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!!

The abandoned fort in Krakow, beyond which we viewed Krakus Mound.

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!

Our front-row view of the Eiffel Tour as we munched our grocery store picnic
Our front-row view of the Eiffel Tour as we munched our grocery store picnic

Free Days!

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).

A working reconstruction of an early-model computer called Colossus, which was built at Bletchley Park.
A working reconstruction of an early-model computer called Colossus, which was built at Bletchley Park.

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. 

 St. Elizabeth’s Church (aka “The Blue Church”) in Bratislava, Slovakia.
St. Elizabeth’s Church (aka “The Blue Church”) in Bratislava, Slovakia.

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.

Be Fearless

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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    1. True, the Louvre is usually the first place people visit in Paris! Hope you get to go to Paris soon–it’s a wonderful city.

  1. I wish I could remember where I heard/read the story recently, but it was about how the most popular museums in Paris, London, the Vatican etc. are seeing such a huge increase in visitors now with the global rise of the middle class. Since everyone wants to go to these same places, there is no time when they are not packed, even being open 7 days a week and with extended hours.

    You can be frugal and avoid the crowds simultaneously. In Vienna recently, I skipped the art museum and went straight to the Art Forgery museum! More interesting (for me), only a dozen people there, and probably 90% cheaper.

    1. That story sounds right up my alley–if you remember the source, could you send it to me? Our experience absolutely jives with that. The “top tourist sites” are just massively overrun all the time.

      The Art Forgery museum sounds great! I’m bummed Mr. FW and I missed that when we were in Vienna!

  2. I’m not much of a museum person. I went to an art exhibit once at a local museum, and the artist was there (of course, I guess, since I don’t really know how these things work). My boyfriend was from a rather well-to-do family, so he knew how to behave. He was pretty mortified by my behavior. I just couldn’t stop giggling. The artist was acting all stereotypically pretentious and the people (patrons?) were all oh-so-serious. He stood it as long as he could and got me out of there. The best part about it? We left AND I didn’t end up marrying him. DOUBLE WIN (for both of us)! Anyway, man I’m long winded. All that just to say that if I were in Paris, I probably wouldn’t even have the Louvre on my radar. It just sounds incredibly boring to me! I’d rather be outside enjoying the (frugal) sites. Now I can’t wait to head on over and read the post, Mrs. FW ! 🙂

  3. Thanks so much for your wonderful guest post, Mrs FW! I love hearing about your travel adventures and it’s obvious that you love traveling and being together so much! You’re welcome to travel to me anytime and bring Frugal Hound, of course. We can mind her while you see the sites. 😀

    1. It was more about choosing between museums for us. We didn’t want to pay to see every museum, so we went to the Musee D’Orsay and a few other smaller museums instead of the Louvre.

    2. The first place I would go is the Louvre. To see art that is world renowned is an amazing experience and that is what is in there. Then I would go to the Eiffel Tower.

      Keep cranking,

      Robert the DividendDreamer

      1. The Louvre definitely has a lot of art :). I was fortunate to have visited it the first time I was in Paris. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. More frugal tips:
    – see local tourist office(s) for local events, maps, guides;
    – check out gallery exhibition openings for free wine & cheese;
    – buy a day or weekend or week bus/subway pass;
    – buy a citybike day pass – helmet superfluous if you are careful.
    Checkout local festivals – common in the country, also in cities, scheduling can be worthwhile.
    Download maps b4 u go to your smartphone (put in a 32GB microSD card if necessary) – GPS is free everywhere, data/maps not so much.
    Some credit cards do not charge foreign exchange – eg, Amazon.
    Loose change and leaving a country? Add it to a starbucks card b4 u leave, or keep as souvenir.
    Washington DC museums are all free! Many others too, esp in capital cities.

  5. Could you please repost? It seems as though Debt Debs has gone defunct, or your link is broken! Would love to read how you travelled Europe on the cheap!

  6. Thanks for sharing this. Your tips are very helpful. I am a travel freak and travel a lot. Next year Alaska is on my card.Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness., and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Next year I definitely want to explore paris.
    People often have a theme that they base their worldly travels on, but how about a mental mantra for your travel? Out of a cheerleading event that consisted of our family shouting supportive words at our daughter who was attempting to kill a rather monstrous spider that the rest of us were too chicken to get close to, came this great quote, “If you don’t think, and you just do….then it’s done!”

    This quote came back to haunt me when on vacation in Seattle. I thought it would be a great idea to take the kids on the Seattle Great Wheel, the ferris wheel overlooking the ocean, but as we approached it, I realized how high it went and immediately panicked! Just as I had decided to put the kids on it on their own, my daughter says, “Come on dad…If you don’t think, and you just do….then it’s done!” What could I do at that point?! She was telling me to stop thinking and creating more fear about the situation and just get on the thing!
    “If you don’t think, and you just do, then it’s done!” We all now keep this quote in our back pocket, ready to whip out at any time to push one of us forward into an adventure we know they won’t regret. No hesitations, don’t allow any time for fear to set in, and be prepared for your kids to turn your life advice back on you

  7. We did not visit the Louvre either. Too many other good ones and the lines and crowds were too much. I did take a photo in the courtyard. 🙂. Totally agree with your tips.

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