Photograph by Robert Harding World Imagery, Alamy
Traipsing around pricey Paris might sound like serious damage to your wallet, but 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 for the permanent collections at the Louvre, Mona Lisa's home—and one of the most well-known buildings in the world—the first Sunday of each month, from October to March. Guests age 25 and under get in free on Friday nights from 6 to 9:45 p.m. (except for exhibitions in the Hall Napoléon), and visitors 18 and under always get in free. 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 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 free for those under 18, the Centre Pompidou'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.
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. Try Galerie Yvon Lambert for minimalism and conceptual art.
Revel in French fashion Mondays and Fridays at 3 p.m., March through December, at free fashion shows on the seventh floor of France's centenarian department store, Galeries Lafayette. A team of models flaunts 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 Henri 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, gratuit, hundreds of his masterpieces, as well as drawings and tapestries in his studio and garden, located near the Luxembourg Garden.
Admission to the permanent exhibitions at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris is free. The museum has a huge collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and icons that spans the past 20 centuries of European history. Browse works by Delacroix, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Courbet free of charge.
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 those under 18).
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 ivory, sculptures, stained glass, and textiles, 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 Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-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 the first Sunday of each month (always free for those 18 and under).
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 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.
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 sketching 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.
Crisscross 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 addition.
In the Marais, Paris's impressive Hôtel de Ville 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—one of the few such linear parks in the world—leading east from near the Bastille. 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 as a church by Louis XV in the 18th century, 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 November 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 Maisons de Victor Hugo and tour his apartment, which chronicles his life before, during, and after exile. Admission to the permanent collections 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.
Artist Antoine Bourdelle's Montparnasse house, garden, and workshop now showcase his belle epoque 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, faire du 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 symposiums and lectures for free, many in English. Topics include mathematics, physical and natural sciences, philosophy, sociology, history, and archaeology.
Since opening in 1880, the Musée Carnavalet, housed in two adjoining mansions, has chronicled Paris's history from its birth to modern times. Examine medieval and Revolution-era artifacts and ornate objets d'art from luxe 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. Kids especially love the rambling Parc-des Buttes Chaumont in northeast Paris, which features caves and waterfalls.
Le Petit Ney, a literary café in Montmartre, organizes board game sessions throughout the week. 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, an 86.5-acre park, is one of the city's largest open green spaces. 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.
Some restaurants in Paris offer patrons a free meal, typically mussels or couscous, presuming they buy a drink.
Le Grenier serves complimentary couscous Friday and Saturday nights from September to April starting at 7:30 p.m. in an inviting setting with live pop and jazz manouche music.
Le Tribal Café 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, a popular neighborhood joint in Montmartre.
For more than 20 years Les Trois Frères has been a popular local spot, in part because of its free and tasty couscous on Thursday nights and free soup on Sunday nights.
Italian restaurant and bar Delizie, near the Butte Montmartre, serves antipasto to customers who order an Italian aperitif, Tuesday to Saturday starting at 6 p.m.
Held yearly the second weekend in October, the free Harvest Festival of Montmartre celebrates the district's distinction as the only wine-growing part of Paris and features tastings, grape stomping, fireworks, concerts, and a parade.
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 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, established in the 1700s, and wend your way past the final resting places of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Simone de Beauvoir, and automaker 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 the 1861 Medici 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.
Paris Rando Vélo 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 long.
Each July and August, sand is dumped onto the banks of the Seine River to create the Paris Plages, 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 on evenings in July and August.
The Gothic Notre Dame cathedral pulls out the stops for free organ recitals Sundays at 4:30 p.m. in a storybook setting.
Attend an hourlong choir rehearsal each Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m. at Sacré-Coeur, on the highest point in Paris.
Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse, the city's prestigious music conservatory, located near the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement, offers free student concerts several times a week. Tickets and reservations are still required for some events. Concerts span genres, from medieval chamber music to contemporary jazz.
Next to the Centre Pompidou, St.-Merri Church 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 free-will offering is taken at the door to support the series.
Each June 21 at sundown, hundreds of musicians take to the streets, bars, and cafés of Paris for La Fête de la Musique, 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, a basement jazz club in the Marais where the house band performs without a cover charge.
For More Information
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Show us your best photos of nature, cities, and people from your travels around the world.