The Musee d'Orsay is, hands-down, one of the world's richest and most exciting fine art museums. Its permanent collection houses hundreds of breathtaking original works from masters of early modern and Impressionist art, including Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Vincent Van Gogh and Auguste Rodin. The globally beloved museum also curates several major temporary exhibits throughout the year, as well as hosting not-to-be-missed special events. All of these reasons account for why this museum lies near the top of our list of Paris's most interesting and iconic attractions.
Like any top-notch collection, though, the Orsay can be overwhelming to visit. Use these 11 strategies to make your next one as enriching and enjoyable as possible.
Focus on One or Two Wings
While the Musee d'Orsay is dwarfed by the nearby Louvre, the permanent collection at the former spans four floors and several important periods and collections, from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism. In addition to the Paintings department, you can (and should) also consider exploring the rich collections of the Decorative Arts, Sculpture, and Photography departments.
In short, there's a lot to see here. Focus your visit! Get a sense of how the collections are laid out, familiarize yourself with some of the key artists and masterpiece works featured here, and then plan to spend more time on a selected period or set of artists. You're much more likely to come away from your visit feeling as if you truly "encountered" some of the works. This is also a good strategy for avoiding burnout and sensory overload.
Avoid the Crowds
Attracting some three million visitors a year, the Musée Orsay is always going to be relatively crowded, no matter the season. But if you're careful to choose your timing well, you'll be far more likely to enjoy your visit, and beat the crowds. After all, who wouldn't prefer having more space in a gallery to themselves, enjoying the quiet and spending some time calmly contemplating favorite masterpieces?
To beat the crowds and enjoy (relatively) calmer conditions at the Orsay, we recommend you try to visit during the following times, when tourist entries thin a bit:
- During the low tourist season (November to March)
- From 9:30 a.m. to noon (with a slight dip in crowds at lunchtime)
- In the evening between 6:00 and 9:45 pm (Thursdays only)
- On weekdays
At the Orsay, there are separate and dedicated entrances for individuals, groups, and members or professionals outside the museum. Avoid wasting time by getting in the right line as soon as you arrive. You can also consider purchasing skip-the-line tickets to beat the crowds and get inside even sooner.
When you arrive at the museum, verify which of these lines is the right one for you before getting in the fray:
- Individual visitors without tickets: Seine river side, entrance A
- Members, visitors with tickets or passes or with priority entry: Rue de Lille side, entrance C
- For adults in pre-booked groups: Seine river side, entrance B
- For school groups: Rue de Lille side, entrance D
If you're visiting the Orsay for the first time, one of the best ways to get an exciting overview of the periods, artists, and major masterpieces featured within its collections is to take a guided tour.
The museum offers numerous tours in English for individuals and groups. Note that tours are offered on selected days subject to change.
- The Great Works of Art Tour provides visitors with a 1.5-hour overview of the permanent collections.
- The Great Artistic Movements tour offers you greater insight into the development of movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, detailing how these borrowed from the conventions of Realism while also moving away from traditional modes of painting. If you want to dig deeper into the Orsay's featured artists and periods, this tour is for you.
- From Academism to Impressionism takes a similar approach, but focuses on the birth of Impressionism with early "salons" in Paris from the likes of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet marking a strong rebellion against the strictures of traditional painting, or "Academism".
The magnificent permanent collection at the Orsay may be what draws visitors in droves, but there's much more to see if you want to stretch your visit into a whole day.
The museum regularly curates major temporary exhibits on important artists and movements from the period 1848-1914, giving visitors fresh insight into the exciting developments of the 19th century. These retrospectives and thematic shows allow you a different point of entry into the museum's collections, as well as showcasing masterpieces borrowed from other important museums.
In addition to a full roster of temporary exhibits, Orsay regularly programs special events like concerts, film screenings and festivals, and art-inspired shows. Most visitors never take advantage of these, but they should.
Buy a Combined Ticket to the Orangerie or the Musée Rodin
Many visitors to this popular museum are unaware that it's possible to buy a joint ticket to the Orsay and the nearby Orangerie, situated at the edge of the Jardin des Tuileries just across the Seine.
