Boasting an unusual number of world-class museums — from the Louvre to the Palais de Tokyo — Paris is celebrated worldwide for its fine art collections. But in some cases, the masterpieces that await inside aren't the only draw cards for visitors. These 5 Parisian museums are also noteworthy for the buildings that house them: magnificent structures whose unusual or elaborate architecture make them works of art in their own right. Often designed by renowned architects, they add beauty and complexity to the city's landscape, and frequently frame the museum's collections in interesting and appropriate ways. Read on to find out where to take in breathtaking architecture as you simultaneously explore some of the French capital's best museums.
Centre Georges Pompidou
Certainly one of the quirkier buildings to have become an iconic part of the 20th-century Parisian cityscape, the Centre Georges Pompidou is an essential stop for fans of post-war architecture.
Co-designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the now-famous structure was hugely controversial when it was unveiled for the cultural center's opening in 1977. French newspaper Le Figaro even declared that "Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Lochness." The brightly colorful building, designed to resemble a skeleton of sorts with blood, water, and other vital fluids running through it, still has its detractors. But for many, it's a triumph of high-tech design.
Piano and Rogers, aiming to create a building that looked like none other in the world and that would become a genuine public space for culture, leisure and gatherings, had a democratic ethos in mind when they designed it. The building's most striking feature is probably its uninterrupted space from floor to floor: There are no load-bearing structures placed between the floors, which are entirely flexible and can be easily reorganized or divided by curators for special exhibits or events.
Instead of taking up space inside as they usually would, the load-bearing structures are placed outside the building, a bit like an exoskeleton.
There's an elaborate color-code throughout: The blue tubes denote circulating air; yellow stands for electricity; green for water; and red for circulating people (elevators and escalators are housed in the latter tubes).
Some 15,000 tons of steel and glass were used to create the mammoth structure, now widely recognized by Parisians as the heart and soul of central Paris. It would seem that the architects' utopian vision was unusually successful: The Centre Pompidou, or "Beaubourg" as it's known locally, is a cultural center, museum and public library that is used on a daily basis by citizens from all walks of life. It's become an essential part of Parisian culture, and not only for the well-off.
Modern Art Museum and Panoramic Views
Housing the National Museum of Modern Art, with masterpieces from Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Rene Magritte, Niki de Saint-Phalle, and countless other key artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, the constantly refreshed permanent collection is world-renowned for its scope and importance. The airy, bright exhibition spaces allow you to appreciate the building's unique structure as you take in the magnificent works of art housed within it, and they afford some memorable views over Paris, too.
Finally, take the (slightly claustrophobic) tube-enclosed escalators all the way up to the top level to enjoy coffee, a lunch or dinner at Georges, the rooftop restaurant with some of the best panoramic views of Paris. From up here, you can see most of the city's other iconic buildings, from the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral to the Sacre-Coeur on Montmartre's knoll.
Fondation Louis Vuitton
A new privately-operated center for contemporary art in Paris that opened its doors to the public in 2014, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is named after the iconic luxury accessories maker. But the design from celebrated American architect Frank Gehry, known for drawing inspiration from organic forms found in nature, has already won over a Parisian public not always initially crazy about contemporary experimentation.
Appearing almost as if it's leaning straight into the winds of the future, the arresting building, evoking a steel and glass ship with its 12 sails bending outward, is constructed from 3,600 individual panels of glass and 19,000 panels of Ductal, a reinforced form of concrete. It has a futuristic, almost space-age air about it, yet Gehry was equally inspired by the elegant use of glass in Belle-Epoque exhibition halls such as the Grand Palais (see further down).
In addition to the futuristic sailboat interpretation, others may see in the building a blanched, gleaming shellfish, or perhaps a series of glass waves breaking at sea. What's certain is that this newer addition to the Parisian contemporary arts scene has made it all the more vibrant, re-energizing a city that had started to be perceived as a bit staid and old-fashioned.
