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The best free things to do in Paris

Residents and tourists refresh in the Trocadero fountains in July in Paris.
Residents and tourists refresh in the Trocadero fountains in July in Paris.Martin Bureau / AFP - Getty Images file
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Meeting the Natives
There will be no page number to turn to for guidance here. You're on your own. But meeting the Parisians, and experiencing their cynical metropolitanism, is one of the adventures of traveling to Paris -- and it's free. Tolerance, gentleness, and patience are not their strongest point, and they don't suffer fools gladly but adore eccentrics. Visitors often find Parisians brusque to the point of rudeness and preoccupied with their own affairs. But this hard-boiled crust often protects a soft center. Compliment a surly bistro owner on her cuisine, and -- nine times out of ten -- she'll melt before your eyes. Admire a Parisian's dog or praise a window display, and you'll find a loquaciously knowledgeable companion for the next five minutes. Ask about the correct pronunciation of a French word (before you mispronounce it), and a Parisian might become your language teacher. Try to meet a Parisian halfway with some kind of personalized contact. Only then do you learn their best qualities: their famed charm, their savoir-faire -- and, yes, believe it or not, their delightful courtesy that marks their social life.

Trailing Les Américains
At 35 rue de Picpus, a few blocks from the place de la Nation, is a spot over which the Stars and Stripes have flown for more than a century and a half. It lies in a small secluded cemetery, marking the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette -- the man who forged the chain during the American Revolution that has linked the two countries ever since. Col. Charles E. Stanton came here to utter the famous words, Lafayette, nous voila! ("We are here!") to announce the arrival of the World War I Doughboys on French soil. At the Pont de Grenelle, at Passy, you'll find the original model of the Statue of Liberty that France presented to the people of the United States. One of the most impressive paintings in the Musée de l'Armee shows the Battle of Yorktown which -- however you learned it in school -- was a combined Franco-American victory. And throughout the city you'll keep coming across statues, monuments, streets, squares, and plaques commemorating George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, Generals Pershing and Eisenhower, and scores of lesser Yankee names.

Attending a Free Concert. Summer brings a Paris joy: free concerts in parks and churches all over the city. Pick up an entertainment weekly for details. Some of the best concerts are held at the American Church in Paris, 65 quai d'Orsay, 7e (tel. 01-40-62-05-00; Métro: Invaliders or Alma-Marceau), which sponsors free concerts from September to June on Sunday at 5pm. You can also attend free concerts at Eglise St-Merri, 78 rue St-Martin, 4e (tel. 01-42-74-59-39; Métro: Hôtel-de-Ville). These performances are staged based on the availability of the performers, from September to July on Saturday at 9 p.m. and again on Sunday at 4 p.m.

Hanging Out at the place des Vosges
Deep in the Marais, place des Vosges is more an enchanted island than a city square. This serenely lovely oasis is the oldest square in Paris and the most entrancing. Laid out in 1605 by order of Henry IV, it was the scene of innumerable cavaliers' duels. In the middle is a tiny park where you can sit and sun, listen to the splashing waters of the fountains, or else watch the kids at play. On three sides is an encircling arcaded walk, supported by arches and paved with ancient, worn flagstones. Sit sipping an espresso as the day passes you by. It's our all-time favorite spot in Paris for people-watching.

Viewing Avant Garde Art
Space is too tight to document the dozens of art galleries that abound in Paris, but the true devotee will find that not all great art in Paris is displayed in a museum. There is a tendency, however, for owners to open galleries around major museums, hoping to lure the art lover in. This is especially true around the Musée Picasso and the Centre Pompidou, both in the Marais. Our favorite gallery in the Marais is Galerie 213, 58 rue de Charlot, 3rd (tel. 01-43-22-83-23; Métro: Filles du Calvaire), which is devoted not to painting but to the art of some of France's leading photographers. A real treasure is Galerie Yvon Lambert, 108 rue Vieille-du-Temple, 3rd (tel. 01-42-71-09-33; Métro: St-Sebastien Froissart). Its owners are hailed as the discoverers of minimalism and conceptual art. The more traditional galleries are found in St-Germain-des-Prés, with Galerie Adrien Maeght, 42 rue du Bac, 7e (tel. 01-45-48-45-15;) being the market leader.

Seeing Paris from a Bus
Most tours of Paris are expensive, but for only 1.30 euros ($1.70) you can ride one of the city's public buses traversing some of the most scenic streets. Our favorite is no. 29, which begins at historic Gare St-Lazare (Métro: St-Lazare), subject of Monet's painting La Gare St-Lazare at Musée d'Orsay. Featured in Zola's novel La Bête Humaine, the station also has a bus line. Aboard no. 29, you pass the famous Opera Garnier (home of the Phantom), proceeding into the Marais district, passing by Paris's most beautiful square, place des Vosges. You end up at the Bastille district, home of the new opera. What we like about this bus is that it takes you along the side streets of Paris and not the major boulevards. It's a close encounter with back-street Paris and a cheap way to see the city without commentary.

Strolling the World's Grandest Promenade
Pointing from place de la Concorde like a broad, straight arrow to the Arc de Triomphe at the far end, the Champs-Elysées (the main street of Paris) presents its grandest spectacle at night. Guidebook writers to Paris grow tired of repeating "the most in the world," but, of course, the Champs-Elysées is the world's most famous promenade. For the first third of the stroll from place de la Concorde, the avenue is hedged by chestnut trees. Then it changes into a double row of palatial hotels and shops, movie houses, office buildings, and block after block of sidewalk cafes. The automobile showrooms and gift stores have marred the Belle Epoque elegance of this stretch, but it's still the greatest vantage point from which to watch Paris roll by.

Cooling Off in the Jardin des Tuileries
Right Bank Parisians head to the Tuileries to cool off on a hot summer day. The park stretches from the Right Bank of the Seine from the place de la Concorde to the doorstep of the Louvre. This exquisitely formal garden was laid out as a royal pleasure ground in 1564 but was thrown open to the public by the French Revolution. Filled with statues, fountains, and mathematically trimmed edges, it's a bit too formal for English gardeners who like their green spaces a little wilder. Its nicest feature is a series of round ponds on which kids sail armadas of model boats. Stand on the elevated terrace by the Seine, enjoying panoramic views over Paris, including the Arc de Triomphe and the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre. The sculptures by Rodin aren't bad either. Food stands or cafes with refreshing drinks await you.

For more on what to see and do in Paris, visit our complete guide online at

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