A Skeptic’s Guide to Paris Art Museums

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...

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

Louvre Exterior

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.

Mona Lisa Crowds Louvre
This is the only picture we took of the Mona Lisa…

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.

One nice thing about the Louvre is that your ticket grants you in & out entry for the entire day, so don’t feel that you must visit in a single marathon session—take a break for lunch or a coffee or a nap if that’s what you want to do!

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!

Bros Pointing Painting
This photo is so meta…
Lactating painting
One of the many creepy paintings we stumbled upon

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

Interior of 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.

Clock silhouettes at the d'Orsay

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

Rodin's Thinker

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:

Water Lillies at Musée de l'Orangerie
Courtesy of LWYang under Creative Commons license

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?

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30 comments Leave a comment

  1. I love this! I’m so glad you said it. We’re not museum people either, they just don’t don’t do it for us either. We’ve even lied to people about how much we enjoyed them. You know they loved it and we just couldn’t tell them we were actually bored to death.

    I’m glad you found enjoyment in them though.

    I actually do love the Natural History Museum in London, it is aimed at kids though so maybe that why I think it’s more fun.

    Nov. 6 2014 @ 2:46 pm
    1. Kellie author

      No joke: when I first visited Europe (back in 2005: eek!), my travel buddy and I sat down in advance and made a list of the museums we wanted to see and made a rule that we would visit no more than one per day. We were different travelers then than I think we are now, but part of why I knew I could travel with my friend L’Ell was because we were both equally uninterested in museums. Having Tony go with me has made me enjoy them a little bit more because he actually understands what we’re looking at and by learning more about art, I can better appreciate it, but it’s still never going to be my favorite activity!

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 7:58 am
  2. I must confess I’m a visual arts buff and visit quite a number of museums on our travels. I can appreciate everything from good architecture, to paintings and lithographies, to sculpture, to historical pottery.
    Here in South America I particularly enjoyed some of the good history museums (eg 2 in Lambayeque in Peru), which put the large excavated ruin sites into clearer context.
    Yet I often shy away from the “big ticket” places – not my style, and often too crowded to be enjoyable… I don’t know how often I’ve been in Paris (10-12 times), but never in the Louvre.
    Have you’ve been to the Centre Georges Pompidou?

    Nov. 6 2014 @ 4:11 pm
    1. Juergen | dare2go author

      We tend to gravitate more towards art museums than history ones, but a quick visit to history museums can be a great way to orient yourself in a new country so that you can better appreciate how the country evolved. I could see how that would be especially useful in South America.

      You know, certain parts of the Louvre are really busy (just look at our photo of the Mona Lisa), but once you get away from the obvious chef d’oeuvres, the complex is so big that it’s easy to lose the crowds. Some of the wings only had a handful of other people in them and even though I hate crowds, I never felt overwhelmed at the Louvre.

      We skipped the Centre Pompidou because modern art isn’t our thing. We did walk by to see its famous exterior, however!

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:01 am
  3. I have only visited the Louvre but I definitely want to visit Musee d’Orsay next time I am in Paris, I love the Impressionists!

    Nov. 6 2014 @ 5:57 pm
    1. Katie @ The World on my Necklace author

      If you love the Impressionists, then you really must visit Musée d’Orsay next time! And go ahead and treat yourself and get the combined ticket to the Orangerie as well—so incredibly beautiful!

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:02 am
  4. I enjoyed reading your perspective on Paris’ museums coming from a non-museum/art lover. I really love going to art museums and museums in general – I’m the person reading every plaque, room by room – so I am glad to hear that you were able to enjoy some of the museums here. It’s definitely fitting you visited some while in Paris. It’s such a part of French culture, and it’s really a conversation starter to be able to talk about the latest expos in town. I do love the Pompidou as well (and one of my favorite sunset spots), but there are also museums for the non-art crowd. My husband loves Arts et Metiers, a museum on the history/evolution of science. Then there are some quirky ones, like Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), housed in a beautiful building full of taxidermy. And that’s just two – there are definitely plenty of options for a variety of interests for some rainy day activities in Paris 🙂

