12 unmissable museums in Paris

Get your dose of culture with the top Paris museums to see before you die.

Culture vultures, listen up: this is your museum hit list during your stay in the City of Light. There's plenty of things to do in Paris, but it would be a shame not to visit a few of these gems. From the architecturally impressive, to the charming or just plain beautiful, each of these Parisian museums has a magnetism that draws us in  visit after visit. If your Paris time is limited, make sure at least one of these Paris museums is on your checklist. 

When you've done these, don't forget these alternative Paris museums or charming artist's houses in Paris. 

12 most iconic museums in Paris

Museums, Art and design

The Centre Pompidou

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The primary colours, exposed pipes and air ducts make the Centre Pompidou one of the best-known sights in Paris. The then-unknown Italo-British architectural duo of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers won the competition with their 'inside-out' boilerhouse approach, which put air-conditioning, pipes, lifts and the escalators on the outside, leaving an adaptable space within. The multi-disciplinary concept of modern art museum (the most important in Europe), library, exhibition and performance spaces, and repertory cinema was also revolutionary. It now holds the largest collection of modern art in Europe, rivalled only in its breadth and quality by MoMA in New York. 

Museums, Art and design

The Louvre

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The world's largest museum is also its most visited, with an incredible 8.1 million visitors in 2017. It is a city within the city, a vast, multi-level maze of galleries, passageways, staircases and escalators. It's famous for the artistic glories it contains within (like the Mona Lisa), but the museum is a masterpiece in itself - or rather, a collection of masterpieces modified and added to from one century to another. Some 35,000 works of art and artefacts are on show, split into eight departments and housed in three wings; the main draw, though, is the painting and sculpture. Be sure to check the website or lists in the Carrousel du Louvre to see which galleries are closed on certain days to avoid missing out on what you want to see.

Musée d'Orsay
Museums, Art and design

Musée d’Orsay

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Victor Laloux’s 1900 former train station and its giant clocks emerged as the newly redesigned Musée d'Orsay in 1986, and it has flourished to house the largest collection of impressionist (over 480 paintings) and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world at nearly 1,100 paintings. The collection begins where the Louvre’s finishes off (around 1848) and continues where the Centre Pompidou’s begins (around 1914). In other words, sixty years of art history - from realism to the Pont-Aven school, from Impressionism to pointillism, which attracts more than 3 million visitors a year and occupies nearly 35,000 m2. The highlights in this glass and metal monster gem include: Courbet’s 'L’Origine du monde' and 'Un enterrement à Ornans,' as well as Millet’s 'Glaneuses' and Corot’s landscapes. See Manet’s bridge between realism and impressionism with 'Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe' and 'Olympia'. Come with stamina and leave inspired.

Museums, Art and design

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

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Taken as a whole (along with the Musée de la Mode et du Textile and Musée de la Publicité), this is one of the world's major collections of design and the decorative arts. Located in the west wing of the Louvre since its opening a century ago, the venue reopened in 2006 after a decade-long, €35-million restoration of the building and of 6,000 of the 150,000 items donated mainly by private collectors. The major focus here is French furniture and tableware. From extravagant carpets to delicate crystal and porcelain, there is much to admire. Of most immediate attraction to the layman are the reconstructed period rooms, ten in all, showing how the other (French) half lived from the late 1400s to the early 20th century.

© Yann Caradec
Museums, Art and design

Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

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Built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, each of whom designed a façade. During World War II it accommodated Nazi tanks. In 1994 the magnificent glass-roofed central hall was closed when bits of metal started falling off, although exhibitions continued to be held in the other wings. After major restoration, the Palais reopened in 2005 and it has since hosted a range of groundbreaking large-scale exhibitions, from Irving Penn to Marc Chagall to Cartier jewels. It also plays host to Paris Fashion Week events, the Taste of Paris food festival and in the winter months, an eye-popping ice skating rink.

