Paris is a city rich in history with so many things to see and do. Although we busied ourselves with classes and frequent gym sessions, our three months in Paris afforded us ample time during our roving retirement to enjoy some of the many museums. We visited too many, in fact, to cover them all in a single article. In this first Paris museum post, I cover some of the lesser-known gems the City of Lights has to offer.
Free Museums, Courtesy of the City of Paris
Our past visits to Paris were never more than a week and often included taking in sites such as Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, the River Seine, etc. We usually only had time for a few museums and would visit some of the biggies: The Louvre, D’Orsay, L’Orangerie, and the Pompidou.
As I started researching some of our museum options for our extended stay, I learned the City of Paris owns and operates a string of museums. And, best of all, they’re all free. As you can read below, I found the ones I visited to be less crowded but not less appealing. I encourage you to consider visiting a couple on your next stop in Paris. After all, you can leave whenever you want and not feel like you wasted your expensive entry fee on a short visit. You can also just pop in for a bio-break if needed.
Frequently, great museums are great and historically intriguing buildings themselves. The Pantheon is a fine example of such. Started under the reign of Louis XV as a church and reliquary for Saint Genevieve, the French Revolution was in force by the building’s completion.
Owing to alternating monarchical and democratic governments, the subsequent use and contents of the edifice swung between church and museum several times. The last change in 1881 left it as a mausoleum dedicated to people who made great contributions to France. The latest honoree was Josephine Baker, who was inducted in 2021.
While sporting numerous large paintings of St. Genevieve and Napoleon, an unusual, impossible-to-miss feature is the centrally located Foucault Pendulum, 1 of 2 in the city. The original sphere was brought over during renovations at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in the 1990s. Now, a copy is displayed at the Panthéon.
The Petit Palais
We had intended to visit the Grand Palais, a massive glass building next to the Seine, but we found it closed for renovations leading up to next year’s Olympic Games. Still, the adjacent Petit Palais made for a nice alternative. We chose to go in after getting turned away from the nearby L’Orangerie for not having a reservation. We had no trouble getting into the Petit Palais, even on the weekend.
Originally built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Petit Palais now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts. Sponsored by and shaped like the letter “D”, the building has an appealing café and garden in the center courtyard for those in need of a pause. We enjoyed the wide variety of art, ranging from tapestry, porcelain, and other furnishings to works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Rodin, Monet, and Cezanne. All for the low, low price of free.
Hotel de la Marine Museum
Not far away is the Hotel de la Marine Museum, located on the Place de La Concorde. Completed in 1774, the stately building was originally used to manage furnishing royal properties. Following the Revolution, it became the home of the French Navy until 2015.
On display is a restored 18th-century apartment of the King’s Intendant of the Garde-Meuble (furnishing minister). There are also the salons and chambers later used by the French Navy, fitted out as they would have been in the late 1700s. In addition to a variety of ornate furnishings, there is an engaging interactive world map where visitors can learn of the exploits and voyages of notable French mariners.
A separate part of the building contains the Al Thani Collection, from the treasure trove of Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah Al of Qatar. While only 120 works of the Sheik’s collection are shown at any given time, each piece is presented in a compelling and informative manner. A special exhibition, “When The English Spoke French”, includes pieces from the time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.
Musée de l’Armée
I looked forward to a visit to the Musée de l’Armée. It is located in the sprawling Les Invalides complex, which was not far from our flat. There are numerous objects in the collection, including Napoleon’s hat and a V2 missile (somehow, I missed that). Oddly, you can also find one of Napoleon’s horses, stuffed.
An unexpected find was the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, a museum of military models located within the Musée de l’Armée. There is a collection of large, three-dimensional models of fortified cities within France for military purposes. I really enjoyed seeing how these bastions were laid out in the 17th to 19th centuries, especially in comparison to how these cities are shaped today.
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme
Another stop was at the Jewish Art and History Museum. This museum conveys the history and culture of Jews in Europe and North Africa since the Middle Ages. We have visited Jewish museums in a variety of places around the world. I find it interesting to see how the Jewish culture expressed itself wherever it was. The degrees to which it was tolerated over the centuries often play out in how distinctive that expression is, and this museum is no exception. The ornamentation styles are often similar to local Christian styles.
The museum has many historical artifacts collected from around Europe and North Africa. Prominent Jewish artists like Chagall and Modigliani are also represented. There is also a section dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal that exposed anti-semitism in the French Army at the end of the 19th century. The manner in which Alfred Dreyfus was scapegoated for the incompetence of a non-Jewish officer is poignant and still relevant to the French psyche today.
Because it was near our French school, we visited the Musée Carnavalet fairly early in our Paris residency. Another free gem managed by the City of Paris, this museum covers the history of the city from its founding, including the Revolution, Napoleon, and the liberation in 1944. The 16th-century building contains historic objects and a large collection of paintings depicting the city’s history, development, and notable characters.
I enjoyed many of the historic artifacts and images. One unusual section housed a variety of shop signs formerly adorning the town. I feel I got a greater understanding through the exhibits of the evolution of this great city. I would be happy to revisit this museum to continue this dialogue with the past.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
One day, I was feeling a bit more energetic than Diana, so I executed a solo sortie over to the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, which is located on the Seine next to the Palais de Tokyo. Originally constructed as part of the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology of 1937, the exterior walls are adorned by some grand sculptures typical of the period.
What I found, was a nice, fairly compact collection of modern art. It had a few pieces of major artists like Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani, etc. There are large murals by Matisse and Dufy. I was particularly impressed by a large collection of prints by Josef Albers and textiles by his wife, Anni. Josef experimented with how our perception of color is affected by adjacent colors. Anni created elaborate and amazing textiles in similar block forms. Both produced pieces that are a wonder to behold.
There are 14 free museums managed by the City of Paris. We would certainly recommend visiting at least one on your next visit to the City of Light.
Which of these museums appeals to you?