Paris’s museums offer a wide selection of art and artifacts to enjoy. You’ll find about 130 museums within the city limits. The Louvre is the best known. It’s a world-class museum featuring masterpieces like the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo -- and it’s massive.
I recommend going and getting a taste of this museum, but don’t forget about the smaller museums in Paris. They are less crowded and more intimate, giving you a chance to see the offerings close up without having to fight your way through masses of people. Some can be perused in an hour, so you’ll feel like you’ve fully seen them without being overwhelmed.
Here are five of my favorite smaller museums in Paris.
1. Musee D’Orsay
The Musee d’Orsay sits in central Paris on the banks of the Seine, right across from the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre. How did it come to occupy this prime Paris real estate? The museum is located in the former Gare d’Orsay railway station, which was built for the 1900 Paris Exhibition. By 1939, the station platforms could not handle the newer, longer trains, but the building turned out to be the perfect venue for an art museum. The glass ceilings let in lots of natural light to illuminate the art.
The museum, opened in 1986, is spacious and inviting. Collections contain art completed between 1848 and 1914. Sculptures, photographs, architectural elements, and paintings are displayed in different areas. The Musee d’Orsay owns one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. The display area was redesigned for an even more appealing view and opened again in the fall of 2019.
When you go, notice the clocks. A large one is high up on the entry hall wall. Another on the top floor is built on a window, so that you can look out at the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris through it. And in the cafe with its gold decor, an outsize clock lets in light that makes the whole room shine.
Even if you are not going to eat, walk through the top-floor cafe to the back and then outside to the balcony. You will enjoy a breathtaking view across the Seine to the Louvre, with Sacre Coeur Basilica in the background. Sculptures decorate the balcony, too.
Pro Tip: First, go to the top. People tend to enter the museum and become mesmerized by the beauty of the sculptures on the ground floor. If you want to view the Impressionist art in peace and quiet, quickly make your way to the back of the building and go up to the top floor by stairs or elevator. Once you are on the third floor, you can meander through the Impressionist galleries. You’ll be moving ahead of the crowd. Then go back down to see what you walked by on your way in.
2. Rodin Museum
It’s easy to miss this delightful museum behind its high walls, but it’s certainly worth seeking out. The Rodin Museum in the 7th arrondissement of Paris houses not only sculptures by Auguste Rodin but also his work in progress and drawings. The museum is located in the former Hotel Biron, where Rodin resided. The painter Henri Matisse and the dancer Isadora Duncan lived there, too. Rodin was the only tenant from 1911 until his death in 1918.
The gardens invite you to wander and enjoy the sculptures scattered throughout. The Thinker, Rodin’s most famous sculpture, sits just inside the entrance. It is quite amazing to come upon this work 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’s truly moving to stand in the presence of Rodin’s most famous masterpiece.
A rose garden, tree-lined lanes, wide lawns, and a pretty pond make up the garden area. Many bronze versions of Rodin’s iconic works are on display 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 plenty to marvel at here without even going into the house.
Inside, the displays are arranged chronologically. An audio guide explains in detail some of the holdings of the museum. I found it helpful, though the guide only focuses on a few pieces in each of the many rooms.
The museum was created by Rodin in 1916 when he donated his own work as well as his collections to the French state. We are all the beneficiaries of his generosity.
3. Musee De L’Orangerie
Tucked into a corner at the end of the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre, the Musee de l’Orangerie is a small but enchanting art museum. An hour at this intimate museum is all you’ll need to experience it in full.
The Orangerie is home to several of the Water Lilies paintings by artist Claude Monet. He gifted these paintings to the French state on the day after the Armistice of World War I in November of 1918, and the flowers symbolize peace. The museum was then built specifically to show off the paintings by providing light and curving walls. Monet himself described his Water Lilies as giving an “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.” The Orangerie opened in 1927, just a few months after Monet’s death.
At the museum, you can look at the Impressionist paintings from a distance, or you can stand up close and take in the detail. Then relax on a bench in the center of the room and look around you at the 360 degrees of Monet. It’s a great place to rest your tired feet and process what you’ve seen.
While the main attractions of the Orangerie are Monet’s works, an exhibition hall in the museum features the art of others as well. I enjoyed the works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir on loan to the Orangerie when I visited.
4. Hotel National Des Invalides
The glittering gold dome that dominates the Paris city view 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 Musee de l’Armee. 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 exhibits change twice a year. One I especially enjoyed was Secret Wars, an exhibit about espionage and resistance movements.
The Invalides still includes a hospital, and the large courtyard lined with cannons serves as a gathering place for celebrations. When you are here, be sure to go into the chapel to view the final resting place of Napoleon I.
5. Paris Catacombs
Listed as a City of Paris Museum, the Catacombs are an option far different from the elegant art museums -- they’re the burial site of hundreds of Parisians. In the late 17th century, the cemeteries of Paris became overcrowded, and bodies were disinterred and moved to these underground tunnels. The departed 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!
Lines to go down into the Catacombs can get long. Only 200 people are allowed in at one time. Check the website for information on rush hours on the day you want to visit. Allow about an hour to make your way through the mile-long route. You will come up to the street at a different place from where you entered.
Pro Tip: Be sure you are able to handle the stairs. The only way down into the tunnels is on foot, and there are 131 steps down and 112 steps up. The website states that it is like going from the top of a five-story building down and back up again. The path may also be a bit uneven, so wear comfortable walking shoes.
Paris Museum Pass
If you plan to visit several Paris museums, purchasing a Paris Museum Pass will save you time and money.
Get acquainted with the Paris Museum Pass before you go. Look online at the offerings as you plan your trip. The pass can save you money if you are going to visit more than a couple of museums. Even better, it will allow you to skip the lines at the more crowded museums.
I’ve purchased this pass on some trips and not on others, depending on my itinerary. I bought my pass in the airport on arrival on my first trip to Paris, and I got my money’s worth and skipped the lines several times.
Paris has museums of all sizes and kinds. You’re sure to find something that will appeal to you and enrich your vacation.