To say I am not a museum person is putting it lightly. Sure, there are certainly other activities I dislike more—hiking up mountains, is probably one of them—but as a traveler, world-class museums are rarely a draw for me. I’d much rather spend my time wandering around a city—strolling through the markets, rambling down the streets, sitting in a café, or lazing in a park—than prowling the halls of a museum in search of inspiration. The more I travel, the more I find myself preferring to dwell on the smaller moments, the moments that would seem boring or inconsequential (perhaps because I simply don’t take—or make—the time to appreciate them) when we’re back home. To me, the lure of being on the streets learning the rhythms of local life and being able to witness the crescendo of millennia of history by directly immersing myself in it will trump a museum visit every time.
But I knew I would have to make an exception to my “Museums = Meh” rule when we visited Paris. I may have personally been excited for our visit because of the food and the chance to practice my French, but I knew Tony’s artistic interests meant I’d be mixing in a little Cézanne with my Camembert. Additionally, when I realized that our visit would overlap with the first Sunday of the month (i.e., a day when many of Paris’s museums and attractions are FREE!), I knew at least one day would be spent trying to see All The Art. After all, you can’t argue with free!
In the end, we wound up visiting four museums during our week in the city… which felt like a lot (especially because we visited three of them in a single day), but is really just a fraction of the museums available to art lovers in Paris. Because both time and money are limited for most visitors to Paris, here are our thoughts on which museums are worth your time and money, and which ones you can safely skip.
The Un-Missable One: The Louvre
No matter my apathy towards museums, there was simply no way we could go to Paris and not visit the most famous art museum in the world. Even though the Louvre was not part of the Free Sunday promotion during the time of year we were visiting (they discontinue it during the summer when tourist numbers skyrocket… yet another reason to visit during shoulder and low season!), we mentally girded ourselves against crazy crowds and ponied up the €12 (~$15US) per person admission fee.
Home to pieces like the Venus de Milo, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and—of course—the Mona Lisa, it goes without saying that the Louvre’s collection is extensive and contains more than a few gems. Displaying approximately 35,000 works of art at any given time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when visiting the Louvre, which is why most guides suggest doing some advance planning so that you can strategically tackle the collection. It’s simply impossible to see the entire collection in a single day, so we made a list of about 25 paintings and sculptures that Tony really wanted to see and figured out where they were located, with the understanding that we would stumble across other works while making our way around the museum. We also went in with a pretty strict time-frame, as we were meeting our amazing CouchSurfing hosts for a picnic in front of the Louvre around midday, so that kept us motivated to keep moving on our mini scavenger hunt and because we only had about 4.5 hours, my enthusiasm didn’t flag.
We tend to be fairly brisk museum patrons and so we actually saw more of the museum than we anticipated in our half day there, and I daresay we both had a good deal of fun. The Louvre is one of those places where the building itself (a 12th century palace initially built as a fortress) rivals the artwork it contains, and in several rooms we spent more time gawking at the ceilings and tilework rather than any of the masterpieces hung on the wall.
We also discovered that when you’ve got such an extensive collection, you’re bound to have a few duds as well—some of the wings and annexes we wandered through featured some appallingly bad paintings of lumpy red cherubs and the like that were probably only notable for their age rather than any aesthetic merits. Sometimes less is more and these less visited parts of the Louvre certainly prove it!
Overall we enjoyed our visit to the Louvre, and considering the importance of the works contained within, felt that the museum was fairly priced. Ultimately, however, Tony concluded that he prefers a more tightly curated collection where there is an emphasis on quality rather than sheer quantity. Although he is glad to now be able to say he has visited the Louvre, he would not rank it as one of his favorite museums and felt that one visit is probably enough for him. As a non-museum lover, I expected to be both over and underwhelmed by the Louvre but was pleasantly surprised.
Our Favorite One: Musée d’Orsay
Housed in an old train station and containing the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world, the Musée d’Orsay was far and away our favorite museum in Paris. Perhaps that’s because we tend to have a fondness for the Impressionists, but we also felt the collection here was more thoughtfully assembled.
The top floor is where the really famous stuff (read: the Monets, Manets, Degas, Cézannes, etc.,) is found (not to mention the iconic transparent clock face that provides an awesome panoramic view of Paris), but we found treasures throughout the entire museum, including a fantastic moment when we rounded a corner and found what is likely the most famous American painting—Whistler’s Mother—hung without any fanfare amongst a bunch of other lesser known paintings. Given that the painting wasn’t highlighted on any of the museum’s maps or literature, we weren’t expecting to see it, and Tony spent a couple of moments gaping at in disbelief that the museum could be so blasé about having such an important painting in their collection… That’s Paris for you!
