Can you still indulge in a city that embraces fun while staying on a budget? I discovered.
It’s embarrassing to say that Paris is one of my favorite places in the world. It sounds so basic, even cheugy – the pumpkin spice latte of the trip. But it’s not the Eiffel Tower, pancakes and the “Emily in Paris” version of the city that I love; it’s the neighborhood cheese shops, walkability, chic residents, and unhurried restaurant service. This is a city that embraces fun at every turn, from fresh baked goods to public displays of affection.
After nearly a dozen other visits, I returned to Paris last month. It wasn’t like work trips that took me to some of the fanciest hotels in town, and not quite like personal trips where I stayed in the cheapest Airbnbs possible. Instead, I adopted something in the middle, staying in a private room in a hostel and sticking to an average budget. I documented two days of my attempt to balance the lifestyle of a bon vivant with the responsibilities of working on East Coast time.
11:43 a.m., an offbeat coffee in the sun
I should have woken up earlier, but I work DC time while I’m in Paris. My late checkout meant I missed the free coffee and pastries at the Caulaincourt Square hostel. This is by far the best hostel I have stayed in recently; infinitely nicer than my time in London and more private than the dorm in Jackson Hole. I leave my walk-up room on the fifth floor, sit down at a sunny sidewalk café for a café noisette (an espresso with a splash of hot milk) and check my email.
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1:20 p.m., an eBike with the perfect sandwich
It’s sandwich time for breakfast. In one of his recent newsletters, chef, author and Parisian resident David Lebovitz called Le Petit Vendôme his favorite sandwich shop. I rent a Lime e-bike and opt for a Cantal ham and cheese baguette (plus butter) for $7.50. I take her to the Jardin des Tuileries, a garden near the Louvre, and I eat on a park bench. The sandwich and the setting are divine. I’m in pork heaven.
Takeaway: Paris has so many ways to get around. The Paris metro is one of the best public transport systems; one way tickets start around $2. You’ll find bike and moped rentals everywhere from providers like Uber, Lime, Velib’ and Cityscoot.
2:30 p.m., an expensive lemonade
Paris may be full of cafes, but few people use their laptops there. I sought advice from Meg Zimbeck, the founder and editor of restaurant review site and food tour company Paris by Mouth. She said remote work in public was normalizing and recommended a coworking place called Anticafé.
I go, and the barista tells me it’s about $6.50 an hour or $28 for the day. The rates covered whatever coffee, tea or soft drinks you wanted (if your coffee order exceeded the hourly or daily rate, you paid whichever was higher). I have a lemonade and a table by a window. It was a productive setting, but the biggest perk was borrowing a phone charger from the barista. I stay three hours, it costs 18 €. This is the most expensive lemonade I’ve ever had.
Takeaway: A writer friend living in Paris told me that when she wants to work outside her apartment, she goes to hotel lobbies that serve coffee or even a Starbucks. It’s not as romantic, but there’s still WiFi.
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8 p.m., walk and work
After leaving Anticafé, I walked around and tackled the park bench emails – a tourism-work combo. I gave a euro to a guitarist from the Louvre. My grandfather was a jazz drummer for 50 years and always told me to “tip the band”.
I meet a friend at Brasserie Bellanger, which he describes as “very well liked” with “good food for cheap”. We linger over a glass of wine before ordering a chicken liver mousse ($7.50) to start and a steak tartare ($15). I knew I had a phone interview at 10:15 p.m., but I didn’t think about the logistics.
By the time the tartare arrives, I have half an hour before roll call begins. I still need to eat, pay and go somewhere quiet. My friend offers his apartment as a place, and we shovel our meal. Not very French.
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With more calls to make and a story to work on, I leave my friend’s apartment and walk to my hostel. I buy a dozen postcards in a corny tourist shop along the way.
