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exploring the city of art – on a shoestring

Lisa van Aswegen; Supplied


Affectionately known as the City of Love, the City of Light and more recently, the City of Art, Paris is home to art in all forms, including classic and cutting-edge architecture, amazing interiors, avant-garde fashion and inspiring performing arts. There’s no getting past the fact that Europe – and the French capital in particular – is an eye-wateringly expensive destination for anyone travelling on rands, but the good news is that it is possible to visit the city on a budget, leaving cash for spoils along the way.

Grand designs

The first thing you’ll notice when exploring Paris is the incredible architecture that surrounds you, from the grand boulevards of the Right Bank and medieval alleys in the Latin Quarter to the Gothic flying buttresses of Notre-Dame Cathedral and the iconic glass-and-metal Louvre Pyramid, designed for the museum by Chinese-American architect IM Pei. If you want to take it all in from above, walk up the steps of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica church in Montmartre for a free view that more than makes up for the steep climb.

The iconic glass-and-metal Musée du Louvre Pyramid
The Sacré Coeur

A lesser-known gem that dazzles with 180-degree views is La Terrasse on the rooftop of the famous Galeries Lafayette Haussmann department store. After admiring all the international brands inside, make your way to the store’s terrace on the seventh floor to sip a glass of bubbly at Cube Bar, eat a snack at Mediterranean restaurant La Paillote or simply take in the vistas of the city and its landmarks.

Glass of bubbly at Cube Bar, on the rooftop of Galerier Lafayette

Situated next door is the Palais Garnier, the famous 19th-century opera house designed by French architect Charles Garnier for Emperor Napoleon III. Booking in advance can be quite pricey, so if you don’t mind which performance you watch, get in line at the box office from 11.30am for cheap tickets that cost as little as €10 for a show that night. No matter what’s on – and it could be anything from modern dance to a full-scale opera production – get to the theatre an hour before it starts, as there are often warm-up performances in the foyer and open spaces. You’ll need ample time to take in this magnificent Beaux Arts building, with its Grand Staircase, gilded decorations, intricate mosaics and breathtaking paintings and sculptures. Once you’re inside the opulent red-and-gold auditorium, you may find your view of the stage obstructed, because the cheap seats are often in the gods, but there’s plenty else at which to gaze. Look up at the colourful ceiling painted in 1964 by Marc Chagall that pays homage to 14 major composers and their oeuvres, and marvel at the original bronze-and-glass chandelier designed by Garnier himself. And remember to look out for Box 5 – it’s kept open for the phantom, because the Palais Garnier was the setting of French writer Gaston Leroux’s famous novel The Phantom of the Opera.

The Palais Garnier in the magnificent Beaux Arts building.

Monumental attractions

For a cost-conscious infusion of art, visit the gardens of Musée Rodin, a museum dedicated to the works of French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Housed in the Hôtel Biron, an 18th-century mansion, the building’s facade is a masterpiece in its own right, and for a fraction of the price of museum entry, you can stroll around the exquisitely tended 3ha gardens. As well as classic French landscaping and two themed walks, you’ll find full-sized sculptures by the artist, including his works ‘The Thinker’, ‘The Burghers of Calais’ and ‘The Gates of Hell’.

Sadly, I think a trip up the Eiffel Tower is overrated, with queues and thronging masses putting a damper on the experience. That said, the tower remains an impressive sight and can be enjoyed for free from the Place du Trocadéro across the river Seine. Also the location of the Palais de Chaillot, which houses three notable museums as well as a café and theatre, this marbled terrace is an excellent vantage point for views of the monument. Wake up early to see the sun rise through the wrought-iron lattice, or wait until darkness falls and the 324m-high structure is illuminated, a tradition that dates back to 1985. For an extra dose of magic, watch the Eiffel tower sparkle as 20 000 twinkling lights are lit for five minutes every hour on the hour from nightfall until 1am.

Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

A taste of le good life

In Paris, food is as close to an art form as you’ll get, and there are plenty of authentic and affordable options. Stop in at any neighbourhood market for an array of fresh produce, baked goods, charcuterie, cheeses and local wines, then set out to find a picnic spot that suits your fancy. Do as the locals do and settle next to the river Seine to watch the world go by, or else luxuriate in the picture-perfect Luxembourg Garden in Paris’s Left Bank. The site of Luxembourg Palace and the Medici Fountain, both of which date back to the 1600s, the 23ha garden was the first of its kind to be influenced by the Italian Baroque style and boasts immaculate lawns, numerous sculptures and the Grand Bassin pond, where children can play with 1920s toy sailboats.

Grand Bassin pond, Jardin du Luxembourg

Brunch has become a Parisian institution, especially when it involves people-watching and pastries. Located on Île Saint-Louis, a natural island in the river Seine connected to the rest of Parisby four bridges, Café Saint-Régis is a favourite for those craving a delicious omelette or croque-monsieur. It also offers a special Sunday brunch menu that can be enjoyed on the terrace.

In the Jewish quarter of the historic Le Marais district, which has more pre-revolutionary buildings and streets than any other part of Paris, kosher falafel is the king of street food, making L’As du Fallafel a must-visit. The eatery is known for pitas stuffed with fresh salad, crisp falafel and tahini, with a dollop of spicy relish. It may not be the prettiest meal, but it’s a scrumptious offering that will set you up for the rest of the afternoon. When suppertime rolls around, avoid the overpriced brasseries and head to L’Ilot, an unassuming but very popular neighbourhood seafood joint. It presents a daily selection of fish and shellfish from the French coasts, so get ready to rub shoulders with the cool set as you enjoy moreish tarama, tuna and bream ceviche, tiny grey shrimp, sea urchins, oysters and platters of crustaceans.

For a little late-night revelry, head to Le Ballroom, a hip cocktail bar and club in the basement of Beef Club steakhouse. Behind its unmarked black door, this place has a delightful speakeasy vibe and features a tiled ceiling, vintage-feel wallcoverings, Chesterfield sofas and velvet furniture. The star of the show is the cocktail menu – not surprising, considering that Le Ballroom is the latest venture from the team behind the influential Experimental Cocktail Club, a stylish group of social lounges in London, Ibiza and New York. From the cardamom-infused Pondicherry Mule to signature concoctions made with elderflower syrup, these are not your run-of-the-mill cocktails.

Edible treats are a brilliant way to take a piece of the Parisian foodie scene home with you, and also make for excellent gifts. Tea-lovers will adore Mariage Frères’ selection of gourmet teas from around the world, while those with a sweet tooth should pop into one of Ladurée’s Baroque-inspired shops around the city for swoon-worthy macarons in flavours such as rose petal and salted butter caramel.

Macarons at Ladurée

Out and about

Paris is remarkably compact for a major capital, and is best explored on foot. Don a pair of comfortable shoes and take in the cobbled walkways, store windows and street stalls that you would normally miss when in a vehicle. For nighttime adventures, Ubers are far more reasonable than taxis. If you want to use public transport, the ticket offices and machines in metro stations sell individual and booklets of tickets that can be used on buses and city trains as well as the Metro. At €16 for 10 tickets (as opposed to €1.90 for one) it’s cheaper to buy a booklet.

Cycling enthusiasts can also make use of the self-service Vélib’ cycle scheme, which is available 24 hours a day and also offers city tours. Simply buy a one- or seven-day ticket online or at any Vélib’ station, and follow the on-screen instructions. The first 30 minutes of every trip are free, and there are 1 800 Vélib’ stations located around the city.

Self-service 'Vélib' cycles
The Beef Club Ballroom, Paris, France
Montmartre Cemetery
The city of romance
Ile Saint-Louis, Notre Dame
Paris rooftops
Paris metro
Jardin du Luxembourg
La Cité de L'Architecture et du Patrimoine (The City of Architecture and Heritage)
Tourists in front of the entrance of the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris
La Cigale