If this art acolyte can make a suggestion, I’d heartily suggest that you visit the Louvre prior to visiting the d’Orsay because there is something truly fascinating about viewing the evolution of art over the centuries in chronological order. I have always approached art with the rather uncomplicated “I know what I like” perspective, but I felt I was able to view the d’Orsay’s collection in a completely different light having worked my way up to it. As if by osmosis, I had absorbed the stylistic shifts across the different periods of history and was better able to appreciate not only how everything prior had been leading up to the Impressionists, but how radical and revolutionary that style of painting really was. While you absolutely can enjoy the d’Orsay’s collection independently, I really felt that viewing it in relation to what came before (and after) these paintings was something a revelation.
And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Musée d’Orsay converted me into an art aficionado, I will say that it’s one of the few art museums I’ve visited that brought me the closest to understanding the transcendental beauty that can be created by paint on the canvas and helped me understand why the greats are named thus. There’s truly no substitute to seeing these paintings in person—no photograph or reproduction can truly capture their beauty, their precision, their light. It’s one of the few times art has ever felt alive to me… and if that doesn’t convince you to visit the Musée d’Orsay, then I can only assume nothing will.
We visited on Free Museum Sunday, but normally entry costs €11 (~$13.50US). Don’t let that deter you—it’s worth it.
The Skippable One: Musée Rodin
Let me be clear upfront that we did not hate Paris’s Rodin Museum or anything like that. The museum is in a lovely old house that has a beautiful expansive garden that is tranquil and serene and features many of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, including The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, and The Burghers of Calais.
Unless you’re a Rodin super-fan, however, we would both consider the Musée Rodin to be one of the museums in Paris you can safely skip. The collection is pretty tiny—we saw everything in half an hour—and doesn’t justify the admission fee of €9 (~$11US). (I think this museum has different prices at different times of year—in the low season, admission may be reduced to €6, but I’d still say that’s kind of steep given how short our visit was.) Tony claims that the Met in New York has a much better Rodin collection than the museum in Paris, and we were both glad that we visited on the first Sunday of the month when entry was free.
The Egregiously Overlooked One: Musée de l’Orangerie
Like the Rodin Museum, Musée de l’Orangerie is rather compact. But it is absolutely spectacular and was secretly my favorite museum we visited in Paris. I know it’s a total “art newbie” confession to admit that I really love Monet, but… I do. His paintings are lush and beautiful and soothing and I always feel happy and peaceful when I’m looking at them.
Never have I felt this more than on our visit to l’Orangerie where they have eight of Monet’s Water Lilly murals displayed in all their glory. The upstairs gallery where the murals are on display were specifically designed and constructed to optimally present the paintings and I have to say that they are nothing short of stunning. The rooms are ovular in shape and feature a central bench for patrons to sit and gaze upon the lilies; as you move from room to room, you view the lilies at different times of day. I was utterly mesmerized and completely captivated—I think we spent close to an hour wandering back and forth through the main gallery drinking in these paintings. Even Tony, who is not normally a big Monet fan, admitted that these were pretty special.
You weren’t allowed to take photos in the museum, but some rule-bending folk on Flickr clearly did, so here’s a taste of what you’re in for:
Downstairs there’s a cozy collection of other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which is small but respectable and features some nice pieces. This part of the museum feels a bit more like an afterthought, but I think this is partially because it would be hard for anything to compete with the magnificence of the Monets upstairs.
We spent about 30 minutes touring the rest of the museum, resulting in a total visit of about 90 minutes. At €9, l’Orangerie might constitute a bit of a splurge, but I would say it’s well worth it given the strength of the upstairs collection alone. We were grateful to be able to visit as part of Free First Sunday, but for those of you now lucky enough to have your visit fall during this time, you can buy a joint ticket at the slightly reduced rate of €15 that grants you access to the d’Orsay and l’Orangerie, which I would say is definitely good value for money.
The four museums we visited were but a drop in the bucket when it comes to Paris, but we were satisfied with what we managed and we were able to enjoy the ones we did visit without suffering from the temple fatigue equivalent, Museum Malaise. I would say the only major museum we missed was the National Modern Art museum over at the Centre Pompidou (although we did walk by!), but neither of us felt too torn up about that given that we’re simply not fans of most modern art.
Paris may not have lived up to our lofty expectations on many fronts, but its museums certainly did not disappoint. Even if, like me, you tend to stick to the streets when you travel, the art museums in Paris are good enough that they may make you a believer. If you manage to time your visit with the first of the month, so much the better, but even when paying out of pocket, I think you’ll find the three we recommended above are a good return on your investment (even if it means a slightly smaller wine & cheese budget!).
Now it’s your turn: If you’ve been to Paris, what is your favorite museum? If you haven’t been to Paris, which of these museums would you be most excited to visit?