Penny-wise in Paris

Places to feel liberated from overspending, to feel close to the underappreciated

Raoul Dufy's 6,450-square-foot mural, ''La Fée Electricité'' (1937), at the city-run free Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris.
Raoul Dufy's 6,450-square-foot mural, ''La Fée Electricité'' (1937), at the city-run free Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / December 14, 2008
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Songwriters, poets, and memoirists all have had plenty to say about the City of Light, but none of them ever claimed it was cheap. Even with closet-sized hotel rooms at $200 a night and coffee at $3 per half inch, there are ways to see Paris on a tight budget.

Savvy travelers know, for example, that admission to the Louvre museum is free on Bastille Day and on the first Sunday of the month. If you decide not to stand in a long line of penny pinchers, the roughly $12 admission is still a bargain. So is the $15 fare to ride the elevator to the Eiffel Tower's top observation deck, an experience that no one but the most severe acrophobe should miss. Better yet, admission to Notre-Dame, the city's Gothic cathedral, is always free.

A surprising number of Paris attractions are free. Few achieve the majesty of Notre-Dame, but they are hardly also-rans. Our favorites include unsung art museums and intimate "personality" museums where you glimpse the private lives of cultural giants. Some of these sites are a bit out of the way, but strolling the streets of Paris is a fabulous cheap thrill, as is exploring the less central arron dissements. Who knows? You might even meet a few budget-conscious Parisians.

Two art museums offer a virtual crib course in Western art from antiquity to the 21st century. The Petit Palais serves as the people's Louvre, representing every era from ancient Greece and Rome to the onset of World War I. Awash with natural light from windows and skylights, the building was constructed for the 1900 World's Fair and was recently renovated to regain its Belle Époque grandeur. The most striking permanent galleries chronicle the 19th century revolution in landscape painting that began with Courbet's Realism and culminated in the lush Impressionism of Sisley and Monet. Curators play around with the galleries, sometimes hanging contemporary work next to historical pieces, and integrating decorative arts - Art Nouveau furniture, Japonisme ceramics - with the painting and sculpture.

The building that houses the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris dates from another World's Fair (1937), and its original collections came from the Petit Palais in 1961. A recent renovation places the 9,000 works of mostly 20th-century art in bright settings.

You could spend hours wandering the galleries - or simply concentrate on the museum's show-stoppers. Two versions of Matisse's sinuous, joyous cartoons for "La Danse," a mural triptych he executed in Philadelphia in 1932, fill immense below-ground halls. In the high-vaulted upper gallery, Raoul Dufy's monumental 197-by-33-foot mural of the history of electricity wraps around three walls. Commissioned for the 1937 fair, La Fée Electricité celebrates the union of nature and technology. It still mesmerizes crowds; watch for Parisians pointing out historic scientists and philosophers to their children.

While we favor the sidewalk crepes stands and kiosks for a quick bite ($3-$6), there's hardly a better place in the city for a casual sit-down lunch than the terrace cafe of the Museum of Modern Art, with its exquisite view of the Eiffel Tower.

If you prefer to focus on one artist in depth rather than the sweep of art history, two small museums illuminate how a pair of modern sculptors worked. The Atelier Brancusi, Constantin Brancusi's studio from 1928 until his death in 1957, was carefully reconstructed in a Renzo Piano building in the Marais district. The studio preserves Brancusi's important works (or plaster casts of them) exactly as the artist placed them to create an assemblage that he believed was a complete work in itself. The more sedate Zadkine Museum, located in a lush green courtyard behind high walls in a residential neighborhood, has the feel of an artist's escape. The home and studio of Ossip Zadkine and his painter wife, Valentine Prax, is filled with graceful small works by the sculptor while some of his more monumental pieces, inspired by primitive art, rise like totems in the garden.

