you’re happy to forgo some of the typical “must-dos,” however, you may find yourself falling in love with the city even more, as it offers a chance to delve a little deeper than most in-and-out visitors do.
The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc d’Triomphe – all Paris icons, but all cost money. With a family of four, you could drop $500 on similar attractions on a single trip without even realizing it.
Some, of course, are always worth it. But seriously consider what you want from your trip. The wonder of the Eiffel Tower is seeing it emerge at the end of a boulevard ahead of you, not staring out a Parisian skyline where the tower itself is absent. The Arc is magnificent, but you can walk around and underneath it for free.
The Scare Couer and Montmartre
Commanding what may be the most beautiful view in the city, the Sacre Couer is a must. Its lofty perch gazes out onto Paris, making it a wonderful place to take a moment, and breathe it all in. On the weekends, it’s not uncommon for food and drink markets to spring up below the church itself. Entry to the church is free, and it’s well worth a wander. But you’ll need to pay around eight euros to get into the towers.
Montmartre is a village-like neighborhood that sits next to the Sacre Coeur. Despite its winding splendor now being synonymous with Paris, it was once a separate entity. It’s an excellent place to explore in the morning or afternoon. The central square is filled with painters doing portraits and dozens of bars and restaurants.
We can’t advise eating or drinking much there, sadly. Its reputation as a tourist spot means prices are inflated, and quality is way down. Head down the hill a little, and you’ll find better options.
Check out a free museum
Many of the big-ticket museums have an entry fee, but Paris has a number of excellent free museums for you to try if you’re keeping costs down.
The Petit Palais is a highlight among the free options. Set in a staggering building built in 1900 for the Universal Expo, its extensive collection is more than enough for an art buff to sink their teeth into. Featuring the likes of Claude Monet, there’s plenty for the casual connoisseur to understand too.
Other free museums include the Museum of Modern Art, the Musee Carnavalet, and the Musee Bourdelle. It’s worth nothing that loads of museums are free on the first Sunday of every month, including the Louvre. But it’s gonna be busy.
Hacks for free entry to the Louvre
Let’s face it, the Louvre is the big one. It doesn’t matter if you know nothing about art; we all need a glimpse of the Mona Lisa to decide for ourselves what the big deal is and watch the chaos of tourism wield its ugly head.
It only costs about $17 to enter, but there are ways to get in for free. The most interesting is using a Capital One Credit Card. If you have a card like the Capital One Venture, you’ll be given a free six-month membership to The Cultivist, a program that grants you and three guests access to some of the world’s best museums and art galleries. Time it right, and you’ve got free entry to multiple museums, including the Louvre.
Throw in the 75,000 point intro bonus, and that Capital One Venture card could pay for your flights to Paris.
Wander the parks
Paris is filled with green spaces, many hundreds of years old, making for the perfect stroll. Naturally, they’re all free to enter and are an excellent way to see French culture at its most laid back. Hundreds of locals swarm to the parks in their free time to read, relax, or chat with their friends. Watch some older Parisians play boules, join an exercise class, or just stroll around.
Some of the best are Luxembourg Gardens, Jardin de Tuileries, and of course, the gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower.
Jump on a free walking tour
Free walking tours are springing up worldwide and make for an excellent way to start any trip. Lending some context to an area and helping visitors get their bearings, they’re extremely useful.
Paris has a number of different options for these tours, varying in length, topic, and location, so do some scouring for yourself and get rolling. It’s important to remember that although they are “free,” tips are expected at the end of the tour. Think of it as an insurance policy. If it’s a lousy tour, you don’t need to pay, but if it’s excellent, you’re more than happy to pay whatever you feel. Do bring at least 5 or 10 bucks, though.
Use a water taxi, then eat by the Seine
Dinner cruises on the Seine are pretty spectacular. But the price rises very quickly.
Instead, buy a water taxi day pass for $15, sail up and down as much as you like, then when you’re done, grab a baguette, some cheese, and a bottle of wine and head to the banks of the Seinne for a sunset picnic. That’s balling on a budget, if anything.