Free Things to do in Paris

Paris is the fifth most visited city in the world, and it’s not too difficult to see why when you think of the history, architecture, culture, cuisine and fashion that abounds there. Unfortunately, all those visitors and all those wonderful things that make it so worth visiting mean the prices can get pretty steep. But if you’re poor in Paris, like me, don’t worry! There’s still plenty to see and do, especially if you’re there in warmer months.

If you’re an EU resident under the age of 26 – and please note that if you hold a long-term visa, such as a student or working visa, you count as a resident – you’re especially in luck, thanks to the Parisian tourist board’s generous decision to grant free access to many of its monuments and museums, and there’s a whole new gamut of options available to you.

Monuments – to look at

To get an idea of why people rave about the monuments and architecture in Paris, it suffices to go glance at a few of the most impressive examples. Most of these can be entered upon paying a fee but you can admire them from the outside quite freely.

Opèra Garnier (Academie Nationale de la Musique) – Metro lines 3, 7 Opèra
Built between 1861 and 1875 by Charles Garnier, this magnificent Italian-style building is still used for performances as well as hosting a museum. Walk down the Avenue de l’Opèra to gaze at beautiful things you can’t afford and to get yourself an excellent view of the dome, which can’t be seen if you’re standing right in front of it.

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The Panthèon – Metro line 10, Maubert-Mutualité or Cardinal Lemoine
Intended to be a church, this temple-like building in the Greek style is now an enormous state mausoleum, housing the remains of numerous important French citizens such as Balzac and Voltaire. 

Arc de Triomphe – Metro line 2, Kleber or line 1, George V
Arguably one of the most well-known sights of the city, the Arc de Triomphe features an observation deck at its summit, a small collection focused on the Revolution, and many, many stairs. It’s visible the length of the Champs-Elysées, a street filled with big brand names, from Mango to Louis Vuitton. Hop off line 1 earlier, at George-Clemenceau, to peek at the Petit Palais and Grand Palais and approach the Arc from there. 

The Eiffel Tower – Metro line 8, Ecole Militaire, line 6 or 9, Trocadéro, or line 6, Bir-Hakeim
It’s almost impossible to spend any time in Paris without catching a glimpse of its most iconic tower, but it’s worth seeing up close nonetheless. Originally a temporary installation for the World Fair of 188, held in Paris, this striking work of Gustav Eiffel is now the top most visited monument in the world. 

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Monuments – to go inside

Thankfully, there’s quite a number of famous things to visit which are free to enter – generally because they’re churches or cemeteries. Just because you might not be a fan of Christianity, though, don’t skip these fabulous examples of decoration and architecture, and let yourself be lost in imagining the history behind them.

Notre-Dame de Paris – Metro line 4, Cité
Generally considered the first major example of Gothic architecture, this astoundingly ornate cathedral was finished in 1250 after more than 100 years work and 3 different architects. It’s free to enter, but be prepared to queue – fortunately, the lines usually move quickly. To get away from the bustle of other tourists, walk round to the back to admire its buttresses and gargoyles in relative peace in the small park there.

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Sacre-Coeur – Metro line 2, Anvers or line 12, Abbesses 
Visible upon its hill from many vantage-points within the city, the pale white walls of the Sacre-Coeur look down upon the Square Louise-Michel, a grassy slope filled to bursting with tourists and locals soaking up sunshine when they get the chance. Consecrated in 1919, this surprisingly modern church is set apart from others in Paris both by its imposing location and Romano-Byzantine inspiration.

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La Madeleine – Metro lines 12 or 14, Madeleine
Another demonstration of the mania for Greek-inspired architecture around in the 19th century, this huge church from 1842 is rarely crowded despite its gorgeous interior. Used today for religious services as well as musical performances, thanks to its excellent acoustics, the Madeleine has played host to the funeral of celebrated pianist Chopin.

Père Lachaise Cemetery – Metro line 2, Père Lachaise or line 3, Gambetta
Possibly the most famous of all the Parisian cemeteries, this burial-ground has been accepting bodies since 1804 but is now most known for its abundance of famous graves. Check out the final resting places of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among others, or just appreciate the excessive ornamentation of some of the tombs. 

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Parks

If the sun’s out, so are the Parisians! Even if it’s a pale kind of light, and the air is yet chilly, they’ll be availing themselves of the multitude of public parks within in the city, and so should you be. There’s plenty of them to be discovered, but a few stand out from the rest.

Parc Monceau – Metro line 2, Monceau
This large park features a number of old-fashioned ‘follies’ – bizarre structures built purely for the sake of making the place more interesting – dating from the late 18th century. Unlike many of the kept parks in Paris, you can throw yourself down on the grass to picnic, read or sunbathe. 

Jardins de Luxembourg – Metro line 4, Odèon or Saint-Sulplice 
Probably the most well known of Paris’ public parks, the gardens surrounding the Palais de Luxembourg are ‘à la francaise’, which means your seating choice is limited to the ubiquitous green metal chairs laid out for that specific use, despite the strips of fresh green grass. Feel free, though, to move the chairs anywhere you want, whether that’s arranging a circle of your friends or dragging it close up to the large basin where children sail toy boats on the water in summertime. 

