City of love, fashion capital, literary paradise… Paris has many different guises. And while museum entry can be steep and fine dining comes at a premium, the French capital can also be a cheap date.
Whether you go weak at the knees for soaring church spires or want to rub elbows at an authentic French market, let yourself be seduced by our top 20 free things to do in Paris.
Basilique du Sacré-Coeur
This palatial white marble church crowns the lively Montmartre district in the 18th arrondissement. Its interior is bedecked with gold mosaics and towering stained-glass windows, and you can listen for the peal of one of the world’s heaviest bells. Visiting the basilica is free, but there’s a charge to ascend into the dome or explore the crypt.
Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen
Window-shopping (or lécher les vitrines to the locals) is a great way to take an indulgent peek at objets d’art and wild curiosities you’d never actually buy. The St-Ouen flea market and antiques fair is the perfect place to let your imagination run riot. Marvel at bearskin rugs, antique tapestries and brass diving bells in this decadently eccentric marketplace. (But try to keep your eyebrow-raising in check when you look at the price tags.) Hop off the metro at Porte de Clignancourt (line 4) and continue under the bridge until the souvenir stalls give way to side streets crammed with beautiful buys.
Parc du Champ de Mars
A lift to the peak of the Eiffel Tower can squeeze the budget but views below can be equally stunning, albeit from a different angle. Parc du Champ de Mars has lawns and flowerbeds manicured with military precision (as you’d expect from a former army marching ground). Bring a blanket, wine and the best picnic ingredients you can find to this expanse of greenery and wait for the light show at dusk to set La Tour Eiffel a-twinkle.
Cimitière du Père Lachaise
The most haunting spot in Paris allows you to rub shoulders with literary greats like Proust and Balzac, and modern icons like Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf. Jim Morrison also lies in this ancient cemetery, his grave barricaded off to protect it from over-zealous fans who make a musical pilgrimage here. The tree-lined avenues and calling crows make Père Lachaise the most atmospheric walk in Paris. Head to the 20th arrondissement, jumping off the metro at Père Lachaise (line 2) or Gambetta (line 3).
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Festooned with gargoyles and Gothic touches, this imposing icon of Paris is a must-see for every visitor. Although the interior of the structure remains closed to visitors following the devastating fire of April 2019, entering this grand medieval edifice is likely to be free – as it was previously – when it reopens to the public. In the meantime, stroll along the neighbouring Seine for an alternate view of the cathedral's exterior, charred and damaged but still beautiful – a poignant symbol of Paris's resilience.
Feast your eyes on the finest local produce at this fabulous covered food market on Place d’Aligre in the 12th arrondissement. Mountains of cheese, artisan butchers and a field of flower stalls can send you into sensory overload after wandering through a few aisles. Stop for a discreet glass of Bordeaux and get your hands floury on some crusty baguette. Ride metro line 8 to the Ledru-Rollin stop.
The art deco Palais de Tokyo building hides the innovative Musée d’Art Moderne © EQRoy / Shutterstock
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
For a surreal view of French culture, dive into the permanent collections of Paris’ Museum of Modern Art. From the bolshy cubism of Braque to Matisse’s dancers, there’s sure to be something to lift your spirits. Take metro line 9 and alight at Alma-Marceau.
Arènes de Lutèce
Trace the ruins of Paris’ Roman heritage at the Arènes de Lutèce in the Latin Quarter. Dating back to 1AD, it is thought to be the longest Roman amphitheatre ever constructed. While the arena no longer hosts gladiatorial fights, it does provide a space for a competitive sport no less formidable: pétanque.
Cimitière du Montparnasse
The final resting place for hundreds of glamorous and intellectual Parisians, Montparnasse cemetery is less ostentatious than Père Lachaise but perfect for a serene stroll. Get closer than you ever thought possible to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. Ride metro line 6 to the Edgar Quinet or Raspail stop.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
Paris’ steepest park is murder on your calf muscles but a feast for your senses. With abundant birdlife, rocky reliefs and even a waterfall masterminded by landscaping genius Baron Haussmann, it’s easy to forget you’re in France’s hectic capital city. Find the park from Botzaris and Buttes Chaumont metro stops (both line 7) in the 19th arrondissement.
