French Museums – 12 of the most extraordinary

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In some ways, France is a living museum. It is home to over 40,000 Châteaux, the birthplace of leading artists and composers, rich in well-preserved cultural sites dating back through the ages to prehistory. Unsurprisingly, there are many world-class museums French museums.  

With so many museums in France, it is nearly impossible to shortlist the best. From quirky specialty museums to the world’s largest, the Louvre, it would take a lifetime to visit them all. 

But this list aims to identify 12 of the most captivating and unique French museums.   

Not the biggest, not the most well-known. A diverse list of outstanding French museums from across the country. Each one offering a fascinating insight into French culture.

Musée d’Orsay (Paris)

The Louvre may be the biggest and best-known of French museums. But the Musée d’Orsay is, arguably, the most interesting.

What sets this apart from other French museums is a stunning location on the Left Bank of the Seine, with commanding views over Paris, and an outstanding art collection.

Housed in the magnificent Gare d’Orsay, this former railway station was completed in 1900 and transformed into a museum in 1986.  

It boasts one of the most important art collections in the world, including an extensive display of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces.

Works from all the leading French impressionists are on display – Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, amongst others – alongside a select number of masterpieces from acclaimed European artists, such as Van Gogh and Mondrian.

It counts famous works like Bal du Moulin de la Galette (Renoir) and an iconic self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh amongst its collection.

The museum also specializes in sculptural works, including creations by Auguste Rodin and Paul Gaugin.

One of the best French museums for: discovering the best of French impressionism and exploring a visually stunning museum in a historic part of Paris.

Musée Escoffier de l’Art Culinaire (Villeneuve-Loubet – Côte d’Azur)

As well as Impressionism, France is also the home of fine dining. Nobody personifies haute cuisine more than Georges Auguste Escoffier, le roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois (king of chefs and chef of kings).

Off the beaten track in the French Riviera, this little gem is worth making a detour to. Billing itself as the only museum of culinary art in France, you can walk in the footsteps of a French legend in the house he grew up in.

Visitors who make the journey are rewarded with a Peach Melba, an Escoffier creation.

Unassuming but delightfully rich – much like the sauces Escoffier famously perfected – this is one of the most unique museums in France.

A great museum for: learning about a culinary legend that helped put French cooking on the map.

Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux (Wine and Trade museum of Bordeaux)

Escoffier may have set the bar for French cuisine, but Bordeaux arguably sets the bar for another gastronomic experience that France excels at, wine.

Vineyards and chateaus across France will teach you about viticulture, but this is one of the only French museums that takes you deep into the world of winemaking.

It is a full-bodied exhibition housed in a building of distinctive character. The tour takes in vaulted cellars dating back to 1720 and the entirety of the winemaking process, from cooperage to production to classification.

Of course, there is wine to be sampled. The guided and self-guided tours end with a professional wine tasting, distilling the entire process into a few well-chosen glasses.

There are many things to do in Bordeaux. And this is consistently ranked one of the best.

The perfect French museum for: wine lovers looking to understand the history of winemaking at the heart of one of France’s leading wine-producing regions.

Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon (Dijon)

This entry fits the bill of a classic museum with a world-class art collection. And it is not in Paris.

As the name indicates, this French museum is filled with fine arts. From Renaissance oil paintings to modern creations, it is home to the once-flourishing art collection of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Situated in the former ducal palace, this impressive building has been a museum since before the revolution (opened to the public in 1787).

Today, the original collection has been greatly expanded: featuring Egyptian antiquities, Roman art from Switzerland and Germany, modernist paintings, and a series of ever-changing expositions, there is much to take in.

Best of all, this museum is free. One for the itinerary if you find yourself in the Burgundy region.

One of the leading French museums for: art-lovers and tourists looking to save a few Euros while exploring one of the oldest, most important museums in France.

