So, you want to see culture in Paris without spending a fortune? So did I. Being short on both time and money when I visited (I was working at a trade show as part of Paris Fashion Week), I created my own adventure and ticked off some of the well known and the more obscure sights of the city, knowing that every second counts when you’re trying to absorb a new destination.
Along the way, I stumbled upon some great places that I think you should know about, too – just put down the guidebook for a second and you’ll see what I mean. Get ready to try out your finest Franglais phrases and enjoy a whistle-stop tour.
If the Mona Lisa isn’t your cup of tea, luckily Paris is full of urban art on display. Graffiti artists vie for attention, each trying to be more creative than the last, with bigger and better offerings. I discovered the piece below when I was wandering close to the Hotel de Ville metro station.
Equally, these pasted monochrome figures caught my eye, and they certainly brightened up the side of this building.
You’ll also find quite a few pavement artists wielding chalk, hoping that the weather will hold out long enough to freeze their pictures for that bit longer. I loved the Charlie Chaplin scene that I came across in a square.
For something even quirkier, walk along the Rue de Rivoli and find the artists’ squat, known as Les Artistes du 59 Rivoli. Four floors of this building have been turned into mini studio spaces for creative types to show off their paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures. You’re bound to find some pieces that you love – and some you hate – amongst the exhibits.
Those of you hoping to find the next Damien Hirst will be pleased to know that, whilst the squat is far from being a commercial gallery selling postcards and prints, some pieces are for sale and you can often find contact details for the artists you like, so you can check out their websites.
Moving on from squats to permanent fixtures, Notre Dame is a must-see, and it also won’t cost you a single cent to stand outside and take amazing photos.
Please note: it’s not obligatory to cry “The bells! The bells!” in tribute to Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, but you may have a burning desire to do so.
As for the Eiffel Tower, if you don’t have the time or money to visit then make sure you take a photo of it at sunset or at night, when it looks at its best against the sky. I left the not-so-attractive white vans in my image, to give a bit of modern context.
The Arc de Triomphe is another inescapable landmark, and one that’s easy to find, as it sits at the intersection of some of Paris’ major roads, including the glamorous Champs-Élysées. You can walk around inside for €8, or just wait for the lighting of the eternal flame, which takes place every evening at 6:30pm.
Yes, I count shopping as a cultural activity. Why? Because buying vintage means that you’re getting yourself an authentic piece of Paris that is far more original than a fridge magnet of the Eiffel Tower.
Seek out a friperie (the French word for second-hand clothing shop); these places are like mini museums, where the exhibits change all the time. You can rifle through carefully colour co-ordinated t-shirts, trunks full of silk scarves and lovingly battered leather bags.
My top tip would be the Hippy Market, on Rue de Temple, which is owned by the same team that run the much-hyped Killiwatch store – Hippy Market doesn’t get nearly as much press and blogger attention, so you won’t have so many fellow shoppers to contend with. There’s also another branch in Rue de Turbigo if you get really keen.
The Pompidou Centre is one of my favourite places in the city. Whilst its ultra-modern appearance certainly divides opinion (it reminds me of that hypnotic ‘pipes’ screensaver on Windows computers, circa 1997), its exhibitions and permanent collection are reliably interesting.
In the space outside, school groups and tourists soak up the sun. Join them for a little impromptu sunbathing and cloud watching if you have the chance.
Another aspect of the Pompidou that I love is the view from its top terrace. For a few Euros and a trip up the escalators, you’ll be rewarded with incredible cityscapes that are just waiting to be photographed, including the Sacre Coeur church over in Montmartre, which is worth visiting in its own right. You can’t miss it on the skyline.
The Louvre is always high on most tourists’ wishlists, but if you don’t want to join the masses inside then make sure you pop by just to admire the weird and wonderful glass pyramids that make up its unusual design. You can then chill out in the Jardin des Tuileries, just to the right, which was Paris’ first public park.
If you’re visiting during Fashion Week (late September-October and late February-March) then you’ll notice the Tuileries will be particularly busy and strangely full of very well-dressed people, as this is one of the venues for shows, making it a magnet for street style photographers. Rack up some bonus tourist points if you accidentally bump into a stylish celebrity.
Regardless of your budget or your tight schedule, you can soak up Parisian culture like a sponge – heck, I even managed to squeeze in work around all of this. The main thing is to allow yourself some downtime when you can just wander aimlessly and stumble upon that cool bit of street art or that park. You never know what’s around the corner, or indeed the next arrondissement, in this incredible city.
P.S. For something totally bizarre from my Paris adventure, check out the rockabilly gig I went to in a music shop.