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Paris is so full of art; it’s difficult to know where to look first.
Obvious places include the Louvre (the world’s largest art museum) and the Musee d’Orsay (a former train station) in its spectacular setting. There’s the Rodin Museum, Musée Picasso, the l’Orangerie filled with Monet’s waterlilies, and plenty more. You can easily spend weeks in Paris going to a different art museum every day.
The good thing about calling Paris home is that you don’t have too many time restraints. This allows you to go and visit as many museums as your brain can cope with, and, even better, find some so-called hidden gems along the way.
What people consider art is clearly subjective. Here I have added a few of my favorite finds, which range from traditional museums to truly hidden places. From street art and sculptures out for everybody to see, but are rarely noticed, to places brimming with history, Paris truly has something for every art lover. Hopefully, I will give you a few new points to add to your itinerary for your next visit.
In the 13th arrondissement, an area practically devoid of tourists, modern apartment blocks clog the view. Yet, the city of Paris made these potentially ugly facades into an open-air gallery on an enormous scale. By covering the sides of the high-rise apartment blocks in gigantic murals, Boulevard Paris 13 was born. Start at Quai de la Gare just south of the Seine and walk along Boulevard Vincent Auriol toward Place d’Italie. You’ll see larger-than-life works from internationally-renowned street artists such as Invader, C215, D*Face, Shepard Fairey, Seth, and many more.
Pro Tip: For more street art, turn left at Place d’Italie into the charming neighborhood of Butte aux Cailles.
Not really a museum, but more of a sculpture trail, there are some lovely installations to be found when walking along the southern Quai Saint-Bernard. It is located between the Pont de Sully and the Pont d’Austerlitz, just opposite the Ile Saint-Louis. Not only do most people avoid walking along these quays, but when they do, they hurry past along the roadside without knowing what they are missing. This is a perfect little spot for a picnic a la Paris. Bring a baguette, some cheese, a bottle of rosé, and sit yourself down on one of the benches among the greenery. Enjoy the Seine and the art all around.
The suburb of La Défense, at the end of metro line 1, is often dismissed as a business hub, too modern to be of interest. Apart from the amazing Grand Arche — which stands in line with the Arc de Triomphe and the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel in front of the Louvre — there is an amazing array of public art to enjoy. It starts right underneath the arch (just head down from the ticket office on the escalator), where you can find a very hidden-away installation: the 50-pillar crossroads by David Buren of Palais Royal fame. Outside, you’ll find a huge thumb, the Pouce de Cesar, by César Baldaccini. Coincidentally, it even has a twin in Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar. There is also the very colorful Le Moretti, a column covered in countless colored tubes, and much more. Combine the art with modern architecture and you can easily spend a few hours here looking around.
Pro Tip: Should you be visiting in December, La Défense, right by the thumb installation, hosts one of the best Christmas markets in Paris. It’s full of food stalls and great little arts and crafts chalets.
Hidden in the residential quarter of Passy, the Musée Marmottan Monet holds some 100 Monet paintings, making it the most extensive collection of his works in Paris. In this former hunting lodge, you can find Impressionist paintings by artists such as Berthe Morisot (master-Impressionist and sister-in-law of Edouard Manet), Pissaro, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, and many others. In addition to the permanent collection of Impressionism, there are usually temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. There is also a lovely museum shop, which sells all things related to water lilies.
Pro Tip: Just steps away you’ll find one of my favorite brasseries in Paris, the Rotonde de la Muette, perfect for after-art food and drinks.
The Bassin de la Villette is the extension of the scenic Canal Saint Martin, featuring man-made beaches and outdoor swimming areas in the summer. It is also a haven for street art lovers. Walking up along the side of the canal, the bridges are covered in art, especially the bridge of Rue de l’Ourcq. Here you’ll find art by Da Cruz, a French artist heavily inspired by trips to South America. He specializes in jaguar faces with very expressive large eyes and it is evident everywhere. More of his work can be seen along Rue de l’Ourcq heading toward Boulevard Jean-Jaures.
Pro Tip: Have a look around and choose a nice houseboat to have a coffee or a cocktail. This canal is full of houseboats offering everything from restaurants to live music venues.
I am sure, as part of your visit to Paris, you went to Versailles and marveled at the magnificent tapestry adorning the walls. Well, the Manufacture des Gobelins is where they were made — and are still being made. It started in the early 1600s when King Henry IV bought land to create a royal workshop for tapestries and furniture. Fast forward to the time of Louis XIV — Henry’s grandson who wanted to spruce up his château in Versailles — where the long tradition of fine tapestry and carpet manufacture began. Today, you can go on a guided tour to see the painstakingly slow and intricate work taking place.
Pro Tip: The majority of tours are in French, but even if you don’t understand much, the sights speak for themselves. The guides do tend to speak a little English, enough to give you some interesting snippets of information.
Fluctuart is one gallery most people will not have heard about, and might even walk past without realizing it is there. A moored houseboat, this floating art gallery can be found alongside Quai d’Orsay, opposite the Grand Palais. The gallery is a play on words with the Parisian motto fluctuat nec mergitur, which means “tossed but not sunk.” The small art gallery has a superb collection of great names, such as one of the world’s best-known street artists, Banksy, and Paris’ very own Invader. While downstairs on the houseboat, temporary exhibits take up the hull.
There is also a great little bookstore. Upstairs, you will find a café bar where you can sit and watch not only the rather stunning surroundings, but also all the busy bateaux mouches, or “fly boats,” cruising past.
Pro Tip: The gallery is free to enter and open every day, from midday to midnight.
One of my absolute favorite museums in Paris, yet one that many people don’t even know exists, is the Musée Jaquemart-André. Located on Boulevard Haussmann of department store fame, but further along, it is in line with the lovely Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement. A former private mansion (and what a home this was!), it is a stunning venue where the decor, architecture, and style go hand-in-hand with the superb ever-changing exhibitions. Do check what’s on before you come, and book ahead.
Pro Tip: Have coffee and a cake (I recommend the lemon meringue tart) in the in-house café afterward. It is a beautiful place completely hidden away.
Walk along Rue de Rivoli, with its lovely shops between the Louvre and the Hotel de Ville. Here, you’ll spot a strange building on your right. Number 59 Rivoli was once a squat, where artists lived in squalor, occupying this prime-location building. The city legalized the “occupation” in 2006, and since then, the building has been turned into an art gallery, studio space, and residence. Inside and out, this is a must-see for everyone interested in contemporary art. It also features a very photogenic stairwell.
A stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou, this makes for an ideal “artsy” day around the area.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the nearby Musée en Herbe, which is officially a children’s art museum, but often has exhibitions that are just as interesting for adults.
The City of Lights is just waiting to be explored:
A travel writer and guidebook author for the last 20 years, Ulrike’s work has been seen in National Geographic, BBC, The Independent, Australian Women’s Weekly, The Telegraph, The Australian, Fodor’s, France Today, CNN Travel, Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, CNTraveler, numerous inflight magazines, and many others.
She has written three books for Moon Travel Guides: ‘Living Abroad in Australia’ (3rd edition), ‘Sydney & the Great Barrier Reef’, and the shorter version ‘Spotlight Sydney’ and are all available in print and as e-books.
Having lived in seven countries (Germany, UK, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Australia, and France) to date and traveled to more than 90, she specializes in writing about travel, art and architecture, expat living, and life and style.