My favourite Parisian food street is found on the eclectic, electric Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, offering both cheap and cheerful classic French dishes and a rainbow choice of ethnic cuisines: Turk, Kurd, Indian, Senegalese, Lebanese.
For traditional cuisine, Bouillon Julien is unbeatable with sumptuous art nouveau decor and a genuinely inexpensive menu; eggs mayonnaise €3.90, beer-braised choucroute €11. Just be prepared to queue for a table. Further up the street, Le Daily Syrien Veggie offers tasty mezze, while Urfa Dürüm’s hand-rolled wraps take some beating.
The best eating-out deals are always at lunchtime, with bistrots proposing an affordable plat du jour or a set menu, while neighbourhood bakeries offer bargain lunches, often at a table on their pavement terrace – a thick baguette sandwich, pâtisserie and soft drink for €6-8.
Right in the heart of the Latin Quarter, lunch at L’Assignat resembles a 1960s French movie: walls covered with exhibition posters, Sorbonne students at the bar, happy foodies tucking into plates of homemade paté and blanquette de veau (€14 set lunch), prepared in the minuscule kitchen by cheerful chef-owner Gérard. Not many authentic places like this exist any more.
Remember that most Parisian neighbourhoods have their own market where you can find food stalls or enjoy a plate of oysters outside the fishmonger. Bistrots around Paris train stations always offer great deals, like my local Le Relais Diderot, where chef Ali, an Algerian Berber, stays open all day serving a hearty vegetarian couscous for €9 or French dishes of the day like steak frites or boeuf bourguignon (€9.50).
The Paris town hall oversees almost a dozen small, offbeat museums which do not charge admission. My favourites are the Carnavalet, illustrating the history of the City of Light, recently reopened after a splendid restoration; and up in Pigalle, the Musée de la Vie Romantique is a hidden gem. While the Grand Palais is closed for renovations, the permanent collection of the equally ornate Petit Palais is free every day, as is the grander Musée d’Art Moderne right opposite the Eiffel Tower. And there is always a free temporary exhibition inside the grandiose Hôtel de Ville itself; right now, Capitale(s) is dedicated to Parisian street art.
For those who really want to hit the blockbuster museums, on the first Sunday of each month there is free entry (online reservation obligatory) to most museum permanent collections (not temporary shows), from the Louvre’s masterpieces to the fabulous impressionists of L’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay.
The historic Père Lachaise cemetery is the single Parisian sight I come back to over and over again. It is a tranquil oasis where I like getting lost, always finding new discoveries hidden among the narrow maze of winding alleyways lined with thousands of ornate tombs, leaving the tourists poring over their maps to track down the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust and Marcel Marceau.
There is a wonderful waterside walk along Canal Saint-Martin, with its funky bars and bistros, up to the Bassin de la Villette, where barges moored on the quayside of what is now the Ourcq Canal serve as venues for live concerts, until the waterway enters the giant Villette Park, perfect for a picnic on a sunny day.
Rather than join the crowds at Montmartre’s iconic Sacré-Coeur, I prefer to jump on the high-speed RER underground to the equally impressive Saint-Denis Basilica, where nearly all of France’s kings are buried. The gritty Saint-Denis suburb is a world away from the centre of Paris, with a teeming Saturday street market and raucous African diners, but the 12th-century Gothic cathedral never fails to take my breath away.
Many Parisians’ favourite green space is Jardin des Plantes, an ancient botanical garden dating back 400 years, which is a riot of colourful flowers and exotic plants.
For bargain shopping, forget about famous-name department stores like Galeries Lafayette and head to one of the great weekend flea markets. Guide books will say Clignancourt is the biggest and best, but I prefer the scruffy Puces de Montreuil, great for vintage fashions.
Bars and cafes
Leaving behind the thrumming nightlife scene along the funky Rue Oberkampf, I prefer to carry on to what for me is the ultimate rock’n’roll neighbourhood bar, Aux Folies in Belleville. Surrounded by the glitzy retro decor of a 19th-century cabaret, with great music on the sound system, grab a table and order a glass of house wine, a pint or pastis for €3-4, then chill out and enjoy this slice of local Parisian life.
Over at the now trendy food and flea market at Place d’Aligre, Le Penty stubbornly resists gentrification, with the genial patron, Monsieur Jojo, serving their signature tall glasses of steaming mint tea with crunchy pine nuts for €2.30. Weekend shoppers tuck into a tasty croque monsieur, locals crowd round the bar, while market traders and green-uniformed street cleaners stream in and out for a quick coffee. For Saturday-night bar-hopping, just head back to Faubourg Saint-Denis which teems with party-goers till the early hours.
Kick off at the street’s cheapest watering hole and with the longest happy hour, the wild corner bar Le Château d’Eau. There’s no guarantee what time you will get home. On Sunday evenings, the seething bar-bistrot Le Quartier Rouge hosts free live jazz sessions from 6pm. They serve tasty food, and there’s no concert surcharge on drinks – just be sure to drop some cash in the hat for the musicians.
Where to stay
Generator Paris has hostel dorms and private double rooms – plus a funky rooftop bar – near Gare du Nord for Eurostar, from €23pp in a dorm or from €78 for a basic double. For a more local trendy hostel, The People in Paris Nation (also with rooftop bar) offers a bed in an eight-bed dorm from €31.50pp.