I won’t lie: the first time I went to Paris, seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre was a very big deal to me. For most people I suspect that’s true. Even for folks who don’t know much about art, or have no real interest in art, getting a peep at the Mona Lisa is the thing to do. It feels like an Important Thing. Like if you see it, everything in your life with suddenly and magically be very, very different.
Of course, your experience will probably be a lot like this photo. Map clutched in your hand, you’ll beeline to the room where the Mona Lisa is currently stored, and then you’ll join a crowd of jostling tourists who want to gaze beatifically upon the small, dim painting. And if you’re like 80% of Louvre visitors, afterward you’ll wander aimlessly because you don’t have a clue what else is housed at the Louvre.
Hey, no shame in it, okay? I get it–you’re on a highlights tour, and the Mona Lisa is one of the highlights. My most recent trip to Paris involved a friend’s birthday, and she only had a day in the city. We waited in line for at least an hour to see the Louvre, she spent about five minutes checking out the Mona Lisa, and then she asked me where the impressionist art was in the museum.
Her very skinny guidebook hadn’t mentioned the Musee d’Orsay or what was in it.
Guidebooks leave out a lot of things. Look, I enjoy the Louvre, but it’s not my favorite museum in Paris. If you want to get off the guidebook circuit, consider one of the following museums:
- Centre Pompidou. But I don’t like that weird, cockamamie modern art, I hear you thinking. Yeah, whatever. Sure you don’t. Are you telling me you’re completely uninterested in seeing Man Ray’s photograph Le Violon d’Ingres? Or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain? What about Louise Bourgeois’s Precious Liquids? If you can’t be swayed by these iconic works, just take the escalator to the terrace on top of the museum for the panoramic views, including the hill of Montmartre and Sacré Coeur church. And then head out of the building to the gorgeous Stravinsky fountain. Consider: it’s the third most visited attraction in Paris. Millions of people can’t be wrong. Website | €14 entrance fee | arr. 4
- Musée de la Magie. A skeleton playing a cello? Check! A collection weird wind-up toys? Absolutely! A magic show included in the price of admission? Why not. Oh, and did I mention that the museum is in the basement of the Marquee de Sade’s former house? Chock full of antique magicians’ props and old magic show posters, yeah, the museum is a bit cheesy, but you won’t be fighting crowds, and it’ll be a unique experience. Website | €10-13 entrance fee | arr. 4
- Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine. I will always want to go to a museum that houses a table that includes a design made up of human body parts. It’s a fact. No lie: the table includes petrified brains, blood, bile, liver, lungs, glands, a foot, ears, and vertebrae. Beyond that, you’ll find an array of historical medical items, from antique instruments to medical models. It makes for a creepy hour and would make a nice counterpoint to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Website | €3.50 entrance fee | arr. 6
- Musée Picasso. The museum offers a look at Picasso’s process, which is far different from other museums. Sculptures and sketches are displayed alongside more than 400 of Picasso’s finished works. The collections are separated in a variety of ways, including chronically and by subject. Even if you don’t dig Picasso, though, there’s an entire floor devoted to Picasso’s personal art collection, which includes works by Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Modigliani, Matisse, and Miró. The space itself is confusing to navigate but kind of fun. Website | €12.50 entrance fee | arr. 3
I’m not saying you shouldn’t see the Louvre. After all, it is a gorgeous museum–how can it not be, since it’s a former palace–filled with beautiful art. But do check out other museums, too, and definitely look around the Louvre beyond the Mona Lisa.