The City of Love should really be renamed the City of Art, all things considered. Paris is home to over 250 museums, yet above sheer numbers, it’s renowned as being home to some of the most priceless art in the world. Between international institutions like the Louvre, and small, private owned collections opened to the public; there isn’t a corner of this city which isn’t decorated with a stunning art collection housed within the walls of a sublimely historic building. Getting an abundant museum fix in this city will be inevitable.
But now for the reality check…
Venturing out to ‘pop into a museum’ in Paris is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Breathtaking crowds aside, most of the following Paris Museums are so huge and so full of ‘stuff’ that seeing them all (or indeed even just one) in substantial depth is near impossible. People who have travelled to Paris every year for two decades will still attest to the fact that the microcosm of ‘Paris Museums’ is a never-ending well of admiration.
So arm yourself with a stealthy disposition (and an invaluable Paris Museum Pass) and dive head first into the best museums in Paris.
PS. Once you’ve done the best, don’t forget to also check out the hidden treasures of Paris’ museum world! You can read all about them here.
Musée du Louvre
The world’s largest and most respected museum (as well as the most visited) offers a bit of an inception holiday experience; you know: it’s a destination within a destination. Housed within the gargantuan walls of a stunning Parisian palace, and framed by the world-famous glass pyramid, this international art institution really needs no other introductions. Yes it’s horrendously crowded, overwhelmingly expansive and an absolute pain to explore at length…but explore you must. Queue up for half an hour to get a 5-second glimpse of the Mona Lisa, ogle at the obscene amounts of marble nether-regions in the sculpture halls, and droll ever so slightly at the sheer volume of priceless paintings the museum is home to.
A visit to the Louvre necessitates an almost military-style shock-and-awe approach. Your plan of action should definitely include an in-depth recon mission of the museum’s website, where you’ll find every nook of its eight glorious halls, three wings and almost 40,000 works of art photographed and detailed. By predetermining which sections you’d like to see first and foremost, and making a beeline for those as you arrive, you may be able to deal with the breath-taking crowds.
Next, make sure you pre-purchase your entry tix, or you’ll risk spending half the day waiting in line. Ultimately though, accept the fact that ‘doing’ the Louvre could take upwards of six visits, so comfort yourself in the knowledge that with Paris, you’ll always have another reason to visit.
Home to the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world, the Orsay has recently been refurbished and now showcases some rather marvellous contemporary art as well as a superlative collection of famous sculptures. One of the museum trifecta must-see in Paris (along with the Louvre and the Pompidou) the Orsay is infinitely enticing, even if you happen to be an art-ignoramus. This kind of beautiful artwork needs little interpretation. Come see where the best works by Van Gogh., Monet, Manet, Renoir and their über-famous contemporaries are greedily stored and, whatever you do, don’t make the suicidal decision to head here on a Tuesday. This is the Louvre’s day off….so Orsay scores double-crowd numbers!
There are two things in the French Capital which can bring Parisian’s passionate opinions to grave heights: one is the Eiffel Tower, the other the Centre Pompidou. Opinion here is split between those who think they are modernist monstrosity and painful eyesores, and those who instead believe they are both innovative architectural gems. Come make up your own mind when you visit this incredibly striking steel and glass centre which, irrespective of its exterior, is still revered for boasting the largest collection of modern art the world has ever seen.
Lovers of modern art go bonkers in this haven of Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and Dadaism, and those who have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about will certainly have a field day too (although a quick explanation search never hurt anyone). From Picasso to Dali and a whole host of masters in between, the works here are internationally renowned and subjectively admired.
Musée de l’Orangerie
Contrary to popular belief, this museum is not about citrus fruits! This exceptional Impressionist mecca houses more priceless art by Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir (among others), and is nestled in the mid-19th century Tuileries Gardens near Place de la Concorde. Claude Monet famously donated his whole Nympheas painting collection to the Orangerie in 1922; this collection comprises an astounding number of oversized ‘water lilies’ paintings, some of which were damaged during WWII and subsequently restored. Yet the museum, which is often referred to as ‘the Orsay’s little sister’ does not only attract Monet aficionados, as a variety of brilliant temporary exhibits, from Italian Renaissance to modernist masterpieces, make regular appearances here too.
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
The Grand Palais is one of Paris’ most incredible complexes, as well as one of its most beloved museums. Along with its ‘mini-me’, the Petite Palais next door, this museum is worthy of its superlative reputation as a priceless historic and architectural treasure.