If celebrity-spotting in a cemetery is too morbid, march among France’s greats in Parc Monceau, which has statues of luminaries like Chopin and celebrated writer Guy de Maupassant. The park’s rich history makes it a fascinating spot for a promenade: this peaceful green space was the site of a massacre in 1871, and was a favourite painting spot for Monet. Throw in an extra freebie with a gander at the wonderful collection of rarely seen Chinese statuary showcased in the Musée Cernuschi, a municipal Asian Art Museum inside an elegant mansion next to the park’s eastern entrance on av Vélasquez. Take line 2 to the Monceau metro station in the 8th arrondissement.
Immerse yourself in the smooth shapes of Brancusi’s sculpture with a free visit to his recreated studio in front of the Centre Pompidou. The Romanian-born abstract sculptor made a name for himself with famous works like The Kiss. This Brancusi workshop is a lovingly assembled and surprisingly intimate glimpse into the mind of an artist.
Join chic Parisians at the water’s edge while the sun goes down or skip stones like the heroine of Amélie. This lively waterside haunt, between République and Gare du Nord in the 10th arrondissement, is the perfect spot to bring a picnic, pop a cork and eavesdrop on the locals.
Experience a tour de force through Paris’ history, from its ancient origins to the fashion-forward capital of sophistication it is today. The Musée Carnavalet’s permanent collection has no charge, allowing you to saunter through fin-de-siècle drawing rooms and delicately reconstructed baroque interiors without spending a euro. The closest metro stops are Chemin Vert (line 8) and Saint Paul (line 1). The museum is currently closed, but will open in early 2020 after a four-year renovation project.
This cobblestoned market street is crammed with artisan bakers, fromageries and gourmet sweet shops. Visit it on a Saturday when it closes off to form a huge food market, and listen out for the hum of bartering foodies and vendors enthusiastically touting their wares.
The streets of hipster Belleville are adorned in street art © EQRoy / Shutterstock
A stroll along the streets of Belleville, a district with a history of rebellion and multicultural flair, is certain to fire the imagination. Belleville’s bustling Chinatown and artist residents make it a lively place to explore. Wander up rue de Belleville to see where tragic chanteuse (female singer) Edith Piaf is said to have been born under a street lamp, then turn right onto pedestrian rue Dénoyez where you'll find Paris’ most dazzling street art. End your Belleville encounter with a meander and flop over first-class views of the city from leafy Parc de Belleville.
La Promenade Plantée
A railroad track with a floral makeover, this elevated walkway offers superb views and allows you to sidle through lush green archways high above the city crowds. This charming 4.5km pathway runs through most of the 12th arrondissement and you can join it from Avenue Daumesnil near the Bastille metro stop.
Musée de la Vie Romantique
If you’re in Paris for the romance, there is no lovelier free place than this museum dedicated to two artists active during the Romantic era: writer George Sand and painter Ary Scheffer. Squirreled away at the end of a film-worthy cobbled lane, the villa originally belonged to Scheffer and was the setting for popular salons of the day, attended by notable figures like Delacroix, Liszt and Chopin (Sand’s lover).
Jardin des Tuileries
Give your Paris trip a regal feel by sweeping through the historic park between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. Tread in the dainty footsteps of Marie-Antoinette and see where Napoléon built his triumphal arch.
The lively Marais district is superb for a Sunday stroll. Follow the trail of Louis XIV, hit the Jewish quarter or simply ogle the superb selection of vintage shops. Arrive by metro at République (line 3 or 11), Hôtel de Ville (line 11) or St-Paul (line 8).
To add extra flair to your Parisian adventure, plan your trip to coincide with one of these occasional freebies:
1. La Fête de la Musique. This free musical extravaganza allows amateur and professional musicians to put on free concerts and have a ball each year on 21 June. This riotous festival bridges the gap from rock to jazz to pop, with everything in between.
2. Paris Plages. The summer months bring about a curious metamorphosis in this most chic of cities, as the Seine dons sand and deck chairs and ice-cream sellers swarm to its banks. This is a beach holiday experience made urban, and an essential way to cool off in the sticky Paris summer months.
3. Free fashion shows. It wouldn’t be Paris without a sashay down the catwalk, and France’s finest fashions are free for all to see at the twice-weekly fashion shows (Monday and Friday at 3pm) at Galeries Lafayette; reserve by email or telephone to be sure of a seat.
4. La Nuit Blanche. Once a year in October, Paris throws open its doors for a nocturnal cultural feast. Visit galleries, stately buildings and even swimming pools for free all night long.
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This article was originally published in November 2011 and updated in June 2019.