Travel Cheap: Went to Paris, Skipped The Louvre
We went to Paris and didn’t go to the Louvre. Yep, it’s another edition of Travel Cheap with Mr. and Mrs. Frugalwoods. I’ve talked about our courageous palates and willingness to travel at unusual times in the past. Today, I’m sharing my cheapo sightseeing tips.
Use Your Feet
Walking a city is equal parts frugal and the best way to truly experience the local culture. A decent map, a willingness to get lost, shoes (optional), and a sack-o-food are all key to personalized walkabouts. While I’ve shared previously that guide book restaurant suggestions miss the mark nearly every time, the walking tours are totes fabulous! I recommend Rick Steves’ tours in particular. If I were a normal person, and not a frugal weirdo, I’d suggest you buy his guide books. But let’s be honest, you’re probably a frugal weirdo too and wouldn’t anyway. So, go ahead. Check it out from the library and photocopy the pages you need. We both know you’re going to.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I have wandered into the most interesting neighborhoods on foot and been fascinated by poking around true local haunts. Haven’t been arrested for trespassing yet, so we must be doing it right. Public transit is fantastic for far-flung destinations, but short rides around a city can really add up. Best to walk if at all possible.
If you’re an intrepid cyclist with a helmet in your suitcase, many cities offer bike rentals. As long as you’re able to safely navigate foreign traffic lanes and avoid offending locals with your spandex bike shorts, this is an excellent option as well.
Would you enjoy a brief anecdote about why is walking so great? Here you go: In Krakow, Poland we discovered the Krakus Mound. Contrary to what you’re thinking at this moment, I am not making this up. There does, in fact, exist a Krak Mound in Krakow and Mr. FW and I trekked around it. We had our photocopied map and a rough approximation of our location. We ambled through an entirely residential district for a few miles (lots of nice Polish homes and people staring at us: yes, hello, we’re just sort of walking through your neighborhood.) We came upon an abandoned medieval fort/castle/stronghold? in an open field and tromped around for awhile. We then crested a peak in the field and beheld the Krakus Mound! Fortunately our guidebook offered a bit of insight–it’s a tumulus whose origins and original usages are unknown. But the book went on to note, in so many words, that not a lot of people bother to walk over here. Fabulously beautiful and, you guessed it, free!!
London was a favorite of ours, but let me tell you, it is hard to find a deal there! Everything is expensive. So, we carefully selected the sites we wanted to pay for and then enjoyed the rest of the city en plein air (that just means outside, but I really wanted to sound fancy ). We discovered that we could criss-cross the river Thames on foot via several of its multitude of bridges. This was a perfect method for seeing the city without paying for a ferry boat, bus tour, or a ride in the London Eye ferris wheel. We really are the worst consumers. Using our feet! The nerve.
Basically, Avoid Cars
Don’t take a cab unless you absolutely have no other option. They are, in general, exceedingly expensive and it’s difficult to know if they’re taking you on the most efficient route. You might end up overpaying for a meandering drive.
Renting a car might make sense if you’re headed to a more rural or remote locale, but don’t even think about it in a city center. The cost of parking, gas, insurance…. don’t get me started. On the other hand, if you road trip to your destination–like Root of Good did this past summer–you can save serious dough on transport!
Check out distances ahead of time and determine your walking comfort level. Knowing in advance how far you’re going will help avoid surprise foot blisters/situations* necessitating an unplanned cab ride.
*In Zagreb, I was wearing boots that I’d, uh, glued together following an unfortunate de-soleing incident earlier in the trip and my glue system began to break down. I took on a lot of icy water and, not wanting to cut our evening short, kept walking around. My foot grew increasingly numb and I eventually realized I couldn’t feel it. We hightailed it (still on foot) back to our hotel where Mr. FW (in a gallant gesture) carried me into a warm bathtub. Assuring him I could thaw on my own, he went on a quest for our dinner and returned with super tasty & cheap kebabs and a bottle of Bezalkoholno Kool Beer. In case you’re wondering, Bezalkoholno means “non-alcoholic” in Croatian. And let me tell you, it was not good non-alcoholic beer either. Consider yourself warned and travel armed with a phrase book.
