8 Free & Fascinating Museums in Paris
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Here's my guide to visiting the 8 best free museums in Paris. So listen up, culture vultures. I've been to many Paris museums, both large and small, in my many visits to Paris over the years. These museums have it all -- they're fantastic, free, and off the beaten path in Paris.
Most visitors to Paris are hitting the big three museums -- the Louvre, the D'Orsay, and the Pompidou Center. And let's face it, a crowded visit can be unpleasant and a bit of a buzzkill, especially at the Louvre.
But Paris is literally overflowing with small museums where you can escape the crowds and and still admire high quality fine art. You could spend a month visiting them all.
Even better, some of them are free, absolutely free. Or at least free to visit the permanent collection. So put these 8 small, almost secret, free museums on your Paris itinerary.
In a city that tends to be expensive, you can't beat free.
Best Small and Free Museums in Paris
1. Victor Hugo Museum
If you're a romantically-inclined Hugophile, your first stop in Paris should be the writer’s former pied-à-terre, the Musée Victor Hugo. It's on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée on the elegant Place des Vosges in the Marais. The esteemed Romantic period novelist Victor Hugo lived there from 1832 to 1848.
The museum is an impressionist form of academic preservation. The house is reconstituted from several of the novelist's residences and that of his mistress, Juliette Drouet. Still, it is a romantic place, like the swashbuckling and romantic author himself.
Surprisingly, it reveals that Hugo was not only a prolific writer and womanizer, but had a sub-speciality in interior design.
The museum gives visitors a sense of what Hugo's daily existence might have looked like. Thematic rooms are arranged with furniture and works of art that Hugo created or are from his personal collection.
The curators imagined the museum as a chronological journey across Hugo's tumultuous life before, during and after his political exile to the Channel Islands after the rise of Napoleon III. In the small writing room, there's a famous bust of Hugo by Auguste Rodin.
Practical Information for the Victor Hugo Museum:
Address: 6 place des Vosges 75004, Paris
Entry fee: permanent collection free, audio guide €5
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
Metro: St. Paul or Bastille
2. The Musée de la Vie Romantique aka The Museum of the
You'd almost never know it was there. And it's not easy to find.
Located down a picturesque cobblestone alley behind a wrought iron gate is a hidden museum dedicated to Romanticism, with an enchanting garden, called the Musée de la Vie Romantique. It's located at the foot of Montmartre Hill in the 9th arrondissement in the South Pigalle or SoPi neighborhood.
This beautiful atelier-museum is housed in the Hôtel Scheffer-Renan. It’s not in a touristy part of Montmartre, and that’s part of its charm. It's a hidden gem in Paris that may not be "hidden" much longer.
The museum mostly celebrates the life and work of 19th century writer George Sand, who was a bohemian, libertine, and femme fatale. The mercurial and iconoclastic Sand lived and worked here. You can almost imagine yourself in the 19th century with the home's creaking floors and curios. You may be assailed with murky recollections of high school or college literature courses.
The museum's permanent collection is divided into two main floors.
On the ground floor, you'll find Sand's memorabilia and personal artifacts, including documents, portraits, photographs, furniture, jewelry, and other objects. There's even a watercolor landscape painting by Sand. And a rather creepy voodoo-like display of a cast of Sand's arm and the hand of her piano playing lover, Frederic Chopin.
On the next floor, there are paintings from Dutch Romantic painter Ary Scheffer, who owned the house and also lived there. Scheffer spent time with Delacroix, Dickens, Gounod, Sand, Liszt, and Chopin.
The museum's reconstituted studio is meant to evoke the working and living conditions of the authors and writers. Scheffer opened his studio weekly, holding a salon-soiree every Friday evening.
Outside is a charming garden, brimming with lilacs, roses, and wisteria. Lovers of tasty delicacies will be thrilled by the garden cafe, Rose Bakery. You’ll find fresh salads, melting scones, fruit muffins, craft beers, and a wide selection of teas. It’s a lovely treat, and may be the best part of your day.
Practical information for The Musee de la Vie Romantique:
Address: 16 Rue Chaptal, 75009 Paris
Hours: Tues-Sun 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, closed Mon
Entry: permanent collection is free
3. Musee Carnavalet
The 17th century Carnavalet Museum was Paris' very first municipal museum, plopped into the center of the bustling Marais neighborhood. It's been listed as a Monument Historique since the mid 1800s. And it's fabulous.
The very special museum fills two adjacent mansions, the Hôtel Le Peletier de St-Fargeau and the Hôtel Carnavalet. One of Paris' most famous and colorful citizens, Madame de Sevigne, who wrote salacious letters to her daughter, once lived in the Hotel Carnavalet.
The museum documents Paris' compelling history in an eclectic and eccentric way. Its hodgepodge collection comprises over 600,000 artifacts, making it one of France’s most important museums.
The museum has medieval and Gallo-Roman archeological collections, mementos of the French Revolution, paintings, sculptures, furniture, and other items of art.
It's also filled with fun everyday objects and historical curiosities -- Rousseau’s inkwell, Voltaire's chair, a scale model of the guillotine made of bones, keys to the Bastille, a ring containing Marie Antoinette's hair and a pair of her shoes, and Napoleon's toiletries
In 2016, the museum was closed for extensive architectural renovation. The gussied up museum will have a new reception area, contemporary staircases, and updated facilities. It'll also have more signage, helping you to re-live the story of Paris. The museum opens at the end of 2019.
Practical Information for the Musee Carnavalet:
Address: 16 Rue des Francs Bourgeois, 75003 Paris
Hours: Closed for renovation. Officially reopens on Dec. 31, 2019. Hours daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry: permanent collection is free
Metro: Saint-Paul or Chemin Vert
4. Musee d'art Moderne de la Ville
The Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (or "MAM" as it is known) is a must see nerve center for modern art in Paris. And it's a hidden gem, well off the typical tourist circuit in Paris.
In a prime location in the eastern wing of the Tokyo Palace, MAM overlooks the Seine and the Eiffel Tour. It was inaugurated in 1961 and has over 10,000 works of art from the 20th and 21st centuries. The museum has high ceilings, open spaces, and is filled with colorful eye-catching art.
The permanent collection is free to the public and and showcases major artistic movements, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Orphism. There are works by Picasso, Derain, Chagall, Modigliani, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
Once you walk through the ornate bronze doors, you'll find no queue and no crowd -- a welcome relief if you've just been to the Louvre or the D'Orsay.
The Electricity Fairy is the pièce de résistance of MAM.
It's a monumental work, 10 x 60 meters and the world's largest painting, which makes it impervious to theft. It was commissioned for the curving walls of the Pavilion de L'Electricite et de la Lumiere at the Exposition Internationale de Paris in 1937. It has 250 painted panels covering an entire room of the museum. It's simply stunning to behold.
Be sure to check out Salle Matisse was well, where you can see two versions of Matisee's La Danse.
MAM was also the scene of a dramatic one man "Spiderman" art theft that has been described as the "heist of the century." On a chilly spring day in 2010, in the dead of night, Vjeran Tomic cut a padlock, smashed a ground floor window, and snuck into MAM unhindered. The paintings, which included a Matisee, Picasso, Modigiliani, Léger, and Braque, are still missing.
Practical Information for the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris:
Address: 12-14 avenue de New York - 75116 Paris (entrance until fall 2019)
Entry fee: permanent collection is free
Hours: Tues to Sun from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, open Thurs until 10:00 pm
Metro: ligne 9 : Alma-Marceau or Iéna
5. Petit Palais: Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris
Why does no one stop in here? The place is always empty. It's inexplicable.
The Petit Palais is an architectural gem located on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, The newly renovated museum's collection is free, absolutely free, and a joy to take in.
Like its sister palace the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais was built for Paris’ 1900 World Fair. It became a museum in 1902. Designed in the beaux-arts style by famous architect Charles Girault, it's a charming small museum that's easy to cover in an hour or so.
It has French paintings, sculpture, and artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its collection includes artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Fragonard, Delacroix, Paul Cézanne, Courbot, Corot, Monet, Rodin, Sisley, Pissarro and many others. There’s also a section dedicated to Roman and Greek art.
If you want to avoid queues at the Louvre, come here and see art of a similar
scope and quality. And enjoy its lovely indoor garden.
Practical Information for the Petit Palais:
Address: Avenue Winston Churchill, 8th arrondissement
Entry fee: permanent collection is free
Hours: Open Tues to Sun, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Mondays and bank holidays.
Metro: Champs-Elysées Clémenceau
6. Maison de Balzac
In the 16th arriondissement, close to the magnificent Rue Berton, lies the Maison de Balzac. Like the Victor Hugo Museum, it offers an immersion into the daily life of one of France's greatest writers, Honoré de Balzac. Toiling away in his writing study, Balzac edited the entire Human Comedy and wrote some of other his masterpieces.
Fleeing creditors, Balzac moved into the house on 1840 under the name of his mistress. The furniture is mostly gone due to subsequent moves, but it is still evocative and packed with interesting momentos. You'll find Balzac's famous cane, paintings, engravings, illustrations, and documents about his loved ones. And you will see his fabulous carved writing desk and chair, about which Balzac said:
I have possessed her for ten years, she saw all my miseries, wiped away all my tears, knew all my plans, heard all my thoughts. My arm has almost worn it by walking around when I write.
Of Balzac's 11 different Paris residences, this is the only surviving one. Be sure to peek through the windows. There are commanding views of the Eiffel Tower.
While you're in the 16th arrondissement, I highly recommend a visit to the Marmottan Museum. It's not free, but it contains some of Claude Monet's most remarkable water lilies. For culture vultures, it's an unmissable Paris site.
Practical Information for the Maison de Balzac:
Address: 47 rue de Raynouard - 75016 Paris
Hours: The museum is currently closed until the summer of 2019, but the library is open. Normal hours are Tues-Sun 10:00 to 6:00 pm, closed Tuesday
Entry: permanent collection is free
7. Musée du Parfum - Fragonard
Nestled in the heart of Paris, a half block from the Opéra Garnier, is the unique Fragonard Musée du Parfum.
The museum opened in 2015 and is housed in a romantic, ornate 19th century townhouse. The house was built by Joseph Lesoufaché, a student of Garnier, for whom the nearby Opera Garnier was named. The decor is alluring with painted ceilings, stucco decoration, old fireplaces, and chandeliers.
Fragonard is a French perfume company founded by Eugène Fuchsin in 1926. The company makes and sells its products only in France. The historic location is full of the spirit and character that Fragonard wanted to preserve. The name Fragonard was given to the perfume house in honor of Rococo society painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
The museum offers a magical look at the secrets and history of the perfume trade. It has a magnificent collection of precious objects tracing the history of perfume from antiquity to the present day.
Visitors will find a cabinet of curiosities, including ancient artifacts, perfume "organs," scent boxes, bottles in blown glass that look like beautiful jewels, and potpourri used at the court of the Louis XIV. You'll learn that the Iris is the most expensive flower to make perfume from and that light, heat and air are the enemy of perfume.
The museum offers a free small group guided tour in English. It is really quite a wonderful intimate experience, lasting about 30 minutes. And, after discovering the history of the precious elixirs, you can test your nose with an olfactory game available free of charge at the end of the tour.
This is a unique olfactory journey in Paris!
Pratical Information for the Musée du Parfum - Fragonard:
Address: 3-5 square Louis Jouvet, 75009
Hours: open Mon to Sat from 9 am to 6 am, Sun & holidays, 9 am to 5 pm
Metro: Opera (Line 3, Line 7, Line 8), Chausée d’Antin La Fayette (Line 7, Line 9), Auber on RER line A (Red)
Pro tip: The entrance to the museum is at the back of the building. The shop is in front.
8. Musée Curie
The Curie Museum celebrates the life of scientist Marie Curie. It's located near the Pantheon in the leafy green streets of the 5th arrondissement.
Curie's life is a fascinating tale. As a young woman, she fled from Warsaw to Kraków for her own safety. She moved to France in 1891. Her husband died in a freak car accident in 1906, leaving her a single mother with two young children. As she said,
Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.
Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. And she's the only person in history to have won a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields, physics and chemistry, in 1903 and 1911. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.
The permanent exhibition of her eponymous museum traces the history of radioactivity and its medical applications, along with the lives and works of Curie, her husband Pierre, and their children, Irene and Frederi.
They've been dubbed "the family of 5 Nobel prizes." There is also a chemistry laboratory that houses laboratory notes and scientific instruments form the 1930.
I especially loved Curie's small office where she spent most of her time. The room faces a lovely and peaceful garden, very dear to Marie Curie, that you can also visit.