The hidden gem museums of Paris

The City of Light. The City of Love. The City of Museums? Why not. With the Louvre’s 30,000 paintings and the Musée d’Orsay’s thousands-strong art collection, it’s easy to forget that there are other museums in the City of Light. In fact, almost 200 museums-both plus-sized and petite, illustrious and obscure-are sprinkled throughout the French capital, featuring everything from Picasso to Edith Piaf, submarines to sewers, eyeglasses to medical implements.

I spent a few months in Paris and, after I grew tired of dealing with the crowds at the popular museums, I sought out the lesser-known spots, the hidden gem museums of Paris. What gems did I find? I’ve included them below, plus asked a few Paris-loving friends to chime in.

Rachel Kaplan, author of Little Known Museums in and Around Paris and owner of the Paris-based tour guide company, French Links, is enamoured with the Jacquemart-André. This small museum was founded by the wealthy Edouard Andre and his wife, painter Nélie Jacquemart who would travel annually to Italy on art-amassing trips. By the late-19th century, they had the best collection of Italian art in France, including works by Donatello, Bottecelli, Tieopolo, and Perugino. In Kaplan’s words, it’s “the only museum where you can have Sunday brunch under a Tiepolo ceiling after visiting the greatest number of Italian Quatrocentro masterpieces outside the Louvre.”

Another gem of a museum where you can also eat well is the Baccarat Museum, which Kaplan says “manages to combine the Surrealism of Philippe Starck with the beauty of Baccarat crystal and also boasts one of the finest restaurants in Paris.” The former home of Marie-Laure, Viscountes of Naoilles, the Phillipe Starck-designed space on the Place des Etats Unis is the perfect venue for the near-priceless glassware on display, including a candelabra that once belonged to Tsar Nicholas II and an ornate chandelier plunged into water. The piece de resistance, however, is in-house eatery, the Baccarat Cristal Room where, as you’d expect, diners nibble on haute French fare in a crystal-laden ambience.

If all this clean glassware has you yearning for something murkier, then head to the sewers. The Musée des Égouts de Paris, or the Paris Sewers Museum is a subterranean tour taking visitors through the bowels of the city in more ways than one. But you don’t necessarily need a proclivity for ancient plumbing to appreciate these former sludge-strewn pipelines. Located under the Quai D’Orsay (next to the Musée d’Orsay), the one-hour tour includes a film and educational and interesting displays on how the 19th-century sewers functioned. So, plug your nose (yes, it’s a tad aromatic) and take the plunge.

The Musée Dupuytren exhibits artifacts of a different sort of unsavory nature: anatomical oddities. Founded by famed 19th-century surgeon, Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, this “freak show” boasts deformed skeletons, jarred mongoloid infants, displayed brains, and formaldehyde-preserved conjoined animals. Truly hidden behind an unmarked wooden door on the Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine, the museum is only open in the afternoon on weekdays, after lunch.

For historical artefacts that you can stomach, be sure to stop by the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais, one of Paris’ most charming neighborhoods. Crammed into two adjoining Renaissance-era mansions, the Carnavalet is dedicated to the history of Paris, starting with the Gallo-Roman period through the Middle Ages and up to the 19th century. Edmund White, who penned several books while living in the neighborhood, including The Flaneur: a Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, says this is one of his favorite museums in the city. “There’s so much memorabilia of the history of Paris, everything from the crib of Napoleon III’s son to Proust’s bedroom intact, with its shabby furniture, the pile of notebooks that were next to his bed, the heavy awkward furniture his parents had bought.” This mishmash of historical objects also include the final letter French Revolutionary leader Robispiere ever wrote and an ancient recipe for frog leg soup.

Now that there’s a smoking ban in the City of Light, perhaps this museum is more apropos than ever: Musée du Fumeur. The Museum of Smoking is less kitschy and more interesting than you might think. Located in the 11th arrondissement, this diminutive museum boasts ancient toking instruments (including antique hookahs and 18th-century carved wooden pipes), illustrations and placards on the history of “lighting up,” and an intriguing picture gallery of famous smokers. If you’re suddenly inspired to light up, the gift shop sells plenty of smoking-related paraphernalia, including bongs. But before you get any wise ideas, it’s good to know there’s a police station next door.

If drinking is more your vice, put the Musée du Vin on your agenda. Located near the Eiffel Tower, the Wine Museum is part of a 15th-century stone query and displays historic viticulture artifacts. The museum’s frequent wine tasting events and two-hour wine-education classes in English help make this bibulous trip through wine making history a more sensory experience. Temporary exhibitions focus on history of vino producing such as the wine of ancient Egypt. The restaurant, housed in a medieval cellar, serves up classic French fare with, you guessed it, wine.

Model-turned-novelist Paulina Porizkova had a childhood dream of being locked in a museum over night. And, if she had to get shuttered in one, she’d most certainly choose the Nissim de Camondo, a mansion loaded with 18th-century decorative arts like fragile needlepoint chairs, paintings, and antiques. The Belle Époque-style kitchen is big enough to feed an army of aristocrats. “I’ve always loved visiting period houses that have been turned into museums; it’s like taking a time machine,” says Porizkova, a former Paris resident whose underrated novel A Model Summer takes place in the French capital. “I loved going to the Nissim and imagining myself living there.” Porizkova even liked the museum so much she had a smaller-version of the Nissim kitchen built for her New York townhouse.

The Musée de l’Orangerie may not have all the art of the nearby Louvre, but it has something you’ll never find at Paris’ largest art museum: rooms loaded with Impressionist and post-Impressionist works-from Monet to Matisse to Cézanne to Picasso-that you can have all to yourself. Or at least you’ll share them with far fewer art gawkers than you would elsewhere. The airy glass and stone building, formerly an orangery, is located between the Place du Concord and the banks of the Seine.

Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Louise Jay, may have become rich after founding La Samaritaine, the famed department store on the banks of the Siene, but their real legacy lies in the Musée Cognacq-Jay, their private art collection housed in the 16th-century Hotel Denon in the Marais. Go for the paintings by Boucher, Canaletto, Fragonard, and Tiepolo, but linger for the city’s best collection of 18th century decorative art, including Dresden China and elaborately carved snuffboxes.

After the popularity of the film Le Vie en Rose, interest in French singer Edith Piaf has never been greater. The eponymous two-room museum might not be the easiest place to find-it’s housed in on the fourth floor of a non-elevator apartment building in the Belleville neighborhood-but fans of the singer won’t regret the trek. Longtime Piaf friend, Bernard Marchois, runs the place and has crammed the two-rooms with many of Piaf’s possessions, including clothes, gold records, photos, and even a life-sized teddy bear. Admission is free, but visitors have to call ahead to get a security code.