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The Jardins de Luxembourg are particularly worth visiting in the warmer months, when all kinds of flowers and potted trees are distributed round the grounds.

Parc de Buttes-Chaumont – Metro line 7 bis, Buttes-Chaumont
A huge park incorporating several slopes and hills within its boundaries, Buttes-Chaumont is entirely artificial – used as a rubbish dump until halfway through the 19th century, major landscaping was required to form the ‘buttes’ (slopes), grottoes, lake and small mountain that today form such a delightful getaway from the busyness of city life. Even on nice days, the park doesn’t feel nearly as crowded as those closer to the city centre, due both to its location and superior size. 

 

 

 

 

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The Latin Quarter (5th arrondissement)

Perfect for those with more time than money, especially if you’re eligible for free entry into museums and monuments, the Latin Quarter is generally considered the domain of students, hosting as it does the original university of Paris, the Sorbonne. 

Hop off the Metro at Saint Michel (line 4) to start exploring the Latin Quarter’s twisting streets. Taking the ( ) sortie, you’ll find a small labyrinth of narrow streets that seem to host nothing but tourist restaurants offering shockingly cheap 3 course menus, kebab stores and the occasional window of a crêpe store. Skip the restaurants unless you’re desperate for a very tiny serve of bouef bourguignon; if you really need to grab some energy before starting your adventure, pay a visit at Crêperie Genia to take advantage of their super-cheap formule – one savoury crepe or panini, one sweet crepe and a drink for 5 euros or less. If books are your thing, walk straight down rue de la Huchette and cross the road to find the world-famous bookstore and its attached café, Shakespeare and Co. In any case, continue down rue Saint-Jacques, perhaps with a quick detour to see Eglise Saint-Severin and eventually you’ll reach Boulevard Saint-Germain.

To the right, there’s the Musee de Cluny, the national museum of the Middle Ages. It’s mostly housed in a hotel particulier with foundations from the 14th century, and is partially built on the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse. It’s free to EU residents under 26, and known for its tapestry collection La Dame et la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn). Continuing straight ahead, though, you’ll pass by the Universite Paris-Sorbonne and arrive at rue Soufflot, from which you’ll immediately noticed the impressive dome of the Pantheon. If you avoid being distracted by the beautiful rose-shaped ice creams of Amorino Gelato, which has numerous outlets around the centre of Paris – you may have noticed it in the twisting streets near the Notre Dame, the Pantheon is well worth your time. This imposing state mausoleum built in the late 18th century holds the bones of many a famous name, from Voltaire to Marie Curie to Louis Braille and is free entry to EU residents under 26.

 


If you’re above the age limit and not up for paying entry prices, glance to the left of its stately façade to find the asymmetrical front of 16th century Eglise St-Etienne-de-Mont. Note the intricately carved bridge above the altar, known as a rood loft – it’s the only church remaining in Paris to feature one. There’s also, for those still eager to pay their respects to a tomb or two, the remains of mathematician Blaise Pascal and dramatist Jean Racine.

 

Once you’re done with the church, hop back to the right-hand side of the Pantheon and follow the signs for rue Mouffetard, a haunt of university students jampacked with cafés, boutiques, bars and small restaurants. If you didn’t pick something up at the very start, be sure to try the enormous and excellent value crepes at au P’tit Grec.

At the sight of the large church on your left, take rue Daubenton and follow it faithfully until you find a building that seems a little out of place in Paris: namely, the Oriental-looking tower that signals you’ve arrived at the Grand Mosque. It’s only 3 euros entry fee to visit the beautiful gardens, or you can settle for nibbling on rich honeyed pastries and mint tea in the garden. There’s a full restaurant available, but the oriental cakes are truly delicious.

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Inside the gardens of the Grand Mosque – note that appropriate clothing is required, and you may have to wrap a makeshift skirt around your legs to gain entry!

Once you’ve regained your forces, move your focus to what lies just across the road. You can examine some exotic animals close up at the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (free for young EU residents), or if you prefer your beasts living and breathing, make your way through the delightful Jardin des Plantes to the far left corner, which houses a menagerie you can visit. It’s a gorgeous place to picnic or just soak up the sunshine, and the Grand Serres (greenhouses) in the centre present fascinating mini-ecosystems – if you’re willing to pay the entry fee, you can visit a tiny patch of New Caledonia, the tropics and the desert all in one hour!

Exiting the Jardin des Plantes will leave you facing the Seine, from whence you may choose to stroll along its calm banks or perhaps to cross the Pont d’Austerlitz to get to the 4th or 12th arrondissements.

 

 

On Provins: Gallic roses and the fairs of Champagne

Where and what?

