Here are my top ten tips for having a fantastic time in Paris without spending too much.
1. Plan ahead. Nothing in this life comes for free, and you need to invest your time if you don't want to invest your cash. Think about what you want to see / do / eat the most, and look into all of them in advance, making sure you know how to find them, when they are open and closed and how to get there. Speaking the lingo helps when it comes to local websites that offer information on upcoming events such as telerama but there are a host of english equivalents out there. Planning ahead like this helps to avoid the scenario of being in unfamiliar territory, tired and hungry all at the same time and thus falling into the nearest restaurant which is likely to offer neither good value nor good food.
Bear in mind that on the first Sunday of every month all Paris museums are free, so if you are looking for a culture-filled trip, this can save a significant expense if you are prepared to start early and to queue a little.
2. On your feet! To see Paris inexpensively you will do a lot of walking, so bring comfortable shoes, and this will often mean eating and drinking as you go. There are supermarkets everywhere, and this is their price heirarchy:
Top end: Grand Magasins like Le Bon Marché (think Harrods) Galaries Lafayette (think Selfridges) and BHV (think Harvey Nichols).
High: Monoprix (Waitrose / Marks and Spencer)
Middle: Franprix and Carrefour (think Sainsbury's. Likely to have later opening hours. Carrefour's tend to have a larger range).
Low: Intermarché (think Tesco), Leader Price (Asda) and multinational LIDL.
Cornershop: G20 (likely to be open at awkward hours, to stock bizarre items you never realised you needed but to also have staples priced more expensively than they should be).
Bottled water is inexpensive in supermarkets but, as with anywhere else, is massively marked up anywhere you can sit to eat. Baguette prices are closely monitored and should be fairly consistent, and fruit, vegetables and meat prices are linked to their seasonality, so bear this in mind when buying for a picnic. The quintessential European experience of enjoying an espresso in a café is cheaper if you drink it at the bar, shoulder to shoulder with the locals.
3, To market, to market. Sadly, Paris' enormous Les Halles market, which provided food for the tables of all Parisians whether at home or in restaurants, has been gone for some time now, but Paris still has a wealth of markets and specialist food areas to explore, each with its own personality. Take a sturdy bag with you, an iceblock perhaps if it's warm weather. My favourite markets are:
Les Enfants Rouges (closed Monday. Open 8.30-13.30 otherwise, and 16.00-19.30 except Sunday) is Paris' oldest market and houses Moroccan, Afro-Caribbean and Indian food stalls as well as organic fruit and vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and flowers. It is near the trendy Marais district which makes it an excellent pit-stop on a wander.
St. Quentin (closed Monday. Open 8.00 - 13.00 otherwise, and 15.30 - 19.30 except Sunday) is a covered market between Montmartre and Republique, near the Gare de l'Est, and hence in quite a good location for many visitors. The produce, sadly, is often from far afield, but it has lots of little stalls selling meats, fish, charcuteries and flowers.
Rue Mouffetard is a key 'tourist' market as it's rather picturesque but the prices reflect this and I personally don't rate it very highly because of the lack of range.
I would also mention the market in Place d'Aligre as being worth a visit for it's atmosphere and range of international foods and spices.
4. Lunch like a king, dinner like a jester. Lunch menus are always cheaper than dinner menus, and you are also more likely to get a lunchtime booking at popular restaurants. Having special meals at lunchtime also earns the je ne sais quoi of being surrounded by Parisians rather than other tourists, helping you to feel like you're part of some secret club. Bear in mind, however, that not all of the greatest places to eat are open at lunchtime. My favourite lunchtime spots are Metropolitain in the Marais, and for a special treat I loved Agapé Substance in St Germain, an up-and-coming molecular gastronomy gem that you will need to book in advance. They recommended my new favourite for nibbles or a light dinner - L'Avant Comptoir, a standing-room only wine bar which serves excellent basque tapas. Similarly, there are a variety of wonderful bars that serve charcuterie platters with wine by the glass, carafe or bottle and have a fantastic atmosphere. My favourite is La Cave des Abbesses in Montmartre, get there early as its tiny back room fills up fast!
5. Do your research! There are so many websites out there listing best bits, must-sees and must-dos in Paris, and lots of them offer tours. I have been known to scrutinise tour descriptions and work out the tour stops on my own so that I could enjoy the same goodies for a tiny fraction of the cost. Obviously you miss out on the narrative, but at the end of the day, you still get to enjoy the recommended food/drink! Such websites also often list events, such as wine tastings, which are often free.
6. Be a Culture Vulture. If you can book your trip on a variety of different weekends, and want to make a museum visit or few a focus of your days here, bear in mind that all Paris museums and art galleries are free to visit on the first Sunday of every month. If such a Sunday is part of your trip, bear in mind that queues may be longer, so this is perhaps a good time to explore one of the lesser-visited museums that are no less worth a visit, such as the Orangerie, the Rodin Museum or the Dalì Museum. Or to get up very early!
7. On yer bike! Paris is not a big city, and it has an excellent network of cycle lanes and paths, as well as a vast wealth of Vélib bike points, usually at most 200m apart. It's possible to get a week's ticket for €8, allowing you to cycle as much as you like for 30minutes at a time, and enabling you to cover more ground than you might think. At a relaxed pace, this would easily get you from the Champs-Elysées to St Germain, for example. Most maps will show where bike parks can be found, and at each park point you can find out where the nearest station is for you to pick up your next bike. This is a lovely way to see the city, helps (a little!) to burn off that chocolate and cheese, is cheaper than travelling by metro but faster than going on foot, and also gives you a unique way to get home at 3am without needing a taxi...
8. Not alone. As much as everybody's Paris is different, there's no denying that wherever you go, someone else has bravely gone before, and there are so many networks out there, people's experiences and mistakes to learn from that to not make the most of this will waste not only your time but also your money. Which is possibly why you're reading this to start with! If your stay is more longterm, check out the expat networks such as those advertised in Fusac, a magazine available everywhere. Ask questions, explore and you'll be rewarded with new experiences.
9. Learn the lingo. I always like to learn a few key phrases when I go abroad, and being able to express yourself in the language of the country you find yourself in opens doors, ensures you better treatment, and can get you information that you wouldn't have access to otherwise. I've been saddened to see what I considered to be the best part of an exhibition left untranslated and squirmed at mistranslations and incomplete information. It also gives you the means with which to ask further questions.
10. Somewhere not so far away... Don't forget that a trip to Paris doesn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. As I'm approaching the end of my adventure here, I'm rapidly learning that it's simply not possible to do it all, see it all, eat it all, and that's where the wonder of inexpensive international travel comes in. You can always go back.
And once you've fallen in love with Paris, you will.