This small museum is noteworthy for housing Monet's "Nymphéas", a large-scale series of murals that are considered one of his great Impressionist masterpieces; he donated it to the French state in 1918 as World War I was ending and dedicated it to a hope for global peace. The Orangerie is also home to the Walter and Guillaume Collection, one of the city's finest smaller collections of modern European art that includes works from the likes of Matisse, Cézanne, Sisley, Marie Laurencin, and many others.
For the same price, you can also purchase a special ticket allowing you access to both the Orsay and the Musée Rodin, which brings together dozens of emblematic works from France's most-celebrated sculptor. The sculpture garden there is certainly well worth a visit, too.
Visit on the Free Days
Did you know that the Musée d'Orsay is completely free to visit on certain days? If you're on a tight budget, keep this in mind before your visit.
On the first Sunday of the month, all visitors get free entry to the permanent collections. And the museum is always free for visitors under the age of 18.
Paris Museum Night: Once a year, the Nuit des Musées (Paris Museum Night) gives visitors free entry for an evening to the collections at the Orsay and numerous other participating museums.This event is open to all and generally falls in May each year. Live music and other special performances are often on the program, too.
Buying Tickets and Passes in Advance
Visitor numbers have climbed at the Orsay in recent years, which means longer lines and sometimes frustrating waits, especially during high season in spring and summer.
How to avoid all that? We strongly advise you to buy tickets in advance. You can purchase them directly from the Musée d'Orsay ticket counters or online on their official website.
You can also buy them in person at select Paris Visitor Bureau locations, including at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airport.
Consider the Paris Museum Pass
If you're planning on visiting more than two or three major Parisian museums and monuments during your stay, you should consider purchasing the Paris Museum Pass. It'll save you money on tickets as long as you visit several of the sites the pass covers, and entry to the Musée d'Orsay is included in the price.
You can find more information on current prices, museums and monuments covered by the pass and how to buy it at this page.
Don't Go Too Late in the Day
One mistake we see a lot of tourists make when visiting a top attraction such as the Musée d'Orsay: showing up two hours before closing time, waiting in line, then having scant time to actually take full advantage of the collections.
To make sure you get to see everything you want to and don't feel rushed through the galleries, we recommend that you get to the museum at least three to four hours before closing time (two if you have skip-the-line tickets or booked in advance).
The museum is open daily until 6:00 pm, except on Thursdays, when it remains open until 9:45 pm. Take these hours into account when planning your visit, and avoid the disappointment of having too little time to fully enjoy the experience.
Learn About the Artists
One way to guarantee that you get more out of your visit? Spend a little time learning about some of the main artists and movements highlighted in the Orsay's collections before you even set foot inside.
Even just an hour or two spent learning about the fascinating history of Impressionism will lend you deeper insight into the masterpieces you'll be witnessing firsthand during your visit.
It'll help you to understand some key differences—and mutual influences—between artists such as Courbet and Manet, who helped initiate the movement; Cézanne, Degas, and Monet, who are widely credit as representing Impressionism's pinnacle; and post-Impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh, and Vlaminck, whose vibrant, swirling colors and "anti-naturalist" styles helped pave the way to the growing abstraction of 20th-century painting.
You may also want to become more familiar with the artists whose works represent true highlights in the collections at the Orsay. You can visit this page at the official website for a fascinating look at the "works in focus" with details on over 900 major paintings, sculptures, and other artworks in the permanent collection.
Explore the Neighborhood Around the Orsay
Before or after visiting the Orsay, make sure to take some time to explore the surrounding neighborhood. After all, it's always best to expand your knowledge of the city when visiting one of its most-iconic places.
You're in close range of sights and attractions including the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, famous for its classic cafes where famous artists and writers once worked, argued, and consumed bottomless cups of coffee. The boutiques, antiquarian bookshops, antique stores and art galleries in the area are perfect for window-shopping.
Meanwhile, the leafy Italian-style Jardin du Luxembourg is an ideal place for a stroll, picnic or lazy couple of hours reading and people-watching on metallic chairs overlooking the gardens.
You're also not too far from the Eiffel Tower and the sprawling lawns outside it known as the Champ de Mars. You might consider hopping over to these places after visiting the Orsay, since the latter is on the way.