9:30 a.m., free at the hostel
It was easier to wake up at a reasonable time (9 a.m.) after going to bed at a reasonable time (1:30 a.m.). I’m just in time for the free coffee and croissants downstairs. During my breakfast, I work at a table with a view of the green garden. It’s lovely, but I miss people watching – half the reason I come to Paris.
Before going to lunch, I’ll go for a jog and pass iconic points of interest like Sacré-Cœur (The Basilica of the Sacred Heart) and Le Clos Montmartre, a veritable vineyard in the middle of Montmartre.
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12:50 p.m., madness for lunch
It takes three tries to find a Lime e-bike that works. By the time I arrive at Café les deux Gares, the friends I meet have already ordered a few bottles of wine. My budget is gone.
From the set menu, I order the appetizer and main combination for $21.50. FOMO (fear of missing out) hits immediately, and I upgrade to three classes for $25.75 to join the others. It’s not a big difference in price and yet it’s much more extravagant. It is not the extra course that will be my downfall; our drinks are skyrocketing. I keep this inner battle to myself.
We order a lot more wine and feast on oysters, sardines, sausages, bread and cheese for dessert. Split between the five of us, our two-hour lunch cost about $65 each.
To take away: the name of a place counts in France. Bistros tend to be more casual and inexpensive and are open for lunch and dinner; brasseries generally serve French cuisine until late at night; cafes focus on beverages; and restaurants cover the rest.
3:30 p.m., Zoom meetings on a sidewalk
After my gourmet lunch, I need to find a place to work now that the East Coast working day is in full swing.
Some canopies of cafes, brasseries and tobacconists — places that sell tobacco but may also have a bar or cafe — have “WiFi” advertised next to happy hour hours and the type of food they serve . Waiter at a brasserie says it’s good to work on my laptop, brings the WiFi password and a glass of rosé – not that I need more wine after lunch, but that’s one of the cheapest items on the menu. I’m taking a Zoom meeting while a group of very cool young people chain smoke at the table next to me.
6:13 p.m., a few euros for fiber
The brewery is starting to fill up, and I don’t want to extend my welcome. It’s been ages since I’ve eaten fruit, so I buy a banana ($2.15) at a kiosk and eat while walking. Along the way, I buy stamps for my postcards ($17).
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8:30 p.m., pâté at the children’s table
More emails and walking. It’s technically dinner time, and I’m close to a place I wanted to try, Bistrot Paul Bert. Even if I’m not hungry, I go.
The waiter has a one-person table available – a corner seat wedged between the bar and the front window, tucked behind a supporting post. I feel like a kid in dead time, but the place has a nice (semi-obstructed) view of other diners.
The French words for “tap water” escape me, so I order water the other way I know: “a bottle of mineral water, please” (a bottle of mineral water , please). The waiter brings me my designer water bottle. My Evian is almost as much as my meal – a plate of homemade country terrine (like a rustic pâté) with pickles, greens and a basket of crusty bread, plus a glass of wine.
10:30 p.m., last drink in the red light district
I take a seat at a sidewalk table at the Royal Bar in Pigalle, a red-light district with lots of bars as well as the Moulin Rouge. The place is super cheap: $3.20 for a glass of pastis, an aniseed spirit that you dilute with water. I try to make it last longer but I add way too much water. Glass ruined or not, I’m happy to write my postcards and listen to conversations in French that I don’t understand.
After my last drink, it’s back to the hostel for a bit of work before going to bed.
With my budget, I had plenty of money to spend a decadent time in Paris. I could have been more careful to be more economical. Waking up late cost me a free breakfast. The coworking space was not a good use of $19. Being too embarrassed to use English instead of French made me spend $6 on a bottle of water I didn’t want. That’s life.
The trickiest lesson to learn was how to plan my work schedule realistically. I focused on aligning time zones for calls and meetings rather than where I should be for them. More often than not, I struggled to find quiet or WiFi. Give yourself plenty of time before important appointments in case you mess up transportation to your hotel or if a restaurant meal takes longer than expected. Packing as much as you can into a frenetic schedule is a rookie mistake for travelers, anyway.