There are so many great museums in Paris that the challenge is to decide which are the must-see’s, and the larger museums are so expansive that a savvy tourist will have a game plan for each.
Between them, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and Les Invalides are home to historic art dating from the ancient Greeks into the early twentieth century.
These monumental buildings and the artifacts that they contain also document nearly 500 years of French history.
The Louvre is a jaw-dropper even without its world-class art collection.
Built as a palace fortress late in the 12th century, it has since been extended many times.
Its life as an art museum began when Louis XIV moved his court from Paris to Versailles and left much of his collection at The Louvre, which was designated a national art museum as an outcome of the French Revolution.
Only a few hundred works – including the Mona Lisa – were on display for the 1793 opening. The collection was subsequently expanded with pieces brought back from Northern Europe and the Vatican back by France’s revolutionary armies, including Veronese’s Wedding at Cana.
Additions made to the collection throughout the 1800’s by France’s emperors and kings included the Venus de Milo, Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and a department of Egyptian antiquities.
During World War II, most of the collection was hidden outside Paris, much of it at the Château de Chambord. In 1983, architect I. M. Pei was commissioned to renovate the building. He conceived the now-iconic glass pyramid and underground lobby on which work was completed in 1993.
The Mona Lisa and other works of the Italian Renaissance are the big draw here, but the crush of tourists makes the experience far from intimate. Anyone who’s previously seen works by the Italian masters in Rome’s Vatican Museum should consider browsing them quickly before opting for less-congested galleries. The collection of Dutch and Flemish masters is outstanding, and the apartments once occupied by Napoleon III are worth seeing.
The Musée d’Orsay houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world.
Constructed as the Gare d’Orsay rail station, it opened – along with the Eiffel Tower – at Paris’s 1900 Exposition, but by 1970 it had fallen into decline.
Slated for demolition, it was rescued by a proposal to convert it into an art museum that would bridge the gap between the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art – the Pompidou Centre.
Renovations began in 1978, and were completed in 1986. The installation of more than 2,000 paintings, 600 sculptures and other works took more than six months.
Les Invalides is a complex of museums and monuments first conceived by Louis XIV as a hospital and retirement home for war veterans.
The armory of Les Invalides is where, on July 14, 1789, Parisian rioters on their way to the Bastille seized the cannons and muskets from its armory.
It now commemorates the military history of France, and although it’s most famously known as Napoleon’s tomb, other French war heroes are also buried within its walls.
The body of Napoleon I was returned to France from Saint Helena and interred here in 1861. His only son, dead of tuberculosis at age 21, and his brothers Joseph and Jérôme are also buried here.
In the twentieth century World War I’s Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch and World War II’s General Philippe Leclerc, commander of the celebrated 2nd Armored Division, were also buried here.
There’s also an extensive collection of medieval armor and weapons on display here.
Next up for 10 Days In Paris: Reims and the Champagne country.
See earlier posts from 10 Days in Paris: