Everything you want to know about this magical city, you can learn within the walls of un musée d’histoire (unless it’s how to pick up a Parisian hottie or find the perfect baguette, then you might want to wander elsewhere). These museums take you back in time with their architecture, artifacts, and overall ambiance, so be prepared to spend the day immersed in a history lesson.
Musée National Cluny
This building combines medieval architecture with 19th century architecture. It not only contains old artwork, but it also features baths and hydraulic systems that date back to the Roman age. They take care to preserve as many of Europe’s early medieval tapestries and buildings as possible. Check out a fragment of a canoe that represents all the known remains from the Celtic Parisii tribe who were the first to settle the muddy banks of the Seine and gave Paris her name.
Here you can catch a glimpse of what French life was like in the 18th century through a 20th century lens. Between 1900–1927, Ernest Cognac, founder of La Samaritaine department stores (which just reopened after 17 years shuttered!), and his wife Marie-Louise Jay had amassed a massive eighteenth century art collection. Upon Cognac’s death in 1928, he donated his collection to the city of Paris, making it available to the public. The museum has continued showcasing this collection since 1929. In 1990, the museum’s collection was moved to the Hôtel Donon, where it still resides to this day.
The Musée Carnavalet is also known as Paris’s oldest history museum and it is dedicated to the history of the City of Paris. It opened on February 25, 1880, and it showcases over 625,000 works from prehistoric times to the present day. As such, like the Musee Cluny, the building has also gone through a lengthy renovation process to make it fit for 21st century needs. The refurbishments include a café overlooking the garden, a room that provides an introduction to the museum itself, and expansions to existing areas, leaving more room to explore Parisian history. Oh, and it’s totally free!
This place dedicated itself to preserve the decorative aspect of history. In other words, you can find unique bits of decorative 18th century furniture all over this museum. Moïse de Camondo commissioned architect René Sergent to build the mansion to house the collection of furniture and royalty’s household items. The mansion itself took a few years to build between 1911 and 1914. It wasn’t open to the public until 1936.
ADDRESS: 63, rue de Monceau (8th arr.)
HOURS: Wed. — Sun. 10a‑5:30p
MÉTRO: Villiers (lines 2, 3) or Monceau (line 2)
Since its inception in 1794, the Arts et Métiers Museum showcases technical innovation at its finest. As such, it’s considered one of the oldest technical innovation museums in the world. It has over 2,400 inventions (such as watches, oven models, a large draw loom, etc.) on display after its 2000 refurbishment. Fun Facts: during the early phases of excavation, archaeologists discovered a series of sarcophagi. Also, the audio tours for this museum come in eight different languages.
ADDRESS: 60 rue Réaumur (3rd arr.)
HOURS: Tues. — Sun 10a-6p (open ’til 9p Fridays)
MÉTRO: Arts-et-Métiers (lines 3, 11) or Réaumur-Sébastopol (lines 3, 4)
If you want to visit a place where it’s nothing but music 24/7, this place might be right up your alley. On November 8, 1793, the instrumental museum was open to the public. The collections include instruments from people who had fled the country during the French Revolution. In 1995, the collections were moved to a new building, la Cité de la Musique. In 2015, the Music museum integrated itself with Paris’s philharmonic orchestra, making the instruments and other musical collections more accessible to the public. Part of that accessibility to music includes having live performances within the museum itself. Visit and find your music!
This place has a few other names, such as the Liberation Museum. As many History buffs will tell you, France was not immune from war’s destruction. It’s also dedicated to the two men who helped France navigate itself through the war; Phillipe de Hauteclocque and Jean Moulin. The latter would not live to see his country liberated, but the former never surrendered and fought alongside the allied armies to set France free from Nazi occupation. Both stories are honored and told alongside France’s 1940 exodus. As for the building itself, it was used as a command post for the head of the French forces in late August 1944. About fifty or so years later in 1994, it became a museum. In 2017, it underwent a renovation before reopening again in August 2019. While France did fall under German occupation, this museum is determined to honor the people who resisted and ensure that they never be forgotten.
ADDRESS: 4, avenue du colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (14th arr.)
HOURS: Tues. — Sun. 10a-6p
MÉTRO: Saint Jacques (line 6) or Mouton Duvernet (line 4)
This was once a royal garden dedicated to growing and using plants for medicine, which later became an area known simply as the King’s Garden. Then on June 10, 1793, the French Revolution came along and decided to combine the King’s Garden with the natural history cabinet, and the rest, as they say, is history. Here you can find about 67 million specimens to look at, some scientific researching activities, and a few more museums and gardens nearby.
ADDRESS: 57 Rue Cuvier (5th arr.)
HOURS: Wed. — Mon. 10a-6p
MÉTRO: Jussieu (lines 7, 10) or Place Monge (line 7)
Land ho, here’s your one-stop for French maritime culture with a dash of royal opulence like only all those Louis’ could. This just-recently reopened museum has everything: a trophy honoring sailing around the world in less than 80 days, paintings and models of ships, and two libraries: one dedicated to all you could learn about sailing, yachting, and other seaworthy fun and the other provides a resource for anatomy and natural sciences. The building and décor offer a taste of the sumptuousness of the Château de Versailles (without the train ride) as this used to be the storage building for extra royal furniture (Lol no wonder the starving masses revolted…). A decent view of the Eiffel Tower is the cherry on the cake. Located right in the Place de le Concorde (where Marie Antoinette and thousands of others lost their heads) this museum wasn’t open the last time you were here, so take advantage to have something to flex on your friends back home who have been to The Louvre.
ADDRESS: 17 Place du Trocadéro et du 11 Novembre (16th arr.)
Ah, l’amour, toujours amore, am I right? Well, if you’re expecting to find any cupids shooting arrows here, then no, I’m not right. However, if you’re expecting to find a time capsule of the classical Romantic movement, then you’ve come to the right place. Originally a house lived in by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer in the 18th century, it was sold to the state in 1956 and remains a museum. What can we say? We want to keep our title as City with the Most Museums on Earth.
This is one of the largest collections of military history you can find in Paris. You can see a great collection of uniforms, weapons, battle armor, drawings, and everyday objects such as helmets, bugles, notebooks, a BBC AXBT mic, and a cryptographic machine. You can also watch some short films and learn everything about the French armies from Napoleon to WWII and beyond. Located in the Invalides complex, aka that building with the shiny, real gold dome, it’s worth a visit inside and out.
ADDRESS: 129 Rue de Grenelle (7th arr.)
HOURS: Mon. — Sun. 10a-6p
MÉTRO: Varenne (line 13), Invalides (lines 8, 13) or La Tour Maubourg (line 8)
Here, we have one of the oldest vestiges of the Palais de la Cité. Once a medieval residence for royalty, perhaps it’s more well-known for being used as a prison during the French Revolution. Most famously, or rather infamously, it’s the last place Marie Antoinette stayed before her date with the guillotine. Now, I’m not sure if they’ll let you eat cake there in her memory, but you could see her memorial, which was erected near her cell in 1816.
Mysterious, central, and beautiful, Paris’ main administrative building, or town hall, also happens to house excellent free exhibits on various topics like Paris history, photography, street art, etc., in its Sain-Jean hall. Also, don’t miss its gorgeous historic library, which is also open to the public.