    Nov. 7 2014 @ 2:48 am
    1. Sara @ Simply Sara Travel author

      I think part of why I don’t love museums is because I get so overwhelmed by them! I am such a keener that I feel I need to absorb ever drop of knowledge contained within them, as if I’m going to be quizzed on my way out. It’s nice visiting art museums with Tony because he can give me little bits of trivia here and there, explain why a certain painting is so important or famous, and just give me a little bit of context which allows me to better appreciate what I’m looking at. I should probably take this as a sign that I’d do better on guided tours or the like (or, you know, should brush up on this stuff on my own…), but with an art major husband, I think I’ve got that covered. 😉

      It sounds like Paris museums could rival the ones in London in terms of scope & diversity. If only they were free all the time… then I’d be so much more inclined to visit them! (I know some of the Paris museums are free all of the time, and I definitely think that’s awesome. Places like that should be made as accessible as possible to everyone… even penny-pinching budget travelers!)

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:10 am
  5. Here is my confession:, we haven’t been to any of these museums while in Paris, there was simply so much to do and see that we gave priority to other things. We promised ourselves we will return to Paris one day to see some of these museums and the Louvre too.

    Nov. 7 2014 @ 4:13 am
    1. Franca author

      If I had been planning my own solo visit to Paris, I probably wouldn’t have made any of these a priority either. But Tony wanted to visit them, and in the end, I’m glad we did. If you ever go back to Paris, try to visit when it’s the first Sunday of the month so that you can check out some of these for free.(Plus, that way you don’t feel bad if you just pop in for an hour or so as you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth!) I know not all of them will be your style, but I think you guys would really enjoy some of the modern art museums (and I think you would have fun at the d’Orsay too).

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:12 am
  6. LOL I am the same. We luckily got into the Louvre free – managed to stick it out for an hour. Also went to the Petit Palais, I believe.

    Musee’o’Orsay looks awesome, architecturally!

    Nov. 7 2014 @ 4:21 am
    1. NZ Muse author

      Would have loved to visit the Louvre for free, but for obvious reasons, they don’t run that promo during the summer when tourists descend upon Paris. It probably worked out better for us that way as we were able to visit it on its own rather than trying to visit FOUR museums in one day (which might have killed me!). By seeing three museums on that Saturday rather than just the Louvre, we also saved a lot more money than if we had gotten into the Louvre for free, so there’s that too. But really, the bottom line is Free Museums = Awesome.

      And yes, the d’Orsay is an amazing building that is beautiful to behold as well! I love that they repurposed an old train station and turned it into such a wonderful museum.

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:15 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        Well, we were there in summer too. It’s about age – we were under 26 and managed to squeak in that way.

        Dec. 4 2014 @ 12:20 am
        1. NZ Muse author

          That’s a good point, albeit one that we were five years too late to take advantage of. 😉

          Dec. 4 2014 @ 8:57 am
  7. I love the advice about visiting exhibits in chronological order – I tend to lump all ‘old things’ into the same basket and then wonder why they are all so different. This method is brilliant!! Then I would gain an understanding of the evolution of the art.

    Nov. 7 2014 @ 7:16 am
    1. Gillian author

      Having an art major husband to explain the significance of things to me certainly doesn’t hurt either, but it was really fascinating to see how much I internalized on my own by touring these museums (and their collections) in chronological order. I generally think the older Renaissance (and pre-Renaissance) religious art is boring (but for all the gold leaf!), but this time, by starting there and moving through time, I could really see how styles and even the approach to art and its purpose changed over time and that was really cool. The next time you visit a big art museum (you can do the same at the National Gallery in London or the Met in NYC), give it a try and see if it changes your experience!

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:19 am
  8. I’m glad to hear that you were pleasantly surprised by the Louvre. I’ve never been to Paris but for me this is the museum I would choose to visit if I had to pick one. I always picture scenes from movies like Bande à part and The Dreamers where the characters race through the Louvre. I’ve always wanted to do that! It’s just one of those iconic places I would love to see in person. Anyway, good for you for fitting in so much museum time while in Paris 😉

    Nov. 8 2014 @ 1:42 am
    1. Justine author

      I don’t think you can go wrong by picking the Louvre as your first art museum in Paris. It’s world-famous for a reason and the building is so beautiful that it really elevates the experience. And it’s so big, I think you will find yourself racing through it at some point or another… just like in the movies! 🙂

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:21 am
  9. I love all of the museums you mentioned! I also love some of the smaller museums, like the Musée Jacquemart-André which is located in a 19th century manor house and the Musée de la Vie Romantique which has a great little garden with an outdoor tearoom.

