Visiting Paris and not spending hours lost in the artistic wonderlands that are the Louvre and Orsay museums would be like going to Cairo, and not visiting the Giza Pyramids, or heading to New York with no intention of even looking at the Statue of Liberty, or…well…you catch our drift. While we could all agree that Paris has an almost infinite number of well-known museums we should all visit at least once, there may come a time when you’ll want to get off the usual, well-beaten path and perhaps be awed and inspired by the hidden Parisian gems of the museum world. (If you’ve recently spent four hours lining up to get a 2.3 second glimpse of the Mona Lisa you’ll get this.)
Following is our guide to lesser-known, yet equally superb Parisian museums you won’t find in most guide books. If you really don’t know what the most famous museums in Paris are then, trust us, you will by the time you get there. Take this guide along as well and, when the clock strikes crowd-insanity, take a deep breath and retreat into the real side of Parisian history.
Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits
The ideal museum for lovers of all things manually penned, the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits small and intimate displays showcase an astounding number of old and historical letters and manuscripts.
From Eisenhower’s hand-written WWII ceasefire, to works by Isaac Newton, musical scores by Mozart and writings by Goethe and Trotsky, the collection of writings by famous poets, scientist, politicians and engineers is a sight to behold. There are letters written by Napoleon, telegrams sent from the Titanic and personal letters of Catherine de Medici; in total, there are over 2,000 priceless pieces of paper to ogle at.
This museum may be particularly interesting if you’re travelling with email-obsessed teenagers; drag them here and show them how a world war was ended on pen and paper…they’ll never believe you! This museum also holds special temporary exhibits of more modern writings, which are starting to draw in more crowds (Jack Kerouac’s travel exhibition was a big success in 2012), so head here before this gets overrun with tour groups too.
Musée Nissim de Camondo
This ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ museum is housed within the walls of the Hotel Camondo in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, and it is worth a visit for more than just its opulent contents. The story of the Camondo family is well-known in Paris, yet has failed to reach international fame, which already makes this museum a fave. What we love about this particular museum, which is really just a collection of incredibly priceless artworks and antique furniture, is that it narrates the life of one single man from the turn of the 20th century to the end of WWII. When it comes to historical events, we find the concentration on a single individual to be much more poignant and overwhelming then, say, the overall impact on humanity. Anne Frank’s diary, for example, still manages to transpire the horrors of the Holocaust much more than a list, or a final number count, of victims who perished.
The life, suffering and eventual death of Monsieur Camondo, an affluent banker of Jewish heritage, and all the heirs of his family are told in quite a melancholic way, and the three floors containing the incredibly furnished former kitchen, formal rooms and bedrooms have been painstakingly preserved, as if they had been just vacated. An incredible journey through the eyes of a once powerful Jewish family in Paris which has completely disappeared, this museum will touch your heart in more ways than one. If you intended visiting the Museum of Jewish History, then we suggest you skip the crowds and head here instead; you may get much more out of it.
Once you’ve seen all the beauty of Paris above ground, consider digging a little deeper. Waaaaaay deeper. Paris is home to an underground ossuary containing the remains of over 6 MILLION people. True story. Paris’ catacombs are about as creepy and cold as catacombs can get, but that’s what makes them an extremely cool thing to visit; quite possibly because your access to them is through the ‘Gates of Hell’. Bet that just got a little spookier.
During the late 18th century, when an excess of dearly departed risked an overrun on Paris’ streets, and perhaps cause an incident of cholera or two, someone came up with the genial idea of exhuming said dearly departed, and moving their now shiny bones to the maze of unused underground quarry tunnels the city was brimming with. Fast forward three centuries and voila’…catacombs! Come see skulls interred in walls, femurs adorning ceilings and fingers and toes framing doorways, it’s really unbelievable stuff. Just one word of warning; you may want to ditch the kids for this, but bring an extra sweater instead, you may still get goose bumps but at least they won’t be from the cold.
Greg Dunlap via Flickr
Medelie Vendetta via Flickr
Julian Fong via Flickr