The Best Art Museums in France

If you’re after some of the world’s best art, there’s really no better place to be than France. The country is home to a wide variety of world-class museums, from stalwarts like the Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay, and the Centre Pompidou to lesser-known but equally remarkable institutions like the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours and the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Whether you want to see the famously French works of the Impressionists, paintings by Italian and Flemish masters, or more contemporary pieces by the stars of today, you’ll find them all in France.

18 Rue Antoine Bourdelle, 75015 Paris, France
The tiny Bourdelle Museum was once the atelier and home of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, whose monumental art deco masterpieces are a highlight of the Champs-Élysées Theater. The museum displays works the artist purchased for his own inspiration, as well as his own largest pieces in an airy, light-flooded hall, an open-air gallery, and a sculpture garden. In a workshop area, the process of casting bronze sculptures is demonstrated. A tiny rose garden with lounge chairs provides a welcoming oasis to neighbors and visitors. This is the ideal museum for giving young children a first taste of fine art and for those who like art in small doses.
Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris, France
The Centre Pompidou, France‘s national museum of modern art, led the way for steel-and-glass buildings in the 1970s. Now the museum leads the way in modern art with its extraordinary collection, currently the world’s second largest. Masterpieces include Pablo Picasso’s Parade and—one of my favorites—Tamara de Lempicka’s Young Girl in Green. Go for the museum, but check out the public library and the view of Paris that becomes more and more impressive as the museum’s escalators rise from floor to floor. Spot the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Coeur (and perhaps a street entertainer or two with a gawking audience of kids) from the sprawling roof terrace.
8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116 Paris, France
With its swooping glass panels that resemble a kind of space-age ship’s sails, Frank Gehry’s design for the Louis Vuitton art collection, which opened in fall 2014, is worth the Métro ride to the far-flung 16th arrondissement. The multiple terraces let you peek through and around the panels: One side overlooks the verdant Bois de Boulogne park, while the other offers a view of the Eiffel Tower, looking miniature in the distance. The innovative exhibitions of modern and contemporary art rotate twice yearly. Outside on the ground level is a can’t-miss piece by Olafur Eliasson: a dizzying row of yellow-glass and mirrored columns that are guaranteed to fill your Instagram feed.
Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
This former royal palace is one of the largest museums in the world, and its art collection is considered one of the most comprehensive. It contains around 400,000 works, although—mercifully, perhaps—not all are on display at any one time. There are some pieces that never get taken off the walls. The Mona Lisa and her smile attract millions of visitors each year. Other must-see masterpieces include the sculptures Winged Victory of Samothrace and Michelangelo’s Rebellious Slave, and the Eugène Delacroix painting The Death of Sardanapalus. There’s no real trick to avoiding crowds at the always-packed museum. The best you can do is try to go in the off-season, early or late in the day, and on a weekday. Your chances of being alone with the Mona Lisa will still be slim to none, but you might be able to actually see that enigmatic smile behind the Plexiglas.
1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, 75007 Paris, France
Small enough to get around without being overwhelmed, the Musée d’Orsay is a favorite stop in Paris not just for its size but for its collection of Impressionist, Postimpressionist, and art nouveau art. Perfectly set in the center of the city, on the banks of the Seine, and opposite the Tuileries Gardens, the museum is housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a railway station that was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900—so the building itself could be seen as a work of art. The extraordinary collection spans art created in the period between 1848 and 1914.
13 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris, France
The largest contemporary art space in Europe is also the coolest place to be for kids of every age. Teens come in flocks, lining up for the vintage Fotomaton, exploring the experiential art exhibitions, and waiting for the opening of the YoYo nightclub. Families with young kids also enjoy the art, as well as the kiddy art classes and the fantastic brunches at Tokyo Eats.
18 Place François Sicard, 37000 Tours, France
Housed in the former archbishop’s palace, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours features one of France’s most extensive art collections, with works by everyone from Rubens, Rembrandt, and Rodin to Monet and Degas. Outside, the courtyard is dominated by a splendid cedar of Lebanon, planted in 1804, and Fritz, a stuffed elephant who was killed in 1902 after a bout of madness during a Barnum & Bailey circus parade in the streets of Tour. After you’ve seen the museum, from its Italian, French, and Flemish galleries to its modern art collection, head across the park and refuel with a coffee and pastry at Aux Délices des Beaux Arts.
5 Rue Laboureur, 84000 Avignon, France
Although Van Gogh painted his famous Wagons de Chemin de Fer while living in Arles, the painting actually hangs in the Musée Angladon in Avignon, along with a sumptuous collection of paintings and furniture inherited from visionary fashion designer Jacques Doucet. Here, in the 18th-century mansion where Doucet’s two nephews once lived, visitors can view works by top 19th- and 20th-century artists like Degas, Cézanne, Manet, Picasso, and Modigliani, as well as European and Far Eastern decorative arts from the Renaissance through the 18th century. What the collection lacks in size it more than makes up for in excellence, plus the museum often hosts temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists like David Hockney that only enhance the experience.
Place Saint-Jean de Malte, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, France
Art lovers will have to wait until at least 2121 for the opening of Aix’s Jacqueline and Pablo Picasso Museum, which will include 2,000 works from when the artist was married to his second wife. Until then, they can find Picasso on the walls of the Musée Granet, which also boasts pieces by Cézanne, Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, plus an American exhibition, a neoclassical sculpture collection, and several Pop Art works. The museum is a little tricky to find—look for the Church of St. John off Cours Mirabeau—but once you’re there, it only costs 5.50 euros (around $6) for a ticket. Admission nearly doubles during the summer season but also includes entry to the nearby modern art museum, Granet XXe.
Espl. Marcel Duchamp, 76000 Rouen, France
The jewel in Rouen’s crown, this impressive museum is home to France’s largest Impressionist collection outside of Paris. Here, you’ll find three stunning works from Monet’s famous Rouen Cathedral series, along with other highlights like a rare Caravaggio and paintings by everyone from Rubens, Vélazquez, and Fragonard to Delacroix, Modigliani, and Duchamp. After exploring the collection, stop into the small but pleasant bookstore for a souvenir, then take a stroll in the lovely park next door. Admission to the permanent collections here is free.
Rue Homme de Bois, 14600 Honfleur, France
Founded in 1868 by French painters Eugène Boudin and Louis-Alexandre Dubourg, this small museum, housed in a 19th-century chapel, pays homage to the Normandy artists who spent time in Honfleur, like Monet, Courbet, Friesz, and Boudin himself. Here, you’ll find an impressive collection of pre-Impressionist works, as well as several Boudin paintings and drawings that he bequeathed to his hometown. Also on display are more than 1,000 objects, headdresses, and pieces of furniture, providing a fascinating picture of Norman culture.
1 Parvis des Droits de l'Homme, 57020 Metz, France
The hip sister of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, this modern and contemporary art museum has become one of France’s most visited cultural venues since opening in 2010. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the 54,000-square-foot building features three rectangular galleries, which regularly host exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century art from France’s illustrious Musée National d’Art Moderne. The piece de résistance can be seen outside, however—the building’s curvy, mesh roof, composed of glue-laminated timber, was inspired by a Chinese hat that Shigeru Ban found in Paris. Take it all in while dining at the museum’s Voile Blanche restaurant or outdoor brasserie, both of which are headed by Michelin-starred chef Eric Maire.
623 Chemin des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France
With its stunning architecture and vast private collection of modern art, the Maeght Foundation is no ordinary museum. The entire estate is dedicated to art, with pieces by Marc Chagall, Eduardo Chillida, Pierre Tal-Coat, and Pierre Bonnard mixing with more contemporary works by Gérard Fromanger and Marco Del Re in the innovatively designed buildings. Outside, cicada song sets the tone and the scent of pine fills the air in the sweeping space filled with sculptures by Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, and Georges Braque. It’s hard to imagine a more enchanting place to appreciate art, as perfect for connoisseurs as for those just learning about 20th-century artists. The gift shop sells souvenirs as well as valuable lithographs.
164 Avenue des Arènes de Cimiez, 06000 Nice, France
Henri Matisse was already a successful artist in 1917 when he left Paris behind to settle in the suburbs of Nice. It was here that in 1941—too infirm to hold a brush steady—Matisse developed his cut-paper artworks. The Matisse Museum, set in an expansive and sunny park of palm trees, has a collection of works spanning every period of his career and includes more than 180 items that belonged to him, including his palette. The perfect end to a day spent at the museum is an outing to Vence. The Rosary Chapel, designed by the artist, features vivid and modern stained-glass windows, tile murals, and a distinctive blue-and-white roof.
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