    Nov. 8 2014 @ 5:51 am
    1. Marina @ Garlands in Paris author

      Thanks for these lesser-known suggestions, Marina! We had flagged a few smaller museums to potentially check out during our time in Paris but, unsurprisingly, we ran out of time. Both of these sound delightful & well worth a visit!

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:23 am
  10. We had three weeks in Paris so also did the Pompidou and Dali museums as well. The Pompidou was on the free Sunday so it was well worth it, and we were there a lot longer than we’d anticipated. Dali was super small, but it was neat since it was mostly sculptures which I was less familiar with – though I think the price was way too inflated, mais c’est la vie!

    Nov. 8 2014 @ 6:02 am
    1. Emily author

      We’ve tried enough modern art museums to know we really just take no pleasure in them whatsoever, so although we could have squeezed the Pompidou into our epic Museum Sunday, I think we’re both glad we skipped it. (We did go to Madrid’s modern art museum a few weeks later and… yeah, it was a real dud for us… much like the MOMA was in NYC…) I don’t think I realized there was a Dali museum in Paris… there are just so many museums in that city! I don’t even love museums, but it is one of the ways I feel Toronto is lacking. Plus, How is that the AGO costs, like, $25 a ticket to visit? That is completely insane as far as I’m concerned!

      Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:25 am
  11. I adore spending time in museums, although on a recent trip to Paris we didn’t go into one museum. Like you I just love to explore the city, the museums can usually wait until I’ve got to know a place better. Top of my list is always modern art museums though so I certainly wouldn’t have walked past the Centre Pompidou! Reading this though I do kind of wish I’d visited at least one museum in Paris ! Extra reason to go back soon.

    Nov. 8 2014 @ 3:09 pm
    1. Charlie author

      Yes, definitely another reason to head back! And if you manage to time your visit with the first Sunday of the month, you can visit the Pompidou for free!

      Nov. 10 2014 @ 2:57 pm
  12. I liked the Louvre, but I missed the others – I was really happy to just wander the city and be. Thanks for sharing this though – among travellers there seems to be a kind of shame in saying that we are not “museum people”, but I have to agree with you!!!

    Nov. 8 2014 @ 8:48 pm
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      It sounds like there’s a healthy number of long-term travelers like you & me who just don’t think visiting museums is the best use of time when traveling. If you’ve got a deep-rooted interest in art or history who normally enjoys visiting museums, then I can certainly see why you’d want to add them onto your vacation itinerary, but I don’t think those of us who don’t normally take pleasure in visiting them should feel we must suddenly enjoy them when we’re on holiday. We don’t suddenly change our personalities when we leave our home countries and cities, and we shouldn’t feel like we’re failures because certain activities aren’t our speed.

      Nov. 10 2014 @ 3:03 pm
  13. We love museums and are planning to go to Paris to visit as many as we can. It’s good to know so many of them are free on the first Sunday of the month – that can add up to big savings! We’ll also be going in the off season so that should help too, both with the expense and the crowds. My first trip to Paris took place in August and I remember being completely overwhelmed by the stench of BO in the Louvre. Hopefully that will be less of an issue in March or April. I have a feeling that the Musee d’Orsay will end up being my favorite!

    Nov. 12 2014 @ 2:51 am
    1. Heather author

      Yes, we saved about 60 euro between the two of us by visiting the three museums we did on that free Sunday as opposed to any other day. That is definitely a significant savings!

      And despite going to the museums on the free Sunday when the crowds are understandably bigger, we still didn’t find them too overwhelming in June, so I would think March & April would be even better. Also, I think a lot of people prefer the d’Orsay to the Louvre… I hope you love them both!

      Nov. 12 2014 @ 7:21 am
  14. I like art but I’m not really a museumy type person either so I’d be wanting to save as much money as possible and only buy tickets for places that were…you know…good. 😀 So this was helpful lol.

    Nov. 27 2014 @ 5:37 am
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      Obviously I feel similarly! I mean, saying I dislike art is a bit like saying I dislike food (who feels that way?!?), but at the same time, museums are so rarely my idea of fun. But the ones in Paris (or at least these ones… for the most part), were really good. I don’t overlook the boon of having someone alongside me who can actually explain the pieces to me and help me understand why certain artists or works were so important, but even without Tony, I’d say popping into an art museum or two while you’re in Paris would not be amiss.

      Nov. 27 2014 @ 9:04 am

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