See Paris for Free

Short on Euros? Here are some free sights, experiences, museums, collections, fashion shows, and panoramic viewpoints in Paris

The view from the cafe terrace atop the Institute du Monde Arabe, a bizarre building which mounts intriguing exhibitions and includes a tented bazzar of Arabian crafts.

The view from the cafe terrace atop the Institut du Monde Arabe, a bizarre building which mounts intriguing exhibitions and includes a tented bazaar of Arabian crafts.

The Louvre is free. No, really—and I don't mean by sneaking in the back door. You just have to know when to go: the first Sunday of every month.

Free on that first Sunday

In fact, more than a dozen top sights throw open their doors that Sunday, from the medieval Thermes de Cluny, to the crowd-pleasing Impressionists at the Musée d'Orsay, to the modern art in the Pompidou (the one that looks like a giant hamster set).

There's also a slew of museums dedicated to individual giants of art, including the Picasso Museum and the Rodin Museum (think: The Thinker).

Of course, every penny-pinching Parisian and school field trip knows about this. On free Sundays, while the crowds sardine themselves into the biggies, I sample quirky museums ignored by most tourists.

Who knew Paris had one of Europe's greatest collections of Asian art in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet?

Free in Paris:
Always free
Sometimes Free
Churches

Parks
Markets

Sights that are free one day a month are all fine and well (and I've posted a full list on the "Sometimes Free" page).

Finding freebies all year round is the real trick. Leaving aside for the moment the obvious candidates (churches, parks, and markets), you can still spend a week in Paris without spending a single Euro on sightseeing.

Here's how.

Great art, no admission

The recently reopened Musée du Petit Palais is a sort of second-rate Louvre: same hodgepodge of collectibles—ancient sculptures, medieval tapestries, decorative arts, and a gaggle of paintings by Rembrandt, Ingres, etc.—just not quite of the same caliber. But it's free (and to be fair, most cities would kill for a collection this rich).

The Hôtel de Ville, Pari's city hall, is a site of wonderful freebies for all citizens and residents, with beach volleyball and soccer in teh summer, ice skating in the winter, and free shows--often of photographs--inside all year round

The Hôtel de Ville, Paris' city hall, is a site of wonderful freebies for all citizens and residents, with beach volleyball and soccer in the summer, ice skating in the winter, and free shows—often of photographs—inside all year round.

See how the better half once lived at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, a chichi Marais mansion preserved in its 18th-century glory of pastel paintings and fussy objets d'art.

When you tire of Old Masters and antique frippery, get a fix of 20th century art by Matisse and Dufy in the city-run Musée d'Art Moderne.

I also always poke my head into the ground floor of the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), which usually has some great free show—often photography—mounted by the mayor's office (www.paris.fr).

Bring out your dead!—Parisian cemeteries

Being such a magnet for literary, musical, and artistic types, Paris has more than its share of famous people who left their hearts—and everything else—here.

You can hit the Cimetière de Montmartre (Degas, Offenbach, Truffaut, Dumas) or Cimetière de Montparnasse (Sartre, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Simone de Beauvoir) but hands down the best burial ground in Paris is the Cimetière Père-Lachaise , 108 acres of rolling, wooded parkland where hundreds of cultural giants rest in peace.

Père Lachaise cemetery covers 108 rolling acres of woodlands and tombstones in Paris' 20eme.

Père Lachaise cemetery covers 108 rolling acres of woodlands and tombstones in Paris' 20eme.

The short list of luminaries buried in Père-Lachaise includes Proust, Molière, Balzac, Oscar Wilde (in a great Art Deco tomb), Isadora Duncan, Sarah Berhardt, Chopin, Bizet, Edith Piaf, Ingres, Modigliani, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (who share a headstone on which are always left a few rose is a roses).

Doors fans take note: Jim Morrison's grave is now cordoned off to keep acolytes from scrawling graffiti on surrounding tombs and littering the site with offerings (which, in the past, used to include flowers, cigarettes, truly bad poetry, booze, and "special" sugar cubes).

All hail the cultural heroes

Before the Euro came along, French francs featured cultural greats like Cézanne, Debussy, and Le Petit Prince. So it's little surprise France honors its cultural icons with free museums devoted to beloved songstress Edith Piaf , groundbreaking scientist Marie Curie, and a library of Great French authors from Balzac to Victor Hugo.

Only in Paris

Paris indulges in some utterly French obsessions at the Musée du Fumeur (Museum of Smoking), detailing the cultural history of smoking, and the Musée de La Parfumerie (Museum of Perfume)—basically a corporate shill for Fragonard, but the 19th century distilling apparatus and explanations are pretty fascinating (also: best smelling museum in Paris).

Paris also indulges in self-obsession at the Musée Carnavalet, a museum devoted to the history of Paris itself.

Paris loves its haute couture, but if you thought only A-list celebrities get to watch fashion models strut the catwalks, guess again. The city's big department stores offer 30-minute free fashion shows every week: Fridays at 3pm in Galleries Lafayette (www.galerieslafayette.com), Tuesdays at 10am in Le Printemps (www.printemps.com).   

Parisian panoramas

The steps in front of the Basilica du Sacre Coeur in Monmartre make an excellent spot for taking in sunset over Paris

The steps in front of the Basilica du Sacre Coeur in Montmartre make for an excellent spot to take in the sunset over the city of Paris.

Forget forking over big bucks to see Paris from atop the Eiffel or Montparnasse Towers. Free panoramic perches abound.

I like the views over the Seine and Notre-Dame's flying buttresses from the café terrace atop the funky, post-modernist Institut du Monde Arab.

For sunset, head to the steps of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, buy refreshments from an itinerant beer seller hauling plastic pails full of Heineken, and watch the lights twinkle across the city spread out at your feet.

For more info...

For more info, you can check out the official Paris tourism site (www.parisinfo.com), and the highly informative city site (www.paris.fr).

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in February 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.


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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.