6 Must-Visit Museums in Paris
I can’t imagine visiting Paris without visiting a museum, although that might have happened the week I flew in from New York to defend my mémoire de master... (I really can’t remember much about that time). But you could fill a week-long, or even a month-long visit to Paris with trips to a different museum each day. With over 100 museums within its city limits, Paris provides a vast array of artwork and venues that are works of art in their own right, giving you plenty of opportunity to see established favorites as well as new developments in the French artistic scene.
Visiting a museum in Paris is a flexible activity. There is plenty to observe on a solo trip and a lot to discuss if you visit a museum with company. The works of art in Parisian museum galleries also provide ample material to fill gaps in conversation, if a lull or an awkward silence occurs or if there is a language barrier. The multilingual plaques and descriptions accompanying many of the works, as well as the audio guides, which are available in multiple languages, provide information on the works of art and the venues where they are displayed. There are also guided tours and museum shops, which are a great place to purchase original and interesting gifts.
As far as cost goes, museum admission fees in Paris are comparable to tickets to the cinema, yoga classes, or lunch out. Museums in Paris actually have quite a few deals for reduced or waived entry fees for youth, educators, students, the physically disabled and their attendants, citizens of the Eurozone, etc. and it is worth visiting the websites of museums beforehand to see the rates for which you could qualify. Many museums also have social media accounts, so you can always get a glimpse of the new shows and events occurring at different venues around the city.
Here are six museums in Paris you might like to visit that focus on a variety of themes:
1- Musée du Louvre
The largest art museum in the world, the Louvre houses over half a million works and had a record attendance of 10.2 million visitors in 2018, according to a recent segment on the radio station France Culture. Located in the Palais du Louvre, the venue’s architectural features date from the medieval period, including the remains of a large dungeon that was once part of the 13th century Louvre Castle, and extend to the 20th century pyramid entrance designed by I.M. Pei. Today’s museum houses famous works such as la Victoire de Samothrace, le Grand sphinx de Tanis, and la Joconde, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated painting. This particular painting is kept behind a velvet rope and a pane of glass to protect it from the swarming crowds and inevitable flash photography that goes off in this swirl of people. If you manage to recover from the dazzling flashes of light, maintaining your balance while making your way through extended arms holding selfie sticks, you will be able to see the calmly seated subject of the painting and her reserved, mysterious smile. Of course, there are other da Vincis to see in the Museum, as well as works that come from a completely different era and region of the world, as found in the newer Arts of Oceania section, which is much quieter and provides a contemplative environment to observe and appreciate the works on display.
2- Musée d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay houses Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, considered too modern for the Louvre, that were formerly held in other venues, including the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume and the Musée national d’art moderne, before the Orsay’s opening in 1986. Located in a Beaux-Arts building that was formerly a railway station built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, it has four main levels and a terrace exhibition space. The original roof of the railway station with its high, arched ceilings has been preserved and was integrated into the renovated building and interior design. It provides a spectacular place to house artwork by renowned artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Rosa Bonheur, and Edgar Degas, whose Petite danseuse de 14 ans sculpture wears a real bodice, tutu, ballet slippers, and hair ribbon. Before becoming a museum, the Orsay was used for many things, including a parking lot, shooting stand, and a reception center for prisoners of war.
3- Musée Rodin
The Musée Rodin, which opened in 1919, houses works by Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, as well as works collected by Rodin himself. The site of the Musée Rodin is the Hôtel Biron, built in the Rocaille style that developed in the 18th century. Before becoming a museum, the Hôtel Biron was the residence of figures that were prominent in the arts scene, such as Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan, Henri Matisse, and Clara Westhoff, through whom Rodin was introduced to the site. He eventually occupied the entire building, using it for his workshops as well as his living space. The museum’s sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics, and photographs can be found throughout the intimate galleries and in the sculpture garden, where works such as Le Penseur are displayed.
4- Centre Georges Pompidou
This multidisciplinary cultural center, which opened in 1977, is commonly referred to as Beaubourg by those who live in Paris. Located in the Beaubourg area, it houses the Musée national d’art moderne, the Bibliothèque publique d’information, and the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique / musique. Its architecture is in the high-tech style, designed as an inside-out building, with its structural, mechanical, and circulation systems exposed on its exterior. Escalators are also located on the outside of the building, in glass tubes, which allows visitors to take in good views of the city. Its galleries house works that have defined artistic movements in the modern era, such as Yves Klein’s Monochrome bleu, which is a completely blue canvas in a color developed by Yves Klein himself.
5- Les Catacombes de Paris
This ossuary, established to accommodate the overflowing cemeteries of Paris, has welcomed visitors since the late 18th century. Following the collapse of a wall surrounding the Cimetière des Innocents that spilled decomposing corpses into a residential building, the city began moving bones from its cemeteries to quarries that had been built to extract limestone during the 12th century. Today, there are six million bones in the resulting catacombs, which reach the depth of a five-story building. The various skulls, femurs, and tibias stacked into patterns are on display to the public through subterranean passages that begin at Place Denfert-Rochereau. Of course, there are those who take delight in finding other unofficial entrances to the catacombs, through abandoned train tunnels or other “secret” entrances. One of my cohort in Paris made a night trip through such an entrance, which she announced during our stylistics class the following day. In response, our instructor with the smudged eyeliner responded that it was possible to get trapped in the labyrinth of passages that, while mirroring the streets overhead, did not have memorable entrances and exits, which could doom a person to a subterranean life.
6- Maxim’s Musée Art Nouveau
For those who are interested in the art nouveau period, Maxim’s museum has various objets d’art from this era, collected from around the world and on display in a 12-room Belle Epoque apartment. Coming from the private collection of the couturier Pierre Cardin, the galleries showcase over 550 items, including china, cutlery, lamps, and furniture, of which two Gaudí sofas feature prominently. The museum is located above the Maxim’s de Paris restaurant in the 8th arrondissement, which Pierre Cardin purchased after being a regular diner there. To explore the galleries, you will need to take a guided tour and book in advance. Large parties can book a tour including lunch or dinner in the restaurant or plan special events there. Guided tours are in French and English and there is also a theater on the premises, where plays by Pierre-André Hélène are regularly staged.
Of course, there are many more museums you can visit while in Paris, as I mentioned earlier, and the venues you select will reflect personal taste, interests, or even your mood for the day! A museum visit is a good way to connect with a city, not only through observation of cultural relics, but through contact with the people who curate, maintain, volunteer, and educate at these institutions. Another thing to note is that the atmosphere is usually pleasant, since many people who visit these museums are on some sort of break or holiday, are not in a hurry, and are interested in imbibing the culture that surrounds them. The programming will also reflect the current cultural scene in Paris, so attending an event hosted by one of these museums will give you even more of a taste of the city and the way in which it is participating on the world stage.
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