The Finest Museums Outside Paris Are Wonderful Surprises

You may know the top museums in Paris that dominate any list, from the Louvre to the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou. But the rest of France offers a treasure trove of museums. Here is a list of the top 10 museums outside of France's most famous city. They are not in any significant order but are grouped geographically from north to south.

  • 01 of 10
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    ••• Pompidou-Metz Centre, Lorraine. © Pompidou-Metz Centre

    Opened in May 2010, the Pompidou-Metz Centre was the first of France’s ambitious multicultural decentralization projects. This very successful project puts on major temporary exhibitions that range from 1917, taking one year as a way to explore the cultural, political and artistic paths that emerged, to the fantastic, imaginative creations of French designers.

    Just 82 minutes by TGV from Paris and right next to the railway station, it’s possible to do the center in a day trip. But the gallery has also brought new life to Metz, making it a very pleasant place for an overnight or weekend stay.

  • 02 of 10
    ••• Bayeux Tapestry. © Bayeux Tapestry

    All French and English schoolchildren learn about the Bayeux Tapestry, but it’s not until you see it that you realize how astonishing and beautiful it is. It’s housed in the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant in an 18th-century building in the center of Bayeux.

    In 58 different scenes, it relates the events of 1066. It’s a tale of warfare and conquest, of double-dealing by the English King and of an epic battle. It covers a long period, but the main sections show William the Conqueror setting off to defeat King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066. It changed the face of English history forever.

    The Tapestry is not technically a tapestry which is woven, but a band of linen embroidered with 10 different colors during the Middle Ages. It is huge: 19.7 inches (50 cm) high and around 230 feet (70 meters) long.

    It’s been described as the world’s first comic strip, a wonderful, graphic account of the story.

  • 03 of 10
    ••• Matisse Museum, Le Cateau-Cambresis. © Mary Anne Evans

    While the Matisse Museum in Nice is the one most people know about, the northern Matisse Museum in Le Cateau Cambresis, near Cambrai, has a delightful, smaller but important collection of the art of Matisse.

    Born in Le Cateau-Cambresis in 1868, Matisse gave a certain number of his works to the town, stipulating how he wanted them arranged. The Museum is housed in the renovated, former archbishop’s Fenelon Palace, and takes you through his life from the early days in Picardy​ to his studio and the later massive sculptures of his four Backs. There’s also the published books commissioned from writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Gide, and artists from Matisse and Chagall to Picasso and Braque. Finally, it also contains the colorful, often odd ‘Monumental Objects’, relief works or furniture in Cubist style.

  • 04 of 10
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    ••• The Musee de l'Hospice Comtesse in Lille. © Robert Soberka

    On the banks of the former old port, the atmospheric Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (the Museum of the Hospice of the Countess) was established as a religious community to care for the sick and the poor in the 13th century and continued its work until 1939. Today the buildings house the museum.

    You'll walk into a beautiful courtyard, then through a series of rooms which feel like balm to the soul as centuries of caring seem to have seeped into the fabric of the building. You'll learn about the lives of the nuns as they went about their business. See the kitchens, covered in glazed cobalt blue-and-white earthenware tiles inspired by 17th- and 18th-century Dutch models; the refectory where they ate in silence, and the wards where the sick and the needy were cared for.

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  • 05 of 10
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    ••• The view from the Charles de Gaulle Memorial, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, Champagne-Ardenne. © Mary Anne Evans

    With the towering Cross of Lorraine on the hill above and the great Frenchman’s country home in the village opposite, the museum tells a very moving story about de Gaulle. In a series of spectacular spaces, the story is built around his life, so as you walk through the history of France and Europe in the mid-20th century, you see it in a very different and fascinating way.

    The memorial is divided up chronologically, taking the major series of events in de Gaulle’s life and presenting them through films, multimedia, interactive interpretations, images, and words. The only artifacts are two Citroen DS cars used by de Gaulle, one showing the bullet holes made during a ​near-fatal attempt on his life in 1962.

    The story takes you from 1890 to 1946, then 1946 to 1970. You see the man as a young soldier captured by the Germans in World War I, as a loving then grieving father, war leader in World War II, politician and family man.

  • 06 of 10

    Lace Museum, Calais, Pas de Calais

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    ••• Modern fashion using lace at the Lace Museum, Calais. © F. Kleinefenn

    The International Centre of Lace and Fashion in Calais tells not only the story of lace but also takes you through the history of fashion. Interweaving all this is the tale of an industry that began with hand weaving then was revolutionized by the invention of machines and the Industrial Revolution. It’s all very well told, with plenty of fashion, both past and present to keep the girls interested while machines fascinate boys and parents. Films explain the process from the initial design to punching cards to the uses that international fashion designers today make of the webs of this sexy, sinuous material.

     

  • 07 of 10

    La Coupole, near St. Omer, Pas de Calais

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    ••• V2 Rocket at La Coupole. © Mary Anne Evans, licensed to about.com

    La Coupole is a huge dome of concrete housing a vast network of seven kilometers of underground galleries near the north French coast just five kilometers from St. Omer in Nord Pas-de-Calais. The sinister construction was intended as a launching base for V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket attacks on London. In 1944 the Allies discovered its existence and undertook a successful and massive bombing campaign and the place was abandoned.

    Through films, interactive screens and objects, it takes you not only through the war ​but onto the subsequent Space Race and the Cold War. Again there’s a great film taking in the Soviet and the US achievement in space. It’s an extraordinary story, linking the past, present and the future.

  • 08 of 10
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    ••• La Piscine swimming pool, Roubaix, Lille. © Mary Anne Evans

    In a splendid Art Deco building in Roubaix, now a suburb of Lille, you’ll come across an impressive collection of 19th- and 20th-century art. The museum covers fine and applied art (a concept more English than French), and displays painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, and glass by both local and artists and internationally known names.

    The building, La Piscine, is equally astonishing. It was built as a swimming pool for the well-to-do and the principal bath house for the poor after Roubaix had become one of the great textile centers of France. Workers flooded into work in the factories and the mills, living in houses with no running water or electricity. La Piscine was designed by Albert Baert and built from 1927-32, then converted into a museum in 2001.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
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    ••• MuCem designed by Rudi Ricchoetti. Atout France/CØdric Helsly

    Opened in 2013, the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean is an ambitious project. It's housed in the Fort Saint-Jean that once protected the old port from the sea and a contemporary building of steel and glass on a former pier. It tells the story of the culture of the Mediterranean through different themes

    It's an important part of the regeneration of Marseille, a city that formerly was not the greatest place to visit in France. And thanks to the new high-speed train link that means you can go from London to Marseille in 6 hrs 27 minutes in one journey without changing trains, Marseille has become a short break destination from the UK. 

     

  • 10 of 10
    ••• Matisse Museum, Nice. © ville de Nice

    This is an article about not one museum, but six museums in and around Nice associated with major artists. If you’re staying on the Cote d’Azur, all these are worthy of a visit, from the charming, domestic house of Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Haut-de-Cagnes, to the superb collection of modern art housed in the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence.

    Staying in the area, you can easily see why so many artists have been drawn over the years to the clear light and luminous colors of one of France’s most beautiful coastlines.