A couple of my friends are heading to Paris for the first time and have asked the inevitable question: “What should I see?” I recently created a (virtual) walking/photography tour for my friend Craig and a guide to the fundamentals for my friend Jennifer.
But today it’s all about museums. I’ll show you how you can (usually) avoid lines, visit (almost) unlimited museums for (practically) free, and see some of my favorite lesser-known gems. And if you’re sick of Paris, well … sorry. There’s more to come.
Among the great museums of the world, the Louvre in Paris is arguably the most famous. And with good reason: The former royal palace is as opulent and breathtaking as the mountains of art it houses.
But we’re not going to the Louvre today. Instead, we’ll see 10 smaller museums that are a bit easier on the feet — but just as big a feast for the eyes. What’s more, I’ll show you how to can skip past the lines and save yourself some cash.
Want to skip the lines? Buy a Carte Musée.
The Paris Museum Pass (Carte Musée) is one of the best but least-known deals for tourists. It comes in three options: Two days (€39), three days (€54) and six days (€69). For that price you get unlimited admission to almost 60 museums and monuments. Plus, you also get the privilege of not having to wait in line.*
You can buy the Carte Musée online, through RailEurope.com, or in Paris at many of the sites that accept the pass. But if you want to visit only one or two museums, you can pay the admission fees — which I’ve listed below — as you go.*
Alright, then. On to my 10 favorite small museums in Paris, in no particular order of favoritivity. With one exception: If you have time to visit only one museum in Paris, I’d say “see the Carnavalet.”
1. Le Musée Carnavalet (free!)
To better appreciate Paris, it helps to know a bit about her rich history. At the Carnavalet museum you’ll learn about the city’s Roman roots, watch the city grow through medieval shop signs, see a messenger pigeon’s feather from the French Revolution, and even walk past Marcel Proust’s bedroom. You’ll also find a wonderful photography exhibit, a small but rich collection of Paris-themed paintings, a vast assortment of all things Napoleon (including his death mask) and several stunning period rooms. All housed in a gorgeous old hôtel particulier that dates from 1548. And did I mention that the admission is free? Learn more at the museum’s official site.
2. Musée de Cluny (8 €)
It’s fitting that Paris’ medieval museum be housed in the Hôtel Cluny, the former home of the abbots of Cluny: The 15th-century building provides the perfect backdrop for one of the biggest collections of medieval art in the world. Within the museum are also the remains of a 1st-century Roman bath, from when Paris was still known as Lutèce. If you visit, you’ll see why I call this “The Museum of a Million Madonnas.” And don’t miss the beautiful Dame à La Licorne tapestries (shown in the first image, below). Learn more at the Cluny museum’s official website.
3. Musée Rodin (9 €, or 1 € for the garden only)
French sculptor Auguste Rodin actually lived and worked in the Hôtel Biron, the building that now houses his museum. The full collection includes 6,600 sculptures and more than 8,000 drawings, but most visitors come to see “The Thinker,” perhaps Rodin’s most famous work, and “The Kiss.” (My apologies for the poor quality of my old photos.) In the museum’s beautiful gardens you’ll also find a lovely little café, which provides a welcome and shady respite from the crowds. Learn more at the Rodin museum’s official website.
4. Le Centre Pompidou (13 €)
Is a pile of spilled Corn Flakes “art”? How about a gilded urinal? Or a felt-covered piano? These are the kinds of questions you may be asking yourself at the Pompidou, Paris’ museum of modern art. I will freely admit that I hate this museum. To me, it’s an eyesore — as is much of the “art” it houses. So why am I recommending a visit? Well, because sometimes it’s good to open the mind and experience something new. And also because the view from the outdoor escalator is pretty spectacular. Learn more at the official website.
5. Musée Delacroix (10 €)
Although Eugène Delacroix was a contemporary of — and friend to — such cultural luminaries as Frederic Chopin, George Sand and Alfred de Musset, he was not content to paint boring portraits of the era’s petite noblesse. Instead, he invested his considerable talent on historical tableaux such as “Liberty Leading the People,” a depiction of the 1830 Revolution. This enormous canvas hangs in the Louvre, but you can see many of Delacroix’s preliminary sketches in the museum that was once his home and studio. The neighboring Place Furstenbourg and the museum’s courtyard garden are lovely as well. Learn more at the museum’s website.
6. Musée de la Vie Romantique (4.50 €)
The “Museum of the Romantic Life” is a bit off the beaten path but if you’re a fan of the Romantic era, it’s well worth the trek. This house once belonged to Dutch painter Ary Scheffer, who became a central figure in Paris’ salon culture of the 1830s and 40s. It’s cool to think that Eugène Delacroix, George Sand, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Marie d’Agoult, Théodore Rousseau, and even Charles Dickens once gathered in these rooms. But I was most moved by the plaster casts of Chopin’s and George Sand’s hands. The online info is available only in French, so please drop me a note if you’d like a translation.
7. Musée de L’Orangerie (7.50 €)
The Musée de l’Orangerie is best known as the home of Claude Monet’s water-lily paintings, the Nymphéas, which were installed here in 1927 to Monet’s exact specifications. But the museum also houses a vast collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, Sisley and Utrillo, and many world-known-last-name others. The best part? You can get your fill of priceless art in about two hours. Get directions and see when the museum is open.
8. Musée Gustave Moreau (5 €)
Full disclosure: I’d barely heard of Gustave Moreau before visiting this museum, and was only superficially familiar with his art. But during my visit I discovered that Moreau was a professor at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts, where he taught Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault. I also learned that he produced more than 8,000 paintings, watercolors and drawings — many of which are on display in this small (but visually stunning) museum. I highly recommend a visit if you’re interested in one of Paris’ most quietly influential modernist artists. Please visit the official website for the address and exhibit times.
9. Le Palais Chaillot (“Musée du Patrimoine” — 9 €)
If you’ve ever wanted to see the outside of the Chartres, Rouen and Lourdes cathedrals in one day, this is your chance. The Chaillot Palace was built for the International Exposition of 1937 but it didn’t truly hit its stride until the mid-1990s, when it was re-purposed as a museum of French textiles and architecture. I can’t vouch for the textiles — but I highly recommend a visit to the treasure-trove of cathedral façades and religious arts you’ll find in the Musée du Patrimoine (“Cultural Heritage Museum”). Plus, every visit comes with a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower at no additional cost. Visit the official site for directions and hours of operation.
10. Le Musée D’Orsay (9 €)
It’s difficult to believe that this building — a former train station built for the 1900 World Fair — was once slated for demolition. Today the beautiful D’Orsay museum houses a vast and varied collection of French works created between about the 1850s and the 1920s. Among others, you’ll see paintings and sculptures by Cézanne, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Gauguin, Guimard, Lalique, Maillol, Manet, Millet, Monet, Pissarro, Redon, Renoir, Rodin, Seurat, Sisley, and van Gogh. (But please note that photos are no longer allowed inside the museum.) Learn more on the Musée D’Orsay’s official website.