Between the Michelin-starred restaurants (Paris has a galaxy of stars) and the Goyard bag you’re drooling over in the shop window on Rue Saint-Honoré, the City of Light can cost a pretty penny. But – take it from a local – the French capital isn’t just about haute cuisine and contemporary couture. (A simple baguette, steaming hot from the boulangerie, slathered in butter, could make you think you'd died and gone to heaven.)
Paris is famously a city of flâneurs, "connoisseurs of the street," who have perfected the art of strolling. Just walking in Paris is its own entertainment. Who knows what unique boutique, fabulous façade painted with street art, music concert, or hidden garden lurks around the next corner? No matter what time of year you’re visiting Paris – whether during summer’s pop-up beach on the Seine or December’s festive light displays – here are some cheap things to see and do while pounding the cobblestones.
The Original High-Line
Sixteen years before New York City opened its now famous High-Line – the pedestrian park perched on the old elevated train tracks in Chelsea – Paris had its Promenade Plantée. Also called the Coulée Verte, this walkway is lush with gardens, fragrant with lavender. Starting near the Bastille, the Promenade also provides a neat urban perspective; as you stroll along the path, you are face to face with historic buildings, so you can see architecture in detail (like the sculptures carved into Haussmann facades) and voyeuristically peek into Parisians’ windows, Amélie-style. In the archways beneath the brick viaduct, a series of artisan’s boutiques welcome visitors. After following the path for three miles, you’ll end up at the Péripherique near the Bois de Vincennes.
You don’t have to stand in line at the Eiffel Tower, or brave the crowds on the steps of Montmartre, to find incredible panoramas of Paris. One of my favorite ways to get an aerial perspective is to hop on the escalator at the Centre Pompidou. (Considered an eye sore when it first opened, the now-beloved modern art museum has an "inside-out" design, with its escalator tubes and utility pipes placed on the building’s colorful exterior.) You don’t have to buy museum entry; just snag the "Panorama" ticket that costs three euros (about $4).
Newly open this summer after a big renovation, the Saint Jacques Tower near the Hotel de Ville welcomes small groups (17 people) from Friday–Sunday. Dating from the early 16th century, the limestone tower was once part of a church, and its Gothic decorative elements remain. After climbing 300 steps, visitors are privy to beautiful cityscapes – encompassing the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Sacre Coeur. In fact, its city-center location means you get 360 degree views.
On the Left Bank, the Institut du Monde Arabe also has a fabulous rooftop terrace overlooking the Seine. And, a quick stroll east along the river will bring you to Les Docks, a neon green structure that houses the Cité de la Mode et du Design, along with an impressive rooftop terrace planted with palms. It’s free to check out Les Docks, though you may be tempted to sit down for an aperitif at one of the trendy cafes.
Paris museums (like the Louvre, the world's most popular) are cultural landmarks in their own right. But trying to see all of them can get pricey. If you’re a culture vulture, the Paris Museum Pass can be a cost-effective way to see multiple museums, with the added bonus that you get to skip the lines. Two-, four-, and six-day options are available, with free and direct access to more than 60 museums, starting from 39 euros (about $52).
Another tip: The first Sunday of the month means free entry to most Paris museums. Plus, the Rodin Museum allows access to its garden – dotted with the sculptor’s works – for just one euro (about $1.30).