Cheap Paris: Simon Calder's guide to seeing the City of Light on a budget

The French capital is on just about everyone's must-visit list, but not many people know a holiday here can be très cheap. Simon Calder shares his secrets for a bon time on a budget

Simon Calder
Tuesday 18 October 2016 09:41
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How to travel Paris on the cheap

Even with the puny pound, there has never been a better time to visit Paris. The appalling attacks in the French capital last November have diminished demand. As a result, the enlightened opportunist can take advantage of fares that are lower than ever, excellent rooms at bargain prices and some of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures without the crowds.

To help stretch your holiday cash, take advantage of these top tips.

Stay for less

Have a look online to get an idea of hotel prices, but in the present buyers’ market there is space for negotiation. At 6pm, when hoteliers will know how many empty rooms they have that night, choose a smaller, non-chain property, and ask politely for the best price for that night. At the smart Hôtel Garden Saint Martin (00 33 1 42 40 17 72; hotel-parisgardensaintmartin.com), close to the Canal St-Martin and the Gare de l’Est at 35 rue Yves Toudic, the online rate of €100 for a single room and bumper breakfast buffet tumbled to €70 when I asked, nicely and in person, for a discount.

The Vélib' cycle scheme is the cheapest way to get around Paris

Economic cycle

For less than the €1.90 price of a single Metro ticket, you can get use of bikes all day with the Vélib’ scheme. The French capital outshines London, with 24,000 sturdy bicycles stabled in 1,800 bike stations — the aim is that you should never be 300m away from one. The registration process is a bit of a faff (and requires a credit card), but once you have paid your €1.70 you can get unlimited rentals; just make sure that none is longer than 30 minutes (there is a five-minute spell before you can rent another). You can speed things up by registering at velib.paris in advance, for a date/time in the future.

Bus deal

Rather than taking one of the many sightseeing buses, step aboard the number 42 at Gare du Nord and, for a €1.90 fare, see the Boulevard Haussmann with its big department stores; the Place de la Concorde; cross the Seine on the Pont d’Alma; and spot the Eiffel Tower, planted in the Champs du Mars. And while you’re waiting — recharge your phone, using the free USB charger point installed at bus shelters.

Picnic plan

In a perfect world you would find a local market and assemble your picnic lovingly, but in practical terms it’s much easier to use one of the profusion of small “express” supermarkets. They are brimming with fresh fruit and veg, as well as cheap charcuterie and cheese (I spent €6 on a comprehensive picnic and even had enough cheese left over for the train ride back to London). The best open space in which to plant yourself is the beautiful Place des Vosges at the heart of the Marais.

You can get into the Louvre for free if you time it right

Culture for less

To avoid the €15 entry fee for the Louvre, it’s all a matter of timing. On 2 October, 6 November and 4 December, admission to the permanent collections is free for all visitors — as it is on the first Sunday of each month from January to March next year. The excellent free alternative has long been the Museum of the City at the Hôtel Carnavalet in the Marais. But renovation means that it is partially closed, and will close entirely on 3 October for three years. Until then, you can cheerfully decline to pay the €5 suggested donation (though you must pick up a ticket).

Charitable church

Notre-Dame de Paris, the magnificent French Gothic symbol of the city (until the Eiffel Tower was built, at least), is open free for visitors seven days a week, from 7.45am-6.45pm. Visit early to avoid the queue that snakes across the square in front of the fine west facade.

Notre-Dame Cathedral is free for visitors seven days a week

Thirst aid

Along with a French GCSE typically comes the knowledge that drinking anything outside on la terrasse in Paris trebles the cost. That rule is thankfully breaking down. The finest exponent is La Pointe du Grouin, a Breton “taverne moderne” in the 10th arrondissement, three minutes’ walk from Gare du Nord at 8 rue de Belzunce. The payment system is complicated; you have to pump at least €10 into a machine that dispenses groins, tokens that are each worth €1. A pint of very good beer is €4, a glass of decent wine €2, and the terrace catches the early evening sun beautifully.

Don't miss out on eating in a Paris café - just choose the right one

Mange tout

La Pointe du Grouin does a good line in what the management call Breton tapas, with savoury crepes a particular speciality. Or you could head across to the east of the arrondissement to Chez Prune (00 33 1 42 41 30 47), one of the first canalside cafes in the area at 6 rue Beaurepaire. The plates of cheese and ham, at €13, are ideal for sharing — and the drinks are excellent value too, which is why it can be so difficult to get a table right away. But order a €3.50 glass of fine wine, and soak up the ambience while you sip and wait for a perch.

Getting there

Eurostar, which runs trains from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, is currently offering its lowest-ever fare to the French capital: £58 return, if you book by 13 September for travel between 26 September and 11 December (eurostar.com).

More information

en.parisinfo.com

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