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Paris Museums

These are some of my favorite museums in Paris, and I've listed below some of the ones you may not think of or hear much about. Please note that a great many of the museums let you purchase your ticket online—it will transfer directly to your phone, and it's so much simpler than waiting in line to buy a ticket. Ticket holders typically have easier entry.

You're going to the Louvre, of course. That's not an assumption, it's an order.

You're going to the Louvre, of course (metro Palais-Royal or Louvre). That's not just an assumption, it's an order. Six million other people will be going this year, so you don't want to be left out. Even if it's only to see the Mona Lisa (La LouvrePlodJoconde, as she is known to Pierre and Mireille), you go to the Louvre and you'll be stunned. The way to do the Louvre is to avoid the cattle-like crowds who shuffle along as though marching dutifully to their deaths. So, don't follow the signs cheerfully directing you to Mona (we're on a first-name basis). That's what's happening in the image to the left, and it's decidedly unpleasant when the place is crowded (consider going at odd hours, by the way). Instead, enter the museum through one of the less-popular exhibits and explore the 16 kilometers of corridors that is the Louvre (but note that they're not all open to tourists).

Note that there are several entrances to the Louvre, not just the main one inside the pyramid (although I have to admit I love going down the inside of the pyramid). Those other entrances will be far less crowded, and they are at the Place de la Concorde, the rue de Rivoli, the Sickening LouvreQuai des Tuileries, the avenue du Général Lemonnier, and the Passerelle Solférino. The easiest one to find is the Porte des Lions, and it's on the wing facing the Seine, almost all the way to the west end. Thing is, these doors are more or less randomly closed, and the Louvre is huge, so you might end up walking around the thing a lot. But at least you won't have to wait in line.

It costs 17 euros to get in, but you can go for free on the first Sunday of each month (and everyone else has the same idea, so be forewarned). The Louvre is closed on Tuesday. The trick with the Louvre is to go to the areas in which people are not going. You'll find all sorts of interesting things, and you'll end up working your way around to the "must sees" anyway, so, as usual, just do what I say (the people to the right are engaged in an activity that mystifies me: they're taking pictures of the Mona Lisa, and they'll kill each other to get a good spot, so I took pictures of them).

OK, so this is a world-class museum, but if you don't like crowds—actually sickening mobs—of people who are sometimes actually screaming, running into you, and making it genuinely hard to study and enjoy the art, you might find this trying in the summer. One wonders why the management of this establishment can't do a better job. They seem to put the biggest crowd-pleasers exactly where it makes it hardest to move around. I overheard one American woman say, as I was trying to escape the madness that this museum has become, "It's worth coming just to see how horrible it is." If you're visiting Paris in the summer, and especially if you're on a limited time budget, consider skipping the Louvre (scandal!). You'll probably still go, of course, but expect not to see it the way you would like.

I like the underground parts that show you the history of the structure; the Greek pottery; and the room that has a sixteenth-century portrait of an Italian gentleman who looks like, well, me. Consider having lunch at La Frégate, which is sort of across the street, where the Quai Anatole France meets the Quai Voltaire.


OK, that one was a given: everyone has to go to the Louvre. But here are a couple of places you might not think of that are either off the beaten path (I hate that expression) or interesting, or weird, or scary, or something I can't identify.

OrsayInteriorOrsayLoversThe first one is one you probably know about, and it's not really off any path, beaten or otherwise, but I felt like mentioning it because I like it and because I took these photos there that I like. It's the Musée d'Orsay, and it's pretty remarkable (metro Assemblée Nationale, Solférino, or Concorde in a pinch). The Musée d'Orsay is closed on Mondays, and is free to everone on the first Sunday of the month. It's 16 euros to get in. (Read the back of your ticket. The part in English says something like "Closing time 4:00. Or 6:00." I love that.) When you arrive there will be different lines to get in depending if you're in a group; already have your ticket; like sushi, etc. They all go to the same place, and typically no one checks to see whether you deserve to be in the line you're in. Tom just always chooses the shortest one. The most popular part of the Musée d'Orsay is probably the section dedicated to impressionism (yes, they have "Starry Night"), but you should also check out the salle des fêtes—the museum is a former train station, you realize (see the clocks?), and the salle was—and still is—an incredibly ornate reception hall. This is on the second floor, and it's remarkably fussy and elegant and cool, and it's got a number of interesting bits of art in it as well. You an even rent this space out for your own events (you'll want to book early, and start saving up now). Don't miss going up to the very top of the museum, where there's a restaurant and a snack bar. If it's nice out, you can go out on the terrace and get a simply stunning view of the city. You can also stand behind the giant clock that faces outwards onto the street from the station, and kiss a complete stranger (as at above right, although I suspect these two already knew each other).

