Lose Yourself in Paris' Best Museums: Discover the City's Art
By Paige Donner
Paris Local Expert
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 Centre Georges Pompidou
This modern building -- with its color-coded mechanical systems highly visible on the exterior -- has become an icon of modern architecture. Initially described by the world's media as "Love at Second sight," its modern/techy architecture has proved longstanding. Within, the Musée National d'Art Moderne has an impressive collection of French and international modern and contemporary art and design from 1914 to the present, including impressive holdings by Matisse, Chagall, Picasso and the Surrealists. Located onsite, too, are the Brancusi Studio (open 2-6pm), temporary exhibition spaces, Galerie des Enfants, which puts on special exhibits for children, a public library, performance space, cinema, shop, bookstore and restaurants. (01 44 78 12 33)
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 Carnavalet — Musée de l'Histoire de Paris
This musuem is dedicated to the history of Paris. From its beginnings to the present. With exhibits highlighting Paris from Neolithic times to the present day, this museum has a broad historical range. It was first opened in 1880 and is housed in two 16th and 17th c. mansions, the spectacular "Carnavalet" and "Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau" mansions, which have been restored to period authenticity. A variety of collections includes memorabilia from the French Revolution, Gallo-Roman archaeological treasures, paintings, sculpture and rare furniture. A recent exhibit was all about the wardrobe of one of the first female French fashion designers. Major exhibitions and dynamic programming is part of this museum's personality today. Its Marais location sets you right in the middle of one of Paris's cutest and most historical quarters. (01 44 59 58 58)
1 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)
About Paige Donner
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 for her with the City of Lights, one that has grown fonder over time. Paige hosts World of Wine for World Radio Paris. When discovering a new wine region, her dog accompanies her as the little canine has proved to be the ideal vineyard companion. As a journalist, Paige has written for the NY Times, Variety, LA Times, Fodor's, Blackbook...
Read more about Paige Donner here.