Musée Troglo, Rochemenier Village Troglodytique (Louresse-Rochemenier, Maine-et-Loire)

French museums are often housed in remarkable buildings. But none as distinctive as this elaborate system of cave and cliffside dwellings.

Underground living is an unusual way of life, nowadays appealing only to diehard eccentrics. Yet this site is home to the oldest troglodyte commune in France, dating back to the 5th Century. Today it is a tourist destination close to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Loire Valley.

Admittedly, this destination stretches the categorization of a museum. It is more a site of historical interest. But there is much to see and learn here. It is great fun for kids and big kids alike.

Bigger than many visitors expect, there is plenty to explore – from underground farming (mushrooms and snails were often on the menu) to interactive exhibits.

There are plenty of family-oriented destinations in the area if you plan on visiting with children, including an award-winning zoo (Bioparc de Doué-la-Fontaine). But in a region teeming with tourist spots, many visitors will pick this out as their highlight in the locale.

A great day out: for families looking for something completely different, showcasing an almost forgotten way of life.

Musée des Blindés (Saumur, Maine-et-Loire)

Should you visit the Musée Troglo, it might be worth visiting another standout amongst French museums just down the road in Saumur.

Saumur is a pretty town sitting on the banks of La Loire. Site of the National Riding School, the striking Château de Saumur, and this armored museum that is considered one of the best in Europe.

It is a museum filled with tanks and deactivated military hardware. But mainly tanks.

Unlike many French museums, this is an ordinary warehouse that puts the exhibits front and center. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring military hardware.

The sheer volume of mechanical leviathans draws visitors from across the continent. There are tanks from many countries, with a particular emphasis on combat vehicles of World War Two.

Online reviews attest to how uniformly impressed visitors are. It is worth skipping one of the many vineyards and chateaus of the Loire Valley for.

Amongst the best French museums for: anyone with a passing interest in military history. Fun for children, eye-opening for adults.

Overlord Museum – Omaha Beach (Colleville-sur-Mer, Calvados, Normandy)

Many sites in France, understandably, explore the tragedy of war. The Overlord museum concentrates on the events after 6th June 1944 and the start of D-day (Operation Overlord).

The Overlord Museum is at Omaha Beach, one of five landing grounds for Allied forces.

It is a well-visited destination for veterans and their descendants. Respectfully chronicling the sacrifices made of the campaign to liberate France and western Europe, it is also a highly educative military museum.

There are museums and somber war memorials across Normandy and France, but none document the events of D-Day in such depth.

One of the most memorable French museums because: D-day is an event remembered by many nations – this museum keeps the memory vividly alive for future generations. 

Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux (Bayeux, Normandy)

Normandy is known around the world for D-day. But the region is also home to a museum that remembers a much smaller conflict. One that had a profound impact upon English history.

The Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux does not exist to commemorate the events of 1066 – which are seared in the memories of all British schoolchildren – but to display the Bayeux tapestry to the world.

A remarkable work of embroidery, vibrantly documenting the Battle of Hastings and surrounding events, which ushered in Norman rule and changed English culture, language, and history forever.

The tapestry is the museum. Yes, there are supporting exhibitions and insights about the Normans, from their Viking roots to their fealty to French kings. But the tapestry is the star attraction.

Thought to have been created just a few years after the famous battle, it is 70 meters of intricate, colorful embroidery depicting the famous battle. It offers a unique window on the middle-ages.

A trap for quiz masters, the tapestry is actually an embroidery, according to strict classifications. But for anyone other than pedantic historians, this is an extraordinary work of art that tells an extraordinary story.

Visit this French museum to: marvel at a 900-year-old artwork documenting a seismic event in European history.

Musee Nissim de Camondo (Paris)

The difficulty with drawing up any list of the most extraordinary French museums is trying to avoid the planetary pull of Paris. Many of the most noteworthy French museums are found in the capital.