You say you like impressionism? and especially Monet? Then you should lay tracks over to 2 rue Louis Boilly in the 16th to the Musée Marmottan (metro La Muette). This museum has the largest holdings of Monet in the world, and it also contains significant works by the other major French impressionists. The museum is closed Monday, and it's 12 euros to get in. It's worth a visit just to check out the beautiful surroundings, since it's located very near to the Bois de Boulogne. BaiserThe building is also worth a visit in and of itself.

You might not expect it to be as fabulous as it is, but the Musée Rodin will calm you and excite you at the same time. It's at 79, rue de Varenne, and you can reach it via metro Varenne (or Invalides in a pinch). It's open every day except Monday, and admission is 13 euros (free the first Sunday of the month from October through March). Entrance to the exceptionally cool garden only—that is, no museum visit—is 1 euro. One of the things that makes this museum so appealing is in fact the lovely garden, complete with its amazing Rodin statues. The house is majestic and stately, and you haven't seen a work of sculpture until you've seen Rodin's rotund Balzac. You got your Gates of Hell, and oh, yeah, there's that Thinker guy, too.

Admit you were wrong, eat some crow, and go to this museum.
As I mentioned elsewhere, one of my very favorite museums in Paris is the Musée Carnavalet, which bills itself as "the most Parisian of all the capital's museums." That's because this is the museum of the history of Paris, and before you make any cracks about how dry that sounds, just wait a second and think about all the really cool things that might be in there. Like a letter that Robespierre was writing when he was arrested, like all theseVoltaire's death chair really amazing colorful wooden signs designating commercial establishments that date back to the sixteenth century when folks couldn't read and had to rely on pictures, like the big grotesque heads that used to adorn the Pont Neuf, like Voltaire's supposed funerary chair (right), like all kinds of stuff, so just admit you were wrong, eat some crow, and go to this museum. The museum was closed for a number of years while they did major renovations. And it's back open again, and admission is even free! It's at 23 rue de Sévigné in the lovely Marais (metro Saint-Paul or Chemin Vert). If it happens to be the 13th of July, you can hang out here and go to the bal des pompiers (fireman's ball) later. Situated in a fantastic, elegant, and very large private mansion that Mme de Sévigné once inhabited, this museum is also an architectural curiosity. It's free of charge to visit the permanent collections; if there's a special exhibit, it'll be something like 9 euros (but just for that part; you can always go to the permanent collection for free). Go on a Sunday afternoon, and then walk around the Marais afterwards. Eat falafel, or, if you'd like to sit at an especially nice café/brasserie, head around the corner to Le Sévigné.

MuseePicassoWhile you're in the Marais, make absolutely certain to go to the Musée Picasso. Situated in the Hotel Salé at 5 rue de Thorigny in the 3rd arrondissement, the museum is open every day except Tuesday, and the price of admission is 14 euros. (Closest metros are Saint-Sebastien-Froissart, Chemin Vert, or Saint-Paul.) The museum is situated in this fantastic elaborate seventeenth-century mansion, and it contains something like 3000 works by Picasso, in all the media he worked in. It also houses his own collection of other artists' works (including works by Cézanne, de Chirico, and Dégas). The museum is especially well designed, and if you're someone who gets easily museumed out (you know, that Top floor Picasso Museumstunned stupor you can sometimes find yourself falling into from looking at too many works of art for too long), you'll find that the arrangement of the works and the layout of the exhibition somehow keeps everything looking fresh. Even if you're not a museum person you'll very likely like this one. I find it one of the most compelling museums in Paris (next to Carnavalet, of course).

Surprisingly more interesting than you'd expect is the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which also houses exhibitions on fashion and textiles, as well as on advertising. Located behind a very forbidding looking wall at 107 rue de Rivoli (metro Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre or Tuileries), the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday and it costs 14 euros to get in. This thing has examples of pretty much anything anyone ever put in a cave, hut, house, mansion, or hovel to decorate the place and call it home. There's also an exhibit of advertising posters and paraphernalia that's quite captivating, and even if you don't care a whit for the fashion world or clothes you'll find these exhibits—if only in small doses—oddly attention grabbing.

