Although some people argue that Paris has been trumped by New York or Berlin in the realm of artistic vibrancy, it's still a place where the arts are revered and new talent is rigorously spotlighted, and the finest art museums in Paris generally strive to both preserve artistic legacy and expose the public to exciting contemporary creators. Housing some of the globe's most important and rich collections, these museums are outstanding for their breadth, accessibility to all and historic importance.
If you're especially interested in contemporary arts, be sure to also see our complete guide to the best modern and contemporary art museums in Paris. Also note that several of the museums are included on the Paris Museum pass, so it may be worth purchasing (Buy Direct at Rail Europe).
To learn the Louvre in and out, you might need a lifetime. Still, one has to start somewhere. The site of the world's largest and most diverse collection of pre-20th century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, The Louvre is generally considered Paris' most important museum. Not forgetting the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, bask in the works of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and countless others. The palace itself is testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present. The adjacent Tuileries gardens are perfect for a stroll pre-or post-visit.
Inaugurated in 1977 as part of the the bold postmodern venture that marked the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou, the National Museum of Modern Art (MNAM) houses one of the world's most prestigious collections of 20th-century art.
Hosting nearly 50,000 works of painting, sculpture, architecture, and other media, the permanent collection at the National Museum of Modern Art is freshly curated every year to reflect new acquisitions. Two floors cover major 20th-century movements, from Cubism to Surrealism and Pop Art. The temporary collections are nearly always worth a visit, too.
Walk over the bridge from the Louvre to the Musée d'Orsay-- and see the bridge between classical and modern art. Housing the world's most important collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting, the Musée d'Orsay's light, airy rooms whir you through three floors of modern wonders, from Degas' ethereal dancers to Monet's water lilies, all the way to Gaugin's leafy jungles. Major works by Van Gogh, Delacroix, Manet, and others await you, too.
The completely-renovated Petit Palais, situated near the prestigious Champs-Elysées, houses 1300 works from the antiquity through the early 20th century, featuring masterpieces by Courbet, Cezanne, Monet, and Delacroix. Admission to the permanent collection is free for all, while temporary collections are free for visitors under the age of 13.
Contemporary art buffs are behooved to pay a visit to the city of Paris' museum of modern art, created in 1961 and housed in the distinctive Palais de Tokyo, itself opened during the 1937 Universal Exposition. Featuring over 8,000 works spanning all major trends in 20th and 21st century arts, the Museum of Modern Art of Paris hosts a constant stream of exciting temporary exhibits, more recently exploring the works of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and American artist Elaine Sturtevant. The terrace outside the palace affords a striking and head-on view of the Eiffel Tower.
This museum dedicated to the medieval period-- exploring both art and daily life in the "Moyen Age"-- is one of the city's best, but is often overlooked. Housed in the striking Hotel de Cluny, a late 15th century Abbey, the museum is built above Gallo-Roman thermal baths built between the 1st and 3rd centuries-- parts of which can be visited. The permanent collection's "crown jewel" is a 15th century tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, much revered for its sumptuous colors and enigmatic allegorical symbolism. The grounds also include a garden meant to mimic medieval aromatic and medicinal gardens, providing a pleasant place to read or slowly stroll.
This museum consecrated to French sculptor Auguste Rodin is one of Paris' finest, and offers a multifaceted look at Rodin's complex body of work, in addition to works from his brilliant student Camille Claudel, among others. In addition to iconic works such "The Thinker", the museum hosts an extensive sculpture garden that's a true pleasure to stoll, or think (as it were) in.
See More: Musée Rodin Visitor's Guide
Anyone wishing to understand Paris' multi-tiered, complex history would do well to pay a visit to the Carnavalet Museum. Housed within the walls of two Renaissance-era mansions, the Hotel de Carnavalet and the Hotel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (built in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively), the Carnavalet Museum's permanent collection traces the history of Paris across over 100 rooms. This exhibit is free of charge to all visitors, and arguably tops the list of Paris' free museums. The museum also hosts a series of temporary exhibits highlighting various periods or aspects of the Parisian heritage.
See more about the Carnavalet in this video about the Marais neighborhood in Paris.
Situated on the stately grounds of the Luxembourg Gardens, this museum is one of Europe's oldest, and was opened in 1750 as France's first state-run collection of paintings. It hosts a a small number of temporary exhibits per year, but these are almost always highly anticipated and popular with the general public. Exhibits in recent years have focused on artists including Modigliani and Vlaminck.
This is another lesser-known gem in the Paris arts scene that focuses on masterpieces in 18th century painting. Housed in a 19th century private mansion, the Jacquemart-Andre museum was founded by art collector Edouard André and focuses on works from French painters including Jean Marc Nattier, Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Fragonard or Jacques-Louis David.