a large clock tower towering over Eiffel Tower at sunset

Art Museums in Paris

Ah, Paris! The “City of Lights,” so named because Paris was among the first cities in the world with electricity. It’s true that the French capital can seemingly offer something for everyone. There are plenty of cobblestone streets and squares warmed by the soft glow of streetlamps—not to mention the tree-lined Champs-Élysées, the Eiffel Tower, and many picturesque bridges crossing the Seine—to please any romantic.

Paris is no less a destination for gourmands. From charming cafés and patisseries serving indulgent baked goods to brasseries that specialize in hearty comfort food, there is a world of gastronomic discoveries to be made throughout the city. Of course, Paris is also home to more than five dozen Michelin-starred restaurants—it remains one of the world’s most Michelin-starred cities—which means elegant, unforgettable fine-dining experiences are always accessible. 

Yet, the “City of Lights” is perhaps best associated with art, and it has been for centuries, back to a time when the city was attracting a bevy of writers, painters, and sculptors seeking the inspiration for their greatest works. “I have always painted the Seine throughout my life, at every hour, at every season,” Claude Monet once said. “I have never tired of it. For me, the Seine is always new.”

“The French air clears up the brain and does good,” Vincent van Gogh also opined, “a world of good.”

Today, there is no shortage of world-class museums in Paris, all dedicated to preserving, protecting, and showcasing some of the most exceptional pieces of artwork ever created. Travelers who experience a Scenic river cruise on the Seine are rewarded with at least one full day in the French capital, and art lovers may have difficulty deciding where to go and what to see. To help, we’ve highlighted a handful of the city’s exceptional art museums, with highlights of what can be seen at each, and—especially for the city’s most famous institution—tips that will help you make the most of your visit.

The Louvre

a large bridge lit up at night

Unequivocally, The Louvre is Paris’s most famous and most visited museum. Since it opened in 1793, the museum, which is housed in a former palace built and gradually transformed by the French monarchy, has continuously expanded. Today, it covers more than 645,000 square feet; it is home to 38,000 works of art; and, in 2016, it attracted 7.4 million visitors.

Like the top three factors for buying and selling real estate—location, location, location—the top three factors for visiting The Louvre are timing, timing, timing. From October to March, admission is free on the first Sunday of every month, but that open access also means that on those days the museum is at its busiest . . . and most crowded. Instead—and if your travel schedule allows—consider visiting on Wednesdays or Fridays, which offer extended hours from 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. (The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays.) Also, invest in one of the museum’s audio guides (or download the “My Visit to the Louvre” app), since most signs and artwork descriptions throughout the museum are written only in French. 

As for famous works of art, The Louvre is home to many, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; the ancient Greek statue Aphrodite, better known as Venus de Milo; Paolo Veronese’s 16th-century painting The Wedding at Cana; and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, an ancient Greek statue that was discovered in hundreds of pieces back in 1863 and today is a blend of the original stone and contemporary plaster recreation. Visitors hoping to get up-close views of these works of art (and other masterpieces on display throughout the Louvre), should make them their first priorities upon entering the museum. They should also plan to arrive early, since large crowds will quickly form around these pieces. Compounding the matter, some of these masterpieces—the Mona Lisa in particular—are quite small, so staying ahead of the crowd is paramount.

With 38,000 objects, artifacts, and works of art on display, the Louvre is teeming with remarkable, albeit lesser-known, items that are just as worthy of your time. On the second floor of the Richelieu wing, for example, hangs a 14th-century portrait of Jean II le Bon. The in-profile style painting is not only the oldest French portrait of a single individual, but some believe it could be the oldest painting of its style in all of Western Europe. Elsewhere, visitors can view Charles V’s gold coronation scepter, which escaped the cauldron during the country’s religious wars and later the French Revolution, a period when most of the French monarchy’s golden artifacts were melted.

In the Denon wing on the first floor hangs Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, a painting that depicts the Paris uprising of late July 1830, which the artist witnessed. It is arguably Delacroix’s most recognizable painting, yet visitors to the Louvre can learn much more about the artist—and see considerably more of his work—by visiting the attached Musée national Eugène Delacroix, a museum that is set in the apartment and working studio that Delacroix used during the final six years of his life. 

a large bridge over some water

Musée d’Orsay

Like the Louvre, this museum is captivating for its history. It began as the Gare d’Orsay, a train station and hotel that opened while Paris was hosting the world’s fair in 1900. From the turn of the 20th century until the start of World War II, the station served as the head of the southwestern French railroad network. By the late 1970s the building had been classified an historical monument and, in 1978, it began a slow, 8-year transition into an art-focused institution. Today, the museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art.

Those who prefer Impressionism will marvel at the museum’s vast collection, which features 49 pieces by Edouard Manet, 88 works by Claude Monet, 94 pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and 196 artistic creations by Edgar Degas. Standout paintings on display include Monet’s Blue Water Lilies and his Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking through the Fog—one of more than a dozen paintings of the Palace of Westminster that Monet created during his time spent in London. Visitors to the museum can also catch a glimpse of Renoir’s Dance at Le moulin de la Galette, which in 1876 was revolutionary for the way that it married three painting genres: collective portraits, still life, and landscapes.

Enthusiasts of Post-Impressionism, on the other hand, can see 19 works by Georges Seurat, 25 paintings by Vincent van Gogh, 53 pieces by Henri Matisse, and 58 paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings by Paul Gauguin. Exceptional pieces on display include Seurat’s The Circus—his last painting and one that remains unfinished—and two of van Gogh’s self-portraits. 

Musée de l’Orangerie

In much the same way that the Mona Lisa attracts millions of visitors to the Louvre, Monet’s eight final Water Lilies compositions attract art aficionados to the Musée de L’Orangerie. The eight paintings, all of which are the same height (almost 6.5 feet), are displayed in two oval showrooms and comprise 328 linear feet of canvas. Like all of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings, which the artist created over three decades, these murals were inspired by the water garden that Monet created at his Giverny estate in Normandy. The artist gifted them to the French state and, following his death in 1926, they were carefully displayed in the museum’s custom-built showroom to Monet’s exact specifications, where they have remained ever since.