Have you heard of Provins? I hadn’t, unless perhaps it was mentioned in my hearing but, thanks to my still-imperfect grasp of French accents and pronunciation, filed  under references to ‘Provence’. Which may have led to some confusion if we were talking about how to get there, seeing as Provence is in the south of France, about 4 hours by train from Paris, whereas Provins is a mere 1 hour and 25 minutes by the same vehicle.
That’s how I got there, on a beautifully sunny day in late winter that had us all convinced that spring had arrived early (in fact, winter put its bitter claws back into us a week later, so I was intensely glad to have profited from the sunshine).
To start with, let it be said that I wholly recommend the place in general. It’s quite touristy, but in a more quaint and charming way than Paris, and with largely French visitors – although I do my best to harbour no bias to a particular country and the tourists it may produce, it’s still nicest to be surrounded by people of the country you’re actually visiting when you’re sightseeing.
I had the luck to be there on a market day, so even the ‘new’ part of town was bustling with activity as clothes and books and fresh produce spilled abundantly from fold-up tables in the main street while the market hall hosted butchers’ stalls, baked goods and long rows of fish and seafood lying glassy-eyed on their banks of ice cubes. Although Paris has wonderful fresh food markets, I couldn’t help but appreciate the wholesome simplicity of an average small-town Saturday market, free from any pseudo-traditionalism.

What’s there to see?

In terms of sightseeing, I bought a 12 euro Provins Pass which gave me access to everything apparently worth seeing in the old part of town. That includes, specifically, les sousterrains – ‘the underground’ – one-time quarries converted into storage that stretch beneath the town; the town museum, the small fortified tower (la Tour César) and the somewhat kitschy grange aux dimes (tithe barn) which has mocked-up displays of various tradespeople surrounded by their work – weavers, potters, merchants, etc. Each display is accompanied by a short dialogue between the figure and a very conveniently curious 13th century visitor, giving you a basic understanding of the roles the workers played in a medieval context. The audio is easy enough for kids to follow, but still informative enough to be interesting to adults – assuming you don’t happen to be an amateur medieval expert already.

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La Tour César (right) with the dome of St. Quiriace church in background

The town museum is essentially just a collection of oddities related to the area, and reminds me strongly of small-town Aussie museums where they don’t really have enough history in the area to justify a whole museum and try to make up for it by dedicating a room to art-deco bathroom fixtures or some random inhabitant’s family tree. There’s zero coherency to the exhibits, with Neolithic stone fragments displayed beneath a Belle-Epoque era painting of someone-or-other and faced by some wooden Renaissance religious effigies. It seems strange, considering their strong links to medieval history, that there isn’t anything more particularly aimed at vaunting this, but I suspect from the emptiness and lack of information on the displays that this might be due to lack of funding.

A taste of history

The foires de Champagne (Champagne fairs) were 6-8 week long affairs that encompassed practically any and all goods – food, precious metals, livestock, cloth, trinkets, spices, whatever the merchants could find and make a profit on. By decree of Count Thibaut IV de Blois, there were 6 held annually, in 4 different major cities of the region: Troyes, Lagny, Bar-sur-Aube and Provins. The regular influx of visitors served to enrich these host cities, and the authorities began to provide guaranteed, free protection to merchants travelling to the cities in order to ensure that these profitable events continued smoothly. Over the 12th and 13th century, the towns grew in wealth and importance, so it makes sense that is this time from which the major buildings and the town’s fairly extensive ramparts date.
These ramparts, of which more than a kilometre’s length of the original 5km exist, are freely accessible. Following them makes for a pleasant ramble down cobbled roads and grassy lanes, with cultivated fields spreading wide on one side while you gaze over the rooftops of Provins on the other. Being there in the very beginning of spring, I revelled in noticing the first brave blooms of field-flowers along the path, even if the glorious sun that had accompanied me through my visit in the town itself was in the middle of setting.

There’s also plenty of houses from later periods, though, and walking through the town’s cobbled streets provides a reasonably picturesque mix of non-descript buildings that are difficult to place chronologically, and pretty examples of half-timber houses from around the 17th century.

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If you truly fall in love with the town, there’s sure to be a half-timber house like this one currently available for purchase

The rose of Provins (rosa gallica officinalis)

The town is also famous for the Provins rose, supposedly brought back to Europe from the Crusades by the local count, Thibaut IV, the same one who introduced regulations to the Champagne fairs. Also known as the Gallic rose,  the hardy flower was used in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes up until the late Middle Ages – to aid digestion when made into a syrup, relieving sore throats as a candy, and applied to the skin as a lotion. It’s still popular in dozens of different forms today, and you can find anything from rose-flavoured ice cream to coffee to liqueur in the various shops in the old town. Personally, I can recommend every rose product I sampled myself, which is to say: rose petal jam (excellent on waffles), rose ice cream and rose-infused honey!
All things considered, Provins makes a lovely daytrip if you’re in Paris or its environs, and is well worth a stop if you’re just travelling through the area. Particularly for those with children, who tend to be unimpressed by beautiful cities like Paris and much more interested in clambering over some city walls and sampling sugary pink goodness, it provides a fun and wallet-friendly experience of a small French town with a fair bit of interesting history to keep you occupied.
There’s also a number of spectacles, including regular bird of prey shows held on the ramparts, and medieval reenactments involving horses and knights, but as I didn’t bother coming at the right time I can’t proffer an opinion on them. Check out the Provins tourism site for more information!