Wondering which museum you should go to in Paris? There are dozens and dozens to choose from, covering all manner of art, science, and history. I’ve been to Paris four times and have barely scratched the surface of its cultural offerings. The following is my list of the best museums in Paris, curated based on my preferences for pretty paintings and interesting history. But everyone has their own tastes, so your choices will depend on what you like and how much time you have.
The first two museums mentioned below deserve at least half a day each to do their impressive collections justice. Those who have been to Paris before and want something new may be interested in the last two options. Do you have a favorite?
In my opinion, the Musée d’Orsay is the best museum in Paris. This is due in large part to its having the world’s largest collection of Impressionist art. There are hundreds of works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Morisot, Sisley, and Pissarro helpfully arranged by year to show how the revolutionary style developed. Many were gifts of Gustave Caillebotte, the rare wealthy artist who supported his contemporaries by buying their paintings. Caillebotte’s own painting, “les raboteurs de parquet” (the floor scrapers), was one of my favorites.
But the Musée d’Orsay has more to offer than just the Impressionists’ collected works. Here you can find masterpieces by van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Delacroix, among many others. I also enjoyed wandering through the rooms of Art Nouveau furnishings and décor.
Originally designed in 1898 as a train station, the Musée d’Orsay building is a work of art in itself, notable for its cavernous space and picturesque clocks. Give yourself plenty of time to explore.
Musée du Louvre
The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world for good reason. It boasts more than 35,000 artworks spread across 400 rooms of a former royal palace. You would need weeks to see it all. Thankfully, it is divided into three wings for ease of navigation. The Denon Wing houses such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samothrace. This section of the museum is a must in my opinion. The Sully Wing contains the vast collection of Egyptian antiquities, while Napoleon’s apartments and Near Eastern antiquities are in the Richelieu Wing. (If you just want to see the highlights of the Louvre, this guide has you covered.)
Musée Picasso Paris
With over 500 paintings and sculptures, and thousands of drawings and photographs, the Paris Picasso Museum has the second-largest collection after Barcelona. Although Picasso was born in Spain, he spent much of his adult life in France, so it’s only fitting he should have his own museum here. Picasso’s heirs donated many of his artworks to France to avoid paying a hefty inheritance tax. Each of Picasso’s many creative phases are on display, from the soft compositions of his Rose Period, to the sharp lines of Cubism and wild imagination of Surrealism. The collection is complemented with works by Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, and Matisse – Picasso’s friend and rival.
Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge
Even though Paris dates to the third century BC, little remains of the original city thanks to repeated Viking attacks, fires, and wars. Miraculously, though, many artifacts from this chaotic time survived. The Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge is home to the world’s finest collection of medieval art. The gorgeous 15th century “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries are the main highlight, but an assortment of household and religious items deserve special attention.
The building, the Hôtel de Cluny, was the 15th century residence of the abbots of Cluny, an ancient Benedictine Order. It sits on top of the ruins of Paris’ original Gallo-Roman baths, part of which is still visible.
The history of Paris is beautifully presented at Musée Carnavalet. Set in a 16th century mansion, the museum chronicles the city’s development through a vast collection of paintings, sculptures, engravings, photographs, furnishings, and artifacts. Period rooms feature interiors and woodwork salvaged from demolished Parisian buildings. In the entrance hall you’ll walk under wrought iron signs advertising stores and trades that have long since vanished. Significant space is given to the French Revolution, a pivotal event in the nation’s history which unfolded in Paris in the 18th century. My one quibble is that there is no clear path through the museum, so I kept finding myself out of chronological order and having to retrace my steps.
Hôtel National des Invalides – Musée de l’Armée
The cases of the Musée de l’Armée are packed with weaponry and elaborate suits of armor. It is the largest collection in the country, and features many spoils of the French Revolution. The museum is inside the Hôtel National des Invalides, a 17th century home for disabled war veterans. Beneath the central dome you will find the tombs of Napoleon, his son, two brothers, and several military commanders.
The Centre Pompidou opened to much fanfare in 1977. Colorful pipes encase the glass-and-steel building like a Surrealist interpretation of a child’s crayon box. With over 120,000 works in its collection, the Centre Pompidou is the largest modern art museum in Europe. I was fortunate to visit when many of its most important masterpieces were on display. These include paintings by Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Pat Mondrian, Joan Miró, and Fernand Léger. (They are often on loan to other museums so you should check the Pompidou’s current exhibitions to avoid disappointment.)
Salvador Dalí is another Spanish artist who spent many years in Paris. The museum dedicated to his work is in Montmartre, the Bohemian heart of the city. Dalí Paris features monumental sculptures that bring Dalí‘s famous paintings to life. There are minotaurs, spindly-legged elephants, unblinking eyes, lobsters, and melting clocks galore. You won’t know what to look at first!
This small museum holds the private collection of Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay. Founders of La Samaritaine department store, the wealthy couple were also avid fans of 18th century art. Musée Cognacq-Jay showcases period furnishings and paintings in wood-paneled rooms evocative of that bourgeois era. There are large cases full of decorative snuff boxes, porcelain animal figurines, and vases. Tucked discreetly behind blue velvet curtains is a bunch of 1700s erotica. The surprisingly graphic paintings and drawings were traded on the black market and are incredibly rare today. (Sorry, no photos.)
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Linda Gerbec says
Thanks for the great post. I agree; I think Musée d’Orsay is the best! And the Gustave Caillebotte painting is a favorite of mine. I will have to get back to Paris to check out the museums on your list that I haven’t been to yet.
Heather Hall says
Thanks! There are so many great museums in Paris. I have a running list to check out on my next visit.