Free Things to do in Paris

Today we arrive in Paris, city of lights. We'll most likely be train-lagged from our overnight train from Rome last night. But, before we even get to our hotel, we'll be hitting the ground running taking a Chocolate Tour to discover why Paris is famous for dark chocolate. Since we're far too busy stuffing ourselves silly to post, we'll leave you with our list of favorite free things to do in Paris. A full list can be found on the National Geographic website.

Even though traipsing around pricey Paris might sound like serious damage to your wallet, not to mention your holiday joie de vivre, that's only if you don't know where to look (and when to go). Indulge in some of the City of Light's sweetest luxuries—gratuit—from hidden nooks of authenticity to world-class museums and sights.

Admission is waived at the Louvre, Mona Lisa's home—and one of the most well-known buildings in the world—the first Sunday of each month as well as Bastille Day (July 14). Guests 25 and under get in free on Friday nights from 6 to 9:45 p.m. (except for exhibitions in the Hall Napoléon). Bear in mind: The Louvre is a popular attraction, and lines on free days are predictably extra long.

Explore the greatest hits of Impressionism at the Musée d'Orsay, a tourist-favorite art museum housed in a former train station facing the Seine, for free on first Sundays (always free for kids under 18). On the top level, navigate the crowds to discover world-class paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, and Matisse.

Centre Pompidou, a gaudy architectural exclamation point designed to look like a building turned inside out first opened in 1977 and reopened in 2000 after an extensive renovation. Free first Sundays for everyone and always for those under 18, the Pompidou Center's huge collection spans the 20th century and is a must-see for contemporary and modern art lovers. Plus, the adjacent square by the quirky Stravinsky Fountain is a dynamic spot to bask in Paris's sprawling cross-section of culture.

France's centenarian department store at Galeries Lafayette holds free weekly fashion shows on the seventh floor. Paris is teeming with aspiring artists who are more than happy to display their works to you free of charge, both on the streets and in beautiful art galleries. Art lovers need look no further than the streets surrounding major museums, especially in Montmartre and near the Musée Picasso and Centre Pompidou in the Marais. A few highlights: Galerie Yvon Lambert (108 rue Vieille-du-Temple, tel. +33 [0]1 42 71 09 33 ) for minimalism and conceptual art; and Galerie Maeght (42 rue du Bac, tel. +33 [0]1 45 48 45 15 ) for more traditional art in St-Germain-des-Près. Revel in French fashion Fridays at 3 p.m., March through December, on the seventh floor of France's centenarian department store at Galeries Lafayette's weekly free fashion shows. A team of models flaunt the latest high-couture trends during a 30-minute presentation. Reservations required (e-mail welcome@galerieslafayette.com, tel. +33 [0]1 42 82 36 40 ).

Just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris exhibits art movements from the 20th and 21st centuries—including Fauvism, cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, abstractionism, and more—in the free permanent collection that boasts works by Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall.

Each first Sunday of the month, Auguste Rodin's famous bronze and marble sculptures, including The Thinker and The Kiss, are on display free of charge at the Musée Rodin in the quiet 18th-century Hôtel Biron and its manicured garden.

The free Musée Cernuschi, in a recently expanded and renovated mansion, houses ancient Asian pottery, jade, bronzes, and more bequeathed to the city of Paris by philanthropist Cernuschi in the late 19th century.

Scaling the Eiffel Tower, Paris's most famous icon, has a price, but the view from below is spectacular in its own right, and a perfect backdrop to a leisurely picnic in the surrounding grassy area. Be sure to visit the tower at night when it sparkles each hour with an awe-inspiring ten-minute display of 20,000 glittering white lights.

Cinching Paris in the midsection is the Seine River, which divides the city into the Left and Right Banks. For true romance, slowly stroll the riverbank; for quirky souvenirs, browse the book stalls that line the Left Bank on street-level.

Notre Dame Cathedral (6 Parvis Notre Dame, Place Jean-Paul II, tel. +33 [0]1 42 34 56 10 ) is the historic heart of Paris. All distances from Paris to elsewhere in France are measured from the square in front of the basilica. Snap a photo of your feet planted on the plaque at point zero before entering the cathedral, the masterpiece of French Gothic architecture and one of the most-visited sites in Paris (no admission charged). Be sure to walk the perimeter to glimpse the flying buttresses that support the structure as well as the famous gargoyles. On each first Sunday from October through March there's no fee charged to climb the 387 steps of the North Tower.

Tucked behind the walls of the Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité, the awe-inspiring Gothic Sainte-Chapelle's walls consist of 15 exquisite panels of stained glass and a large rose window. Admission waived on the first Sunday of the month from November through March and always for kids under 18.

In the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur basilica and near where Picasso lived and worked, Montmartre's Place du Tertre square is a lively spectacle teeming with aspiring artists selling souvenir-ready artwork and drawing tourists' portraits.

In the Marais, Paris's impressive Hôtel de Ville (City Hall, 29 rue de Rivoli, tel. +33 [0]1 42 76 43 43 ) features a fountain-laden square and free admission. Much of the grandiose building is off-limits for security reasons, but Parisian exhibits and free information are available in the lobby. See the city from the Promenade Plantée, an elevated railway viaduct leading east from near the Bastille, which is one of the few such linear parks in the world. Steps along the path lead to tiny parks and arcades with public art, people playing sports, and gardens.

Located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, the domed Panthéon was commissioned by Louis XV in the 18th century as a church, but the landmark was converted into a secular mausoleum dedicated to the great men of the French liberation and is known best for its dark marble interior and Corinthian columns. Admission is free first Sundays October through March.

Blow off steam in one of the city's public parks, where grassy knolls are sprinkled with playgrounds and carousels, like the Park André Citroën, Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, Square Willette (in front of Sacre-Coeur), and Jardin des Plantes. Le Petit Ney (10 avenue de la Porte Montmartre, tel. +33 [0]1 42 62 00 00 ), a literary café in Montmartre, organizes a board-game night the first Saturday of the month starting at 7 p.m. Most games are for teenagers and adults, but they always have something appropriate for little tykes as well. No cover charge.

Plot your path through the Père-Lachaise Cemetery with the online virtual tour of the graveyard's celebrity residents, from Oscar Wilde's lipstick-smudged grave to Jim Morrison's modest plot.Established in 1798, the Montmartre Cemetery (20 av. Rachel, tel. +33 [0]1 53 42 36 30 ) hosts the graves of artist Edgar Degas, film director Francois Truffaut, and many more. Pick up a free map near the entrance.

Walk through Montparnasse Cemetery (3 blvd. Edgar Quinet, tel. +33 [0]1 44 10 86 50 ), established in the 1700s, and wend your way past the final resting places of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Simone de Beauvoir, and car maker André Citroën. Free maps are available at the main entrance.

The sprawling grounds of Jardin du Luxembourg, a landscaped garden in the Latin Quarter in the 6th arrondissement, features an 1861 Medicis fountain, several 19th-century statues, and locals relaxing on pleasant afternoons.

Grab a free copy of the bicycling map, "Carte Vélo à Paris," at any tourism office and most bike rental agencies. The map provides help in navigating the city's maze of bike lanes and establishing the most scenic routes.Paris Rando Velo leads free Friday night bike tours of the city, meeting at 9:30 p.m. in front of the Hotel de Ville. Each ride lasts from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The group also hosts similar rides on the third Sunday of the month at 10:30 a.m.