Why you could skip Musée d’Orsay to visit this artist’s house-museum instead

Travel writer and cultural correspondent Lindsay Tramuta knows all about the hidden gems of Paris, where she’s been based since 2006. Here, she argues that time-pressed travelers should plan a visit to a favorite of in-the-know art lovers. 

Paris offers the chance to engage with culture past and present like no other city on earth.

By some estimates, the French capital has more than 120 museums of various sizes within its city limits. This means there’s always a new exhibit or unexplored collection to check out, whether you’re a first-time visitor or lifelong resident. But such abundance can feel overwhelming, especially for those visitors short on time.

The city’s marquee artistic temples, from the Louvre to the Centre Pompidou (called simply “Beaubourg” by Parisians), are bucket-list destinations for a reason: they house some of the world’s most exceptional, epoch-defining works of art. Yet off the beaten track, stupendous collections and thought-provoking exhibitions await throughout the city. If, that is, you know where to look.

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What to skip

After the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay was the most eye-opening artistic experience on my first trip to Paris as a teen. One of the Europe’s largest museums, the Orsay occupies a former railway station on the Rive Gauche (Left Bank), an opulent structure built for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 and which later served as a mailing center and film set. In 1986, the striking Beaux-Arts building took on its best-known role: as the home to the world’s most expansive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, sculptures and decorative objects. Works by the most famous artists from this period – from Monet and Degas to Cézanne and Van Gogh – hang in the museum’s many, many galleries.

Visitors admire and take photos of “Blue Water Lilies” by Impressionist Claude Monet in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, FranceThe Musée d’Orsay brims with Impressionist masterpieces (like Monet’s “Blue Water Lilies”) – but also with crowds © Elena Dijour / Shutterstock

While smaller in scale than the monumental Louvre just across the river, the Orsay is no less dense, with some 3000 works on display at any given time. For many, that’s an overwhelming number of pieces – and the crowds jostling for a good shot of Manet’s Olympia can also fray any visitor’s nerves. You should absolutely experience the Musée d’Orsay at least once. Yet if its size and visitor numbers discourage you, there’s another option across the Seine that offers an enticing alternative. 

What you should do instead 

Paris’ many house museums – including the Maison Victor Hugo and the Musée Nissim de Camondo – showcase art and artifacts in evocative and intimate atmospheres.

One of the best in town is the Musée National Gustave Moreau, a temple to a major Symbolist painter of the 19th century. (Moreau, whose work is represented in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, was also a teacher of Henri Matisse.) Moreau transformed his childhood home–turned–studio in the 9th arrondissement into a museum shortly before his death in 1898. The building and its contents have remained virtually unchanged since then.

Drawings and other framed artworks in the house-museum Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris FranceWorks at the Musée Moreau hang in the domestic and studio spaces where the 19th-century Symbolist artist lived and worked © Krzysztof Dydynski / Lonely Planet

Moreau’s former apartment occupies the ground floor and today serves as a space for a rotating presentation of the more than 1300 paintings, watercolors and drawings by Moreau that form the collection. Among decorative objects and furnishings, works are hung three or four high, in the 19th-century style – an effect that makes them surprisingly accessible rather than intimidating. Let a sumptuous large-format work of a mythological and religious subject like Jupiter, Salome and Prometheus draw you in – then follow the theme from canvas to canvas, detail to detail, as you take in vivid (and sometimes even lurid) depictions of gods, spirits, muses and biblical scenes.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the space (and certainly the most photographed), an unusual cast-iron spiral staircase appears to unfurl between the second- and third-floor studios, bookended by Moreau paintings. For many, it is this architectural marvel – as well as the contextualization of a lesser-known but important artist’s work in the space in which it was created – that resonate most.

Repurposed house-museums usher the visitor far deeper into the minds of their creators than the massive galleries on the Paris tourist track. And the Musée Moreau opens the door to a major creator’s compelling cabinet of curiosities. That’s something the Orsay simply can’t deliver.

A visitor looks at paintings hanging in the Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris, FranceWhile paintings at the Musée Moreau are hung in the dense 19th-century manner, the effect is surprisingly intimate rather than overwhelming © Krzysztof Dydynski / Lonely Planet

How to make it happen

Tickets to access the permanent collection cost €7 (€9 including access to the temporary exhibition) and can be booked online. The museum is closed Tuesdays, and is not accessible for those with mobility needs.


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