GrevinWeirdly, even tough I lived within a stone's throw for a while, I've never been to the Musée Grévin—a wax museum—which is at 10, boulevard Montmartre in the 9th (metro Grands Boulevards). Ticket price is based on whether you reserve a date and time or not (20–25 euros).

Magic MuseumPerhaps in the same general category as the Musée Grévin is the Musée de la Magie, at 11 rue Saint-Paul in the 4th arrondissement (01 42 72 13 26, open Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, from 2:00 to 7:00 pm). This place insists that France has the richest history of magic in the world, and judging from all the things they have here—from big illusions (such as the woman sawed in half), to optical tricks, to posters and engravings from all over the place—they might be right. There's also a school of magic, with a syllabus that includes things such as cards, ropes, and everyday objects, as well as a magic store. Get all your magic needs here. 9 euros.

Perhaps the coolest thing—and it's pretty cool—about the Musée de Montmartre is that it's right next to the last operating vineyard in Paris. Really. If you don't believe me that there is such a thing, look here, where I told you about the Fête des vendanges de Montmartre. Now do you believe me? This museum is located at 12, rue Cortot in the 18th (of course) and your closest metro is probably Abbesses (which ain't all that close, really, but you'll have a lovely stroll. If you're not in great shape, take the Funiculaire up the hill). At 14 euros a pop, they'll let you in any day except Monday and Tuesday, and the collection holds some terrific stuff on historic Montmartre and the artists who made it famous (again) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This place is somewhat small, but if you're interested in Montmartre, you'll find the collections here quite absorbing. If you're just so-so on Montmartre, you can pass this one up.

BeaubourgThe Pompidou Center is officially known as the Musée National d'Art Moderne Centre Georges-Pompidou, but it's also often referred to simply as Beaubourg (and their web site is especially good—check it out). When the Center opened in 1977 it was all the rage and the hot controversy was that it had all of its guts (heating, exhaust systems, plumping, etc.) on the outside (see left). It seems much less controversial and avant garde now, but that shouldn't stop you from visiting this marvelous place. The Pompidou Center is the national museum of modern art (as the name implies), and the collection is housed on the 4th and 5th floors. Taking the escalator up is part of the fun, because the escalator is in a glass tube on the side of the building, and as you rise up above the rooftops you get a simply splendid view first of the Center's neighborhood, and then of the entire city. The view up to Montmartre and Sacré Cœur is especially good. The collection of twentieth- and twenty-first century art is quite fine, actually, and there are so many featured exhibitions that you can go here very often and see something new each time. This is one of Tom's favorite View from Pompidouplaces to go and spend some interesting and relaxing time. There's also a fabulous library here, materials for sharpening your foreign language skills, and IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique. You'll also get a major kick out of the street performers who do their shows in the great and vast plaza in the front of the museum—you'll find anything from mimes to Tuvan throat singers here (and this place is especially active on Sunday afternoons). The Center is at 19, rue Beaubourg, and the metro is Rambuteau (Châtelet or Hôtel de Ville in a pinch), and it's open every day except Tuesday. It's 14 euros for admission to the permanent collection and special exhibits. If you just want to ride the escalator up (and maybe grab a bite at the pretty good restaurant at the top) it's only 3 euros.

The oldest buildings in Paris—they're actually Roman baths—are part of the Musée de Cluny which you'll walk by a dozen times in the Latin Quarter before it occurs to you, if it ever does, to go in. This would be your national museum of the middle ages (and don't you just love that someone has a national museum for that?), and I promise you'll find it oddly compelling. Heck, just looking at the cats through the iron grating that faces the boulevard St. Michel is fun, but go around back to the entrance at 6 place Paul Painlevé, pony up your 12 euros (but don't go on Tuesday), and check out the stunning collection of gothic sculpture, medieval jewelry, and tapistries. The main building is a late fifteenth-century building, built to house the Cluny monks, and one of my favorite things here are a few of the giant heads that were decapitated from figures adorning the western facade of Notre Dame. During the French Revolution, the 28 kings of Judea all lined up above the three entrances at the front of the cathedral were thought to be the kings of France, and in the spirit of revolution, the crowds beheaded them. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads were unearthed (and I want to say they were found in the 9th arrondissement, but I'm not sure about that), and you'll be surprised to see how huge they are.

Not really a museum, the crypt of Notre Dame is something you should check out anyway.

