The museums of Paris offer a wide selection of art and objects to appreciate. You will find around 130 museums within the city limits. The Louvre is the best known. It is a world-class museum showcasing masterpieces like the mona-lisa and the Venus de Milo – and it’s huge.
I recommend going to taste this museum, but do not forget the small museums of Paris. They’re less crowded and more intimate, giving you a chance to see the offerings up close without having to wade through masses of people. Some can be covered in an hour, so you’ll feel like you’ve seen them fully without being overwhelmed.
Here are five of my favorite little museums in Paris.
1. Musee d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay is located in the center of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, just opposite the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre. How did he come to occupy this prime Parisian property? The museum is located in the former Gare d’Orsay, built for the Paris Exposition of 1900. In 1939, the station platforms could no longer accommodate newer and longer trains, but the building proved be the ideal location for an art museum. Glass ceilings let in lots of natural light to illuminate the art.
The museum, opened in 1986, is spacious and welcoming. The collections contain works of art completed between 1848 and 1914. Sculptures, photographs, architectural elements and paintings are exhibited in different areas. The Musée d’Orsay has one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. The exhibition area was redesigned for an even more attractive view and reopened in fall 2019.
When you go, note the clocks. A large one is high on the entrance hall wall. Another on the top floor is built over a window, so you can see the Montmartre district through it. And in the gold-decorated café, an oversized clock lets in a light that makes the whole room shine.
Even if you’re not going to eat, walk through the top floor cafe at the back and then outside on the balcony. You’ll enjoy stunning views across the Seine to the Louvre, with the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in the background. Sculptures also decorate the balcony.
Pro Tip: First, go up. People tend to enter the museum and be mesmerized by the beauty of the sculptures on the ground floor. If you want to view Impressionist art in peace, head quickly to the back of the building and climb to the top floor by stairs or an elevator. Once on the third floor, you can stroll through the impressionist galleries. You will be ahead of the crowd. Then go back down to see what you came across on entering.
2. Rodin Museum
It’s easy to miss this charming museum behind its high walls, but it’s certainly worth a visit. The Musée Rodin in the 7th arrondissement of Paris houses not only sculptures by Auguste Rodin but also his works in progress and his drawings. The museum is located in the former Hôtel Biron, where Rodin resided. The painter Henri Matisse and the dancer Isadora Duncan also lived there. Rodin was its sole tenant from 1911 until his death in 1918.
The gardens invite you to stroll and appreciate the sculptures scattered everywhere. The Thinker, Rodin’s most famous sculpture, is just inside the entrance. It’s quite amazing to come across this piece of art in person as you walk through a hedge of tall bushes. You can walk around the sculpture to view it from different angles. It is truly moving to be in the presence of Rodin’s most famous masterpiece.
A rose garden, paths lined with trees, wide lawns and a pretty pond make up the garden. Numerous bronze versions of Rodin’s emblematic works are exhibited in the gardens. These include The Burghers of Calais and The gates of hell. The Rodin Museum is perfect for those who are not normally museum fans. You can find something to marvel at here without even entering the house.
Inside, the showcases are arranged in chronological order. An audio guide explains some of the museum’s collections in detail. I found it useful, even though the guide only focuses on a few rooms in each of the many rooms.
The museum was established by Rodin in 1916 when he donated his own work as well as his collections to the French state. We are all beneficiaries of his generosity.
3. Orangery Museum
Tucked away in a corner at the end of the Tuileries Garden near the Louvre, the Musée de l’Orangerie is a small but enchanting art museum. An hour in this intimate museum is all you need to fully experience it.
The Orangerie houses many of the water lilies paintings by the artist Claude Monet. He gifted these paintings to the French state the day after the First World War armistice in November 1918, and the flowers symbolize peace. The museum was then built specifically to show the paintings by providing light and curved walls. Monet himself described his water lilies as giving an “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave without horizon and without shore”. The Orangerie opened in 1927, just months after Monet’s death.
At the museum, you can look at the impressionist paintings from afar, or you can stand and admire the details. Then, relax on a bench in the center of the room and look around you at Monet’s 360 degrees. It’s a great place to rest your weary feet and process what you’ve seen.
While the Orangerie’s main attractions are the works of Monet, an exhibition hall in the museum also showcases the art of others. I appreciated the works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir lent to the Orangerie during my visit.
4. Hotel National Des Invalides
The shimmering golden dome that dominates the view over the city of Paris is a complex of buildings known as the Hotel National des Invalides. Construction began in 1671 at the request of Louis XIV. The building was originally intended to serve as a hospital for wounded soldiers.
Today, a large part of the Invalides is occupied by the Army Museum. This excellent museum celebrates 200 years of French history. It takes you through exhibits that cover World War I and World War II. Other temporary exhibitions change twice a year. One that I particularly enjoyed was Secret Warsan exhibition on espionage and resistance movements.
Les Invalides still includes a hospital, and the large cannon-lined courtyard serves as a gathering place for celebrations. When you are here, be sure to enter the chapel to see the final resting place of Napoleon I.
5. Catacombs of Paris
Listed as the Musée de la Ville de Paris, the Catacombs are a very different option from elegant art museums – they are the burial place of hundreds of Parisians. At the end of the 17th century, the cemeteries of Paris became overcrowded and bodies were exhumed and moved to these underground tunnels. The dead are now stacked along the walls. Opened to the public in 1809, the Catacombs feature paths where visitors can walk through the piles of bones. You are politely asked not to reach out and touch them. I can attest that this is a memorable museum!
Queues to descend into the catacombs can be long. Only 200 people are allowed to enter at the same time. Check the website for information on peak times on the day you wish to visit. Allow about an hour to complete the one kilometer course. You will arrive on the street at a different place than where you entered.
Pro Tip: Make sure you are able to manage stairs. The only way to descend into the tunnels is on foot, and there are 131 steps down and 112 up. The website says it’s like going from the top of a five-story building and back up. The path can also be a bit rough, so wear comfortable walking shoes.
Paris museum pass
If you plan to visit several Parisian museums, buying a Paris Museum Pass will save you time and money.
Familiarize yourself with the Paris Museum Pass before you go. Look online for offers while you plan your trip. The pass can save you money if you are going to visit more than a few museums. Even better, it will allow you to skip the lines at the busiest museums.
I bought this pass for some trips and not others, depending on my itinerary. I bought my pass at the airport when I arrived on my first trip to Paris, and I got what I paid for and skipped the queues several times.
Paris has museums of all sizes and all kinds. You are sure to find something that will please you and enrich your vacation.
Want to enjoy more of Paris off the beaten track? Discover these hidden gems, charming boutiques, surprising things to do and lesser-known churches in the city.