You’re a well-worn traveler by now, I’m sure. You’ve probably been to Paris a bunch of times and you could find your way to the Mona Lisa blindfolded. So next time you’re there, if you’re looking to experience something new, something original, arty and cultural, you have three options: take your own sketch pad down to the banks of the Seine, leave the city for the weekend to discover la culture Provençale, or possibly explore some lesser-known museums in the city.
Although those first two options are perfectly legitimate, here I’d like to help you to explore the third by highlighting some very worthwhile spots which don’t tend to draw such large Parisian crowds.
1. Halle Saint-Pierre – Outsider Art
This unassuming building barely 2 steps away from the hill of Montmartre looks like it might harbor an indoor market or perhaps a school; and indeed it used to be both before it got turned into an exhibition space for Art Brut et Art Singulier, (primitive and singular art, also widely known as Outsider Art). Established in 1986 by publisher Max Fourny, it shows exhibitions of naïve, folk and outsider art from all over the world, has a lovely little library worth browsing, and also hosts concerts, conferences and literary events. Amid the bustling streets of Montmartre, this little gem is often a quiet(ish) getaway, transporting you into a space of otherworldly art.
2. Musée Cernuschi – Asian Art
Near the lovely Parc Monceau, in a residential area in the north of the city, you may come across the Musée Cernuschi, the 19th century neoclassical home of the Italian founder and collector Henri Cernuschi. Inaugurated in 1898, it is one of the oldest museums in the city, and the second largest Asian art museum in France. Inside, the space is bigger than you might imagine, with around 900 Asian art objects on display. You can explore this free permanent collection in chronological order, browsing the displays which center on a period starting from the Neolithic through to the 13th century. Alternatively, you can combine this with a visit to whatever beautiful temporary exhibition happens to be on.
3. Musée Dapper – African Art
Hidden away a few streets from the Arc de Triomphe, this place strikes a contrast with its bourgeois surroundings. It’s a little 2-storey museum dedicated to African art, which shows themed exhibitions often bringing together century-old artefacts and contemporary creations. If it’s a theme you feel unfamiliar with, the museum offers individual and group tours, and there is a bookshop and auditorium where you can see plays, performances and children’s shows. The topics are often fascinating and the curation is excellent, yet this is a little-known place where on busy Paris weekends you are likely to only hear the sound of your own footsteps echoing in the galleries.
4. Institut du Monde Arabe – Islamic Art
The Louvre re-opened its Islamic art collections a few years ago, but until then, the best place in Paris to go and indulge in Islamic art was the Institut du Monde Arabe, and if you prefer to avoid queues and crowds, it still is. Housed in Jean Nouvel’s remarkable building overlooking the Seine, the place is worth visiting just for the architecture and the views. Inside, the Musée des civilizations is a historical journey through Islamic culture, whilst the contemporary art collection and temporary exhibitions (which draw the most visitors) focus on 20th century offerings from the Arab world.
5. Musée de la Chasse – Art and Nature
An alternative to the child-filled Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, to give it its full title, was conceived to remind visitors of the relationship between man and animal since antiquity, with a focus, as the name suggests, on hunting. Opened in 1967 and recently renovated, the museum is housed in a stately home in the heart of the Marais district. From ceramic objects, prints and coats of arms, to sculpture and painting, the museum displays only some of the three-thousand hunting-themed objects in the original collection alongside contemporary installation pieces. You may find it bizarre, you may find it eclectic, but I guarantee you won’t find it dull.
6. Maison Européenne de la Photo – Photography
Perhaps one of the best places in the city to see top-class photography exhibitions is the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. There are multiple floors, each often dedicated to multiple artists, or sometimes hosting one or two larger retrospectives. Don’t forget to go downstairs into the old cellars-come-exhibition spaces, take a break in the little cafe and explore the nooks and crannies of this beautiful building. There is usually a good variety of photography styles and periods on offer, so you’re likely to see something you like and perhaps discover a new and intriguing artist.
So there you have it, those are my suggestions. Paris is a big, cultural, art-loving kind of place so I’m sure there are many more spaces I haven’t thought of. I’d love to hear your opinions if you know of some good crowd-less weekend haunt!
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