If you are as obsessed with Notre Dame as I am, you'll like—but perhaps not love—the Musée Notre Dame. This museum, which admittedly isn't for everybody, is at 10 rue du Cloître Notre Dame (just around the left side of the cathedral as you face it), and it has information about the history of the cathedral, the organ, and other things related to the middle ages and the construction of the edifice. It's only open at odd times and on strange days—something like Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday—and you could easily be alone in the place. I find it weirdly charming and boring at the same time, but, again, I'm wildly interested in the history of Notre Dame. (And here's something I bet you didn't know about the cathedral: a portion of the Crown of Thorns isCrypte displayed the first Friday of every month, but you have to know when—and if you ask nice, I might tell you. It no longer has any thorns, though.)

Not really a museum, but something you should check out anyway is the crypt of Notre Dame. If you look at the ground in the huge square in front of the cathedral you'll see these outlines in brass. Those indicate the placement of medieval buildings that were once situated here that were torn down to provide a panoramic view of the cathedral. Underneath this giant plaza is a dig dating back to pre-Roman times. The entrance is at the far end of the square (away from the cathedral), and you have to look for it. Do it—the creepy, ancient space will freak you out and fascinate you as you realize people lived and walked around and ate and slept here a long, long time ago.

Closed on Monday. Entrance is 9 euros, and this is really way cool.

Dedicated to the art and culture of Arab and Islamic civilizations, the Institut du Monde Arabe is simultaneously museum, library, and médiathèque. Its further mission is to enhance understanding of Institut du Monde Arabecultural and scientific exchange between France and the Arab world. A relative newcomer to the Paris museum scene—it was opened in 1987—it presents you with stunning architecture right from the get-go. The building's southern facade is composed of hundreds of ornate diaphragms resembling the iris of your eye that adjust the size of their openings depending on how much light strikes them. These are called moucharabiehs, and they adorn many windows in classical Arab architecture; their goal was to permit people inside the building—presumably women—to look out without being seen. The northern facade of the building follows the curve of the Seine and opens out toward the Jussieu campus of the University of Paris. You'll find the Institute at 1, rue des Fossés Saint Bernard in the 5th arrondissement (metro Sully Morland, Maubert-Mutualité, or Jussieu). There's a fabulous café on the roof. It's closed on Monday. Entry is 8 euros. They get really fabulous travelling exhibits here (such as one on the origins of hip-hop, and a remarkably sophisticated virtual reality exhibit on the pyramid of Keops that totally blew me away). Go here.

Worth more than just a quick look, the Musée National des Arts et Métiers is over by République, at 60 rue Réaumur (metro Arts et Metiers or République). Closed on Monday, entrance 8 euros. This museum houses 100,000 objects and drawings concerning inventions in industry, photography, technology—especially textiles, and science in general. It's astonishingly interesting.

Readers' Suggestions

David B. has this to say about the museum pass: "I debated long and hard about purchasing a Paris Museum Pass but decided to go ahead and do it. It did help us skip the lines at the Louvre and the Musée D'Orsay so I would say it was worth it but the longest line we were in was at the Sainte Chapelle. That was a security line that everyone has to go through, pass or not. The same with the Notre Dame Towers. So people should be forewarned of those downsides to the pass."

M. writes: The Fondation Louis Vuitton (8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Paris 16) is a new contemporary art museum designed by Frank Gehry with a permanent outdoor installation by Oalfur Eliasson. The building alone is practically a reason to make the trip out past the posh neighborhoods to the Bois de Boulogne, but they have some good exhibitions, too. There are great views from the top and it's one of Gehry's better works.

Sabrina was unexpectedly charmed by the Galerie de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie Comparée (Museum of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology)—which is part of the Muséum national de l'histoire naturelle—when she happened across it as a port in a storm: "We stumbled into this place a few years ago during a brief thunderstorm that interrupted our visit to the zoo. The gallery is so beautiful, bathed with natural light from large windows. It is filled with probably tens of thousands of skeletons and fossils of animals both living and extinct. In fact, many early paleontological discoveries ended up here, as well as at London's museum of natural history. What a wonderful way to point out to our little one that whales have arms, just like we do! We thoroughly enjoyed this surprise, and will actually be going back intentionally next time we visit." The museum is located at 2, rue Buffon in the 5th (01 40 79 56 01; metro Gare d'Austerlitz or Quai de la Rapée).


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