By Gilbert Carlson
Paris is the mass tourism capital of the world. Every year 40 million visitors crowd its sidewalks and cafés. Most travelers have either been there or intend to go. Many are put off by the high prices of food and accommodation. If you are one of those, I suggest you read on. I have lived my entire sedentary life in Paris and have developed a skill for traveling cheaply around the rest of Europe. Now let me take you on a tour of my hometown with the advice that I would like to hear about yours.
High Season and Higher Season:
As a budget-minded traveler, you might look to travel in low season. This will not work for Paris. We have high season and stupidly high and crowded season. Prices often go up and never down, so go when the weather is nicest, anytime from May to September.
A Knife, Can opener and Corkscrew:
A few simple tools will save you Euros. First: bring a knife. You will need to cut your own baguette and cheese. Pack a cork screw to enjoy the wine and a can opener for your meals. A sleeping bag and a tent are a serious plus if you’re on a really tight budget.
Getting rid of Misconceptions:
If you think that Paris is the place to go for a romantic experience in French culture complete with berets and Boeuf Bourguignon, jump on a slow train to the provinces. Paris is a major European capital, not a larger-than-average French town. If there is one thing that Parisians and French can agree upon it’s that they are not the same.
With that out of the way let’s take a look at what Paris has to offer and how to sample it on the cheap.
Most of what makes Paris beautiful is right there in front of you: the buildings, the neighborhoods, the parks, the riverside walkways. Get a Velib bicycle rental pass (1€/day 5€/wk) and cycle around the city. There are bike lanes for safe riding. Stay off the sidewalks and stop at red lights or you’ll be dealt a hefty fine.
For an aerial view of the city you do not need to pay to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The Printemps department store has a roof-top terrace and so does the Institut du monde Arabe. Both are free and more centrally located than the Eiffel Tower. If you insist on paying for a long walk up an historical monument I recommend you climb the towers of Notre Dame. It’s cheaper, the view is amazing, and you get to walk up eight hundred year old stone steps into the heart of the towers. If you want to picnic on the roof of Paris you can escape the masses that crowd the steps of Montmartre by moving over to Parc de Belleville. The observation point here offers the best view in town.
Look out for ‘happy hours’ in museums. Some venues have deals for visitors that wish to come “from six to eight, on the third Wednesday of each month, on permanent collections” for example. Read the fine print and you might get lucky. The city-run Carnavalet Museum is free and retraces the history of Paris. All national museums are free on the first Sunday of each month; expect them to be swamped with tourists.
Taking a break:
Paris is full of great parks to sit in and picnic. Put 4€ into a fold-up city map, locate the closest park and head there with your own food and wine. Drinking in public is accepted and widely practiced. Every park is also a wireless hotspot so you can update your Facebook status to “wine and cheese time in Buttes Chaumont”. Every weekend night in the summer, the banks of the Seine host one of the world’s largest impromptu picnics. Join Parisians for free live music, dances, fire shows, and drum circles.
Shopping for food and wine:
One of the best places to get produce, charcuterie, and cheese in Paris is from the open-air markets. There are dozens of them, in all the arrondissements and most are biweekly. Here is the list of open-air markets from the city’s official website. Stay out of the ritzy neighborhoods for the best deals. If you’re not a morning person look for Franprix supermarkets and browse their selection of cheese. It won’t be straight from the farm but you can find a decent Camembert, Fourme d’Ambert or Bleu de Bresse for little more than 2€ each.
Get your vin rouge from small, independent wine shops. Most of them have a budget option that is only slightly more than what you would spend in a supermarket, but the caviste will stand by what he sells, and only sell what he drinks.
The hostel scene in Paris is more about good partying than finding good value. Sharing a room with your travel mate at a hotel in an out-of-the-way neighborhood may cost you little more than sharing it with a dozen party animals who stumble in drunk and let their phones ring all night. If you are a group of three or more look for “Formule 1” hotels that are all automated. You can pile in as many friends as you wish and split the costs.
Sleeping outside is tolerated and a good choice if you have no valuables. The police will not arrest you for dozing off on a public bench and if you find a quiet place in the Bois de Vincennes you may be able to set up your tent and share the woods with the 200 or so homeless people that live in it year round.
Paris is a very safe city and as a tourist you will be safer in quieter neighborhoods than at the foot of the Eiffel tower, even if the neighborhood looks a bit rougher than what you would be comfortable with at home. Don’t be afraid to wander through any area of the city.
For a real Parisian experience, walk through the former town of Belleville, which is now divided between the Belleville and Menilmontant areas. The bars here are made for drinking, not being seen in, the bakeries cater to the locals, not busloads of tourists, and the parks attract a nice mix of homeless people, seniors, children just out of school, and workers on lunch break.
To experience the ethnic diversity of Paris, get off the metro at La Chapelle (line 2 or 4). To the north you will find the Algerian quarter and to the south you will get lost in the Indian sector where 5€ will buy you a large plate of curry.
Gilbert Carlson moved to Paris as an infant and usually resides there when he is not traveling. His wanderings have taken him around Europe and the Middle East. He likes to share his experiences in alternative low budget traveling by contributing to Gomadnomad.com