10 museums: Paris’ hidden gems

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.

Well, that’s my top-10 list. But if you haven’t yet gotten your fill of Paris museums, check out Trip Advisor’s Top 10 list and GoParis’ picks as well. Until next time …

* Information is accurate as of publication date, but please use the links to confirm the Paris Pass options and cost, as well as the individual museums’ hours and admission fees.

26 comments

  1. great article. you basically are putting together a guidebook here (hint!). my one beef is the headline: the louvre, orsay and pompidou are the antithesis of small museums!

    • Hint taken, Chris! Grin. And good point about the Pompidou not being exactly “small.” But for me the Orsay is borderline, especially when you compare it to a behemoth like the Louvre. As for the Louvre … well it’s not actually included among my 10 small museum picks. But you’re right that the headline probably merits reworking. Thanks for being such a superb editor! 🙂

  2. Merci pour vos recherches, H. Ce que je voulais dire etait, a mon avis, de passer au maximum trois jours a Paris est comparable a ne lire que le precis du’n roman. Comme Sidney Poitier a dit dans le film Paris Blues: “You can’t see Paris in two weeks”. Votre exposition au dessous donne la preuve. A tout a l’heure.
    PS Le Jeu de Paume ne fonctionne toutours comme musee?

  3. How embarrassing I’ve only just managed to read this. Oh, the shame!

    Well done! A great selection and description of some of the best in the city. Personally I’ve been to the Carnavalet museum countless times and never knew about that pigeon’s feather! Poor me, now I need another trip to the Marais…

    I also did NOT know that photos are now forbidden in Orsay. Even with no flash? Commies!

    By the way, when your bangin’ Paris guide is complete and you become the next Rick Steves, please remember us meager folk on the bottom of the food chain who might be looking for some writing gigs. 🙂

    • There’s no shame necessary, Corey, especially considering your Freshly-Pressed fame. (To the lurkers who may be reading this: Go to http://www.afrenchfryeinparis.wordpress.com right now. Now, I command you!)

      But seriously, I think it’s far more likely that YOU will be the next Rick Steves, Mr. Frye. Particularly if I persist with my ham-handed, typo-laden posts. (Thank you for saving me from myself. 🙂 And when that time comes, I hope you will still consider me as a stunningly-adequate-and-really-quite-harmless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things editor. Haa.

      Actually, your comment about the pigeon feather made me realize that there really *is* still plenty of room on the “guide to Paris” bookshelf: Plop two people in the same place, and you’ll get two different perspectives.

      I’m just glad I’ve had the privilege of seeing Paris through YOUR eyes.

  4. Musée Rodin and Musée D’Orsay are defintely must see!
    Beautiful. So much to see in Paris!
    Makes me think it’s time to go back one of these days. And discover some new vegan places 😉

    • How wonderful to see your comment, brugesvegan! I agree … so much to see in Paris! Certainly, one lifetime isn’t enough. 🙂 And next time you go back, I highly recommend Le Potager du Marais at 24, rue Rambuteau — especially if they’re serving the wild mushroom terrine. La Table du Maroc at 14, avenue Maine also offers some vegan options, which they can cook in separate tajines.
      Happy travels!

  5. I’m not a first time visitor to Paris, but I love reading about it and noting suggestions. Your list is terrific, albeit including some of the biggest museums. The Carnavalet is at the top of my list for my May visit, as I wasn’t able to get there last time. The history of Paris is fascinating. Have you read How Paris Became Paris? It’s excellent. Thanks for your insights.

    • I’m so honored you liked my list, Paula! The Louvre isn’t actually *on* this list, to be clear — and the Pompidou and d’Orsay museums are arguably not “small.” But I think any of these places would appeal to a first-time visitor who doesn’t want to spend their entire vacation in a museum. And thank you recommending “How Paris Became Paris.” Isn’t it truly wonderful? I gained a special appreciation for Henri IV and his strikingly modern take on public spaces. Along those same lines, I also recommend Ina Caro’s “Paris to the Past.” Anyway … it sounds like you’re a pretty experienced Paris visitor. But if you’d like some more suggestions for your visit in May, please drop me a note at hmunro [dot] wordpress {at} gmail [dot] com, and tell me a bit about your interests, and I’ll write a post just for you! Thanks for stopping by, and especially for taking the time to comment.

  6. Thank you so much for your kind and insightful recommendations, Sara. I’ve never visited the Musée Guimet, so I’ll put that on my list for next time. And at the time I wrote this post the Picasso Museum was still closed for renovation — but you’re right it’s a worthy addition. As for the Parc Monceau mention? You’ve opened my eyes to several treasures in one sentence, I suspect! Thank you so much.

  7. Wow, and wow again. I frittered my time in Paris instead of digging in as I should have. Thank you for these overwhelmingly great tips! Also, thank you for the follow!

    • No matter how many times I visit — or how solemnly I resolve each time to savor every moment and ground myself in every experience — I also feel I’ve frittered my time in Paris, Grace. The city has such a deep history and rich culture that I think one could spend five lifetimes there and still not scratch the surface. But I’m honored and pleased that you found this post useful! I do hope you’ll be able to return and put some of these tips to use. (And perhaps share some new ones of your own!) My very best to you, and thank you for your kind comments.

  8. Lovely post. Thank You. When younger I visited some of these. Art is very near to my heart. There are so many kinds of art which fascinates my mind, carved wooden bears for example or wooden poor-man statues. One style is quilts. I know that many says, that’s quilts are not art – so wrong. I have tens of examples among my posts proving it.

    • I agree with you 100% that quilts ARE art — most definitely. I have a couple of friends who are quilters and am endlessly amazed by both the creativity of their patterns and the beauty of the finished product. Carved wooden bears too, of course … clearly that’s sculpture, just in a different medium. Now you have me wondering why I’ve never seen a quilt or a wooden bear in Paris. 🙂

      • Very nice that You know quilts. I have shown 12 quilt posts. My wife has been quilter, that is the reason. Of course, I have shown some quilts made by her. Did You know that every summer we arrange bear carving contests?

        Bear carving contest1

        Bear carving contest2

        Art or not, but interesting!

        I do not show now poor-man sculptures, because they are unique in the whole World. Their history is unique also. Maybe later, because I have given too many links to You. I am so sorry.

        • Please do not apologize for giving me so many links — they are all interesting and beautiful, and it’s a pleasure to have you guide me through some of your favorite posts on these topics! Your blog is so rich that otherwise I may not find them. And no, I didn’t know there is an annual bear-carving contest! You sure know how to entertain yourselves in Finland, it seems. 😉

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