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Quirky museums

Police and porn, sewers and skulls: it’s Paris’s museums, but not as you know them...

Oliver Knight / Time Out
Musées des Parfumeries Fragonard
Paris wears its nickname as the 'Museum City' with pride. And with three of world's most fabulous museums – the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d'Orsay – it's got good reason to be chuffed. However there's much more to its cultural scene than these behemoths. Off the beaten track, down cobbled side streets and even smack bang in the middle of touristy areas, you’ll find many weird and wonderful little-known gems – all well worth an hour of your time.

Musée de la Poupée

This small, private museum and doll hospital enchants little girls with its collection of some 500 dolls (mostly of French origin) and their accompanying accessories and pets, which are arranged in thematic tableaux.A few teddies and quacking ducks are thrown in for young boys, and storytelling sessions and workshops (along the lines of making doll's clothes or miniature food for dolls' houses) are held at 2pm on Wednesdays (in French, reserve in advance; €8-€13). There's even a clinique pour poupées if your doll is falling apart at the seams.

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Les Halles

Musée de la Préfecture de Police

The police museum is housed in a working commissariat, which makes for a slightly intimidating entry procedure. You need to walk boldly past the police officer standing guard outside and up the steps to the lobby, where you have to ask at the reception booth to be let in - queuing, if necessary, with locals there on other, but usually police-related, errands. The museum is on the second floor; start from the Accueil and work your way clockwise.None of the displays is labelled in English (though there is a bilingual booklet), and a handful are not labelled at all; but if you have basic French and any sort of interest in criminology, this extensive collection is well worth seeing. It starts in the early 17th century and runs to the Occupation, via the founding of the Préfecture de Police by Napoleon in 1800. Exhibits include a prison register open at the entry for Ravaillac, assassin of Henri IV; a section on the Anarchist bombings of the 1890s; the automatic pistol used to assassinate President Doumer in 1932; a blood-chilling collection of murder weapons - hammers, ice picks and knives; sections on serial killers Landru and Petiot; and less dangerous items, such as a gadget used to snag banknotes from the apron pockets of market sellers.

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Latin Quarter and south Paris Free

Musée des Egouts

For centuries, the main source of drinking water in Paris was the Seine, which was also the main sewer. Construction of an underground sewerage system began at the time of Napoleon. Today, the Egouts de Paris constitutes a smelly museum; each sewer in the 2,100km (1,305-mile) system is marked with a replica of the street sign above. The Egouts can be closed after periods of heavy rain.

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South-west Paris

Musée Valentin Haüy

The tiny Musée Valentin Haüy is devoted to the history of braille, a story intimately connected with the French Enlightenment just before the Revolution. Valentin Haüy, whose statue you will see as you pass the gates of the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, was an 18th-century linguist and philanthropist. He established France's first school for the blind, and it was here that Louis Braille became a star pupil some 34 years later.The one-room museum is hidden at the end of the nondescript corridors of the Valentin Haüy Association, which offers educational services to the blind. The door opens on to glass-fronted cases of exhibits with, in the centre, a huge braille globe. You can explore on your own with the aid of French, English or braille explanatory texts, or allow the curator, Noêle Roy, to show you round. She will give a tour in English if preferred.The first exhibit is a shocking print, depicting the fairground freak show that inspired Valentin Haüy to devote his life to educating not only the blind, but also the backward public who came to laugh at the likes of this blind orchestra forced to perform in dunce's hats. He wanted to prove that blind people had as great a capacity for learning and feeling as anyone else - in short, that they were human beings.Next begins the tactile tour, with a chance to touch books printed by Haüy in embossed letters. After the Revolution, another philanthopist, Charles Barbier, tried to develop a universal writing system using raised dots, but it was difficult to read. Braille, the son of a harness-maker, arrived at the school as a ten-year-old in 1819, having been blind since the age of four after he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with a stitching awl.He spent his years at the school developing and perfecting his six-dot fingertip system. He was only 16 when he completed it, and went on to teach, write a treatise on arithmetic, and play the organ in two Paris churches. He died from tuberculosis at the age of 43. If it hadn't been for his childhood accident, this genius may never have had access to the education that led to his gift to humanity and his admission to the Pantheon.