We're always surprised to find painters at their easels copying the paintings in the Carnavalet Museum, which chronicles life in Paris - or more accurately, how the better half lived. In one Louis XV-style salon, the loud ticking of the ornate mantel clocks seems to signal the time running out for the aristocracy. Nearby is a reconstruction of the chamber where the royal family was held in the Tower of Paris. Just outside its cozy confines hang paintings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the guillotine. It probably takes a patriotic Frenchman to appreciate the detailed displays related to the French Revolution, but lush paintings of 19th-century cafes, gardens, and nightclubs evoke the "Gay Paree" of travelers' dreams. Sometimes the museum is touchingly personal, even re-creating, for example, the bedchamber of the ultimate aesthete, Marcel Proust.

Another French literary light lived just down the street on Place des Vosges. The Victor Hugo House is tucked into one corner of the parklike square. The recurring plague of "Les Miz" revivals has encouraged curators to focus on his best-known novel, "Les Misérables," but hints of the poet, essayist, novelist, and champion of human rights persist in the details: a collection of his quill pens, a thick handwritten manuscript, even the carved canopy bed where Hugo (1802-85) took his rest.

It's almost an exercise in orienteering to find the house of Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) in the Passy neighborhood. It's tucked into a hillside with an entrance gate above and a back door below where the beleaguered author could exit when creditors came calling. The workaholic Balzac - "The Human Comedy" contains about 100 related stories, plays, and novels - is everywhere in evidence. It's easy to picture Balzac in his study and the rest of the house full of manuscripts, book pages, and illustrations representing his prodigious output. The most touching displays recount Balzac's passion for Madame Hanska, whom he loved at a distance for years and married only five months before his death.

When Balzac expired - some think of sheer exhaustion, as he wrote as much as 20 hours daily - it fell to his friend Victor Hugo to deliver the eulogy over his grave in Division 48 of Père Lachaise Cemetery. Officially the "East Cemetery," Père Lachaise contains more than 300,000 intermingled graves of the famous and the humble. As such, it sometimes seems like the Parisian version of the Homes of the Stars tour in Hollywood. The cemetery obligingly provides celebrity lists and quadrant locations on plaques near the entrances, but some fans employ more technological means. On our last visit, we watched a young man ignore the maps and consult his GPS. He wandered through tangles of graves as he homed in on his hero, rock musician Jim Morrison.

When we joined him there, we were obviously the only mourners in evidence old enough to have heard the Doors when Morrison was still alive. As equal opportunity music fans, we followed the circumferential road up the hill to reach the final resting place of the Little Sparrow, Edith Piaf. It was covered with fresh bouquets of seasonal fall flowers, and not-so-seasonal roses for the woman still known for singing "La Vie en Rose." As we looked on, a local woman admired the display. "My husband is buried here," she said. "When I come to visit him, I just walk around and visit other people. It makes me feel better."

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay

Hôtel du Continent

30 rue du Mont-Thabor


Just off the Place de la Concorde. The cozy rooms are designed to make maximum use of small space. Walk-in rates start around $230 for a double, but ad-vance booking on the Web can snare the same room starting at $155.

Where to eat

Lafayette Gourmet

40 Boulevard Haussmann


Mingled among the displays in the sixth-floor food and wine emporium are several small cafes. Lunch $10.50-$16.

Fauchon Café

30 Place de la Madeleine


Skip the formal upstairs restaurant in favor of the casual deli-cafe with tall tables and umbrellas out on the sidewalk. Pastries $5-$7.50.

What to do

Admission to the permanent collections of the following museums is free. Most of them are open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For a list of all free museums visit

Petit Palais

Avenue Winston Churchill


Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris

11 Avenue du Président Wilson


Cafe pastries and sandwiches $3.75-$7.

Atelier Brancusi

Plaza in front of Pompidou Centre at rue Rambuteau


Wednesday-Monday 2-6 p.m.

Zadkine Museum

100 bis rue d'Assas


Carnavalet Museum

23 rue de Sévigné


Bring your laptop: There's free Wi-Fi in the garden.

Victor Hugo House

6 Place des Vosges


Balzac House

47 rue Raynouard


Père Lachaise Cemetery

16 rue du Repos

Entrances on rue des Rondeaux, boulevard de Ménilmontant, and rue de la Réunion


Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.- 5:30 p.m., Sunday 9-5:30; March-November closes at 6.

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