“Must-See” Small Museums in Paris
So you’ve been to the Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou and are wondering what else to do in Paris? Comment est-ce possible? The options are endless! Paris is packed with small museums and galleries — all quick to get through and well worth the effort. Here are a few of our favorites:
HÔTEL DE LA MARINE
2 Place de la Concorde
Ignored since the 18th century, the Hôtel de la Marine has just reopened wih an extensive $158 million restoration. Rebranded as a mini-Versailles, the Hôtel’s gilded salons and reception rooms with brocade tapestries, elaborate parquet floors, marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers are as luxurious as anything you’d see in a royal palace. The massive loggia overlooking the Place de la Concorde is now referred to as “Paris’ most beautiful balcony.”
Designed in 1758 by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, chief architect to King Louis XV, the 550-room palace served as the Crown’s furniture storage unit, the “Garde-Meuble.” It was here that the Crown Jewels (current estimated value at $3 billion!!!) were stolen during the Revolution in 1792. Less than a year later, in one of the Hôtel’s front-facing salons, Marie Antoinette’s death certificate was signed and her execution witnessed from the colonnaded terrace.
Later, the Hôtel de la Marine was the site of Napoléon and Joséphine’s lavish coronation ball in 1804. The decree that abolished slavery in France and its colonies was signed at the Hôtel in 1848. The building was a witness to history again during the German occupation of France when Hitler confiscated the property for his military headquarters. In 1944, the Nazi defeat was also celebrated from the loggia of the Hôtel de la Marine. If these walls could talk, the stories would be endless…
Since reopening, the 18th-century apartments and 19th-century reception rooms of the Hôtel have been meticulously restored. More than 1,000 people in 50 different trades, including gilders, upholsterers, goldsmiths, and carpenters were needed for the project. In some rooms up to 18 coats of paint were removed — all part of a rigorous restoration that required over four years to complete.
And, while the architecture itself is spectacular, the Hôtel de la Marine is filled with treasures. Teams from the Louvre and Château de Versailles worked to locate pieces originally held at the Garde-Meuble. Among the many precious items returned to the site are a spectacular vase-clock with dolphin handles in porcelain, a sofa made for Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené, and a 1784 cylinder desk-sideboard by Riesener used at the Élysée Palace for many years.
Particularly unique to the Hôtel de la Marine tour are high-tech headphones that work automatically — no buttons required. As you enter each room, the narration begins and fades as you exit. Termed “a theatrical voyage in time” the surround sound effects include music, background noises and other characters’ voices. Indeed, the walls ARE now talking!
Dining options at the Hôtel de la Marine include the Mimosa Restaurant, operating under chef Jean-François Piège, who worked with Alain Ducasse throughout the 1990s before establishing his own two-star Michelin restaurant. An ode to fine French regional products – the menu take inspiration from the South of France. The signature dish, Eggs Mimosa, is topped with Bottarga caviar, summer vegetables in tempura and grilled lobster.
Also on site is the more casual Café Lapérouse with two outdoor seating areas — one facing the Place de la Concorde and the other in the inner courtyard. The Café is open from breakfast to early dinner. Coming soon is a wine cellar and chocolatier designed by Cordelia de Castellane, artistic director of Maison Dior.
11 Pl. des États-Unis
After seeing all the Baccarat chandeliers and crystal at the Hôtel de la Marine, head over to the source!
Producers of some of the world’s most exquisite crystal, Baccarat is named for the small town in Lorraine where the original glassworks factory was founded. Initial production consisted of window panes, mirrors and stemware. But by 1816, the first crystal oven went into operation and over 3,000 workers were employed — a remarkable feat considering craftsmen spend 15 years to master glassblowing techniques.
In the 1900’s, Baccarat paired with another strong segment of the French luxury goods market — perfumes — to produce over 4,000 bottles a day. Several decades later, the company has continued its expansion, creating designer tableware, decorative pieces, jewelry and, most famously, chandeliers.
