Photograph by Catherine Karnow
Writer Taras Grescoe discovers "the art of being authentically Parisian—the art, that is, of tasting, touching, buying, and eating with an extra touch of finesse" in the March 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler. And even though traipsing around pricey Paris might sound like serious damage to your wallet, not to mention your holiday joie de vivre, that's only if you don't know where to look (and when to go). Indulge in some of the City of Light's sweetest luxuries—gratuit—from hidden nooks of authenticity to world-class museums and sights.
Admission is waived at the Louvre, Mona Lisa's home—and one of the most well-known buildings in the world—the first Sunday of each month as well as Bastille Day (July 14). Guests 25 and under get in free on Friday nights from 6 to 9:45 p.m. (except for exhibitions in the Hall Napoléon). Bear in mind: The Louvre is a popular attraction, and lines on free days are predictably extra long.
Explore the greatest hits of Impressionism at the Musée d'Orsay, a tourist-favorite art museum housed in a former train station facing the Seine, for free on first Sundays (always free for kids under 18). On the top level, navigate the crowds to discover world-class paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, and Matisse.
Centre Pompidou, a gaudy architectural exclamation point designed to look like a building turned inside out first opened in 1977 and reopened in 2000 after an extensive renovation. Free first Sundays for everyone and always for those under 18, the Pompidou Center's huge collection spans the 20th century and is a must-see for contemporary and modern art lovers. Plus, the adjacent square by the quirky Stravinsky Fountain is a dynamic spot to bask in Paris's sprawling cross-section of culture.
France's centenarian department store at Galeries Lafayette holds free weekly fashion shows on the seventh floor.
Paris is teeming with aspiring artists who are more than happy to display their works to you free of charge, both on the streets and in beautiful art galleries. Art lovers need look no further than the streets surrounding major museums, especially in Montmartre and near the Musée Picasso and Centre Pompidou in the Marais. A few highlights: Galerie Yvon Lambert (108 rue Vieille-du-Temple, tel. 33 1 42 71 09 33) for minimalism and conceptual art; and Galerie Maeght (42 rue du Bac, tel. 33 1 45 48 45 15) for more traditional art in St-Germain-des-Près.
Revel in French fashion Fridays at 3 p.m., March through December, on the seventh floor of France's centenarian department store at Galeries Lafayette's weekly free fashion shows. A team of models flaunt the latest high-couture trends during a 30-minute presentation. Reservations required (e-mail email@example.com, tel. 33 1 42 82 36 40).
Just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris exhibits art movements from the 20th and 21st centuries—including Fauvism, cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, abstractionism, and more—in the free permanent collection that boasts works by Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall.
Each first Sunday of the month, Auguste Rodin's famous bronze and marble sculptures, including The Thinker and The Kiss, are on display free of charge at the Musée Rodin in the quiet 18th-century Hôtel Biron and its manicured garden.
The free Musée Cernuschi, in a recently expanded and renovated mansion, houses ancient Asian pottery, jade, bronzes, and more bequeathed to the city of Paris by philanthropist Cernuschi in the late 19th century.
Peruse upper-class fancies from the Age of Enlightenment in the Musée Cognacq-Jay, a private-mansion-turned-free-city-museum in the Marais with a spectacular 18th-century art collection, including works by Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, and Watteau.
Musée Zadkine was the home of Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine from 1928 until his death in 1967. View hundreds of his masterpieces as well as drawings and tapestries in his studio and garden, gratuit, located near the Luxembourg Garden.
Following four years of renovation, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris reopened in 2005 with a new sparkle and better viewing of its huge collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and icons that span the past 20 centuries of European history. Browse works by Delacroix, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Courbet free of charge.
Follow the lovely aroma of handcrafted perfume to a Napoleon III townhouse that houses the Fragonard Museum (also called the Scribe Museum, after the street on which it's located), which chronicles the tradition-steeped history of Fragonard, one of France's most famous perfumeries. Whether you're a perfume-lover or not, the free tour is worthwhile to see the ornate décor.
Musée Dapper offers free admission on the final Wednesday of the month. View Sub-Saharan African carved wooden masks—said to have influenced Pablo Picasso—in this museum northeast of Place Victor Hugo (always free for under 18s).
Musée National du Moyen Âge (Thermes & Hotel de Cluny) is housed in two Parisian monuments, the Gallo-Roman baths and the Gothic Cluny Abbey. The collection, which is available for exploration free each first Sunday (and always for those under 18), provides a look at art and history from the Middle Ages, with rare textiles, ivory, sculptures, and stained glass, including "The Lady and the Unicorn," a famous series of tapestries from the late 15th century. The museum gardens are split into a unicorn forest, medicinal herb garden, and the "thousand flower carpet."
