Say Paris, and many would immediately picture a museum, then a room, then a painting, then a smile. The Mona Lisa must have the City of Light’s – and perhaps the world’s – most recognisable grin. And that’s why more than 10 million flock to the Louvre each year to check it out.
You’ve got to explore that museum’s sprawling collection at least once, so do put aside a day to wander its labyrinthine corridors. But spare a thought for the rest of the city’s excellent museums, attractions and things to do too. Whether it’s contemporary art, fashion, architecture or temples to Monet and Picasso, there’s a museum for visual art in all its forms here. So grab your camera – and a sketchpad should you feel inspired – and head down to one of the very best museums in Paris according to us.
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Best museums in Paris
The primary colours, exposed pipes and air ducts make the Centre Pompidou one of the best-known sights in Paris. Pompidou – known to locals as simply ‘Beaubourg’ – contains the largest collection of modern art in Europe, rivalled only in breadth and quality by MoMA in New York. The idea of combining a modern art museum, library, exhibition and performance space and cinema in one multi-purpose complex was also revolutionary. It’s free to get in (and the same goes for the library, which has a separate entrance), but you have to pay to go up the escalators.
This ‘arts and crafts’ museum is, in fact, Europe’s oldest science museum, founded in 1794 by constitutional bishop Henri Grégoire, initially as a means 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 – and contains a vast, fascinating and attractively laid out collection of treasures. Here you’ll find beautiful astrolabes, barometers, clocks, weighing devices, some of Pascal’s calculating devices, striking 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 world’s first powered vehicle) and Clément Ader’s bat-like, steam-powered Avion 3.
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 art and culture. With rooms dedicated to art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas, it brings 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 10th-century anthropomorphic Dogon statue from Mali, Vietnamese costumes, Gabonese masks, Aztec statues, Peruvian feather tunics and rare frescoes from Ethiopia.
The world’s largest museum is also its most visited, with some 10.1 million passing through the iconic pyramid in 2018 alone. It’s a city within a city, a vast, multi-level maze of galleries, passageways, staircases and escalators. Famous of course for all its glorious art – hello Mona Lisa – the Louvre is also 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 across 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.
The old Belle Époque Orsay train station was converted into the Musée D’Orsay in 1986 to house one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist and Post-impressionist art. Aside from works by Monet, Renoir, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, you’ll find a dapper collection of decorative arts from the Art Nouveau era and a wide range of 19th-century sculpture. Wind down over coffee in the café behind the museum’s giant transparent clock.
Originally a museum of the Empire period left to the state by collector Paul Marmottan, this old hunting pavilion has become a famed holder of Impressionist art thanks to two bequests: the first by the daughter of the doctor of Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley and Renoir; the second by Monet’s son Michel. Its Monet collection, the largest in the world, numbers 165 works, plus sketchbooks, palettes and photos. A special circular room was created for the breathtaking late water lily canvases; upstairs are works by Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Caillebotte and Berthe Morisot, 15th-century primitives, a Sèvres clock and a collection of First Empire furniture.
The huge, sprawling galleries of the Grand Palais were originally constructed for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 – so it’s no surprise this place is the definition of grand. The exterior is in the Beaux-Arts style and dominated by an eye-catching steel-framed glass roof. Almost a century after it was built, in 1994, the Grand Palais was closed for some much-needed restoration, but it reopened in 2005 and has since put on huge exhibitions on the likes of Irving Penn, Marc Chagall and Paul Gauguin.
Taken as a whole (alongside the Musée de la Mode et du Textile), this is one of the world’s major collections of design and the decorative arts. Located in the west wing of the Louvre for almost a century, 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 focus here is French furniture and tableware, but from extravagant carpets to delicate crystal and porcelain, there’s almost too much to admire. Of most appeal to the layman? The reconstructed period rooms, 10 in all, showing how the other (French) half lived from the late 15th century to the early 20th.
The Centre National de la Photographie moved into this site in the Tuileries gardens in 2005 – making it the ideal second stop after a trip to the Louvre or Orsay. The building, which once served as a tennis court, has been divided into two white, almost hangar-like galleries. It’s not an intimate space, but it works well for showcase retrospectives. A video art and cinema suite in the basement shows new digital installation work, as well as feature-length films made by artists. There’s also a sleek café and a decent bookshop.
Opened in 2007, this architecture and heritage museum impresses principally because of its scale (massive). The expansive ground floor is filled with life-size mock-ups of cathedral façades and heritage buildings, with interactive screens that 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? A walk-in replica of an apartment from Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille.
On the other side of the road from the Grand Palais, you’ll find the Petit Palais. Although this institution was also built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, it’s fondly known as the Grand Palais’s younger sibling. Behind its Belle Époque exterior visitors can cast their eyes on some of the city’s most wonderful fine art and sculptures, including work by Poussin, Doré, Courbet and the Impressionists. Art Nouveau fans are in for a treat downstairs, where you’ll find jewellery and knick-knacks by Belle Époque biggies Lalique and Galle.
When it opened in 2002, many thought the Palais’s stripped-back interior was a design statement. In fact, it was a response to tight finances. The 1937 building has now come into its own as an open-plan space with a skylit central hall, hosting exhibitions and performances. Extended hours and a funky café have drawn a younger audience, and the roll-call of contemporary artists is impressive (Pierre Joseph, Wang Du and others). The name dates to the 1937 Exposition Internationale, but is also a reminder of links with a new generation of artists from the Far East.