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Musée Cognacq-Jay : Carte blanche à Christian Lacroix
Photograph: Raphaël Chipault & Benjamin Soligny

The 14 best free things to do in Paris

Doing the French capital on the cheap? Our run-down of the very best free things to do in Paris brims with totally gratis riches

By Eleanor Aldridge

Paris’s rep for being hugely expensive doesn’t always ring true. Sure, it’s easy to splash out on champagne and oysters, or accidentally blow your budget on a shopping spree in the Marais, but there are plenty of experiences that won’t cost a penny (or euro centime).

First up, the city’s magnificent parks and gardens – swerve the Tuileries crowds and head east to get away from it all in wilder green spaces like the Buttes-Chaumont instead. Rainy days call for afternoons exploring lesser-known but fascinating free museums or cosying up at cool community spaces, perhaps Ground Control or Les Grands Voisins. Later on, there’s plenty to do after dark, including what feels like an endless array of free exhibitions, gigs and film screenings.

The only question is where you’ll go first. No matter whether you’re sightseeing on a shoestring or saving up for something special, these are our go-to wallet-friendly activities – the absolute best free things to do in Paris right now.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Paris

Best free things to do in Paris

The elevated folly and artificial lake at the Parc de Buttes-Chaumont
Photograph: Traktorminze / Wikimedia Commons

1. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

Attractions Parks and gardens Buttes-Chaumont

Wild, hilly and with incredible views across the city to Sacré-Cœur, the Buttes-Chaumont is the park Parisians try to keep for themselves. Landscaped from the site of an old quarry in 1867 for the Exposition Universelle, when the adjacent village of Belleville was absorbed into the capital, it’s a curious mix of styles. Don’t miss the waterfall thundering from its eastern slope (plus the secret cave beneath it) and the Roman-style Temple de la Sybille. In summer it’s a great place to picnic, while runners and qigong classes claim the flatter paths year round.

Photograph: Georges Saillard

2. Ground Control

Things to do Cultural centres Bercy

There’s nowhere better to cosy up with a book than the fuselage of an old commercial jet, right? It’s just one of the nooks perfect for whiling away an afternoon at Ground Control, the enormous street food temple-meets-community space in a hangar on the edge of the Gare du Lyon. As well as burger joints in repurposed buses, there’s an excellent programme of events and pop-ups, from yoga and DJ sets to art exhibitions.

An exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Photograph: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr

3. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Museums Art and design Chaillot

When it comes to museums and galleries, the city’s big-hitters tend to come with high ticket prices. The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is the exception: its permanent collections are always free to visit. With the building freshly renovated, expect to see works from the 13,000-strong archive displayed more beautifully than ever before. Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse are just a few of the artists represented here. And don’t miss the magnificent ‘La Fée Electricité’ by Raoul Dufy.

A bustling street scene at the Marché d'Aligre in Paris
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons / Jésus Gorriti

4. Marché d’Aligre

Shopping Vintage shops 12e arrondissement

Sprawling over a sleepy corner of the 12th arrondissement six days a week, the Marché d’Aligre lives up to every expectation of what a French food market should look like. The tiny covered section (get in line here for cheese and meat) is just the start: vendors take over almost all of the surrounding streets amid some excellent traiteurs and boulangeries. Even if you don’t plan on buying, it’s the best place to get a sense of which ingredients are in season, from artichokes and morelles to raspberries and currants. Touch the fruit and veg without invitation at your peril.

Promenade Plantée
Photograph: David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office

5. La Coulée Verte (Promenade Plantée)

Things to do Bercy

Whether you call it the Coulée Verte or the Promenade Plantée (don’t worry, we still can’t decide), this elevated walkway is one of the loveliest places in the city to stroll come rain or shine. Opened in 1988, it was even the inspiration for New York’s High Line. Today it runs nearly 5km from Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes, its linear gardens an escape from the traffic-choked roads beneath – and prime snooping territory, thanks to views into some gorgeous Haussmannian apartments along the way.

La Gare in Paris
Photograph: La Gare

6. La Gare

Bars and pubs Café bars La Villette

The jazz gigs at La Gare might be free, but the music is taken very seriously at Corentin Cariou’s train station-turned-club in the 19th. Expect cheap drinks and a cutting-edge vibe, but don’t be alarmed if you’re shushed for chatting too much at the back (we’re definitely guilty of being told off once or twice). Conversation is reserved for the always-crowded smoking area that takes over what was the station forecourt. The line-up is based around regular ‘jazz legends’ slots, with pop and electro influences cropping up from time to time.

