As one of Europe's oldest cities and a center of arts and culture for centuries, Paris counts an unusually high number of museums. Most visitors flock, predictably, to the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay-- and with good reason, of course. But it would be a shame to overlook the city's hidden wealth of niche and small collections, many of these dedicated to quirky-- or downright weird-- cultural artifacts and historical phenomena. So especially once you've hit all the top Parisian museums, take some time out to explore some of these smaller, wonderfully weird and absorbing institutions. Some are just charmingly offbeat (and appropriate for children), while others are creepy or even a little disturbing-- so we do recommend exercising a bit of caution when deciding whether a given collection is family-friendly or not.
In the 18th century, the remains of six million Parisians were transferred from an overflowing cemetery near Les Halles to a dedicated spot underground, in what comprises just a tiny portion of the city's vast network of catacombs. The sheer disbelief that initially rushes over you as you take in millions of femurs and skulls-- all artfully piled and surrounded by poems musing on the impermanence of human existence-- is well worth the trip.
Some find the Catacombs purely creepy, making it a good spot for a Halloween-time outing, while other, more rationalist types appreciate it mainly for its archaeological interest. Just one warning to those among you who are a bit claustrophobic: the narrow, low-ceilinged corridors are likely to get under your skin, especially since you can't backtrack once you've started the tour. It's also, sadly, not a tourist attraction accessible for visitors with limited mobility. Let's hope that gets amended sometime in the near future.
This old-world museum of science and industry will make you feel like you've plunged into a mad scientist's laboratory or the inner sanctum of a Da Vinci-style genius. Boasting more than 80,000 artifacts, highlights at this underappreciated gem include the first model airplane by French inventor Clément Ader, a prototype for a film camera, automata, early calculators, engines, and even a whole section dedicated to the early digital age (whose artifacts look amusingly quaint and retro now).
The museum is also home to the hypnotically swaying "Foucault's Pendulum", which was made even more famous by Umberto Eco's novel of the same name. Even the museum's dedicated metro station (on line 11) is gorgeously decorated in the copper tones that dominated the period in which the museum opened.
Like the famed Madame Tussaud's in London, Grevin is one of Europe's oldest and most esteemed wax museums. The curators constantly add new, creepy wax effigies of celebrities to the collection, but the old-world appeal of the place (think hall of mirrors meets circus) and the uncanny charms of the permanent collection are what keep most people coming back. This one's a good choice for young travelers.
Nestled in the fashionable Marais district is a tiny dual museum that most tourists entirely overlook. Fans of the history of magic and illusion will appreciate the Musée de la Magie, opened in 1993 and covering the art of magic from the 18th century to the present day. Look out, Harry Potter: in the museum's seven dedicated rooms, you'll find everything from magic wands, "secret" boxes, wizard hats, and more. Housed in the same location, meanwhile, the Automata Museum boasts a collection of 100 intricate automata and robots-- an uncanny and interesting experience awaits. This is a great choice for kids, too, with shows organized to keep the little ones engaged and intrigued.
- Address: 11 Rue Saint Paul, 4th arrondissement
- Tel: +33 (0) 1 42 72 13 26
- Metro: St-Paul
It's not for everyone: Some will cringe at the thought of voluntarily traipsing through a sewer system. Yet (despite some admittedly strong smells emanating from the place-- what did you expect?), the Paris Sewer Museum (Musée des Egouts) offers a fascinating glimpse into the makings of modern-day Paris.
Without the sewers, Paris was, for hundreds of years, a city vulnerable to horrible pestilence and disease. The arrival of the modern egouts in the late 14th century represented a path toward a more hygienic city, but as far back as the days of the Roman Empire systems of a more rudimentary sort existed.
In addition to the fascinating tunnels and corridors you'll amble through, the museum also displays various water treatment machines. Think about visiting the museum after touring at or around the Eiffel Tower, which is only a hop, skip, and a jump away.
It's a classic horror film convention: a camera pans slowly over a table full of old-fashioned, bizarre medical implements: probes, needles, forceps, scissors. And there's plenty to send shivers down your spine at the Paris Museum of Medical History, too. Come check out their collection of artifacts dating as far back as the medieval period, and tracing developments in medicine and medical anthropology. From the aforementioned medical implements to preserved body parts, you'll need a stomach of steel for this one. Children might find some of the collection here disturbing, so use caution. The museum is located in the city's historic Faculty of Medicine in the Latin Quarter, so even the building has historic appeal.
- Address: 12, rue de l'ecole de medecine, 6th arrondissement
- Tel: +33 (0)1 40 46 16 93
- Metro: Cluny la Sorbonne or Odéon
Paris Police Museum (Musee de la Prefecture)
This free Paris museum will captivate the crime buffs among you, and also offers a fascinating (if sinister) look at some of the darker chapters in Paris history, including the Nazi occupation of the city during the Second World War. Some 2,000 artifacts dating from as far back as the late 17th century await here, from weaponry to police archives.