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When I was a young teaching assistant and a newcomer to Paris, I had to stretch my meager budget as best I could. If I managed not to eat out too often (or limit dining outside of home to cheap coffee, sandwiches and street-food fare), I might get to splurge on some form of entertainment.
This usually involved a drink (one, or at most two) with friends in a cheap-n’-cheerful neighborhood bar, or a matinee at one of the Parisian cinemas that were rapidly becoming homes-away-from-home.
But there was also the (gleeful) prospect of spending a few hours roaming free museums and galleries in Paris. There are a surprising number– 14, to be precise– of city-operated museums that charge absolutely nothing for entry to their permanent collections. And they’re both extensive and fascinating.
These are my favorite free collections in the capital– places I return to again and again to take a breath, disconnect from phones and computers, and take in some art/history/sculpture/photography without denting my budget. You can scroll down further for a full list.
Just a note: If you’re able to leave something in the donation box at these fantastic museums, please do. We want to make sure they stay open, and stay remarkable.
1. Musée Carnavalet – History of the City of Paris
If, like I am, you’re intrigued by how cities are forged, damaged or destroyed, then patiently rebuilt, make sure to put this wonderful museum on your radar.
The Musée Carnavalet tells the story– chaotic but beautiful– of thousands of years of Parisian history. The permanent collections comprise some 615,000 artefacts, dating from the prehistoric to the modern period.
Paintings, sculpture, photography, manuscripts, maps, letters, ads and commercial artwork, coins, furniture, military records, costumes and clothing, and elaborate models are just some of the objects that make up the collections, which take up 100 rooms in adjoining mansions from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Rooms related to the French Revolution of 1789 are among the ones I find the most compelling.
Whole sections within them are devoted to events such as the storming of the Bastille, the doomed constitutional monarchy that formed in the year after it, and the years known as the Reign of Terror, when thousands were executed by guillotine– including the King and Queen of France.
Moving forward a few decades, sections consecrated to France during the so-called “Belle Epoque” (roughly 1870 to the beginning of World War II in 1914 are also remarkable.
These offer a look at the widespread social and economic changes that transformed Paris into a modern city of lavish department stores, wide Boulevards, consumer goods and world expositions– not to mention private spaces that had never been such a prominent feature of life in the capital.
Also make sure to see elaborate reconstitutions of writers’ personal quarters, including the place where Marcel Proust conducted his curious (and famously long-winded) magic.
Your appreciation for French literature is likely to grow. Who knows: Maybe you’ll finally pick back up and finish “A Remembrance of Things Past” after visiting.
Getting There & Practical Info
The Carnavalet is currently undergoing extensive renovations and is slated to re-open sometime in 2020. See more info at the official website.
- Address: 16 Rue des Francs Bourgeois, 75003 Paris (3rd arrondissement)
- Metro: Chemin Vert or Saint-Paul
- See complete details on the collections in our full guide
2. Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris
Also known to locals as “Le MAM”, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is one of the best spots in the capital to take in important works of the 20th and 21st centuries. But unlike the others that cover artists and movement from the same period, the permanent collection here is free for all, year-round.
Situated in the eastern wing of the adjoining Palais de Tokyo, the MAM opened in 1961 and underwent a major redesign in 2019.
The permanent collection comprises some 15,000 works and offers a survey of major movements in 20th and 21st-century art.
Come to see masterpieces from painters such as Henri Matisse, Maurice Vlaminck, Andre Derain and Raul Dufy, photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, and works in multiple media from global contemporary artists.
You can download a free app that allows you to enjoy a sort of self-guided tour through the collections and their highlights.
This museum makes an ideal stop when visiting the Trocadero and the nearby Eiffel Tower; I recommend enjoying a drink on the terrace outside for impressive (and close-up) views of both.
Getting There & Contact Info
- Address: 11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75016 Paris (16th arrondissement)
- Metro: Iéna or Alma-Marceau (both line 9)
- Hours & Tickets: Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. The museum is closed Mondays and on most bank holidays.
- Visit the official website (in English)
3. The Orangerie
Whenever readers ask me for a list of my favorite museums in the capital, this one comes up high on my shortlist. The Musée de l Orangerie– housed in a former royal hothouse of the Jardin des Tuileries– is home to what I and many consider to be one of Claude Monet’s most important masterpieces.
Nymphéas (Water Lilies) consists in eight large-scale, luminous, gently curving murals that entirely cover the space of two two adjoining galleries. Completed in 1918, the murals are a meditation on hope and peace; Monet donated them to the French state immediately following the end of World War I.