Museums, History

Petit Palais

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Despite it’s elegant, Belle Époque allure the ‘Little Palace’ is overshadowed by its big brother, Le Grand Palais, just across the road. But ignore it and you’ll miss out on one of Paris’s loveliest fine arts museums, with an extensive mish-mash of works by Poussin, Doré, Courbet and the Impressionists, as well as other paintings and sculptures from the Antiquity to 1900. Art Nouveau fans are in for a treat downstairs, where you’ll find jewellery and knickknacks by Belle Epoque biggies Lalique and Gallé, furniture by Hector Guimard (the man behind of Paris’s iconic metro entrances) and ceramicist Jean Carriès' supernatural creations. The building, built by Charles Girault for the 1900 for the World Fair, is lit entirely by natural light and sits around a pretty little garden - a plum spot for coffee and cakes.

Museums, History

Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

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Opened in 2007, this architecture and heritage museum impresses principally by its scale. The expansive ground floor is filled with life-size mock-ups of cathedral façades and heritage buildings, and interactive screens place the models in context. Upstairs, darkened rooms house full-scale copies of medieval and Renaissance murals and stained-glass windows. The highlight of the modern architecture section is the walk-in replica of an apartment from Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse in Marseille.

Museums, History

Musée Carnavalet

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Here, 140 chronological rooms depict the history of Paris, from pre-Roman Gaul to the 20th century. Built in 1548 and transformed by Mansart in 1660, this fine house became a museum in 1866, when Haussmann persuaded the city to preserve its beautiful interiors. Original 16th-century rooms house Renaissance collections, with portraits by Clouet and furniture and pictures relating to the Wars of Religion. The first floor covers the period up to 1789, with furniture and paintings displayed in restored, period interiors; neighbouring Hôtel Le Peletier de St-Fargeau covers the period from 1789 onwards. Displays relating to 1789 detail that year's convoluted politics and bloodshed, with prints and memorabilia, including a chunk of the Bastille.

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Museums, History

Musée du Quai Branly

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Surrounded by trees on the banks of the Seine, this museum, housed in an extraordinary building by Jean Nouvel, is a vast showcase for non-European cultures. Dedicated to the ethnic art of Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas, it joins together the collections of the Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie and the Laboratoire d'Ethnologie du Musée de l'Homme, as well as contemporary indigenous art. Treasures include a tenth-century anthropomorphic Dogon statue from Mali, Vietnamese costumes, Gabonese masks, Aztec statues, Peruvian feather tunics, and rare frescoes from Ethiopia.

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Museums, Art and design

Musée National du Moyen Age - Thermes de Cluny

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The national museum of medieval art is best known for the beautiful, allegorical Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle, but it also has important collections of medieval sculpture and enamels. There is also a worthy programme of medieval concerts in which troubadours reflect the museum's collection and occasional 45- minute heures musicales in a similar style. The building itself, commonly known as Cluny, is also a rare example of 15th-century secular Gothic architecture, with its foliate Gothic doorways, hexagonal staircase jutting out of the façade and vaulted chapel. It was built from 1485 to 1498 - on top of a Gallo-Roman baths complex. The baths, built in characteristic Roman bands of stone and brick masonry, are the finest Roman remains in Paris. 

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Museums, Science and technology

Musée des Arts et Métiers

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The 'arts and trades' museum is, in fact, Europe's oldest science museum, founded in 1794 by the constitutional bishop Henri Grégoire, initially as a way to educate France's manufacturing industry in useful scientific techniques. Housed in the former Benedictine priory of St-Martin-des-Champs, it became a museum proper in 1819; it's a fascinating, attractively laid out and vast collection of treasures. Here are beautiful astrolabes, celestial spheres, barometers, clocks, weighing devices, some of Pascal's calculating devices, amazing scale models of buildings and machines that must have demanded at least as much engineering skill as the originals, the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, an enormous 1938 TV set, and still larger exhibits like Cugnot's 1770 'Fardier' (the first ever powered vehicle) and Clément Ader's bat-like, steam-powered Avion 3. 


Musée Jacquemart-André

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Long terrace steps and a pair of stone lions usher visitors into this grand 19th-century mansion, home to a collection of objets d'art and fine paintings. The collection was assembled by Edouard André and his artist wife Nélie Jacquemart, using money inherited from his rich banking family. The mansion was built to order to house their art hoard, which includes Rembrandts, Tiepolo frescoes and various paintings by Italian masters Uccello, Mantegna and Carpaccio. The adjacent tearoom, with its fabulous tottering cakes, is a favourite with the smart lunch set.

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© Eric Pouhier
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