Last Updated on January 8, 2024
The first time I set foot inside the Louvre Museum, I had already been living in Paris for three or four years. The guests I accompanied were astounded that I’d never bothered to visit the collections there, but I tend to spend most of my time exploring small galleries and museums.
Getting overwhelmed and suffering from waves of claustrophobia or even mild heat-induced panic simply aren’t an issue when visiting the quieter places, for one thing. What’s more, some of the finest collections are housed in small museums in Paris: ones that too often get overlooked, especially for lack of time. And many of these offer free admission for all.
Particularly if you’ve already visited the big-ticket museums and other attractions on a first trip to Paris, I would recommend spending some quality time exploring the collections mentioned below.
I’ve chosen them using mostly subjective criteria: they’re beloved places that I’ve visited numerous times in most cases, and deserve (I think) a closer look. This list from Fodors and this one from Conde Nast Traveller are also quite useful, and include a number of other museums I don’t mention here.
1. The Orangerie
For a peaceful moment of reprieve from the crazed metropolitan pace, there’s really no place like the Musée de l’Orangerie, in my book. The permanent collection houses Nymphéas (Water Lillies), a sublime series of murals from master Impressionist Claude Monet.
This series of eight mesmerizing, curved panels fill two egg-shaped galleries, giving the illusion of a never-ending loop of watery, dreamy, light-infused landscapes.
Symbolizing the hope for world peace– Monet donated the paintings to the French state on the day after World War I ended in 1918– this masterpiece offers a unique opportunity for quiet meditation and reflection.
There’s something about the act of slowly walking around the galleries and taking in the details animating each panel that I find restorative, explaining why I return here again and again.
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It’s all the more poignant to note that one of the panels was damaged when the gallery was bombed toward the end of World War II in 1944, but the others were miraculously unscathed.
Fully renovated in 2006 to better reflect their original state and restore natural light in the room in accordance with the artist’s wishes, Nymphéas is enduringly haunting, and touching when you understand the context of human brutality that inspired it.
Meanwhile, the permanent Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection is also worth an hour or two, and features works from the likes of Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Derain and Rodin.
Musée de l’Orangerie: 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.
2. Petit Palais
It truly mystifies me to know that so few tourists ever make it to the collections at the Petit Palais: the permanent ones are free, and offer a delightfully sweeping overview of reigning European artistic movements and masterpieces, stretching from the medieval and Renaissance period to the late 19th century.
Commissioned for the 1900 World Exhibition, the Belle-Epoque architecture of the facade is relatable to the more ostentatious example illustrated by the nearby Grand Palais (better known for its temporary exhibits and annual world art fair).
The permanent collection is a joy to take in, with paintings, sculpture, and objets d’art from artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Jan Steen, Fragonard, Delacroix, Paul Cézanne, Courbot, Corot, Monet, Rodin, Sisley, Pissarro and many others.
There’s also a small but significant section dedicated to Roman and Greek art. Particularly for anyone on a tight budget, this is a fantastic way to see masterpieces traversing hundreds of years of art history– all the while avoiding the aforementioned crowds at the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay.
Petit Palais: Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris (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
3. Musee de Cluny: National Medieval Museum
If you’ve explored this site in depth, you may recall that this museum is one of the places I most covet in the French capital; I certainly rave and ramble on about it on a predictable basis.
The National Medieval Museum (Musée de Cluny) is home to what I and many others consider to be one of the most intriguing and beautiful tapestries in existence: La Dame a la Licorne, drawn in Paris and woven in Flanders around 1500.
Composed of six enigmatic panels that are so delicate they need to be stored and viewed in dim light, the sequence depicts a young Lady’s exploration of the five senses, with strong Christian but also obviously erotic undertones.
The last panel, “A mon seul desir” (To my only desire) seems to point toward the moment when one transcends the earthly senses and achieves a kind of spiritual integration. Relatively forgotten prior to the 19th century, they gained a new foothold in the popular imagination when the French Romantic writers Prosper Merimée and George Sand referenced the tapestry in their writings.
The astounding masterpiece is, in my opinion, best appreciated in the morning, when crowds are thin and you can really spend adequate time taking in all of its fine details.
Along with the aforementioned Water Lilies series from Monet, this is my favorite spot in the capital to come for a few minutes of contemplation and meditation.
Read related: Paris in the Winter (Some of My Favorite, Cozy Haunts)
The rest of the permanent collection is also quite interesting, especially if objects of medieval art and daily life inspire nerdy excitement in you.
(Disclosure: I happen to be married to a medievalist scholar, so my interest earns me some extra kudos). From illuminated manuscripts to stained glass, clothing and shoes, statuary and antique furniture, the collections offers some fascinating insight into life in the Middle Ages.
Also fascinating are the Gallo-Roman foundations of the building: used in Antiquity as thermal baths, you can still see the “thermes” in the ground level of the museum, and outside on Boulevard St-Michel: these include levels where the tepidarium (tepid room) and caldarium (hot room with plunge baths) would have been.
For anyone who likes to dabble in archaeology and Roman architecture, the old baths are an intriguing spectacle.
The Building and the Aromatic Garden
One of the finest examples of 15th-century medieval architecture in Paris, the Hôtel de Cluny was once home to an order of local abbots associated with the nearby Sorbonne, then exclusively a religious college and seminary. Later, royal figures who inhabited the stunning residence include Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII.
The late Gothic-style building (which was recently renovated to include a modern new entrance and exhibitions areas) is surrounded by a lush aromatic garden filled with medicinal herbs commonly used during the period; in spring and summer, it’s a lovely place to sprawl out, read and think.
Musée et Thermes de Cluny (National Medieval Museum): Practical Info
- Address: 28 Rue Sommerard, 5th arrondissement (Metro: Cluny la Sorbonne, St Michel, Odéon)
- Hours & Tickets: Normal hours: Open every days except Mondays, from 9.30 am to 6.15 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Visit the official website for more information .
4. Musee Marmottan-Monet
It may seem as if I’m giving too much attention to Monet in this short list of my favorite small collections– but while I’d like to be as judicious as possible, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the lovely Musée Marmottan-Monet in the mix.
Nestled in a sleepy, posh corner of west Paris, the museum isn’t located in a part of the city that gets a lot of attention from most tourists. Yet it’s more than worth a slight detour.
The permanent collection includes 100 masterpieces from Monet, including “Impression, Sunrise” (pictured above); it also features a stunning selection of works of art that once belonged to the Impressionist’s personal collection, with works from Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Gaugin and many others.
The collection also spotlights the work of Berthe Morisot, a remarkable Impressionist painter who has too often been underappreciated as a female artist.
While the collection is mostly dedicated to Monet and his influences, the collection harbors a remarkable collection of illuminated manuscript pages dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries, as well as a number of masterpieces from the First Empire Period. The latter works originally belonged to the museum’s founder, Jules Marmottan.
See our full guide to the museum, including highlights from the collection and visitor tips, here.
Musée Marmottan-Monet: Practical Info
- Address: 2 rue Louis Boilly, 16th arrondissement (Metro: La Muette or Rue de la Pompe)
- Hours & Tickets: Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Mondays and most bank holidays. See current ticket prices here.
5. Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume
It was in Paris that I truly gained an appreciation of photography and video as art forms. A few key exhibits at the Jeu de Paume (not to be confused with jus de pomme, which means ‘apple juice’ in French) were key to this growing awareness.
The large space at the edge of the Tuileries Gardens (and right next door to the Orangerie, mentioned above) has hosted some of the city’s most significant and exciting retrospectives of major photographers over the past few years– from Cindy Sherman to Richard Avedon, Dorothea Lange to Martin Parr.
It also stages single and multi-artist shows that highlight multimedia and video, and offer transdisciplinary perspectives on some of the most important trends and figures in contemporary digital art.
Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume: Practical Info
- Address: 1 Place de la Concorde, 8th arrondissement
- Metro: Concorde or Tuileries
- Hours & Tickets: See the full article for more information
6. Palais Galliera: Fashion Museum of the City of Paris
For most of my life, I didn’t really consider fashion an art form in its own right. It took several years of imbibing Parisian culture and doing some reporting on style and fashion– not to mention watching Project Runway— to finally recognize that fashion designers contribute to both culture and history.
Visiting some of the fascinating exhibits at the lovely Palais Galleria also did the trick in converting this onetime fashion skeptic into a captive audience member, too.
While the permanent collection is a genuine treasury of fashion artefacts- encompassing everything from 18th and 19th century dresses to the history of undergarments, contemporary accessories and fashion photography– it’s (sadly) not on display to the general public.
Instead, several temporary shows bring out and highlight different aspects or periods of fashion history, or focus on a designer or style icon.
A recent, wildly successful show on Franco-Italian-Egyptian musician and diva Dalida amply demonstrated the power of displaying a legendary figure’s clothes and costumes.
There’s something fascinating, if a bit eerie, about appreciating someone like Dalida through these deeply personal, physical items.