Carnaval Grands Voisins
Photograph: Les Grands Voisins

7. Les Grands Voisins

This ground-breaking community project has redefined the concept of an urban neighbourhood and transformed a small corner of the 14th arrondissement into an inclusive, creative village. Resisting gentrification is at the heart of their mission (they offer accommodation to artists and support to refugees), but there’s also plenty to explore if you just want to drop by. Stop in for a meal at the superb restaurant, drink at the bar, shop in the thrift store or join a dance class in the evening.

Cinéma en plein air à la Villette
Photograph: Cinéma en Plein Air à la Villette

8. Cinéma en Plein Air à la Villette

There’s only one way to spend a summer evening in Paris: sprawled on a picnic rug, piscine of rosé in hand. Add in free screenings of cult French films and Hollywood classics, always in their original language, and you’ve got the makings of a soirée to remember. Parc de la Villette’s Cinéma en Plein Air season runs every summer through July and August, and includes short films and kid-friendly showings as well as blockbusters. You can hire deckchairs if you don’t fancy staking your spot on the grass.

Musée de la Vie Romantique
Photograph: Musée de la Vie Romantique

9. Musée de la Vie Romantique

Museums Art and design Saint-Georges

Romance and Montmartre go hand in hand. Just don’t expect anything too saccharine at this dinky mansion museum. The one-time home of artist Ary Scheffer now houses a free-to-explore collection of paintings and letters that bring to life the time when George Sand, Delacroix and Chopin were among those to spend (sometimes scandalous) evenings here. Sand is a particular focus: she was a pioneer of her time, dressing like a man, smoking a pipe and famously having affairs with both Chopin and the poet Alfred de Musset.

Buren’s Columns
Photograph: Palais-Royal

10. Palais-Royal

Attractions Louvre

There’s nowhere better to snap a souvenir selfie than amid (or atop) the Colonnes de Buren at the Palais Royal. If Alice in Wonderland landed in an 18th-century palace at the bottom of the rabbit hole, this is what it might look like. Thanks to the addition of Buren’s columns in the 1980s, the courtyard is an fascinating mish-mash of classical architecture and contemporary design, while the rest of the gardens and surrounding arcades are surprisingly genteel given their proximity to the Louvre. Pick up a coffee from Café Kitsuné to sip by the fountains.

Photograph: Supersonic

11. Supersonic

If you like your pop indie and your rock with a side of blues, get down to Supersonic. There’s no cover charge for the early-evening sets at this warehouse-style space near Bastille, just top-notch tunes. Club nights from 11pm complete the line-up, with regular programming including the aptly named ‘Fuck forever’ (’00s indie rock) and ‘Dancing with Myself’ (’80s classics). On other nights, expect a decent balance between new and retro, cheap drinks and a closing time of 6am on Friday and Saturday.

Musée Cognacq-Jay : Carte blanche à Christian Lacroix
Photograph: Raphaël Chipault & Benjamin Soligny

12. Musée Cognacq-Jay

Museums Le Marais

As La Samaritaine gears up to re-open, albeit as a new luxe LVMH development, there’s never been a better time to delve into the fabulous collections of art, furniture and sculpture amassed by the department store’s original founders. The pieces purchased by Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay in the early 1900s now make up this free museum in the Marais. Most are from the 17th and 18th centuries, including some beautiful works by the likes of Canaletto, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Arènes de Lutèce
Photograph: Time Out

13. Arènes de Lutèce

Things to do Quartier latin

The remains of a 1st-century Gallo-Roman amphitheatre are the last thing you expect to stumble upon in the Latin Quarter. Indeed, the ruins of this magnificent arena were lost and forgotten for centuries, and only rediscovered by accident during the construction of Rue Monge in 1869. Victor Hugo was among those who fought for their restoration. Today they’re free to explore, although you’ll need to use your imagination to picture how they might have looked when 15,000 spectators packed in to see gladiators in battle.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
Photograph: Time Out

14. Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

Attractions Cemeteries Père-Lachaise

No list of free things to do in Paris would be complete without mention of the city’s most celebrated cemetery. Although wandering its labyrinthine cobbled pathways might sound morbid, in reality it’s anything but. Come to admire the elaborate gravestones, soak up the sombre but peaceful atmosphere and pay your respects at the final resting places of some of France’s most prominent figures, among them Edith Piaf, Molière and Balzac. The Doors’ Jim Morrison is also buried here; legions of fans have turned his grave into a place of pilgrimage.

Need more sightseeing inspiration?

A view of the city at night, including the Arc de Triomphe
Photograph: Cristiano Medeiros Dalbem

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Attractions Sightseeing

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