Paris is a dream destination for millions of travellers. Here are our 6 recommendations for things to do for free in Paris.
Who can resist the charms of Paris? The name alone evokes an endless reel of images, and you could cover a map of the city in pins marking those ‘don’t miss’ places. To get to know the real Paris, however, one visit is never enough. For a start, you’ll find there’s no need to max out the credit card: there are loads of things to do for free in the French capital. And finding cheap flights so you can touch down in Paris (again) is a cinch.
Les Grands Voisins: the humanitarian, closed-loop side of Paris
Paris has a track record of repurposing abandoned urban space, and Les Grands Voisins (great neighbours, in English) is one of those little corners of the planet where it’s still possible to believe in utopia. Here, the revolution is social, artistic and directed by the locals.
Behind the doors of the former Hospital Saint-Vincent-de-Paul lies one of the best things you can do for free in Paris: an ecosystem that prioritises the circular economy, ecology, community workshops and a helping hand for refugees.
It’s full of colour, life and art, the atmosphere is buzzing and the coffee cups are ceramic. You won’t find any plastic within 200 metres of the place.
Visit artists’ workshops, check out the exhibitions and concerts, grab a drink or something to eat in one of the reasonably priced bars and restaurants or browse the flea market located in one of the units. The space will be here until work starts on the new neighbourhood (2023 if all goes to plan), but it already looks like the neighbours intend to keep their dream of a sustainable, fairer society alive.
Boulevard Paris 13: XXL Street art
No contest, one of the top things you can do for free in Paris is check out the graffiti in one of the world’s street art capitals. There are all shapes, sizes and types, but some of the city’s largest graffiti is found on the Boulevard Vincent Auriol.
This veritable open-air gallery uses the buildings as giant canvasses. The art fairly jumps out at you in surprising colours, shapes and messages, turning a stroll down the boulevard into an adventure.
Boulevard Paris 13 boasts artworks by both up-and-coming and well-established names from among the best of French street art, such as Invader, ST4, Roa, JanaJS and Pantonio, to name just a few. Get a map and mark your favourites!
Shakespeare & Company: Paris with a Beatnik vibe
© Photo by CC BY-SA 2.0
The writer Jeremy Mercer called it the world’s most famous bookshop and it’s certainly one of the best things you can do in Paris on a budget. After all, buying books is less about spending money than making an investment.
The bookshop keeps that unlucky lady, Notre Dame cathedral, company on Paris’ most touristy river bank. It’s been a cultural icon since it was opened in the mid-‘60s by the American George Whitman. He named it after the legendary bookshop run by Sylvia Beach on rue l’Odéon and frequented by literary giants like Hemingway and James Joyce, among others.
In its turn, the modern-day Shakespeare & Company has welcomed great poets of the Beat generation and numerous other writers. Its crowded interior offers visitors an inspiring journey among the shelves and books in English piled up everywhere. Don’t miss the free literary events and poetry recitals. Just grab a coffee and sit back and enjoy the poetry of the place.
Père-Lachaise: cemeteries don’t come more hipster than this
Even in Le Marais, the neighbourhood with more clothes shops, avant-garde restaurants and trendy cafes per square mile in Paris, there’s something that’s free. In recent years, Père-Lachaise has been hailed as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Just take a stroll through the cemetery—which has a charm all of its own in any season—and you’ll see it’s no exaggeration.
The tombs and mausoleums of note in this community of the celebrated dead are such high quality it’s like visiting a sculpture park. Encircled by stone walls and with abundant greenery, to enter Père-Lachaise is to step inside a haven of peace.
Everyone has their own reasons for visiting: many come to pay tribute to Jim Morrison; others to Oscar Wilde or Edith Piaf. There are so many famous figures and artists in Père-Lachaise that we recommend buying a map at the entrance to easily locate the most famous tombs.
Promenade Plantée: the inspiration for New York’s High Line
If this is your second time in Paris, this has to be top of your list. This unique panoramic walk, which in places rises to 10 metres above the street, starts behind the Opera Bastille and runs as far as Dorée and Bois de Vincenne.
The project was born in 1988 when Philippe Mathieu and Jacques Vergely got the idea to repurpose a light rail viaduct that had been abandoned since the mid-19th century. The result ended up being the inspiration for New York’s famous High Line and today is one of the top things you can do for free in Paris.
And there’s no need to walk the whole thing. One of the most interesting sections is found at the legendary Viaduc des Arts: 45 brick railway arches converted into exhibition spaces and workshops for craftspeople, furniture restorers and jewellers.
Ground Control: offbeat fun
Next to Viaduc des Arts is another affordable and alternative Paris activity. Occupying some 6000 m2, Halle Charolais is a former warehouse not far from Gare de Lyon that offers art events, exhibitions, workshops, conferences, music and organic products. It’s a great thing to do with friends or family, and, as an added bonus, is 100% committed to recycling, energy efficiency and using environmentally friendly products.
This is actually the Ground Control team’s penultimate location. The project started in 2014 as a temporary cultural space in the Quai d’Austerlitz. It was an overnight success and the team kept it going through to the present day, creating additional spaces for “open and curious” people, as they define themselves.
You can visit at its current location until 2020 when French rail operator SNCF intends to convert the building for real estate. But don’t worry, if you can’t make it before then, this group of creatives is already on the lookout for future locations where they can continue to surprise and delight the public. Just keep an eye on the website!