When you’re ready to graduate beyond the “big three” Paris art museums, here is a guide to some wonderful and quirky venues.
Paris is synonymous with art. For most visitors, the Paris art experience is probably defined by visits to the Louvre for ancient to neoclassical art, the d’Orsay for 19th- and early-20th-century works and, finally, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, housed in the Centre Pompidou, for the modern to post-modern collections. Yet Paris offers so much more to the true lover of art in such a variety of venues as to almost defy categorization. As a Montparnasse bistro owner once told my wife, “It takes a month to know the Louvre; it takes a lifetime to know Paris.” Indeed, a person could spend the rest of their lives tracking down all the public art in Paris. So once you’ve experienced the “big three” of Paris art museums, here’s a mere sampling of what you can expect to find just a little farther afield.
This off-the-beaten-path museum is built around 19th-century sculptor Antoine Bourdelle’s studio and apartment, providing insights into Montparnasse during its artistic heyday. Bourdelle was an assistant to Rodin. Like his mentor, Bourdelle specialized in monumental sculptures, including the frieze for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and an equestrian monument of Argentine general Alvear. One gallery shows how he endlessly reworked the head of Beethoven in different moods. At the rear, a row of studios includes that of Bourdelle, left in an appropriately dusty state. It’s a slice of life of a working 19th-century Parisian artist. 18 rue Antoine-Bourdelle, 15th arrondissement. bourdelle.paris.fr
Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet
Americans love Impressionism above all other painting movements and Claude Monet above all Impressionists. Since 1934 the former townhouse of Paul Marmottan has grown into the largest single repository of the works of Monet. More than 100 of his works are on display, drawn from the collections of his son, Michel Monet, and his physician, Doctor Georges de Bellio, who was one of the first collectors of Impressionist paintings. Further acquisitions were added to the collection through the mid-1980s. 2 Rue Louis Boilly, 16th arrondissement. marmottan.fr
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Housed in a wing of the Palais de Tokyo, this museum of modernist art began in 1961. The permanent collection includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Arp and Rauschenberg; many say that it is more “Paris-centric” than the much larger Pompidou. It is particularly strong on Fauves and Cubists, which are mixed with Art Deco furniture and artists’ ceramics, and a more international display of contemporary art. Its special exhibitions bring works by accomplished artists into historical context. 11 avenue du Président Wilson, 16th arrondissement. mam.paris.fr
Musée National du Moyen-Age-Thermes de Cluny
Located in the bustling Latin Quarter, the National Museum of Medieval Art, known informally as the Cluny, is housed in two structures. One was the site of the first-century Roman baths and the other was a 15th-century monastery—a jewel of Gothic architecture. There are plenty of reasons to visit, but the standout in our book is the “Lady and the Unicorn” series of tapestries, considered to be the high point of medieval art. Five of the six tapestries are said to represent the five senses, and the sixth bears the motto “A mon seul désir” (to my only desire). Even in semi-darkness they are breathtaking. 6 place Paul Painlevé, 5th arrondissement. musee-moyenage.fr
Musée Édith Piaf
This small personal museum has a great collection of photographs and pictures of Édith Piaf, who rose from a girl singing in the streets of Paris to certainly the most famous French chanteuse of the 20th century. She was blessed with a commanding voice and a magnetic stage presence, which meant she won the hearts of millions. Today, she is remembered primarily for the song “La Vie en Rose,” which she wrote in 1946. The museum, which consists of two rooms in the apartment of her “biggest fan,” Bernard Marchois, displays some of her favorite outfits from famous shows, and a whole range of music-related paraphernalia along with personal effects such as jewelry, furniture, letters and a life-sized teddy bear given to her by her husband. Reservations are required for admission. Telephone: 43 55 52 72. 5 Rue Crespin du Gast, 11th arrondissement.
