Over the years, I’ve been to Paris a fair few times for a cheap and easy city break. So much so that it’s now joined my list of top five European cities, in good company with Berlin, Reykjavik, Amsterdam and Porto.
But it wasn’t always this way. The first time I visited when I was a child I absolutely despised it, I hated all the walking and it felt so alien to me. This probably wasn’t helped by the atrocious April showers that dampened our exploring and that the second part of the trip was Disneyland… something I was much more looking forward to!
But as I’ve grown up and visited for both business and leisure, it’s become somewhere that I associate with incredible cultural experiences, some of the best cafes in the world and a generally trendy atmosphere – akin to Shoreditch in London, the Northern Quarter of Manchester or even Digbeth in Birmingham. Somewhere beautiful to escape to, soak in as much culture as possible and relax in its many cafes – before returning to normality.
I’ve noticed, when I talk about my love of this city, that it’s often seen as too expensive for a quick weekend break, when in reality it needn’t be. In fact, I’ve had more expensive trips to a number of European cities in recent years than Paris. So I’ve put together a few pointers for the City of Lights that may help you make the most of your first or next city break…
Book your travel in advance
Whether you intend on getting the Eurostar, taking the ferry or flying into Charles de Gaulle, your best best is to book your travel to Paris in advance.
With the Eurostar, it’s often best to book up to 120 days in advance. This is when you’ll get the cheapest rates and when they offer their best-priced deals. But you’ll need to be quick. Tickets at lower prices are generally limited. Just be prepared that cheap tickets are non-refundable and non-exchangeable, so you need to be certain on your travel dates. The alternative, if you’re flexible on dates, is to use Eurostar’s Snap service and they’ll provide you with last-minute deals, two days before travel.
Trains not for you? Then you could always fly directly into the city from a number of UK airports. My go-to is always Skyscanner. Set up a Paris alert on their site at least six months in advance and wait for the best deal to drop into your inbox. Travel into Charles de Gaulle is often cheaper than Orly because it’s a larger airport – then all you need do is jump on the RER.
If you’re thinking of getting the ferry or the Le Shuttle, it’s best to look out for deals at the beginning of the year, normally January. My go-to with booking either of these services is to use an aggregator like Direct Ferries.
With ferries or the Le Shuttle, it’s always a good idea to be flexible with your times – unsociable travel times are often cheaper, if you can handle them. Couple this with dividing the cost by the people in your car, this is definitely the cheapest way to get to Paris.
Look beyond hotels
Hotels, like any city in Europe, can be very hit and miss. Often in Paris, you can spend on a 4* hotel but actually receive 3* quality. Generally I always find that it’s best to assume that the star rating is one below. So, with that in mind, I don’t book hotels anymore. I actually look for my accommodation via hostels or on AirBnB.
If you consider a hostel, don’t think of it as your regular back-packing establishment. They’re actually similar to hotel rooms because you can book a private room with your own bathroom.
If you’re looking for a modern and playful getaway my recommendation would be Generator (which has residences all over the world). It has its own bar/nightclub, lounge area and cafe – perfect for working or relaxing in as a pit-stop. The pricing is extremely reasonable and it’s in one of the most up-and-coming districts in Paris, Canal Saint-Martin.
If you want a straightforward stay with minimum fuss yet comfortable, then HipHopHostels (a French chain in most of the Parisian neighbourhoods) may be a good choice for you. Think Ibis and you’re halfway there.
If hostels aren’t for you, then check out AirBnb well in advance – this is when you’ll get the best rates and there’ll actually be availability.
More so than any other city in the world, Paris is booked up well in advance – mostly because business travellers have clocked onto it as a comfortable, yet affordable, way of staying in the city. I’d recommend always booking a Superhost if you can, they’ll provide you with oodles of local intel.
Research free or cheap activities
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to do in Paris – but the majority of them cost money. That being said, there are some free or cheap activities you can take advantage of if you plan your Parisian city break to perfection, including some of the city’s biggest icons.
For example, entrance to the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris is always free, unless you want to climb either of the towers.
The same can be said of the Basilique du Sacré Coeur, a fee is only charged if you wanted to ascend the dome or descend into its crypt.
If you had the Louvre on your list of hot-spots, then visit on the first Sunday of any given month. All of the permanent collections are free to the public. Just be prepared to queue.
If you plan to visit more than five museums during your weekender, then it’s best to pick up a Paris Museum Card – just like in any other city. It’s cheaper than paying separate entrance fees, covers the main sights and allows you to skip to the front of most queues – always a bonus!
If you prefer open spaces, you could always explore Cimitière du Montparnasse if you have a taste for the macabre. In this cemetery, you’ll find Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett.
And if you’d rather take a walk on the regal side of Paris, then a visit to Jardin des Tuileries is a must. Between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, you can follow in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette or Napoleon himself.
Take comfortable shoes
Hands down, the best way to see Paris is by old-fashioned walking it on foot. It’s the only way you’ll truly appreciate its architectural beauty and soak in its unique atmosphere – obviously, with a camera in hand.
That being said, it can be quite tiring and the last thing you want are blisters on the first day – hence the comfortable shoes. Your other options include self-service bicycle hire, if the weather permits, or hopping on a metro. Both are cheap and allow you to travel with ease.
If it’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining, I’d recommend renting a bike from Paris’ Vélib’ scheme. There are a number of schemes running in the city now but this is the most reliable and best maintained, prices start from €1.70 a day. A bargain and good for getting in some holiday exercise.
Your other option, if the grey clouds are looming or it’s already drizzling, is to jump on the trusty Metro. You can buy a collection of 10 Metro tickets for €14.50 to use on the Metro and buses, which works out to be cheaper than buying individual journeys and means you’ll be set for your whole break.
Know where and when to dine
So, we’ve covered travel, accommodation and activities, the last thing that is often deemed extortionate in Paris is its dining. But there are hacks.
First thing to know is that tipping isn’t a pre-requisite – they won’t expect it. However, it will form part of a service charge for everywhere you dine.
Second thing is to always dine to your heart’s content at lunchtime. If you have the time and inclination to eat your main meal in the middle of the day, as opposed to in the evening, you can save a lot of money. The food is of the same high quality but it’ll be on a lunch-time or a fixed-price menu. Something to add to this, if you sit inside, it’ll cost you less than outside.
Third thing, never order a bottle. It is often cheaper in most bars and restaurants to order single glasses or pints of alcohol. Table water and a bread basket is always free of charge to go alongside any alcoholic drink.
Lastly, try not to dine in tourist hot-spots. It’ll always be more expensive no matter what you do and I’ve never found the quality to be as good, despite the high cost.
I’ve actually found some of the best eateries in Paris off side-streets, in quieter neighbourhoods and from food trucks parked randomly in spots across the city. This is one time where it really pays to explore and satisfy your tastebuds. However, I have always kept money aside to treat myself to a few Ladurée macarons. Old habits and all that…
If you’re planning a trip to Paris and want some extra tips, then ask away in the comments. If you have your own, then please feel free to share, I’m always looking for more to add to my list!
Check out our other posts about France.