Budgeting Paris: The City of Lights on a near-empty wallet

After touring numerous cities in Belgium and Germany, I had five days left to see Paris.

On top of the narrow time frame, I was also running low on money. How to proceed?

Fortunately, I like to wander around on foot—this is a nice, budget-friendly activity. But I also like history and art. And when it comes to these two things, Paris can empty your wallet rather quickly.

Yet if you plan ahead and study the maps, you’ll find a large selection of parks, flea markets, gardens, free museums, and affordable galleries that can be reached with a metro ride.

Here are some highlights of my penny-pinching adventure:

1) MIJE - Maison Internationale de la jeunesse et des étudiants

(Metro: St. Paul or Hôtel de Ville)

Paris MIJE courtyard

Although this is not the cheapest hostel in Paris, it offers clean, budget accommodation in a central location(with free breakfast!). This company operates three 17th-century buildings in the 4th arrondissement. They specialize in accommodating larger groups (especially youth or schoolchildren), but also welcome individual travellers. I was put up in a dorm room for 7 people, and I paid €28/night in 2007 (the current website says €32 or €33,50, depending on the time of year). Private rooms are also available for a higher price.

I stayed at their building on 6 rue de Fourcy, and one of my personal highlights was the spacious courtyard. The tables provided a good place to sit when I needed to go through my maps. I recall the breakfast being couple of small croissants, a baguette and hot chocolate—no feast, but a decent way to start the day. Be forewarned: some guests have been made to switch rooms or buildings throughout their visit. Fortunately, this never happened to me.

2) Puces de Montreuil flea market

(Metro: Porte de Montreuil, Sat-Mon 7am-7pm)

Ontario market

Although I’m not a big shopper, I appreciate the eye-candy of open-air markets. So I ventured out to the 20th arrondissement to check out the large flea market at Porte de Montreuil.

Getting off the metro, I didn’t see anything at first. After a short walk, I spotted some seemingly random men on the sidewalk selling items on blankets—shoes, books, and other knick-knacks. Soon enough, the “trail” of these vendors became more defined, and it eventually led me into to the actual marketplace—a sea of stalls and people.

The vendors were hawking a variety of stuff, but mainly clothing, jewellery and household items. I noticed other people were haggling; so I zeroed in on interesting necklace and ended up getting it for a pretty cheap price.

Based on the languages being spoken, you could tell that the vendors and clients represented a significant cross-section of Paris’s immigrant population. Indeed, diversity is said to be a distinguishing feature of the Montreuil flea market—especially when compared with its more established counterpart, Puces de Clignancourt. Overall, this is a great way to see a lesser-known area of the city.

3) Cemeteries

Montparnasse (Metro: Raspail)
Père Lachaise (Metro: Gambetta, Père Lachaise, or Philippe-Auguste)

Père Lachaise

Parisian cemeteries –especially Père Lachaise—are already well-known throughout the world. But as a free activity, I can’t stress enough how much there is to see in one visit. This goes beyond the standard landmarks of Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and Jim Morrison (whose graves are so well-known to non-French visitors).

Beginning with Montparnasse: I initially went there as a joke. My plan was to take a picture of Jean Paul de Sartre’s grave and give it to my friend in Canada (who is a Sartre fan). I approached the entrance booth and asked for the dead philosopher’s whereabouts. I was surprised when the attendant handed me a free map with not only Sartre’s coordinates, but also a long list of writers, artists, and other people of interest.

Thus, my walk at Montparnasse turned into a fun scavenger hunt for playwrights and musicians. “Turn this way, and I’ll find Samuel Beckett. Oh, wait, there’s Eugene Ionesco to the right! And I’ll swing by Serge Gainsbourg while I’m here…”

When I eventually arrived at Pere Lachaise, I realized I wasn’t just paying homage to a bunch of deceased famous people. The place was like a free sculpture garden. As a Canadian, I’m accustomed to cemeteries having a rolling, grassy look. But Père Lachaise is dominated by tall (yet beautifully carved) stone figures staring down at you.

A note about visiting: I got there at 9 a.m. and had a peaceful walk, thinking I was one of the only people in the cemetery. It wasn’t until I got back to the entrance (around noon) that I noticed the audible din of tourists; so if you want to feel like you’re in a “place of rest,” go at opening time.

4) Maison Europeene de Photographie

(5-7 Rue de Fourcy. Metro: St. Paul, Point-Marie, or Hotel de Ville)

Lee Friedlander

This gallery is extremely easy to visit if you’re staying at MIJE—it’s right across the street from the latter’s Fourcy location. In my case, all I had to do was cross the road.

Rather than a permanent, ongoing exhibit, the gallery mounts rotating exhibits each year, each lasting roughly two months and displaying different artists each time. Although I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw in 2007, it would have been completely different than what’s showing now—so be sure to check the website if you want a preview before going.

At the time, I was able to get in for €3 with my student card. These days, regular admission is €8; but you can still pay the reduced fee (€4,50) if you’re a student, senior, under 26, etc. Also, admission is free every Wednesday from 5 to 8pm.

5) Jardin des Plantes

(Metro: Austerlitz or Jussieu)

Jardin des Plantes Paris

Located in the 5th arrondissement, this garden was developed in the 1600s (under Louis XIII) for growing medicinal plants.

Now managed by the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Museum of Natural History), the garden runs educational programs and shares the grounds with some greenhouses and a zoo. Although the latter two (and museum) require an admission fee, the garden itself is free.

I came across it after several hours of walking in the city, and it was a great place to rest for a while. Since it now exists for botanical purposes, most of the plants are labelled; and I saw a lot of really cool trees that I’ve never seen in Canada.

I think the overall appearance of the grounds depends on what time of year you go. I’ve heard that it can be rather bare in early spring; but I was there in August, and there was lot’s to look at (though some of the plants looked like they needed water).

If you’re not into gardens, this is still a great place to relax if you’ve been on the pavement all day. And bathrooms are available! During my visit, I used the paid toilet on the garden grounds; but I have since found out that some visitors use the free washroom in the nearby Museum of Natural History.

6) Musée de la Préfecture de Police

(Metro : Maubert-Mutualité)

Musée de la Préfecture de Police

Paris has numerous museums that offer free admission to their permanent collections, or free entry all year around. Among others, these include Musée d’Art Moderne, Maison de Balzac, Musée Curie-Institut de Radium, and Musée de la Préfecture de Police.

I chose the Musée de la Préfecture de Police (Paris Police Museum) in the 5th arrondissement. I have a friend who works for the RCMP, and I thought it would be fun to get a souvenir of the Paris police for him.

I was surprised when I walked in. This museum is on the second floor of an actual police station, and you have to walk through part of the station to get there. Plus, there is no souvenir shop (I can now appreciate how commercialized the Canadian Mounties are…).

Contrary to most other museums in Paris, this one seems to be frequented mainly by French visitors; I think I was the only North American.

Despite standing out in the crowd, I enjoyed my visit. This museum would appeal to anyone interested in history or politics. The write-ups explain the police’s involvement in key moments of French history from the 17th century to the present. This includes events that non-French travellers would be familiar with (e.g., WWII). Visitors can also look at police notes from well-known criminal cases.

Most of the write-ups are in French; but non-French speakers could probably appreciate the displays of weapons, uniforms, and… a guillotine blade!


On the last day of my trip, I was about to enter the RER to Charles de Gaulle Airport, when I turned my head and noticed a tall building in the distance, sticking out of the skyline. The Eiffel Tower.

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that thing.”

I shrugged it off. I’m from Toronto; our tower is bigger. And besides, I never go there anyway.