But even amongst the great museums of Paris, there are plenty of lesser-known gems that can surprise and wow visitors. La Musee Nissim de Camondo is one.

Known by its acronym MAD, or Musée des Arts Décoratifs, it is home to an exceptional private art catalog.

An exemplar of luxury, the house was built by a wealthy banker, Count Moïse de Camondo, to house a vast collection of 18th-century art and furniture. Bequeathed to a non-profit museum in 1935, Les Arts Décoratifs, the house – and its collection – has been preserved in situ ever since.

With immaculately preserved objets d’art around every corner, it is a sumptuous treat for the senses.  

It featured in the Netflix smash Lupin, as the lavish home of the fictional Pellegrini family.

Sadly, the family that once lived there was struck by tragedy during both world wars. Today, the museum remains a testament to the family. And monument of La Belle Époque opulence, before the cataclysmic events after 1914.

One of the best French museums to: see an idiosyncratic collection of art in a private Belle Époque home of unimaginable opulence.

Musée national de la RenaissanceNational Museum of the Renaissance (Écouen, near Paris)

Art museums in France are like pâtisseries – found all over the country, many of them world-class.

Museums like Musee Jacquemart-Andreand Musee de Cluny appear on many lists of the best French museums. But no period in history influenced art as much as the Renaissance period, which leads to our next entry.

The Musée national de la Renaissance is an almost forgotten treasure in the pantheon of leading French museums.

This fine museum can be overlooked because it is situated in the sleepy town of Écouen – just far enough from the center of Paris to discourage visitors. But the château that houses the museum is worth the trip alone.

Within the Renaissance chateau – modeled on the impressive royal Château de Chambord – are numerous artworks from the 1400-1500s.

A wide-ranging collection featuring sculptures, tapestries, stained glass, ceramics, furniture, and, of course, paintings. Amongst this vast collection sits scientific instruments and clocks from the Renaissance period, as well as armor and jewelry. Truly something for every interest.

One of the French museums worth making a journey to: get away from the bustle of Paris for the day and soak up the art and history of the Renaissance.

Institut & Musee Lumière (Lyon)

Art has gone through many evolutions since the Renaissance. Yet no modern artform influences global culture quite like cinema.

The Lumière brothers are central to the history of modern cinema.

Building on their passion for nascent photographic techniques, they gave the world the first truly mobile motion-picture camera, the Cinématographe. This invention, which perfected earlier cameras – like Edison’s kinetograph – birthed modern cinematography.

A compact yet absorbing museum, it pays tribute to a golden age of photographic discovery and the history of early cinema – a worthy detour for visitors to the culturally rich city of Lyon. 

One of the most interesting French museums for: cinephiles and anyone interested in learning about the birth of modern cinema.

Musée Christian Dior (Granville, Normandy)

This list spotlights some of the most curious and captivating French museums. Museums that shine a light on French culture. In that spirit, we round out the list with a museum that celebrates another of France’s considerable contributions to world culture: fashion.

This museum recognizes an international fashion icon and leading light of haute couture.

The museum is in Christian Dior’s enchanting childhood home overlooking the sea, just outside the picturesque town of Granville. A town popular with tourists who do not mind a little wind and rain on their holidays, the Musée Christian Dior is one of its chief attractions.

Fashion lovers and curious sightseers go to see some of Dior’s finest creations. The main draw is the wardrobe of Grace Kelly – a Hollywood star turned Princess.

A destination of peculiar interest, this museum intimately portrays a luminary who helped cement France’s place at the pinnacle of high fashion.  

Visit this museum: if you love fashion or fancy exploring the charming Belle Époque home of a household name.

Final thoughts

A shortlist of French museums will exclude many worthy contenders. Apologies to a personal favorite, the ever-endearing Vendée Miniature Museum.    

But hopefully, this handpicked selection from the most extraordinary French museums has spotlighted some of the best. And hopefully, it will help you filter through the overwhelming number of great museums in France. 

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