The National Museum of Asian Art-Guimet, France's premier Asian art collection, is devoted to sculptures, paintings, and religious artifacts from Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, Cambodia, China, Japan, and Korea. Admission is free every day as part of a six-month free trial period that started January 1; closed Tuesdays. Plus, the museum's Buddhist Pantheon, which houses pieces collected in 1876 by industrialist Emile Guimet from his travels in Japan, is always free and has a tranquil Japanese garden.
Scaling the Eiffel Tower, Paris's most famous icon, has a price, but the view from below is spectacular in its own right, and a perfect backdrop to a leisurely picnic in the surrounding grassy area. Be sure to visit the tower at night when it sparkles each hour with an awe-inspiring ten-minute display of 20,000 glittering white lights.
Cinching Paris in the midsection is the Seine River, which divides the city into the Left and Right Banks. For true romance, slowly stroll the riverbank; for quirky souvenirs, browse the book stalls that line the Left Bank on street-level.
Notre Dame Cathedral (6 Parvis Notre Dame, Place Jean-Paul II, tel. 33 1 42 34 56 10) is the historic heart of Paris. All distances from Paris to elsewhere in France are measured from the square in front of the basilica. Snap a photo of your feet planted on the plaque at point zero before entering the cathedral, the masterpiece of French Gothic architecture and one of the most-visited sites in Paris (no admission charged). Be sure to walk the perimeter to glimpse the flying buttresses that support the structure as well as the famous gargoyles. On each first Sunday from October through March there's no fee charged to climb the 387 steps of the North Tower.
Tucked behind the walls of the Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité, the awe-inspiring Gothic Sainte-Chapelle's walls consist of 15 exquisite panels of stained glass and a large rose window. Admission waived on the first Sunday of the month from November through March and always for kids under 18.
In the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur basilica and near where Picasso lived and worked, Montmartre's Place du Tertre square is a lively spectacle teeming with aspiring artists selling souvenir-ready artwork and drawing tourists' portraits.
Pay your respects to the late Princess Diana near the site of her tragic death in the Place d'Alma underpass at the bronze Flame of Liberty (Métro: Alma-Marceau), which was originally placed here in 1987 to symbolize the friendship between France and the U.S.
Criss-cross the Seine River on nearly 40 wooden, metal, and stone bridges, from the 400-year-old Pont Neuf to the eye-shaped steel Simone-de-Beauvoir, a more recent bridge addition.
In the Marais, Paris's impressive Hôtel de Ville (City Hall, 29 rue de Rivoli, tel. 33 1 42 76 43 43) features a fountain-laden square and free admission. Much of the grandiose building is off-limits for security reasons, but Parisian exhibits and free information are available in the lobby.
See the city from the Promenade Plantée, an elevated railway viaduct leading east from near the Bastille, which is one of the few such linear parks in the world. Steps along the path lead to tiny parks and arcades with public art, people playing sports, and gardens.
Located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, the domed Panthéon was commissioned by Louis XV in the 18th century as a church, but the landmark was converted into a secular mausoleum dedicated to the great men of the French liberation and is known best for its dark marble interior and Corinthian columns. Admission is free first Sundays October through March.
Victor Hugo lived at the Place des Vosges's Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée for 16 years (1832-1848) and wrote many of his works here, including much of his epic novel, Les Misérables. Examine manuscripts and first editions at the Maison de Victor Hugo and tour his apartment, which chronicles his life before, during, and after exile. Admission is always free.
Scientist Marie Curie's famous laboratory, where she worked from 1914 until her death in 1934, has been meticulously restored as the Musée Curie. It contains original furnishings, instruments, and the Nobel prizes garnered by Curie and her colleagues. Open to the public free of charge.
Explore the history, photographs, and artifacts from the French Résistance and Liberation of Paris and witness an audiovisual presentation of the lives of Marshal Leclerc and Jean Moulin, French icons of World War II, at the Memorial du Marechal Leclerc de Hauteclocque–Musée Jean Moulin in Montparnasse.
Artist Antoine Bourdelle's Montparnasse house, garden, and workshop now showcase his belle époque bronzes, sculptures, paintings, and drawings at the Musée Bourdelle. The permanent collection is always free.
Patrol the myriad open-air food, flower, and flea markets scattered throughout Paris, and don't miss one of the city's most impressive flea markets, the Marché aux Puces, in the northern suburb of Saint-Ouen.
Navigate the countless neighborhoods of Paris's 20 arrondissements for a true sense of the city's eclectic culture, from Montmartre to the Latin Quarter and the Marais, the Canal St-Martin, St-Germaine-des-Près, and more.
Window shop—or as the French say, lèche-vitrines (literally "window-lick")—on Avenue Montaigne and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, one of the city's priciest streets, for a glimpse of the tony Paris featured in many movies.
