Can you still indulge in a city that embraces pleasure while sticking to a budget? I found out.
I’m embarrassed to say that Paris is one of my favorite places in the world. It sounds so easy, even cheugy – the pumpkin spice latte of the journey. But it’s not the Eiffel Tower, crepes and the “Emily in Paris” version of the city that I love; it’s the cheese shops in the neighborhood, the easy walking distance, the chic residents and the relaxed service in the restaurants. It’s a city that welcomes indulgence at every turn, from fresh pastries to public declarations of love.
After almost a dozen more visits, I returned to Paris last month. It wasn’t like the business trips, which landed me in some of the fanciest hotels in town, and not quite like the private trips, where I stayed in the cheapest Airbnbs. Instead I took something in the middle, stayed in a private room in a boutique hostel and stuck to a medium budget. I documented two days of my attempt to balance the lifestyle of a bon vivant with the responsibilities of working on the east coast.
11:43 am, jet-lagged coffee in the sun
I should have woken up earlier but I’m working on DC time while I’m in Paris. My late start means I missed Caulaincourt Square Hostel’s free coffee and pastries. This is by far the best hostel I’ve stayed in recently; infinitely nicer than my stay in London and more private than the dorm in Jackson Hole. I leave my walk-in room on the fifth floor, sit down at a sunny sidewalk café for a café noisette (an espresso with some hot milk) and check my email.
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1:20 p.m., with the eBike to the perfect sandwich
It’s sandwich-for-breakfast time. In a recent newsletter, chef, author and Paris resident David Lebovitz named Le Petit Vendôme his favorite sandwich shop. I rent a Lime eBike and buy a baguette with ham and Cantal cheese (plus butter) for $7.50. I take it to the Jardin des Tuileries, a garden near the Louvre, and eat on a park bench. Both the sandwich and the setting are divine. I’m in pig heaven.
Bottom line: Paris has so many ways to get around. The Paris Métro is one of them best public transport systems; disposable tickets Start with about $2. You can find bike and moped rentals everywhere from providers like Uber, Lime, Velib’ and Cityscoot.
2:30 p.m., an expensive lemonade
Paris may be teeming with cafes, but not many people use their laptops in them. I asked Meg Zimbeck, the founder and editor-in-chief of restaurant review website and tour operator Paris by Mouth, for advice. She said remote work in public is being normalized and recommended a co-working spot called Anticafé.
I leave and the barista explains it’s about $6.50 an hour or $28 for the day. Prices covered any coffee, tea or soft drink you wanted (if your coffee order exceeded the hourly or daily rate, you paid the highest price). I have a lemonade and a table by the window. It was a productive environment but the biggest perk was being able to borrow a phone charger from the barista. I stay three hours and cost 18 €. It’s the most expensive lemonade I’ve ever had.
Conclusion: A writer living in Paris told me that when she wants to work outside of her home, she goes to hotel lobbies where coffee is served, or even to a Starbucks. It’s not that romantic, but there’s always WiFi.
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8 p.m., walking and working
After leaving the Anticafé, I walked around and checked emails from park benches—a sightseeing-working combination. I gave a euro to a guitarist from the Louvre. My grandpa was a jazz drummer for 50 years and always told me to tip the band.
I’m meeting a friend at Brasserie Bellanger, which he described as ‘super popular’ with ‘good food for little money’. We linger over a glass of wine before ordering chicken liver mousse ($7.50) to start and tartare ($15). I knew I had a phone interview at 10:15 p.m., but I didn’t think about the logistics.
Until the tartare arrives I have half an hour before the call starts. I still have to eat, pay and go somewhere quiet. My friend offers his apartment as a place and we shovel down our food. Not very French.
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With other calls and a story to work on, I leave my boyfriend’s apartment and head to my hostel. On the way I buy a dozen postcards in a kitschy tourist shop.
