Essential Paris Museums

Become enchanted, not overwhelmed, by Paris’ enlivening art scene with this guide to essential Parisian museums.


Paris was once the hometown of artists, regardless of their origin. It was where Gertrude Stein held court, where Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso agreed to disagree, where Man Ray and Lee Miller discovered solarization, and where Alexander Calder twisted the features of Josephine Baker and Joan Miró into wire sculptures. The lives and work of these people, and others who came before and after, have left Paris with a rich artistic history, as well as richly filled museums.  

The Essentials

If one were to draw a list of the museums not to miss while in Paris, the Louvre (rue de Rivoli, metro Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre) might very well appear near the top. The home of French royalty until the reign of Louis XIV, the Louvre is now the home of art. Adored pieces such as the “Mona Lisa,” “Venus de Milo” and the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” reside there in the good company of nearly 35,000 other works. Everyone has a different strategy for visiting the Louvre, because it’s as immense as it is dense, and rumor has it that to see everything, it would take three months of undivided attention.

On the Left Bank, a little farther west of the Louvre, lies the Musée d’Orsay (1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, metro Assemblé Nationale), another museum that would surely make it on the list (and one that many visitors prefer over the Louvre). Formerly a train station, Orsay now pulls in millions of visitors each year. Aside from its special exhibits, the museum also houses a permanent collection that focuses on artists born in the 19th and 20th centuries, which is beautiful enough to make you dizzy.

It’s hard to miss the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges Pompidou, metro Rambuteau). At least that’s what everyone says when you’re new to Paris, the reason being that it is a ridiculously large and peculiar looking building, covered in tubes and grating, nestled in the city’s center. Despite its ostentatious appearance, the Pompidou shelters four floors of gallery space, which feature temporary exhibits, a permanent collection of art from 1905-1960 and the recently added elles@centrepompidou, a permanent display of work by female artists. The center also contains a cinema, children’s gallery, library and theater for “spectacles” or shows among other things.

For those of us who learned as children that some impressionist paintings were a big old mess of colored dots up close, but a picture when viewed from a few steps back (pointillism), were probably taught this through Claude Monet’s works. This plays a small role as to why the Musée de l’Orangerie (Jardin des Tuileries, metro Concorde) is another place to put on the don’t-leave-Paris-without-seeing list. Not only does the Orangerie (yes, it was once a place where orange trees were grown) contain Monet’s water lily paintings, the “Nympheas,” but also a number of pieces by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and others.  

To Keep an Eye On

It’s worth just standing outside the Grand and Petit Palais (Avenue Winston Churchill, metro Franklin D. Roosevelt), if only to take in the magnificent architecture. Wrought from iron and paned with glass, these two structures look as though they belong to a fantasy world rather than the streets of Paris. Built for the World’s Fair held in Paris during 1900, the Grand and Petit Palais closed their doors for 12 years for an extensive restoration project. In late 2005, when the two buildings reopened, lines curled out the entrances and down the avenue.

The Grand Palais had transformed into a magnificent space, which hosts temporary art shows, fashion shows and events. The Petit Palais has taken on a permanent collection which displays art from the renaissance to the 20th century.

The Jeu de Paume (Concorde, 1 Place de la Concorde, metro Concorde; Hotel de Sully, 62 rue Saint-Antoine, metro Saint Paul) is definitely worth checking out. It regularly has provocative and thoughtful temporary exhibits in one of its two locations in Paris. Jeu de Paume has recently featured an array of notable photographers, such as Lee Miller, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, but also carefully selects contemporary artists for collaboration.  

Artist Museums

For those who want a more intimate view of a particular artist they love, Paris boasts a number of museums dedicated to the lives and works of certain individuals. Probably two of the most popular of such museums are the Musée Rodin (79 Rue de Varenne, metro Varenne) and the Musée National Picasso (5 Rue Thorigny, metro Saint-Sebastian Froissart, Chemin Vert) .

From the artist who gave us such thought provoking sculptures as “The Thinker,” disturbing images such as “The Gates of Hell,” and moving figures like “The Walking Man,” also exists an institute devoted to the complexities of his life and craft. The Musée Rodin contains a trove of Rodin’s sketches, sculptures, and photographs that illustrate the evolution of the man and artist.

The Musée National Picasso offers an insightful look into one of the art world’s most prodigious creators. With a collection that follows Picasso’s inspirations as well as the work he inspired, the museum also features temporary exhibits that draw lines between Picasso and other artists.  

Newer and Smaller

First opened in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly (37 Quai Branly, metro Pont de l’Alma) deviates from Paris’ cultural landscape as the center of Western art by exploring ethnographic works from continents such as Africa, Asia and the Americas. Bordering the Seine, the building’s façade is overgrown with greenery crawling up and sprouting from the walls itself.

The museum’s structure is just as much a work of art as the pieces it holds. Designed by Jean Nouvel, the entrance was made to create the impression that one is exploring through the dense foliage of a wild world. Every detail of the museum’s appearance serves both a function, in terms of creating a specific environment, as well as aesthetic beauty.

What is fabulous about the Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue Président Wilson, metro Ièna), is that it does not favor the early bird. The museum first opened its doors in January 2002, and in a somewhat artsy manner, decided it would not open until noon, nor close until midnight. Dedicated to contemporary art, the Palais de Tokyo embraces new pieces of works that toy with the imagination and are rarely easy to define.

Among the fun and new museums to open in Paris is the Centquatre (104 rue d’Aubervilliers, metro Stalingrad), which cut its ribbon in October, 2008. A clean and spacious building that holds 19 artists’ studios, it originally served as a funeral parlor. Since its drearier days, Centquartre has morphed into a lively and interactive venue. Near the entrance is a multimedia exhibit on gardening, where mushrooms, vegetables and herbs sprout on a constantly evolving terrain. Facing that is a workshop called the Maison des Petits, where children aged up to 5 years old are invited to express themselves in a warm and artistic space.    

A short distance down a lush, green pathway, one stands at the entrance of the Musée de la Vie Romantique (16 rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement, metro Saint Georges). Pink roses and delicate wisteria dot the courtyard, and a main house holds a permanent collection of art (often portraits) and souvenirs that evoke the lives of writer George Sand and painter Ary Scheffer.

Two smaller buildings host temporary exhibits that illustrate various experiences of romance in life. Tucked to the side is a pretty terrace, covered in greenery and blossoms, where one can nibble on a light lunch or take tea. The Musée de la Vie Romantique is often overlooked as a tourist stop, but Parisians who know it will say you must go for a visit.

In the event that one is oversaturated or just plain tired of walking through endless halls hung with paintings or otherwise, there’s another good way of taking in Paris’ artistic landscape. The neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés (metro Odéon) offers countless art galleries to peruse, all clustered around rue de Seine and the other small streets that wind out from it. Think of it like a pub crawl, but with art instead of beer. Whether your thing is collage, photography or furniture, it’s easy to stumble across artwork that pleases your eye or inspires you to ask why.

Destinations: Paris

Themes: Art and Museums

Activities: Museums, Sightseeing

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