Other past shows included retrospectives on Balenciaga and a look at historical Spanish costumes. Make sure to book tickets well in advance as these shows are often quickly sold out.
Palais Galliera: Practical Info
- Address: 10, Avenue Pierre Ier de Serbie , 16th arrondissement (Metro: Iena or Alma-Marceau)
- Hours & Tickets: The museum is not permanently accessible, but opens periodically for several temporary shows each year. When underway, exhibits are open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Mondays and most bank holidays. See current ticket prices at this page.
7. Musee Jacquemart-Andre
Another overlooked museum that harbors several masterpieces, the Jacquemart-Andre is located in close reach of the Champs-Elysées, and can offer a breather from the madding crowds that throng on the area.
Its eclectic collection includes masterpieces of Dutch painting (from the likes of Rembrandt and Van Dyck, stunning portraits from Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David, and even this stunning 15th-century painting depicting St George and the Dragon, widely considered to be one of the highest achievements in Italian art of the period.
In addition to the magnificent oeuvres that populate the museum, there’s also much to see in the estate of Edouard Andre, a collector who once resided here: from the opulent Picture Gallery to the Music Room, the State Apartments are a fine exampe of French 18th-century architecture and interior design.
Musee Jacquemart-Andre: Practical Info
- Address: 158, boulevard Haussmann, 8th arrondissement (Metro: Miromesnil or Champs-Elysées Clemenceau)
- Hours & Tickets: The museum is open every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (late hours until 8:30 pm on Mondays during exhibitions).
8. Maison Européenne de la Photographie (European House of Photography)
When it comes to contemporary art, photography is probably my preferred medium. From Diane Arbus to Richard Avedon and Claude Cahun, many of the modern and contemporary artists I find to be the most compelling yield a camera to produce their haunting work.
The Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, nestled in a corner street of the Marais district, is a place I return to time and again to bask in the work of iconic and little-known lenses. Past exhibits have included retrospectives on Henry Callahan, Herb Ritts, Robert Delpire, and Eugenia Grandchamp des Raux.\
Getting There & Practical Info
- Address: 5-7 Rue de Fourcy, 4th arrondissement (Metro: St. Paul)
- Hours & Tickets: The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 11:00 am to 8:00 pm; it’s closed on Monday, Tuesday and public holidays. You can view current ticket prices here.
9. Musée Henner
My partner’s beloved grandparents introduced me to this marvelous museum, and to the artist it spotlights. The Musée Jean-Jacques Henner features a permanent collection of masterpieces from the little-appreciated French painter of the same name– and it more than deserves a closer look.
Henner was a 19th-century painters who bucked the reigning styles of his time. Deeply influenced by the Italian and Dutch masters, his oeuvre includes stirring, realistic portraits, biblical scenes, and other classicist subjects.
But he can’t easily be attributed to any one movement or school. He was also a minor contributor to the French Impressionist movement, though one can hardly describe him as one.
The collection at the museum, housed in a private mansion that merits a visit in its own right, comprises more than 2,000 works of art from the painter.
Getting There & Practical Info
- Address: 43 avenue de Villiers, 75017 Paris (Metro: Malesherbes, Wagram or Monceau)
- Hours, Current Shows & Tickets: See more in our full guide to the Musée Henner
10. Guimet Museum: Dedicated to Asian Arts
Finally, if you’re interested in the history and diverse traditions of Asian art, the Musée Guimet is absolutely worth a visit. The collections– held in a space also known as the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques (National Museum of Asian Art) are remarkably rich at this free museum, boasting thousands of works from China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, and others in Greater Asia.
Established in 1889 by art dealer Emile Guimet, this is a treasury that, like so many of the other museums featured above, is too often overlooked.
Paintings, sculpture, ceramics, figurines, furniture, rugs, decorative objects, ceremonial regalia, and objects of daily life are among the works housed in the collections at the Guimet. Temporary exhibits can also be interesting, focusing on particular periods, artists or cultural traditions.
Getting There & Practical Info
- Address: 6, place d’Iéna, 75016 (16th arrondissement)
- Metro: Iéna or Boissière
- Hours, Current Shows & Tickets: See more in our full guide to the Musée Guimet
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Courtney Traub is the Founder and Editor of Paris Unlocked. She’s a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and Norwich, UK. Co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region, she has been interviewed as an expert on Paris and France by the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Figaro, Matador Network and other publications. Courtney has also written and reported stories for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, The Christian Science Monitor, Women’s Wear Daily and The Associated Press. In addition to pursuing an insatiable interest in French culture, history, food and art, Courtney is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums.