More than a museum, it’s a cultural touchstone
Few places in Paris carry the sort of sentimental weight that the Centre Georges Pompidou does for me. When I was a student, I spent untold hours poring through books and writing dissertations at the public library there. I met friends and drafted articles or poems at the Pompidou’s humming mezzanine-level café. I passed afternoons sitting on the open, sloping plaza outside, tucking into a Lebanese flatbread sandwich or cup of gelato while fending off flocks of pigeons and watching street performers draw in crowds. I politely declined offers for sketches by caricature artists, ducked into screenings at the MK2 Beaubourg cinema near the center on gloomy autumn days, and browsed for posters, cards and art books at the Pompidou’s onsite bookshop.
In fact, the site–commissioned by the French President it’s named after and unveiled in 1977– embodies much of what I cherish about contemporary Parisian life. More than a modern art museum and cultural center, it’s a place where people of all backgrounds and milieus converge, create and commune. Here are 8 reasons why I love and recommend it.
1. The zany architecture & inviting exterior plaza
While the Pompidou’s convention-defying design has won as many detractors as it has fans, there’s one thing that seems certain: it won’t leave you indifferent. Conceived by architects Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, its colorful, bold design was meant to embody the spirit of post-war contemporary architecture.
Some loathe the end result, calling it cold and aesthetically questionable. I disagree. While it’s not pretty in a traditional sense, the facade– a sort of “exoskeleton” fronted with brightly colored tube structures in blue, green, yellow and red– is oddly compelling and whimsical. The colors refer to the the functions of the building’s mechanical systems: green for plumbing, blue for climate control, electrical systems in yellow and safety devices in red. Some also see allusions to the interior workings of the body, such as blood vessels and lymph systems.
Weird, to be sure. But getting to see the “guts” of the complex structure is interesting, even if if it grates against your aesthetic preferences. And the tri-level building stands in frank contrast to the older buildings around the Place Georges Pompidou, creating odd perspectives that are unusual for a city as well-preserved as Paris. For me, the effect is refreshing. You can read more about the design and its conception here.
Meanwhile, the vast, gently graded plaza outside offers plenty of space for visitors and locals to perch and take in the curious architectural details of the Center. Street performers, clowns and musicians regularly hold court there. Since 2012, Alexander Calder’s free-standing mobile sculpture “Horizontal” stands in front of the main entrance.
2. The superb permanent modern art collection & temporary exhibits
Most visitors come to the Centre Pompidou for its acclaimed modern art collections, and both the permanent exhibit and frequent temporary show are almost uniformly excellent.
The Musée National d’Art Moderne (National Museum of Modern Art) occupies vast wings of the Centre Pompidou on several floors, and its permanent collection of modern art is one of the world’s largest.
It comprises over 100,000 works of art dating from 1905 to the present day, initially curated at the Palais de Tokyo in 1947 and later transferred to the Pompidou after it opened in the late 1970s.
The masterpieces here are numerous, yet the collection feels “manageable” in only a day. This is because the display is frequently refreshed, resulting in a carefully curated exhibit that changes seasonally. It’s not overwhelming, and as a result you’re likely to appreciate it more fully.
Masterpieces at the Centre Georges Pompidou
The collection includes monumental works of post-expressionist and cubist painting from the likes of Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Robert and Sonia Delaunay.
Further rooms house masterpieces of surrealism, Dada, Pop Art and other contemporary arts movements. Rene Magritte, Piet Mondrian, Giorgio de Chirico, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Yves Klein are all well-represented in the collection.
If you’re interested in modern photography, beeline to Europe’s largest permanent exhibit here to see works from Man Ray, Brassai, Brancusi, and numerous surrealist artists.
Fans of design, sculpture, cinema, new media, performance art and other forms will not be disappointed with the permanent exhibit here, either. See this page at the official website for a full description of the sub-collections and their masterpieces.
Read related: The 7 Best Small Museums in Paris
Temporary exhibits at the Pompidou
Meanwhile, the museum holds several temporary exhibits each year, many monumental retrospectives on important artists of the 20th to 21st centuries. Recent shows have highlighted the work, life and influences of painters, sculptors, and photographers including Vassily Kandinsky, Yves Klein, Victor Vasarely, Louise Bourgeois, Jeff Koons, Nan Goldin and Francis Bacon.
Visit this page at the official website for information on current exhibits showing at the Pompidou Center, and to book tickets online.
3. The friendly, democratic vibe and ethos
If you had to ask me to characterize the place using a single word, I’d probably choose “democratic”. There’s nothing snobby or inaccessible about the Pompidou. It may be a center devoted to arts and culture, but its doors are wide-open to all. Architect Renzo Piano said of the building he co-conceived: “[I’ts] not a building but a town where you find everything – lunch, great art, a library, great music”.
That spirit appears to have been preserved. In fact, many of the spaces here are free– from the downstairs temporary galleries to the shops and café, library and Brancusi workshop (see below for more details). Discounted museum tickets are available for students, seniors, people with disabilities or on lower incomes.
You see people from all walks of life, economic, social and ethnic backgrounds using the space. This is, in my sense, the true meaning of a cultural center. It’s not about “highbrow” experiences, but about forging a more democratic and open society by making art and culture widely accessible.
4. The panoramic views over the city (& dining option)
Yet another reason to spend some time at the Center? It affords some of the most sweeping and dramatic panoramic views of Paris from its top floor viewing deck.
From there, you can see monuments and iconic landmarks including the Sacré Coeur Basilica, Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Seine river.
Access is free when you buy a ticket to the permanent exhibit or a temporary show at the National Museum of Modern Art. You can also purchase a “view of Paris” ticket separately at the kiosk if you don’t wish to visit the museum, or book a table for lunch, dinner or a drink at Georges restaurant, known for its romantic panoramic setting.
5. The relaxed mezzanine café, perfect for coffee or lunch
Whether or not you opt to see an exhibit at the Pompidou, the mezzanine-level café and snack bar inside is an excellent place to perch, reflect or converse with friends. The sandwiches, quiches, coffee and drinks aren’t especially cheap, but they’ll still set you back less than a meal at a comparable sit-down restaurant in the area.
Read related: The Best Street Food in Paris, from Crèpes to Falafel
The cheerful red chairs and hum of conversation at the café make it a great spot for people-wathing, and you can take in more fine architectural details and perspectives of the whole center from a table here.
6. The vast library and media center
While most tourists don’t take time to visit the Centre Pompidou’s enormous public library and media center, it’s worth a look if you’re doing research or just feel like browsing a few books. The BPI (Bibliothèque Publique d’Information) holds a collection of over 400,000 books, as well as large collections of films, TV archives, videos and other media. This is not a lending library, but you can browse books and other materials directly from the shelves. The library holds a large collection of books and media in English and other languages aside from French.
The BPI is open to all and entry is free. Access is from Rue Rambuteau (around the back from the Center’s main entrance). If you’d like to explore the library I suggest you arrive early to avoid long lines of students and researchers. I hold *fond* memories of spending many mornings in line there, hoping to get a good workstation inside to help me complete my MA dissertation.
7. The “Stravinksy Fountain” and its eye-catching animated sculptures
This decidedly odd and whimsical fountain/art installation has become such a fixture in the streets around the Pompidou that it would be a bit sad to imagine the area without it. Created by artists Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, the 16 animated sculptures move and squirt water; each represents individual works of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, from “The Firebird” to “The Elephant”, “The Mermaid”, “Death” and “The Fox”. The brightly colored sculptures are from de Saint Phalle while the black mechanical pieces are from Tinguely.
Located across from the 16th-century Church of Saint-Merri and next to the IRCAM music academy and center, the fountain adds additional charm to an area beloved by the general public. A mural depicting Salvador Dali completes the interesting urban tableau.
Most visitors completely overlook this free exhibit at the Pompidou, which I consider to be a treasure hidden in plain sight. Designed by Renzo Piano, the space perfectly reconstructs Franco-Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s studio and workshop.
Brancusi, who died in 1957, bequeathed his entire collection of artwork to the French state. His impressive oeuvre is now displayed in the beautifully curated space and includes 137 sculptures, 87 bases, 41 drawings, two paintings and more than 1,600 glass photographic plates and prints. Anyone interested in sculpture and/or artistic process should pay a visit to the workshop.
The Atelier Brancusi is open every day of the week except Tuesdays, from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. It also closes on May 1st. Entry is free for all and the workshop can be accessed from a stairway on the sloping plaza, outside the main entrance to the center.
Getting There & Buying Tickets
The Centre Pompidou is located in the 4th arrondissement on the right bank, in the area known locally as “Beaubourg”. It lies the edge of the popular Marais district. The easiest way to reach the Center is to get off at the Rambuteau Metro stop (line 11) or take the Metro or RER commuter-line train to Chatelet-Les-Halles and walk a short distance to the center. You can alternatively get off at Metro Hotel de Ville (Line 1 or 11) and walk about five minutes to reach the Pompidou.
- Address: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris
- Tel.: + 33 (0)144 78 12 33
- Opening hours: Every day excluding Tuesday, 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Last entry for exhibition halls is at 9:00 pm.
- Shopping facilities: Browse exhibit, postcards, prints and books at the onsite Flammarion bookshop on the ground floor; there’s also a Printemps design shop on the 2nd floor.
- Visit the official website to buy tickets online & find more information
What to Do Around the Centre Georges Pompidou?
There’s a wealth of things to do in the surrounding area. Take a walking tour of the Marais district, with its medieval and Renaissance-era residences, ornate squares, delicious street food, Jewish heritage and vibrant LGBT community.
Explore Rue Montorgueil, a pedestrian-only market street and its surrounding district. Sample fantastic pastries and fresh produce, or perch on the terrace of one of the cafés here and watch the world drift by.
Other things to see in the area include the oldest house in Paris, City Hall (Hotel de Ville) and the vast shopping complex known as Les Halles. Finally, consider taking a long walk along the Seine and its many historic, ornately designed bridges.