Crowds have flocked to exhibits at the Fondation, which is situated at the edge of the verdant Bois de Boulogne, one of Paris' largest parks and green spaces. Inside, exhibition spaces are bathed in light, and the pleasant gastronomic restaurant, with its orange fish suspended from the ceiling and also designed by Gehry, makes a unique setting for a casual lunch or more formal dinner.
Quai Branly Museum
Another relative newcomer to the French capital, this sprawling museum and cultural center dedicated to arts and culture from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas boasts one of the city's most breathtaking new structures.
Designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel and commissioned by former French President Jacques Chirac, the Quai Branly museum was built to accommodate some 300,000 works of art and other artefacts from dozens of cultures. Standing on stilts and situated over five levels, the structure is based around several muti-colored boxes suspended over the main glass and metal facade, creating more intimate exhibition spaces within the larger, more open one. To access the main exhibition space, visitors are led through lush interior gardens, and the museum's varied spaces and niches are unveiled only through a process of individual exploration. Transparency and opacity intertwine to create a competing sense of openness and secrecy, corresponding to the museum's mission to initiate visitors to artistic and cultural practices outside the West. It's not been without controversy — many have charged the museum with treating non-westerns as "exotic" and glorifying the age of colonial power — but the design is indisputably interesting and worth seeing.
The Green Wall
The Branly is also well-known for its enormous "living wall of greenery" that is literally suspended over the top of the building, measuring more than 2,600 square feet. The wall was conceived by the botanist and researcher Patrick Blanc and accommodates 1,500 plants from 150 different species — a true living ecosystem suspended over a museum. Ferns, irises, fuchsias and willows are among the greens.
The Panoramic Rooftop Restaurant
The rooftop restaurant at the Quai Branly, Les Ombres, was also designed by Jean Nouvel and affords magnificent views of the city, including the Eiffel Tower, which is arrestingly close. This is an ideal spot for romantic dining in the capital.
For more information on the museum and to reserve tickets or a table, see the official website.
This one's what we'd call an "oldie but a goodie". One of the most outstanding examples of Belle-Epoque architecture in Europe, the sprawling exhibition space known as the Grand Palais still attests today to, well, the grandeur of turn-of-the-20th-century Paris.
With its elegant glass panels and fine light green metalwork, the venue was inaugurated just in time for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, symbolizing the boldly modern transformation of the city. After decades of neglect in the mid-20th century, it was fully renovated in the early 21st, and has since become one of the city's most -coveted venues for temporary exhibits, as well as the FIAC, the international contemporary art fair.
If you're interested in learning more about the French capital during the Belle Epoque, this is an essential stop on your itinerary-- alongside an exploration of the old department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, which also boast breathtaking buildings from the period.
For more information on the Grand Palais, visit the official website .
Arab World Institute: Melding Modern & Traditional Design
Last but certainly not least, the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) is one of the most beautiful, and interesting, buildings to grace the old Latin Quarter on the left bank. If this district is known for being steeped in old-world tradition, this Institute brings fresh perspectives and a boldly contemporary, intercultural sense of style to the area.
Situated right on the banks of the Seine River, the cultural institute dedicated to the arts and traditions from the Middle East and Arabian peninsula was co-designed by Jean Nouvel (see his other work on the Musee Branly above). Its stunning glass and metal facade, featuring intricately patterned, mobile metal panels that evoke the mosaic traditions of cultures including Morocco and Turkey, is one of the city's most distinctive and original. As the panels slowly move on a screen behind the glass, the eye perceives subtle shifts in light and shadow that make the facade look a bit like a watery desert mirage just in reach.
Inside, the filtered light streaming in from the exterior is meant to evoke design principles that are traditional to Islamic architectural styles.
The center's interesting and constantly refreshed program of exhibits, films and other events give visitors an in-depth look at cultural and artistic traditions from around the Arabic world, while the 9th-floor panoramic tearoom offers both a relaxing break from the urban grind, and splendid views over the river Seine and the city beyond. This is definitely a stop worth considering when you're looking to get off the beaten path in Paris.