Pursue Outdoor Pleasures
Hiking, biking, walking, picnics! Some of our fondest memories are of free, outdoor journeys. In Kauai, we hiked the Na’Pali coast to a waterfall that we swam under. One of the greatest experiences of our lives–and totally free of charge. In Paris, we simply had to see the Eiffel Tower. But, in lieu of paying something like 10 euros a piece to go up in said Tower, we packed a resplendent sack-o-food, complete with wine, and had a dinner picnic on the lawn facing the Tower. We got to drink wine, not pay a ton of money, and not wait in line an hour for the privilege. Don’t assume you have to pay in order to experience the riches a city boasts!
Scope out discount days at museums and sights ahead of time. Many offer a free day or hours at some point during the week. If you’re a student or veteran, investigate discount opportunities! Also, consider if the admission price is really worth it—I’ve passed on a lot of museums I felt were just too expensive. Know what you enjoy and don’t mindlessly go to every “must-see.” Conversely, some things are pretty reasonable and definitely worth seeing.
Bletchley Park vs. Art Museum #101
Unsurprisingly, Mr. FW and I tend to seek out the more unusual sights in a given city. While I love me some art, I’ve probably been to a hundred art museums. We seriously did not go to the Louvre in Paris. I’d been before (on a college backpacking extravaganza) and while it’s an incredible art museum, it’s just an art museum. Controversial! I know! We instead took a day trip to Versailles outside of Paris. I’m what you might categorize as mildly obsessed with castles and ridiculous displays of royal grandeur, so this was a must and, it wasn’t actually that expensive.
In London, we skipped the Tower of London (while a castle, it’s not an exciting one in my opinion) and other run of the mill sites. Where would some frugal weirdos go instead? Why to Bletchley Park of course! All of the computer geeks reading this just went “oooOOOOoohhh” and everyone else went “say what?” Being in the latter category myself, my sweet software-programming Mr. FW led the charge on this sojourn.
Bletchley Park was the headquarters of the Allied code-breaking efforts in WWII where new technologies in cryptography and computing were pioneered. I must say, it was fascinating and I even sat through the hour-long lecture on the origins of computing. Seeing as I don’t understand the current world of computing, that was love. Also, we were sitting in the front row (thank you, Mr. FW) and I couldn’t extract myself without crawling over four elderly English couples (who, by the way, were the only other visitors there).
In Nowa Huta, Poland, Mr. FW and I walked several miles (through a forest at one point) to a steel factory in order to gaze upon its classic Soviet architecture. Common for tourists? Definitely not based on the fact that we saw zero other people who weren’t steel factory workers. But, Nowa Huta was a planned Soviet city and we learned a lot just by walking around. It was a cheap train ride from Krakow and a priceless history lesson. Best part? The whole thing was free (well, except for the train ride).
We are all about going to places that are nearly impossible to replicate or visit anywhere else in the world. Hence, an art museum in London that boasts Italian Renaissance paintings? Not my cup-o-tea.
Churches: They Are Free
This is a universal maxim, except in a few rare cases (looking at you, St. Paul’s Cathedral* in London). Cathedrals of epic proportion and endless grandeur are free to tour. Bonus is that they often contain rare and priceless works of art. Remember all those art museums we skipped? Getting art-ed up for free now! The Sagrada Família in Barcelona stands out in my mind since it is still under construction. The ability to witness the craftsmanship that goes into these sacred buildings was, for me, awe-inspiring.
An incredible aspect of many European cities is that there are ancient cathedrals and churches everywhere you go! Mr. FW and I would often duck into a relatively unassuming cathedral just to warm up and collect our thoughts for a moment and, almost without fail, be blown away by the art, tapestries (I have a thing for tapestries), and statuary! Or by their incredible resemblance to a cupcake (see above).
*Mr. FW and I really are consummate cheapskates. We attended a church service at St. Paul’s in order to tour it for free. We were deeply respectful and enjoyed the service. But, we also got to see the church for free.
I leave you with this parting missive: Don’t limit yourself to things within your traditional comfort zone. Be open to new experiences, cuisines, people, and languages. Get a phrase book, learn a few key words, divest yourself of the tourist-tromped paths and above all, observe and do as the locals do. When all else fails, remember that someone else has probably gone before you and been even more of a frugal weirdo (that would be me).
What are your favorite sites and your best frugal sightseeing tips?
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