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South-west Paris Free

Musée Edith Piaf

Set in an apartment where Piaf lived at the age of 18, when she sang on the streets of Ménilmontant, this tiny museum consists of two red-painted rooms crammed with letters, pictures, framed discs and objects belonging to the singer.Curator Bernard Marchois doesn't speak English. It helps, therefore, to have seen the Marion Cotillard film before you go, to allow you to piece together the scrapbook of Piaf's highly mythologised life. The museum's real treasures are two letters, one a chatty number written on her 28th birthday, and another more passionate pen to actor Robert Dalban.These - and the well-worn, human-sized teddy bear cuddling a tiny monkey soft toy - are the only clues to the real Piaf, the greatest singer the nation has ever known.

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Eastern Paris Free

Observatoire de Paris

The Paris observatory was founded by Louis XIV's finance minister, Colbert, in 1667; it was designed by Claude Perrault (who also worked on the Louvre), with labs and an observation tower. The French meridian line drawn by François Arago in 1806 (which was used here before the Greenwich meridian was adopted as an international standard) runs north-south through the centre of the building. The dome on the observation tower was added in the 1840s.You'll need to apply for an appointment at the Observatoire by letter, but it's also worth checking the website for openings linked to astronomical happenings - or visit on the Journées du Patrimoine.

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Latin Quarter and south Paris Free

Musée du Vin

Up there among Paris’s top cultural meal settings is Le Musee du Vin, a unique museum of extensive stone vaulted cellars and passages that connect to ancient quarry tunnels from which came the stone of Notre Dame it seems. The tunnels were converted into cellars for the Passy Monastery, with the monks producing their own wine until the 14th century. Today, Le Musee du Vin serves its own fine blackcurranty bottle called Château Labastidie. That, and other fine French wines, dishes and cheeses are offered in the restaurant as four menus, starting with a menu terroir of daily specials (cheapest), and culminating in a four course a la carte feast featuring oysters and wild boar. Tip: make good use of the sommelier

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Musée de l'Erotisme

Seven floors of erotic art and artefacts amassed by collectors Alain Plumey and Joseph Khalifa. The first three run from first-century Peruvian phallic pottery through Etruscan fertility symbols to Yoni sculptures from Nepal; the fourth gives a history of Paris brothels; and the recently refurbished top floors host exhibitions of modern erotic art.

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Montmartre

Musée des Arts Forains

Housed in a collection of Eiffel-era wine warehouses is a fantastical collection of 19th- and early 20th-century fairground attractions. The venue is hired out for functions on most evenings, and staff may well be setting the tables when you visit.Of the three halls, the most wonderful is the Salon de la Musique, where a musical sculpture by Jacques Rémus chimes and flashes in time with the 1934 Mortier organ and a modern-day digital grand piano playing Murder on the Orient Express.In the Salon de Venise you are twirled round on a gondola carousel; in the Salon des Arts Forains you can play a ball-throwing game that sets off a race of moustachioed waiters. The venue is open only to groups of 15 or more, but individuals can visit on the occasional guided tours. Call ahead.

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Eastern Paris

Les Catacombes

Critics' choice

This is the official entrance to the 3,000km (1,864-mile) tunnel network that runs under much of the city. With public burial pits overflowing in the era of the Revolutionary Terror, the bones of six million people were transferred to the catacombes.The bones of Marat, Robespierre and their cronies are packed in with wall upon wall of their fellow citizens. A damp, cramped tunnel takes you through a series of galleries before you reach the ossuary, the entrance to which is announced by a sign engraved in the stone: 'Stop! This is the empire of death.'The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes and the temperature in the tunnels is 14°C.

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Montparnasse and south Paris
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Comments

1 comments
Emilie
Emilie

Le musée Fragonard de Maison Alford n'a rien à voir avec les parfumeurs contrairement à ce qui est écrit en légende la photo : Honoré Fragonard était un anatomiste du 18ème connu pour ses écorchés.