Works by early 20th-century sculptor Aristide Maillol are displayed around the paneled rooms of a beautiful rococo mansion. These include little known early paintings and sculptures. Many are modeled on Dina Vierny, who amassed this collection and was his model from the age of 15 (she also sat for Matisse), before opening her own gallery. There are also drawings by Matisse, Dadaist objects, naive art and Russian art. The museum puts on some exceptional temporary exhibitions that range from contemporary art to antiquities, and has a pleasant Italian café. 59-61 rue de Grenelle, 7th arrondissement. museemaillol.com
Musée des Arts Forains
If you’re looking for quirky, look no further; this is a monument to playtime. Musée des Arts Forains was created from the private collection of Jean Paul Favand, an actor and antiques dealer. It opened to the public in 1996 and now contains a variety of objects dating from 1850-1950, including amusement rides; fair stalls and restored attractions, historical works, and many odd items. The collections include merry-go-rounds and carousels, German swings, 100-year-old bicycles, Japanese billiards, a Parisian Waiter Race, a Hooghuys organ, and the grand vizier Ali Pasha. There are occasional special exhibitions. This museum is private but can be visited any time of the year by appointment. Tours are in French, but ask for a printed description in English. 53 Avenue des Terroirs de France, 12th arrondissement. arts-forains.com
Where to Stay
Hotel de la Place des Voges – An exceptional find in the Marais district located a half a block from the incomparable 17th-century Place des Voges, described as the world’s first urban-renewal project. Small yet comfortable rooms. 95 euros/double room. 12, rue de Birague.
Hotel Relais Saint Honoré – Located in the heart of Paris one block from The Louvre and surrounded by elegant shops. Cozy rooms, typical of Paris, but well-laid out giving the impression of more space. The price reflects its excellent location, 225 euros/night. Breakfast extra. 308 Rue Saint Honoré.
Citadines Prestige Saint-Germain-des-Prés – This modern apartment hotel is located facing the Seine at the Pont Neuf crossing. Three room suites including kitchenette from 350 euros/night. A great value in the middle of it all. Walking distance to many major attractions. 53 ter, quai des Grands Augustins.
Hotel Saint Christophe – Located near the Pantheon in the Latin Quarter and near a Metro stop. Small room but a comfortable bed and helpful concierge. A little off the beaten tourist path and quiet. 150 euros/night. Breakfast extra. 17 Rue Lacépède.
Iloveparisapartments.com – This on-line service offers apartment living to visitors when the owners are elsewhere. Expatriate Alabama native Porter Scott will meet you at the door with the keys and show you the ins and outs. (He guided us to the apartment via cell phone.) Scott manages approximately 20 units located throughout central Paris. Ours was listed as the Cherche Midi 3, a contemporary place with two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, living/dining room and large windows overlooking a lovely garden and domed church. Sleeps six comfortably. Two Metro stops nearby and in walking distance to Le Bon Marché and other wonderful shops. 460 euros/night. Some smaller units rent for 285 euros/night.
Where to Dine
L’Auberge du Louvre – The young wait staff was eager to please a table of American tourists. This bistro covers French basics such as beef bourguignon as well as more contemporary selections, even accommodating vegetarians. A great value. 98 Rue Saint Honoré
Le Schmuck – A stylish and casual restaurant in the heart of Saint Germain. Not a tourist hotspot and seems to be frequented by young Paris sophisticates. Noted for its talented cocktail artists. 1 rue de Conde
La Rotisserie d’en face – Located in bustling Saint Germain, this is the place for spit-roasted farm-fresh chicken and other simply prepared dishes. Noted for its desserts. A contemporary dining room and informal atmosphere. It is operated by Jacques Cagna, a celebrated Paris chef, who operates his namesake (and expensive) restaurant across the street. 2 Rue Christine.
Le Bistrot Landais – This small, corner bistro in Montparnasse is unpretentious and full of local residents who frequent it on their way home from work. It is typical of hundreds of other similar establishments all over Paris. The owner is affable and full of advice to visitors on seeing the sites of Paris. 104 Rue du Cherche-Midi
Le Grande Epicerie – Across the street from and operated by the legendary department store Le Bon Marché, this gourmet shop is out of this world. Save on restaurants by buying prepared food here and taking it back to your room or have an impromptu picnic. 38 Rue de Sèvres