I always recommend spending at least 45 minutes or so absorbing in their playful, haunting light and mysterious, watery scenes. Come in the morning, when crowds are thinner, and start the day with a bit of meditation and contemplation.
Often overlooked at the Orangerie is the ground-floor Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection, featuring numerous masterpieces from painters and sculptors including Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Rodin and Dérain.
Getting There & Practical Info
- Address: Jardin des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde (Metro: Concorde)
- Hours & Tickets: Open from Wednesday to Monday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesdays; bank holidays. See current ticket prices here.
4. Petit Palais
For some reason, many tourists overlook this free collection entirely, flocking to see crowded (and often quite expensive) temporary shows at the nearby Grand Palais. But the humbler little sibling– also built for the 1900 World Exhibition and boasting a similar, Belle-Epoque style facade that’s all steel, glass and airy height– is well worth a visit. It’s also far more budget-friendly than its “Grand” counterpart.
The permanent exhibit at the Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris (Museum of Fine Art of the City of Paris) is quiet but remarkable. It offers a riveting, substantial overview of European art movements and trends from the medieval period through to the 19th century.
While it claims “small” status, the elegant premises of the Petit Palais house masterpieces from Fragonard, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Corot, Sisley, Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, and countless others.
And if it’s the Antiquity or the medieval period that interests you most, you’ll also find a smaller but jewel-like collection of Greco-Roman sculpture, medieval tapestries, and other artefacts.
Finally, the inner courtyard garden and café is a rare oasis in the generally-noisy, bustling area around the Champs-Elysées.
In short, get thee to the Petit Palais for a morning or afternoon of calm artistic appreciation, far from the hordes at the Louvre or the Orsay.
Getting There & Practical Info
- Address: Avenue Winston Churchill, 8th arrondissement
- Metro: Champs-Elysées Clémenceau
- Hours & Tickets: Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Mondays and bank holidays. Admission to permanent exhibits is free for all.
- Visit the official website for more information
5. Maison de Balzac
Fan of French literature, and more specifically the sprawling, minutely detailed “human comedy” of one Honoré de Balzac? If so, this intimate museum dedicated to the author is for you.
And even if you’ve never read a word from the nineteenth-century novelist, or only faintly remember covering him in French lit way back in college, this is the sort of collection that can succeed in inspiring you to pick up a good tome and plunge right in to the world it celebrates.
The quiet little collection is curated within Balzac’s former house in the lush heights of Passy, a western district near the Eiffel Tower that was once an independent village outside of the city.
The writer lived here between 1940 and 1847; it was in a study here that he dreamed up his most famous series of novels and stories, collectively known as La Comédie humaine, in addition to several other novels.
Come to see Balzac’s office and handsome writing desk (reconstituted to look as it might have on a typical day of literary laboring), along with letters, rare manuscripts, journals, portraits of the artist, and objects from the author’s personal collection.
Whether you’re a lifelong fan or just a bit curious to learn more about the life, times, and work of Balzac, this is a lovely collection to visit as part of an exploration of western Paris and Passy.
Getting There & Contact Info
- Address: 47 Rue Raynouard, 75016 Paris (16th arrondissement)
- Metro: Passy
- Hours & Tickets: The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6 pm. Closed on Mondays and bank holidays. Visit the official website for more information on special exhibits and tickets.
Other Free Museums Worth Visiting in Paris
In addition to the five museums profiled here, there are several more free collections managed by the city; all are recommended.
They include the Maison Victor Hugo, a collection housed in the French author’s former home on the Place des Vosges and dedicated to his life and work; the Musée de la Vie Romantique, whose collections focus on the life, times and work of French Romantic writer such as George Sand and Alfred de Vigny; and the Musée Jean Moulin, which examines the heroic efforts of the eponymous French resistance leader and traces the history of the Liberation of Paris in 1945.
Museums Open for Free on Select Sundays
In addition to the aforementioned collections that you can access for free year-round, there are several popular Parisian museums that offer free admission on the first Sunday of every month.
These include the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Georges Pompidou (and its National Museum of Modern Art), the Musée Cluny-National Medieval Museum, and the Rodin Museum.
If you’re on a limited budget and happen to be visiting at the beginning of the month, make sure to take advantage of these and other museums opening their collections to all at no charge.
You can find a full list at this page. Try to get there early and join the line before the big crowds arrive; ad you can imagine, this is a popular Sunday outing, including with locals!
Book Skip-the-Line Tickets and Tours for Paris
Planning a trip to the capital? Book skip-the-line tickets for popular attractions and engaging cultural tours (via Tiqets.com).
Looking for deals on getting there? If so, you can book train tickets and discounted passes here (via RailEurope). You can also compare and book deals on flights to and from France (via Skyscanner).
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