Lose Yourself in Paris' Best Museums: Discover the City's Art

If I had my "gap year" to do over again (you know, that year between high school and university) I would spend it in Paris and whittle whole days away in at least one museum per week. When I ask Parisian parents of school-age children how often do they get to the museums ? The response is usually, At least once a month. To me, that’s an education in itself.

Here’s a tip for you : The first Sunday of each month the museums in Paris have free entry. Yep. Free. For everyone. Mind you, the lines for the Louvre those days are miles long, but, still…

On this list, for every museum I’ve listed, there are at least three that I’ve very painfully had to leave off. If it’s your first time to Paris, then by all means, do the Louvre. I could visit the Louvre every weekend for a year straight and still not get enough of it. But given that we all have only so much time, my other favorites are Musée Rodin, Musée d’Orsay, Centre Georges Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo. I also love the Musée Marmottan Monet and the Musée de la Vie Romantique. And one that I just couldn’t fit here on the list but must mention is the Musée de l’Erotisme (open ‘til 2 a.m.) that is located right in the heart of Pigalle, and not far from the Musée de Montmartre. 

10 Musée de Montmartre
The Bel Air house, the 17th c. mansion which houses the Mus�e Montmartre and the Renoir Gardens, is the oldest building in Montmartre. It once drew celebrated artists such as August Renoir, Suzanne Valadon and Emile Bernard, all of whom had their artist studios on rue Cortot, which served as a sort of central meeting place for the artists of the day. The museum itself was only recently re-opened (fall 2014) after extensive renovations. It was first established in 1960. The artworks housed at the museum recount the history of Montmartre including the cabarets of the Moulin Rouge and the animated Lapin Agile. There's even an entire room dedicated to the French can-can. Paintings, posters and drawings signed by Valadon, Utrillo, Modigliani, Kupka, Steinlen and, yes, even Toulouse-Lautrec make up the museum's permanent collection. (01 49 25 89 39)

9 Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
The Modern Art Museum of Paris is housed in the imposing 1930s East wing of the Palais de Tokyo building and carries the municipal collection of avant-garde art from the 20th century to the present. This includes works by Picasso, Léger, Delaunay and Modigliani, with a focus on painters working in Paris in the early 20th century, on the rise of abstraction and on European contemporary art. The museum's permanent collection has more than 8000 works of art. So, also on-hand is Raoul Dufy's large-scale tribute to electricity, "La Fée Electricité" ("Fairy of Electricity") as well as tributes to cubism, Ecole de Paris, abstract art and new realism. There are often excellent temporary exhibits. Recent sell-outs have included a retrospective of Basquiat and even an ode to Chanel perfume, the Chanel No. 5 Exhibit. METRO: léna or Alma-Marceau (01 53 67 40 00)

8 Musée d'Orsay
This mammoth iron-and-glass former railway station built to bring visitors to the World Fair in 1900 was transformed into an art museum in 1986. The museum's holdings date from 1848 through World War I, showcasing the world's largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings and sculptures, by such luminaries as Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh and Gauguin, along with galleries devoted to the applied arts. A beautiful new café was revealed up on the top floor in 2011 following the recent refurbishment and renovations. This museum sits right on the Quai of the Seine and is accessible from the Tuileries when you take the Pont Solferino, a foot bridge, across the river. Be sure to note the statue of Thomas Jefferson that is just there on the side of the bridge. (01 40 49 48 14, 01 40 49 49 78)

7 Maison Européenne de la Photographie
The magnificent former private mansion that is today the Maison, is the 18th c. Hénault de Cantobre. This museum, located in its restored 1706 mansion, features the biggest artists in the history of photography. Its classical architecture is evidenced in its façade, ironwork, and impressive central staircase. Original period prints, retrospective exhibits, and more than 12,000 rare books number among the attractions. There's also a conservation and restoration area, as well as a café in the 18th-century basement. MEP offers guided tours three Wednesdays per year. The director, Jean-Luc Monterosso, of this museum also organizes the Paris Photo week every November, a huge photography extravaganza that is internationally renown. That event takes place at the Grand Palais each year. (01 44 78 75 00)

6 Musée National Rodin
This museum, set in the Hôtel Biron, is a tribute to one of the world's finest sculptors. Thanks to Rodin's own donations, the facility offers a wealth of objects, including terra cotta, bronze and marble creations. Plaster and wax studies are available as well, along with his sketches, drawings, engravings, and his own collected art. Among the items on display are "The Kiss" and the sculpture that brought Rodin much fame, The Thinker. The Hôtel Biron is currently being renovated (2012 - 2014) but the way the works are being undertaken permits the museum to continue to welcome visitors in its galleries during the entire period of work. The gardens are an idyllic draw unto themselves. They were also the setting for the scene where former First Lady of France Carla Bruni played her role for Woody Allen's film, Midnight in Paris. A café in the gardens offers tasty refreshments. (01 44 18 61 10)

