There are over 125 museums within the Paris city limits, illustrating every imaginable topic. Yet, ask any visitor to the City of Lights and the first, often the only one they will name is the Louvre.
The Louvre Always Comes First
No surprise here. As one of the oldest (circa 1793), and with over 38,000 pieces of art displayed across more than 60,000 square meters (646,000 square feet) of permanent exhibits space, the Louvre has long captured the imagination of tourists everywhere. It attracts 10 million visitors annually, often mainly intent on catching a glimpse of three legendary women: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and two ancient armless Greek beauties, the Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace (also known as Winged Victory). During the high season, lines can stretch for hours in front of the Louvre’s central entrance glass pyramid.
A short walk across the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay is another crowd-pleaser that also draws sizeable lines. Its collection spans the years 1848 to 1914, an exceptionally inspired time that saw the birth of impressionism, postimpressionism and art nouveau. All the giants of the period are represented, from Dégas, Manet, Monet and Renoir to Pissaro, Cézanne and Van Gogh. Fittingly, their home is a superb example of Belle Epoque architecture, the former Gare d’Orsay, a train station built to coincide with the 1900 Paris World Fair.
But long lines are not a prerequisite for an enjoyable museum experience in central Paris. Within a fifteen-minute walk radius of the Musée d’Orsay, three of my personal line-free favorites immediately come to mind. And in addition to stimulating exhibits, they offer welcoming exterior spaces where you can enjoy a quick meal or just relax, away from the constant din of the city.
Musee du Quai Branly
Inaugurated in 2006, the newest of Paris’ major museums, the Musée du Quai Branly is dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Its collections include almost 370,000 works ranging from the Neolithic period to the twentieth century, only one percent of which are on display at any given time either in permanent or temporary thematic exhibits.
Equally remarkable for its architecture and surroundings as it is for its collections, the Musée du Quai Branly sits on the left bank of the Seine, just a five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. As you step into the high translucent glass enclosure that isolates it from the busy riverside drive, you are embraced by an exuberant 18,000 square meter (4.5 acre) wilderness created by noted French landscaper and botanist Gilles Clement. You may want to lose yourself in its detours, or enjoy a picnic break on one of the benches tucked into its many shaded spots before finding your way to the discrete entrance of the exhibit space.
A Jean Nouvel Masterpiece
For the main building, which contains the galleries of the museum, world-renowned French architect Jean Nouvel created a 210-meter (690 foot) long bridge, anchored at both ends with concrete silos. Its center is held 10 meters (33 feet) above the garden on 26 steel columns. The maturing trees are beginning to hide the columns, giving the impression that the building is resting on the treetops. Inside, a winding ramp leads to the 200-meter (650-foot) long main gallery, a beautifully staged space evocative of mysterious primeval forests with only the barest amount of natural light filtering through. Direct lighting focuses only on the displays of the collection. Two mezzanines dedicated to temporary exhibits look down on the gallery.
A Marquesas Islands Journey
What brings me to the Quai Branly today is a stunning exhibition: Matahoata, Art and Society in the Marquesas Island. The Marquesas, a major source of inspiration for post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and his final resting place, form one of the most remote archipelagoes of French Polynesia. The exhibit traces the development of the sophisticated Marquesan artistic tradition through the times preceding the incursion of westerners at the end of the nineteenth century. From this baseline, it leads the viewer through the cultural mix that ensued, and illustrates how the islanders managed to preserve the main codes of their ancestral culture while incorporating the outsiders’ perspective. A remarkable feat that not only enabled the traditional culture to endure, but also paved that way for the current revival of traditional arts. Overall, a virtual journey so inspiring that it has propelled the Marquesas to the top of my travel wish list!
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Just across the Seine from the Quai Branly, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Arts offers one of France’s richest and most vibrant reflections of the contemporary art scene. With about 10,000 works in its collections and a vast permanent exhibition space where works are rotated periodically, it is a dynamic representation of all the artistic currents that shaped the twentieth century and the present art scene. All the great names are represented in this context, from Picasso, Modigliani, Derain, Picabia and Chagall to today’s Boltanski, Parreno and Peter Doig. There are also several temporary themed exhibits per year. A recent visit allowed me to discover Paula Modersohn Becker, a remarkable German early expressionist, regrettably deceased at 31.
The building itself is emblematic of the architecture of the 1930’s, with a vast terrace and reflecting pool overlooking the river. Its soaring interior spaces enable the museum to feature unique permanent installations such as the first, unfinished version of The Dance by Matisse, and Raoul Dufy’s monumental fresco, La Fee Electicité (The Electricity Fairy) originally commissioned for the entrance hall of the Pavilion of Light and Electricity at the in Paris 1937 International Exposition.
The Petit Palais
Le Petit Palais is a Beaux Arts extravaganza built to hold a major exhibit of French art during the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Think of it as a human-scale Louvre without the lines. All of its works have been donated by various collectors and range in time from Greek antiquity to the end First World War. I especially enjoy their rich Art Nouveau and Art Deco exhibit. But my favorite part of the Petit Palais is its lovely vaulted cloister and lush central garden that offer an unexpectedly secluded retreat right in the heart of the city.
Good to Know
- It’s Free! Entrance to the exterior spaces of the Musée du Quai Branly, the Musée d’Art Modern and the Petit Palais is free. All three have above average cafeteria-style restaurants where you can grab a tray (or if you prefer, bring your own) and enjoy a relaxing lunch or snack in a gorgeous environment. Additionally, like at all other City of Paris-owned museums, at the Musée d’Art Moderne and Petit Palais, entrance to the permanent collection is always free of charge. Only the temporary exhibits have an entrance fee.
- Visiting – Musée du Quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris. Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm and Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm. Closed Monday. Contact: Tel: +33 (0)1 56 61 70 00. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris.Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday. Contact: Tel: +33 1 53 67 40 00. Petit Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday. Contact: Tel: +33 (0)1 53 43 40 00.