No trip to the City of Lights is complete without wandering around one of its beloved museums. Of course, there’s no dearth of art in Paris, with the masterpiece-stuffed Louvre and Museé d’Orsay. But I’m drawn to contemporary art, which is often downplayed there and less accessible. I’ve visited Paris more than a dozen times in the past five years, and I find that these museums deliver on the promise of thought-provoking contemporary art—and are not bad spots for watching the bespectacled art worlds of Paris mingle.
Palais de Tokyo
One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Palais de Tokyo, in the Trocadéro. The 1937 building it occupies reopened in 2012 after a 10-month redux. It doesn’t have a traditional collection, but its cavernous cellar is home to an unlisted street-art gallery that you must specifically ask to see. The museum also stages excellent exhibitions, such as 2013’s History of Chanel No. 5, which filled the hall to the rafters with memorabilia from Coco Chanel.
Fondation Cartier is on Boulevard Raspail, in the 14th arrondissement, not far from Raspail’s Bio Marché. Installed in a glass house designed by Pritzker-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the Fondation’s permanent collection features works by international artists, like Thomas Demand and William Kentridge. But its exhibitions focus on some of Paris’s biggest blockbuster art events, like 2013’s showing of Ron Mueck’s giant lifelike sculptures, which had Parisians lining up around the block all weekend long.
The Centre Pompidou is no secret, and the Renzo Piano–designed museum is completely out of place in the medieval Marias, its entryway festooned with Calder and Jean Tinguely mobiles. My favorite recent exhibitions have showcased Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata’s wooden nests perched atop the building and Lucien Freud’s brooding figure paintings as part of a 2010 retrospective. The museum’s iconic external escalators aren’t just fun to ride; they offer some of the best views in Paris, and they are one of the rare spots from which you can see both Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.
Institute du Monde Arabe
Another of Jean Nouvel’s buildings is the iconic Institute du Monde Arabe, in the fifth arrondissement. It is noted for its photoelectrically sensitive apertures, which are built into the glass windows and block incoming light. Founded in 1980 by 18 Arab countries to promote the art and culture of their homelands, the institute’s flashy building tends to trump the art—especially the ninth-floor terrace, with its views of the Seine. But its roster of exhibitions has included interesting retrospectives, such as the advertising artwork of Orient Express and a collection of pre-Islamic ceramics.
Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
Architects and designers are regulars at the oft-overlooked Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris’s architecture museum. It’s literally in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, in the Trocadéro. This museum stages exciting off-the-radar shows, like 2010’s retrospective of Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx, while the fascinating collection teems with rare relics that range from salvaged Gothic arches to Le Corbusier’s scale models. From inside you’ll find some of the city’s best views of the Eiffel Tower, framed perfectly by the museum’s elegant oversize windows.
Centre PompidouPlace Georges-Pompidou; 011-33-1-44-78-12-33; centrepompidou.fr; admission $13–$15 adults, prices for exhibits vary
Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine1 Place du Trocadéro et du 11 Novembre; 011-33-1-58-51-52-00; citechaillot.fr; admission $8
Fondation Cartier261 Blvd. Raspail, 011-33-1-42-18-56-50; fondation.cartier.com; admission $6, prices for exhibits vary
Institute du Monde Arabe1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard; 011-33-1-40-51-38-38, imarabe.org; admission $9
Palais de Tokyo13 Av du Président Wilson, 011-33-1-81-97-35-88; palaisdetokyo.com; admission $12, prices for exhibits vary
- *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: February 2015