Relish the peaceful vantage point of the Eiffel Tower from the garden at Maison de Balzac, the home of 19th-century writer Honoré de Balzac, author of the well-known work "La Comédie Humaine." The permanent collection always welcomes guests free of charge to view Balzac's manuscripts and works.
Established in 1530 by King Francois I to teach secular subjects not offered at the Sorbonne, the Collège de France offers seminars and lectures for free. Topics include mathematics, physical and natural sciences, philosophy, sociology, history, and archaeology.
Since opening in 1880, the Musée Carnavalet–Musée de l'Histoire de Paris, housed in two adjoining mansions, have chronicled Paris's history from its birth to modern times. Examine medieval and Revolution-era artifacts and ornate objets d'art from lux homes through the centuries. Plus, check out Napoleon memorabilia, like his cradle and canoe. Admission to the permanent collection is always free.
Blow off steam in one of the city's public parks, where grassy knolls are sprinkled with playgrounds and carousels, like the Park André Citroën, Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, Square Willette (in front of Sacre-Coeur), and Jardin des Plantes.
Le Petit Ney (10 avenue de la Porte Montmartre, tel. 33 1 42 62 00 00), a literary café in Montmartre, organizes a board-game night the first Saturday of the month starting at 7 p.m. Most games are for teenagers and adults, but they always have something appropriate for little tykes as well. No cover charge.
Stretching south from the city's far northeastern corner, the Parc de la Villette (211 av. Jean Jaurès, tel. 33 1 40 03 75 75), an 86.5-acre (35-hectare) park, is the city's largest open green space. Split by the Canal de l'Ourcq and featuring shady walkways, red pavilions, and several themed gardens and playgrounds, the spot is filled with kid-friendly attractions, such as the Dragon Garden (complete with a dragon slide). In the summer, free movie screenings take place in the park.
Le Grenier (152 rue Oberkampf , tel. 33 1 48 05 13 52) serves complimentary couscous Saturday nights from September to April starting at 7 p.m. in an inviting setting with live pop and jazz manouche music.
Le Tribal Cafe (3 cour des Petites Ecuries, tel. 33 1 47 70 57 08) offers a choice of free moules frites (Wednesdays and Thursdays) or chicken couscous (Fridays and Saturdays) to a lively crowd that spans the generations.
Enjoy free couscous after 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays at La Chôpe du Château Rouge (40 rue de Clignancourt, tel. 33 1 46 06 20 10), a popular neighborhood joint in Montmartre.
For more than 20 years Les Trois Frères (14, rue Léon, tel. 33 1 42 64 91 73) has been a popular local spot, in part because of its free and tasty couscous on Thursday nights and oriental soup on Sunday nights.
Le Taïs (129 boulevard de Ménilmontant, tel. 33 1 43 55 67 90) provides free couscous on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Watch for the annual week of wine- and food-tasting parties—many of which are free—usually in late November, hosted by Le Fooding, a local group dedicated to putting the "feeling" back in French gastronomy.
Marché des Producteurs de Pays in the village of St-Paul in the Marais district is a market that sells cheese, nuts, mushrooms, wine, oysters, and more—and, in many cases, offers free tastings.
Near the Sorbonne, enjoy a free cup of coffee or tea with maple syrup while you peruse the Abbey Bookshop, filled with used books from Canadian authors in both French and English.
Held yearly the second weekend in October, the free Harvest Festival of Montmartre (tel. 33 1 46 06 00 32) celebrates the district's distinction as the only wine-growing part of Paris with tastings, grape-stomping, fireworks, concerts, and a parade.
Taste artisanal olive oil at BE (BoulangÉpicier, 73 blvd. de Courcelles, tel. 33 1 46 22 20 20), a tiny bakery and grocery store in the 8th arrondissement that offers free samples.
Muster your courage and channel your inner poet by reciting a poem or text on stage for a free drink on special nights at L'Atelier du Plateau (5 rue du Plateau, tel. 33 1 42 41 28 22); L'Abracadabar (123 av. Jean-Jaurès, tel. 33 1 42 03 18 04); and on the first Tuesday of each month at L'Entrepôt (7-9 rue Francis de Pressensé, tel. 33 1 45 40 07 50).
Plot your path through the Père-Lachaise Cemetery with the online virtual tour of the graveyard's celebrity residents, from Oscar Wilde's lipstick-smudged grave to Jim Morrison's modest plot.
Established in 1798, the Montmartre Cemetery (20 av. Rachel, tel. 33 1 53 42 36 30) hosts the graves of artist Edgar Degas, film director Francois Truffaut, and many more. Pick up a free map near the entrance.