5 Musée du Louvre
The world's largest, richest collection of art and antiques occupies the Louvre, the world's largest museum and the one-time royal palace to French Kings and Queens. Originally built in 1190 as a fortress, part of which can be viewed in the basement, the Louvre began taking its present form during the 16th century under Renaissance monarch François 1er, whose successors began filling it with artworks, but didn't officially open it as a museum until 1793 after the French Revolution. In 1981, then-President Mitterrand spearheaded a stunning renovation of the facility, notably the glass pyramid that now provides the main entrance. Leonardo's Mona Lisa and masterpieces of French Romanticism by Delacroix and Géricault are several of its superstars. The popular Ancient Egyptian department is much loved by kids. There are excellent book and gift shops and several cafés in the Carrousel du Louvre, the new shopping center it opens up onto. (01 40 20 53 17)

4 Petit Palais — Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
The building itself entices with its gilt-framed doors that open up from its sweeping entranceway there on Avenue Winston Churchill, just steps from the Champs-Elysées. Because its neighbor across the street, the Grand Palais, tends to get all the attention and the big name exhibitions and shows, it sort of just humbly waits to be noticed. One would never assume that entrance is free to the museum, but it is. Its temporary exhibits, such as the current Paris 1900 require a purchased ticket, but its permanent collection, featuring the history of the city as represented by French paintings and furniture, is a draw. As is, quite simply, the 1902 building that is flanked by the Seine and Pont Alexandre III on one side and the Champs Elysées on the other. (0153434000)

3 Musée de la Vie Romantique
This museum is set back off the street in its own private mansion. The door is clearly marked once you wander down the small Pigalle Street and then enter through the verdant pathway that leads you to the garden that surrounds this former self-standing townhouse. Once there, you'll find yourself in the center of what was once known as New Athens, a quarter artists and writers called home and which today is experiencing a renaissance and gentrification. The permanent exhibit is laden with items from George Sand (1804 -- 1876) including her jewelry and snuff box and a mold of Frederic Chopin's hand, one of her rumored many lovers. Otherwise you'll also find drawings by Ingrès and Delacroix and interesting temporary exhibits. (01 55 31 95 67)

2 Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet
For years, this wonderful institution was a repository for illuminations, Renaissance tapestries, and First Empire furniture, artwork, and objects. However, thanks to a 1966 gift of more than 100 Monets, the museum's focus expanded, and its attendance increased. Impressionism is now a great draw, and aside from Monet's works, visitors can browse paintings and drawings by Gauguin and Renoir. Also available are paintings by Boucher and Chardin, sculptures by Lemoyne, ceiling frescoes, and 16th-century Limoges enamels. It is a bit on the outskirts of Paris at the edge of the very Posh neighborhood that is Passy, but it is well worth the trek. If you combine it with a picnic or a stroll through Bois de Boulogne, which is a 5 minute walk from here, then it's a day well spent. (01 44 96 50 33)

1 Palais de Tokyo
Palais de Tokyo is one of the edgiest museums in Paris. It is housed in the same structure, though different building, as Paris's Museum of Modern Art. Skateboarders took over the magnificent basin that is its vast cement courtyard overlooking the Seine and made it into a skateboard park. Breathtaking views onto the Eiffel Tower from self-same courtyard are just off to your right. The cool factor comes from its mix of grunge aesthetics with its permanent exhibits interspersed with its seasonal art exhibits. Partners include such organizations as the Fondation Louis Roederer and the Fondation PIerre Berg� Yves Saint Laurent. Its 22000 square meter space (23, 681 square feet) is considered to be one of the largest contemporary art centers in Europe. The museum's curating team encourages emerging and established artists from eclectic backgrounds to provide an inventive museum-going experience. (01 49 52 02 04)

Paige is a transplanted Parisian. She first arrived as a young bride in the early 90s to live in Paris, having uprooted herself from her native California. Since then it has been an on-again, off-again love affair with the City of Lights, one that has grown fonder over time. Paige hosts Paris GOODfood+wine and World of Wine for World Radio Paris.  When not in Paris Paige often travels visiting French vineyards. She's also producer of Paris Food And Wine. As a journalist, Paige also writes for the NY Times,LA Times, Michelin Guide, Fodor's, Blackbook, Variety

Read more about Paige Donner here.

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Maps and Directions

Musée de Montmartre 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Attractions, Museums, Outdoor Activities - Summer
Neighborhood: 18th Arrondissement - Montmartre
Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Museums
Neighborhood: 16ème ARRONDISSEMENT
Musée d'Orsay 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Editor's Picks, Museums, Uniquely Here
Neighborhood: 7ème Arrondissement
Maison Européenne de la Photographie 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Museums
Neighborhood: 4ème Arrondissement
Musée National Rodin 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Editor's Picks, Museums
Neighborhood: 7ème Arrondissement
Musée du Louvre 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art & Culture, Art Museums, Editor's Picks, Museums
Neighborhood: 1er Arrondissement
Petit Palais — Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris 10Best List Arrow
Type: Architecture, Art Museums, Free Attractions, Museums
Neighborhood: 8ème Arrondissement
Musée de la Vie Romantique 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Museums
Neighborhood: 9ème Arrondissement
Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Museums
Neighborhood: 16ème ARRONDISSEMENT
Palais de Tokyo 10Best List Arrow
Type: Art Museums, Attractions, Museums
Neighborhood: 16ème Arrondissement
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