While some French people deride Paris as a ville muséifiée, or “museified” city, the variety of museums in the city is one of the biggest draws for its many visitors. With scores of museums packed into the city’s small area, there are plenty of options from which to choose! To help cut through the noise of the multitude of museums and help you prioritize, we’ve put together a list of the Paris’s 10 best. Whether you’re an art lover, a history buff, or simply seeking shelter on a rainy day in Paris, our list of the city’s best museums is a great place to start planning your trip!
1. The Louvre
The quintessential Paris Musée du Louvre grew out of the French Royal family’s collections and was bolstered by Napoleon’s conquests across Europe. Nowadays, the museum’s pieces are on display to more than 9 million visitors per year. That’s more than any museum in the world! The museum itself is housed in a palace that was first built in the 12th century and renovated by generations of French royalty over centuries. The Louvre is located in central Paris and is a must-see destination on any tour of the city. It’s also an unbeatable view to wake up to, as our 1-bedroom rental right across the street shows!
2. Musée d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay was adapted from an older structure and is second only to the Louvre in both visitor numbers and grandeur. However, instead of having a palatial past, the museum formerly functioned as a train station. The stunning renovation of the building showcases unique elements from its past, is flooded with natural light from above, and has a clever design on the ground level to perfectly frame the work of France’s Impressionist artists. Plan your visit ahead of time–the lines for entry can be hours long. Check out our tips and etiquette guide for more useful museum-going pointers!
3. L’Orangerie & Le Jeu de Paume
Just across the Seine River from the Musée d’Orsay, the Jardin des Tuileries, the former royal garden of Marie de Médici and first on our top 10 list of Paris parks, is home to two unique museums. Flanking the Place de la Concorde on the Seine side of the park is L’Orangerie, a former greenhouse custom-designed to house Claude Monet’s famed Water Lilies series (painted at Giverny in northern France). At the northwest corner of Tuileries is the Jeu de Paume, named for the Second Empire-era tennis courts that house France’s national photography gallery. Its rotating exhibitions combine France’s important historical role in developing the field of photography and the contemporary work of artists from around the world.
4. Centre Georges Pompidou
The Centre Georges Pompidou (known as ‘Beaubourg’ to locals) is much more than just a museum, it’s a work of art in itself! The large and architecturally groundbreaking building is home to a number of partnered institutions: the Bibliothèque d’Information Publique (Public Information Library), the IRCAM (Center for Music and Acoustic Research), and, most importantly, France’s National Museum of Modern Art. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre’s pyramids, the innovative design of the center initially did not sit well with Parisians upon its completion in 1977. However, Place Beaubourg, the large public plaza laid out as a massive calendar, and its unique public art pieces like the famous Stravinsky-inspired fountain and the stories-tall Alexander Calder sculpture out front have helped locals warm up to the institution.
5. Palais de Tokyo
The works held at the art-deco Palais de Tokyo are paired with the Centre Pompidou’s essential early 20th-century modernist collections. The structure faces the Seine River, like many of Paris’s major destinations, and hosts two institutions: the City of Paris’s Modern Art Museum and the Site de Création Contemporaine. The latter is a unique contemporary arts center where all the works on display were created onsite and is at the forefront of artistic innovation, having hosted a number of groundbreaking exhibitions since opening in 2002. Be sure to check what’s on display before your trip–you may catch the next big trend in the art world!
6. Musée Picasso
It takes a great artist to have a whole museum dedicated entirely to his or her work. Pablo Picasso has not one, but seven spread across Europe! Paris’s Musée Picasso takes a uniquely French spin on the Spanish-born artist’s oeuvre, displaying his works in a 17th-century hôtel particulier in the artsy Marais district of the Right Bank. Created as a bequest from the artist’s estate after his death, the collection includes over 5000 works in total, not including complementary pieces by Cézanne, Degas, Matisse, and traditional works from Africa that inspired Picasso. Art lovers can immerse themselves in Le Marais’s cultural scene with local apartments like our two-bedroom vacation rental right on Rue de Rivoli!
7. Musée du Quai Branly
The last art museum on our top 10 list, the Musée du Quai Branly offers a different perspective from most French cultural institutions. France’s colonial exploits across the world brought back a rich trove of what was once called “primitive art:” tribal cultures’ crafts and ceremonial objects ranging from Tasmania to northern Canada. The colorful, undulating museum located on the Quai Branly just down the block from the Eiffel Tower has given this art a home in a truly unique space since 2006. An eye-opening experience for families visiting Paris and locals alike, the museum is worth a visit for its creative layout and innovative design, beyond its fascinating non-Western art.
8. Institut du Monde Arabe
The Arab World Institute is another cultural institution reflecting on France’s colonial past, occupying a prime Seine-side location just east of Notre Dame and the Île Saint-Louis. While many floors of the space are dedicated to private use as research centers and libraries, there are several stories of exhibitions at any given time. These exhibitions bring Arab culture from prehistory through the 21st century to the heart of the French capital. Perhaps the most unique feature of the building is the use of shimmering apertures on the exterior wall that are inspired by traditional Islamic architectural features known as mashrabiya. This latticework combines French engineering with Arab design, as it opens and closes dynamically to adapt to Paris’s changing daylight. Don’t miss the terrace café on the roof where you can sip Moroccan mint tea and watch the sunset over the Paris skyline.
9. Musée de l’Armée
The Army Museum is housed in Les Invalides, known for its glittering golden dome and for being one of the most recognizable buildings in Paris. The museum examines French history in a different light, and one of its main draws is the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor was laid to rest directly underneath the dome in a red quartz sarcophagus decades after his death when his body was repatriated in 1840. The museum also has a spectacular collection of historic weapons and war trophies that are worth exploring even if you’re not interested in the tomb. Check out our guide to living like a local in the surrounding area: the 7th Arrondissement!
10. Catacombes de Paris
While most of Paris’s museums allow you to immerse yourself in history, none does so as literally as the Catacombes de Paris, the underground ossuary that holds the remains of roughly six million Parisians from centuries of the city’s past. The entrance to the subterranean network is off the Place Denfert Rochereau in the 14th Arrondissement at one of the former southern gates to the city, the Barrière d’Enfer (Hell Gate). Since 1874, visitors have been welcomed into this unique attraction by a set of spiral stairs that descend into the earth. Beyond just being “the world’s largest grave,” the Catacombs feature sculptures made from the masses of bones that occupy the space as well as poetry inspired by them.
Even with this brief sample of Paris’s myriad museums, it’s difficult to see everything you’d like in one trip. Why not plan to return to Paris and stay in one of our fully-furnished vacation rentals? Or, consider a longer stay for a semester abroad or an internship in the City of Lights. We can help you find the perfect place close to whichever of the city’s museums attracts you!