Appreciate local art
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Yes, this colourful cacophony, formerly a squatters’ camp, across the street from chain stores is in fact an art studio but you’d never know there was method to the wonderful madness of 59 Rivoli. There are 30 artists hosted at any one time at this multi-level studio and you can take a turn through the artwork-strewn Hausmann-era building every day bar Monday from 1pm to 6pm for free. The space is also a great place to gather on summer weekends when free concerts are held for the public, featuring everything from jazz quintets to soulful soloists after 6pm.
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Parisian live their lives on their streets and have no qualms about watching others do the same – that’s why bistrot seats are refreshingly positioned to maximise gazing at passersby. To that end, Paris is a city that unfolds the further you explore so put shoe to sidewalk to find your own secret slice. Ditch the tourists by winding through the little-visited La Campagne à Paris, dream of living in an apartment above a bakery as you traverse Le Marais or bring a bottle of wine to hatch plans with idealistic locals on the banks of Canal Saint-Martin.
March through a marketplace
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At the covered market of Marché d’Aligre, open six days a week, there’s a true cast of characters (a vegetarian butcher, a cheese-shop that specialises in chèvre) opening out onto a square where you can revel in your French fantasy of becoming fluent enough to bargain for your purchases. This is prime people-watching territory: ogle your temporary neighbours carefully selecting veggies for their dinners, cheeses for their lunch and fresh bread for, well, any time. Photo: Heather Cowper (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Start with Sunday
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On the first Sunday of the month, bucket-list museums such as The Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, Musée Rodin, Centre Pompidou and Musée Picasso open their doors to art buffs for zilch. Brace for longer lines and less room to move, of course, but revel in the fact you’ll see the greats (including da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night) without having to whip out your wallet.
Swap the big for the small
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Swathes of visitors overlook this eighth arrondissement gallery for its larger sister, the Grand Palais, but art (and budget) buffs will appreciate the offering at the Petit Palais and not just because entry to its permanent collections is complimentary. Gracing the walls of this charming 20th-century building are the likes of Rembrandt, Cézanne and bronzes dating back as far as 520 B.C.
Take in the view
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Like an inviting cake topper, the chalk-coloured domes of Basilique du Sacré Coeur cut an impressive figure atop the hilly suburb of Montmartre. From the entrance steps of this Roman-Byzantine-style church, Paris sprawls beneath. If you choose to enter rather than admiring the surrounds, you’ll be greeted with the largest mosaic in France, carefully crafted on the ceiling.
Get off the tourist trail
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While many would compare this elevated walkway to New York’s ever-popular Highline, the La Promenade Plantée has actually been a quiet feature of the city since 1993, 16 years before its American counterpart. The abandoned 19th century viaduct was defunct for some time before it was transformed the world’s first elevated walkway – a peaceful, shady 4.5-kilometre path that winds through the backstreets of Bastille. An arts precinct, Viaduc des Arts, is a welcome discovery along the track, with a handful of local artisans spruiking their wares from underneath a series of 36 red-brick arches.
Step into town hall
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As the seat of the Paris City Council, the gleaming exterior is certainly worth strolling past (especially in December when the traditional ice-skating rink is constructed for winter revelry) but the neo-Renaissance Hôtel de Ville also has more than council business inside. Throughout the year, a number of free exhibitions displaying works from cartoonists to photographers and even clothing are available free to visitors.
Connect with history
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Graveyards such as the Cimetière du Père Lachaise and the Cimetière du Montparnasse are bona fide tourist attractions due to their celebrity pulling power. At the former, you’ll find the final resting places for Édith Piaf and Marcel Proust, as well as non-locals such as Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. (You’ll know Oscar’s by the impressive layer of red-lipped kisses planted on his gravestone). At the latter, seek out the resting places of literary figures such as Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Satre.
Go hunting for the hunchback
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Although the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris suffered a number of structural setbacks during the French revolution, many notable aspects still remain: the three circular stained-glass windows still proudly display their 13th-century glass, for example. Newer additions are still defining features – take the sneering gargoyles added between 1845 and 1864, for example.
Pack a picnic
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Few cities rival Paris for its abundance of impeccable gardens and outdoor spaces. Place des Vosges – one of the city’s oldest squares – has a soothing symmetry in the red brick mansion that straddles the corner of the green grass and carriageway-covered park, while Parc du Champ de Mars doubles as the ultimate selfie backdrop thanks to the towering Le Tour Eiffel hovering over the expanse. Other favoured picnic spots include Paris Plages, the Seine’s answer to an inner-city shore come summer where the river’s edge is reborn as a beach. The bonus is; you’ll only have to use your wallet if you decide to pop a baguette into your basket.
Catch a free flick
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Upgrade your Parisian picnic by taking your blanket to Parc de la Villette and spreading it in anticipation of a free movie under the stars. Seasons run from mid-July to mid-August and are generally themed, showing films in their original language with French subtitles. Previous features have often included English-language family favourites such as Where the Wild Things Are and Ratatouille.
Update your artistic education
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After you’ve seen the greats, visit the next generation of masters at the always-free Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, east of the Champs-Élysées. There are around 13,000 contemporary works to appreciate in this light, airy space, with a good international contingent for a more varied range of perspectives.
Marvel at the city’s rooftops
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The Eiffel Tower allows a stunning view of Paris but those pinching pennies will love the alternative offered at the very top of the city’s most glamorous department store. On the seventh floor of Galeries Lafayette Haussmann after 9.30am, visitors have access to an expansive terrace that displays the city in perfect viewing mode – including the ever-present silhouette of La Dame de Fer (as the locals have nicknamed Le Tour Eiffel).
Climb the cliffs of an inner-city park
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Belleville – the suburb that straddles the 19th and 20th arrondissements – wasn’t always part of Paris. Prior to the expansion of the city, the former village was absorbed as part of the growing metropolis and with that, the gypsum and limestone quarry now known as Parc des Buttes-Chaumont was also transformed. Cliffs (yes, truly) and waterfalls are just a few of the unique features of this peaceful, elevated garden.
Float through a flea market
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If you can’t bear to leave Paris without taking one of its treasures with you, the eclectic flea market of Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen is your best chance. There are 3000 traders sprawled across nine hectares, selling an array of one-off gems – from vintage cameras and ceramics to old Converse trainers and beyond. If you speak French, now’s the time to use it – you’ll get better prices if you bargain in the mother tongue.
Step right into Rome
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The fifth arrondissement is home to bursting bookshops, literary cafés that housed artists during writer’s block and many an intellectual debate: hardly the place you’d expect to find a 1st-century Roman arena. Arènes de Lutèce is the only remaining clue to the city’s Gallo-Roman past and, in its prime, could hold over 15,000 people. Today’s visitors can still see where the theatre’s animals and gladiators would bravely face off.
Immerse yourself in the creative scene
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Le 104, a former funeral parlour in the 19th arrondissement, is now the heart of the up-and-coming art scene in Paris, with a revolving array of activities designed to draw visitors deeper into the creative scene through talks, readings and public rehearsals of performances. Although these charge a fee for attendance, the collective regularly hosts a number of free dance classes and there’s an on-site playspace for inquisitive children.
Follow in Hemingway’s footsteps
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Featured in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, energetic marketplace Marché Mouffetard on Rue de Mouffetard is crowded and crammed with charcuterie, cheeses, pastries, seafood and pates that have more than their enthusiastic customers in common: everything on offer is both fair-trade and organic. There’s a welcome extension on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the form of Marché Monge, which sells (among other treats), exquisite fresh bread.