9:30 am, freebies at the hostel
It was easier to wake up at a reasonable time (9am) after going to sleep at a reasonable time (1:30am). I’m just in time for the complimentary coffee and croissants downstairs. During my breakfast I work at a table overlooking the green garden. It’s beautiful, but I miss people-watching – half the reason I come to Paris.
Before going to lunch, I go jogging and pass famous sites like the Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) and Le Clos Montmartre, a real winery in the middle of Montmartre.
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12:50 p.m., a breather for lunch
It takes three tries to find a working Lime eBike. When I arrive at Café les deux Gares, the friends I’m meeting up with have already ordered a few bottles of wine. My budget is doomed.
From the set menu, I order the appetizer and entree combo for $21.50. FOMO (fear of missing out) hits immediately and I switch to three courses for $25.75 to join the others. It’s not a huge price difference and yet it feels a lot more extravagant. It’s not the extra course that will be my downfall; our drinks run up the bill. I keep this inner struggle to myself.
We order a lot more wine and feast on oysters, sardines, sausage, bread and cheese for dessert. Split between the five of us, our two-hour lunch costs about $65 each.
Takeaway: How a place is called is important in France. Bistros tend to be more casual and less expensive, and are open for lunch and dinner. Brasseries typically serve French food late into the night; Cafes focus on drinks; and restaurants cover the rest.
3:30 p.m., Zoom meetings on a sidewalk
After my sumptuous lunch, now that the East Coast work day is in full swing, I need to find a job.
Some awnings of cafes, brasseries, and tabacs — places that sell tobacco but may also have a bar or coffee shop — have “WiFi” next to happy hour times and what type of food they serve. The waiter at a brasserie says it’s okay to work on my laptop, brings the wifi password and a glass of rosé – not that I need more wine after lunch, but it’s one of the cheapest menu items. I’m attending a Zoom meeting while a group of very cool youngsters are chain smoking at the next table.
6:13 p.m., a few euros for some fiber
The brasserie is starting to fill up and I don’t want to overstep my welcome. It’s been ages since I’ve eaten fruit, so I buy a banana ($2.15) from a grocery stand and eat on the go. On the way I buy stamps for my postcards ($17).
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20:30 pâté at the children’s table
More emails and walking. It’s technically dinner time and I’m near a place I wanted to try, Bistrot Paul Bert. Even though I’m not hungry, I do it.
The server has a table available for one person – a corner seat wedged between the bar and the front glass, hidden behind a supporting pole. It feels like I’m a kid on a break, but the place has a nice (semi-obscured) view of the other guests.
I can’t remember the French words for “tap water”, so I order the water differently than I know it: “une bouteille d’eau minérale, s’il vous plait” (a bottle of mineral water, please). The waiter brings me my bottle of designer water. My Evian is almost as much as my food – a plate of terrine de campagne maison (like a rustic pie) with gherkins, some vegetables and a basket of crusty bread, accompanied by a glass of wine.
10:30pm nightcap in the red light district
I take a seat at a table on the sidewalk at Le Royal Bar in Pigalle, a red-light district with lots of bars and the Moulin Rouge. The place is super cheap: $3.20 for a glass of pastis, an anise-flavored liquor that you dilute with water. I’m trying to make it last longer but add way too much water. Spoiled drink or not, I enjoy writing my postcards and overhearing French conversations that I don’t understand.
After my nightcap, it’s back to the hostel for some work before bed.
With my budget I had enough money to spend a decadent time in Paris. I could have been more careful to be more frugal. Waking up late cost me a free breakfast. The coworking space wasn’t a good use of $19. I was too embarrassed to use English instead of French which made me waste $6 on a bottle of water I didn’t want. So life is.
The harder lesson was planning my work schedule realistically. I focused on whether the time zones for calls and meetings were aligned, rather than where I should be for them. Mostly I was looking for quiet or wifi. Give yourself plenty of time before important appointments in case you mess up transportation back to your hotel or a meal takes longer than expected. Packing as much as possible into a hectic schedule is a rookie mistake for travelers anyway.