To illustrate the company specialty, a spectacular chandelier hangs in the entrance of the Baccarat Museum — immediately dazzling visitors. The extraordinary piece has 9,000 crystals and sets the tone for the 1,000+ jaw-dropping pieces in the exhibits. Prestigious commissions made for heads of state, royal courts and celebrities are all on display.
A small boutique is also housed within the museum. Pick up a souvenir from your visit — pretty paperweights, candelabras, glassware — or commission a table setting.
To conclude your tour, BE SURE to reserve at the Cristal Room for lunch or dinner. The tiny restaurant was designed by Philippe Stark with jewel-toned banquettes to match the brilliantly colored crystal. Chandeliers, objets d’art and a feature wall with 576 crystal tiles light up the room. Authentic Baccarat crystal adorns each setting, of course! Diners may chose from several signature Baccarat patterns to enjoy while dining — Harcourt, Mille Nuits, Vega, Mosaic, or the Crystal of Kings.
Chef Mathieu Mécheri interprets French classics with dishes such as roast duck with figs or roast chicken with chanterelles and potatoes mousseline. For dessert try a dreamy Grand Marnier soufflé or peach macaron with sorbet. Savor the moment with a few extra Champagne toasts — just be sure to clink gently!
NOTE: A mere 3 kilometers from the Musée Baccarat is the Musée Marmottan – featuring over 300 of Monet’s paintings, including one of his most significant pieces, the Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise). This monumental painting is considered to be the catalyst for the Impressionist movement.
MUSÉE DE CLUNY
28 Rue du Sommerard
Also set to reopen after an extensive upgrading, the Musée de Cluny is housed in a medieval mansion built in 1330 — making it one of the oldest buildings in Paris. From the 10th to the 12 century, the Abbots of Cluny, were some of the most powerful figures in Europe. These magnificent buildings are a reflection of their influence and wealth.
Remnants of Roman baths dating back to the 2nd century are also on the property. The baths were part of the ancient city of Lutetia, the original settlement in what is now Paris. Needless to say, the site is essential to French history and culture.
In addition to the baths, there are priceless Romanesque sculptures in wood and ivory, displays of medieval jewelry feature Visigoth crowns and gold double-crosses. Rare stained-glass windows by master artisans from the 12th and 13th centuries are exceptional treasures as well.
But the show-stopping display, even after 500 years, is La Dame à la licorne — The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. Considered THE greatest surviving artifacts from the Middle Ages, the weavings are enormous — 10 to 12 by 9 to 15.5 feet (311 to 377 by 290 to 473 cm) The colors are brilliantly fresh and vivid. The almost life-sized creatures are so animated they look as if they’ll leap from the walls.
The tapestries are also considered the best existing example of millefleurs (a thousand flowers) style, characterized by hundreds of tiny flowers woven into the tapestry backgrounds. Scholars estimate that the massive size and detail of the tapestries would have required well over a year for skilled weavers to produce. The artist, or artists, remain unknown.
It’s believed the tapestries were commissioned by Jean IV Le Viste, a powerful nobleman in the court of Charles VII, from the region of Lyon. The theme of the elaborate weavings is thought to be a meditation on earthly pleasures illustrated by the five senses. In Medieval symbolism, unicorns were associated with chastity and goodness — and only a virgin could catch the elusive creatures.
The sixth tapestry is the most controversial. Emblazened across the Lady’s tent are the words À Mon Seul Désir (My only desire) — a phrase that has baffled scholars and art historians for decades. Do the words refer to a spiritual quest, a potential husband, or perhaps a sixth sense? Is the Lady taking off and storing the necklace she is wearing in the other tapestries or about to put it on? Is she entering or leaving the tent?
The enigma is unsolvable. But the possible interpretations make the magnificent tapestries all the more enthralling. Continue pondering the various meanings in the medieval gardens within the estate walls. Flowers and plants represented in the tapestries are cultivated in the garden along with herbs used in the Middle Ages.
The Medicinal Garden is planted with sage, hyssop, wormwood; the Celestial Garden with violets and daisies; the Love Garden with thyme and carnations. Sit quietly and breath in the heady fragrances — perhaps you’ll even spot a unicorn.