Looking for what to do in Paris for free? From admiring the exterior of the beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral, to stretching your legs in the Tuileries Park, there’s plenty to keep you going, without you having to pay a cent.
One of the masterpieces of the Gothic age, the Notre-Dame Cathedral rears up from the Île de la Cité’s southeast corner like a ship moored by huge flying buttresses. It was among the first of the great Gothic cathedrals built in northern France and one of the most ambitious, its nave reaching an unprecedented 33m. You have to pay to go inside, but you can admire most of its beauty from the outside - it’s one of the most impressive free things to do in Paris.
The Petit Palais, facing the Grand Palais, is home to the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris). It is hardly “petit” but certainly palatial, boasting beautiful spiral wrought-iron staircases, ceiling frescoes and a grand gallery. The museum’s extensive holdings of paintings, sculpture and decorative art range from the ancient Greek and Roman period up to the early twentieth century. At first sight it looks like it’s mopped up the leftovers discarded by the city’s other galleries, but there are some real gems here, such as Monet’s Soleil couchant sur la Seine à Lavacourt and Courbet’s provocative Demoiselles des bords de la Seine. Changing exhibitions allow the museum to display works from its vast reserves. Searching for Paris holidays? Take a look at our fantastic selection of breaks in the City of Lights.
Père-Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of numerous notables, is an atmospheric, eerily beautiful haven, with little cobbled footpaths, terraced slopes and magnificent old trees that spread their branches over the tombs as though shading them from the outside world. The cemetery was opened in 1804, after an urgent stop had been put to further burials in the overflowing city cemeteries and churchyards. The civil authorities had Molière, La Fontaine, Abelard and Héloïse reburied here. A free map is available at all the entrances or you can buy a more detailed one from the shops on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Among the most visited graves is that of Chopin (Division 11), often attended by Poles bearing red-and-white wreaths and flowers. Fans also flock to the grave of Jim Morrison (Division 6), lead singer of The Doors, who died in Paris at the age of 27, and to Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Division 89), which is topped with a sculpture by Jacob Epstein of a mysterious Pharaonic winged messenger. You can also visit the graves of Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Corot, Balzac and Modigliani.
The Marais is one of the most seductive districts of central Paris, sophisticated and arty, and a neighbourhood of choice for LGBTQ Parisians. Largely untouched by Baron Haussmann and unscarred by modern development, the quartier is full of handsome Renaissance hôtels particuliers, narrow lanes and inviting cafés and restaurants. There’s a significant, if dwindling, Jewish community here, established in the twelfth century and centred on Rue des Rosiers. Prime streets for wandering are Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, lined with fashion and interior design boutiques, Rue Vieille-du-Temple and Rue des Archives, with their buzzy bars and cafés, and the streets of the so-called Haut Marais, home to sleek art galleries and chic young designers. The Marais’ animated streets and atmospheric old buildings are reason enough to visit - without spending anything at all!
East of place de la Concorde lies the Tuileries Garden, the formal French garden par excellence. It dates back to the 1570s, when Catherine de Médicis had the site cleared of the medieval warren of tilemakers (tuileries) to make way for a palace and grounds. One hundred years later, Louis XIV commissioned renowned landscape artist Le Nôtre to redesign them, and the results are largely what you see today: straight avenues, formal flower beds and splendid vistas. Shady tree-lined paths flank the grand central alley, and ornamental ponds frame both ends. The much-sought-after chairs strewn around the ponds are a good spot from which to admire the landscaped surroundings and contemplate the superb statues executed by the likes of Coustou and Coysevox, many of them now replaced by copies, the originals transferred to the Louvre. Chilling out in this park is by far one of the best free things to do in Paris.