Walk through Montparnasse Cemetery (3 blvd. Edgar Quinet, tel. 33 1 44 10 86 50), established in the 1700s, and wend your way past the final resting places of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Simone de Beauvoir, and car maker André Citroën. Free maps are available at the main entrance.
Unusually informal by Parisian standards, the quaint Parc Monceau is filled with shady walks overgrown with vines and features the "Naumacherie," a well-known pond flanked by a Corinthian colonnade.
Filling the 63 acres (25 hectares) between the Louvre and the place de la Concorde, the formal and well-manicured Jardin des Tuileries was originally commissioned by Catherine de Medici.
The sprawling grounds of Jardin du Luxembourg, a landscaped garden in the Latin Quarter in the 6th arrondissement, features an 1861 Medicis fountain, several 19th-century statues, and locals relaxing on pleasant afternoons.
In the Marais, Place des Vosges, the city's oldest square, is surrounded by brick and stone houses and offers respite from the busy streets with bubbling fountains and a perfectly manicured square of grassy space.
Grab a free copy of the bicycling map, "Carte Vélo à Paris," at any tourism office and most bike rental agencies. The map provides help in navigating the city's maze of bike lanes and establishing the most scenic routes.
Paris Rando Velo leads free Friday night bike tours of the city, meeting at 9:30 p.m. in front of the Hotel de Ville. Each ride lasts from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The group also hosts similar rides on the third Sunday of the month at 10:30 a.m.
Pari Roller leads Friday Night Fever Skate tours of the city, starting at 10 p.m. at Place Raoul Dautry. The route for the three-hour ride changes each week but is always roughly 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) long.
Each July and August, sand is dumped onto the banks of the Seine River to create the Paris Plage, a makeshift beach for lounging, picnicking, and meeting other beachgoers (though no swimming is allowed in the river).
Glide around the temporary ice-skating rinks set up at the Hotel de Ville and the Gare Montparnasse each winter. Though admission is free, a fee is charged for skate rentals.
For more than a decade, Quai Saint-Bernard has been home to a spontaneous, albeit recurring, pleine air dance party in the warm months starting around 7 p.m. weekdays and 5 p.m. weekends.
Open for 60 years, the Latin Quarter jazz club Caveau de la Huchette (5 rue de la Huchette, tel. 33 1 43 26 65 05) turns into a free dance floor Thursday through Saturday nights starting at 2:30 a.m.
The Gothic Notre Dame cathedral (tel. 33 1 42 34 56 10) pulls out the stops for free organ recitals Sundays at 4:30 p.m. in a storybook setting.
Attend an hour-long choir rehearsal each Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m. at Sacré-Coeur ( 33 1 53 41 89 00) on the highest point in Paris.
Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse (209 av. Jean-Jaurès; tel. 33 1 40 40 46 46.), the city's prestigious music conservatory, located near the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement, offers more than 300 student concerts yearly, most of which are free. Concerts span chamber music from the Middle Ages to contemporary jazz.
When the Louvre was a royal palace, the Gothic Église St-Germain-l'Auxerrois (2 Place du Louvre, tel. 33 1 42 60 13 96) was its church. Enjoy free hour-long bell-ringing concerts each Wednesdays at 2 p.m.
Next to the Centre Pompidou, St-Merry Church (78 Rue St-Martin, 4th, tel. 33 1 42 74 59 39) hosts complimentary classical, baroque, and gospel concerts by up-and-coming talent each Saturday night at 9 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. (September through July). Donations are collected.
The American Church in Paris offers classical music and blues concerts free of charge Sundays at 5 p.m. as part of the church's Atelier Concert Series from September to November and January to June. A freewill offering is taken at the door to support the series.
Each Thursday at 12:45, sacred and classical music concerts are free and open to the public at l'Église de la Trinité (Place d'Estienne d'Orves, tel. 33 1 48 74 12 77). Following the performance, rub shoulders with the musicians at the after-concert coffee hour.
Radio France gives 180 free concerts a year (mostly on Saturdays) by national and philharmonic orchestras and choirs, including weekly chamber music concerts at the Petit Palais auditorium in the Museum of Fine Arts of the City of Paris (116 av. du Président Wilson, tel. 33 1 56 40 15 16) from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Free tickets are handed out 30 minutes beforehand. Twice monthly, Radio France allows free admission to recordings of mini-concerts for the program called La Bande Passante, alternating between the club venues Le Tryptique and La Flèche d'Or.
Hundreds of musicians take to the streets, bars, and cafés of Paris for La Fête de la Musique (tel. 33 1 56 40 16 43) each June 21 at sundown for a free-for-all music fest featuring jazz, rock, hip-hop, electronica, and more.
Glimpse the local jazz scene every Monday night at 7 Lézards (tel. 33 1 48 87 0897), a basement jazz club in the Marais where the house band performs without a cover charge.
For More Information
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.