The ornately decorated facades, complete with gigantic columns and impressive sculptures and monuments (which are themselves works of art) attract almost as many visitors as the masterpieces showcased inside. Used extensively by the Germans during the invasion of Paris (their tanks were stored here) this museum is seen by many locals as the city’s epitome survival monument and, aside from its permanent art exhibitions and annual Chanel fashion shows, it also hosts a wide selection of social and cultural events.
When you do eventually venture in, you’ll enjoy lots of modern interactive displays which may, for some, be a wonderful detraction from the more classical side of Paris museums. A historical and architectural treasure showcasing great art…you gotta love a museum that multi-tasks!
Check out the website for the latest events and art displays.
The Petit Palais is often completely overshadowed by its grander neighbour yet miss out on this Belle Époque extravaganza and you’d be doing yourself a huge disfavour. The permanent collection boasts free entry and, between the gorgeous gardens and stunning architecture, the Petit is one of the most delightfully arty corners of Paris.
Musée du Quay Branly
In Paris’ 7th arrondissement is where you’ll find this multi-coloured splendour housing an extensive collection of indigenous art from every corner of the globe. This is one of those rare Paris finds where crowds seem to be wonderfully dispersed, the collections extremely well displayed and the diversity of art on show truly enjoyable. Plan your round-the-world art trip here and admire amazing artefacts like wood carvings, masks and sculptures from Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceania. This museum is compact and ever so easy to navigate, and makes a lovely reprieve from the sometime overwhelming grandeur of the French capital’s more visited museums.
Musée du Carnavalet
The Carnavalet is one of those museums which perfectly encompass art and history. A collection of incredibly stunning rooms showcasing the history of Paris during the last five centuries, the Carnavalet is an unmissable attraction for all who want to experience and witness the trials of the city through the times. From Napoleon’s personal effects, to 16th century furniture, 17th century paintings and 19th century artefacts (there’s even a piece of the now-defunct Bastille here), this museum is an insightful and intriguing historical and arty journey through Paris. Considered by most as Paris’ most surprising delight, the Carnavalet is ideal for anyone who enjoys more than just art, and is by far the only really comprehensive history museums in a city which can at times seem to concentrate its efforts on solely showcasing its extensive arts.
Musée des Arts Decoratifs
For a different take on ‘art’ visit this incredible museum which showcases some of the most extravagant and exquisite collection of decorative arts (think costumes, clothing and objects d’art) dating from the Middle Ages all the way to the 20th century. All the treasures are perfectly displayed, with natural light drenching each and every room and accentuating the priceless beauty of époque-French furniture, supreme crystal wear, carpets and accessories. Many of the rooms are decorated according to the period of the wares on show, showing a glimpse of life in Paris during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. This is the kind of museum which puts minimalist interior design to absolute shame! At first glance, the museum may seem a little disorienting, yet if you head up straight to the third floor info desk, and pick up a free audio guide, you’re bound to have a much more intense experience.
19th century French sculptor Auguste Rodin is often considered the founder of modern sculpture and revered by the art world even though (as was not uncommon) his work and talent were largely criticized during his lifetime. His eponymous museum contains thousands of the masters’ sculptures, including ‘The Thinker’, possibly his most famous, as well as an abundant amount of Renoir and Van Gogh masterpieces which Rodin had acquired during his life.
The Rodin Museum is actually an incredibly beautiful palace surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens, which was the humble abode of Rodin for most of his working life. Entry is included in the Museum Pass and, even if you know nothing of Rodin or his legacy, we think you’ll find this one of the most visually impressive and utterly relaxing museum visits in the whole city. There are no major crowds to contend with and the setting is sublimely pensive, something which in a Paris can turn out to be a rather rare find.
Musée National du Moyen Âge
For a country which boasts such a long, intriguing and complex history, it may be surprising to learn that Paris, its capital city, does not boast a bona fide history museum per se. Or perhaps it really does make sense…how could one possibly condense French history into four walls?
What Paris does boast however, is a myriad of smaller museums each concentrating on a specific area of the city (like the Musée Montmartre) or a specific period in time, like the National Museum of the Middle-Ages.
The Middle-Ages Museum is housed in a fabulous 14th century ‘hotel’ regarded by many to be Paris’ finest example of medieval architecture. Inside the grounds of the museum you’ll find ancient Roman baths dating back to 200AD, 1,200 year old sculptures as well as an expansive collection of 15th century wall tapestries. This particular gem on the Left Bank is really in top nick and deserves a visit for both its contents and architecture.
The Orangerie’s Monet
Auduste Rodin’s The Thinker
Medieval tapestry at the Musée National du Moyen Âge