Paris Museums and the Solo Traveler

by Gray Cargill on February 8, 2011

The Louvre

The Louvre

One of the most solo-friendly activities during travel is visiting museums.  Unlike bars, people rarely go to museums to socialize; they go to see historical artifacts or works of art and learn something about different cultures.  You’re likely to see other solos wandering around, whether locals or other tourists. And visiting a museum is a great choice for a rainy day.

Paris is a city with so many museums, it could paralyze the indecisive visitor who has to choose which ones to see when they only have a finite period of time.  Obviously, some will be of more interest to you than others, based on your personal interests and passions. In addition to the more traditional art and history museums, Paris has an architecture museum, a music museum, a doll museum, even a video game Museum–something for everyone!  But for first time visitors, it’s generally a good idea to spend at least half a day at two or three of the “biggies” like the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay.

The Eglise du Dome

The Eglise du Dome beneath which Napoleon is buried

The museums I chose to visit during my first trip to Paris were the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, the Chateau Versailles (outside of Paris), the Rodin Museum, and Les Invalides.  I spent about half a day at each, which was my tolerance threshhold, but if you have better stamina, you could easily make it a full day at each (and more than one day at the Louvre).  All of the museums I went to offered some sort of food on site (usually in a cafe), so if you need to take a lunch break you can. (Les Invalides reportedly has a coffee shop, though I didn’t see it.)

If your time at the museum is limited, the key is to do some research beforehand so you know what you want to see and can approach your visit  with laser-like focus.  This is especially important at a place like the Louvre, which is mind-bogglingly huge and labyrinthine.  I did not buy any tickets in advance, but if you’re traveling in peak season, you would be wise to consider it.  You might also want to buy some sort of pass with line-skipping privileges or make sure you arrive well before the museum opens to minimize standing in line.  When I went in November, I never had to wait in line.

Here’s how I approached the museums I visited:

Sphinx at The Louvre

Sphinx at The Louvre

The Louvre

The day I went to the Louvre was a cold, overcast day–perfect for spending in the museum.  I chose a Wednesday, since they stay open later (until 10pm) on Wednesday nights.  Clearly, I overestimated how much time I’d be able to wander around the museum, because I wound up being there for just a few hours.  I just couldn’t process any more, and I was tired of walking. My visit focused on the Greek and Roman statuary, the Mona Lisa, the Egyptian collection, a quick stroll around the grounds, lunch at the museum cafe, and a coffee and cheesecake in the carousel food court.

Chateau Versailles

Chateau Versailles

Versailles

I planned on this taking the better part of a day, and it did, but I still got back to Paris before darkness fell at 4:30.  I purchased my ticket at the Tourist Information office in Versailles and only toured the Palace and the grounds, not Marie Antoinette’s estate.  When traveling to Versailles, take into account the 1 hour round trip train ride.  (Read my full review of my day trip to Versailles.)

Musee D'Orsay

Musee D'Orsay

Musee D’Orsay

I returned to Paris after Versailles early enough on Thursday evening that I decided to take advantage of the late hours (open until 9:45pm) at the Musee D’Orsay.  Again, I spent less time there than I expected I would, simply because I was overwhelmed with everything I’d seen and tired from all the walking I’d done that day. This was my favorite museum, though.  I enjoyed it much more than the Louvre. Musee D’Orsay is housed in a lovely old train station, and the layout of the rooms makes it very easy to pick and choose what you want to see without getting stuck in an endless series of rooms with no escape.  There are many works here by well-known artists.  If you want to enjoy a meal here, there is a casual cafe and a more expensive restaurant upstairs.

The Museum of the Army

The Museum of the Army

The Museum of the Army at Les Invalides

This museum of the army of Paris was a sleeper hit for me.  I initially only went to see Napoleon’s Tomb and kill some time on my last day in Paris, but I found myself really interested in the section about Paris’s role in World War I and World War II.  I knew the history, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded once in a while of the details, and it was very different reading about these two wars from the point of view of the French rather than the US.  Embarrassingly, I really had no idea who Charles de Gaulle was or why he was important until I visited this museum. Les Invalides has some very nice artifacts (soldier’s uniforms and equipment, weapons, etc.) and an interesting multimedia display as well as a written timeline of events of the wars and the period between the wars.  Napoleon’s Tomb is housed separately in a beautiful building (the Eglise du Dome) with a chapel and gorgeous frescos and statuary.  I think I would have been disappointed had I just gone to see his tomb though.

Rodin's The Thinker

Rodin's The Thinker

The Rodin Museum

I visited the Rodin Museum on the same day as Les Invalides, since they are very close to one another.  At the recommendation of a woman I work with, I skipped the interior of the museum and just paid 1 Euro to visit the sculpture garden.  It was a cold, drizzly day–not the best time to be wandering around outside looking at art–but even so, I could see that the museum would be a fabulous place to spend a day in the summer.  In addition to artwork inside and gorgeous gardens to stroll in, there are benches here and there where you might sit and people-watch or read a book and enjoy a warm, sunny day. There is also a cafe on the grounds where you can stop and grab a sandwich, which I did.  It was very good and not too expensive.

I really wanted to get to the Pantheon on Sunday as well, but I was coming down with a cold and didn’t feel up to the trip after seeing Les Invalides and the Rodin. I also ran out of time for the Pompidou Center. In any case, I feel like I got a good sampling of the major museums of Paris.  Now if and when I visit the city again, I can delve a little deeper into the lesser known museums.

Have you been to Paris? What’s your favorite museum there?

GRRRL TRAVELER February 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I commend your tolerance for museums, Gray. Though I was a fine artist at the times I visited Paris, I only stepped foot into the Pompidou. Never made it to the Louvre to see the Winged Victory, but I don’t regret it either. Having studied the artwork in textbook & slide & having a deep appreciation for art history, I ironically, only really enjoy visiting contemporary galleries and museums. Funny, huh?

Charles de Gaulle? If it weren’t for the airport, I wouldn’t even know his name! Perhaps the French would hate me for saying that.

Gray February 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Well, I like history a lot,too, so that probably explains my tolerance. I know, sad but true about poor Monsieur de Gaulle. Thank goodness he has an airport named after him.

Tracyantonioli February 20, 2011 at 3:16 am

I loved the Rodin Museum, but then I was there on a perfectly gorgeous summer day. I would be hard pressed to think of a more beautiful location. The Cluny was also pretty great–a smaller museum, but very intimate. Plus they had a whole room full of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which I’ve loved since I was a child. I actually sat in that room and teared up a bit. And while I didn’t like the museum as a whole, the abbey room at the Musee Des Artes et Metiers was fabulous–and we had it all to ourselves.

I did not love the Louvre, simply because it was overwhelmingly crowded. The views from many of the windows were amazing, however, and I loved the Napoleon apartments.

Gray February 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Oh I envy you! The Rodin on a beautiful summer day must have been wonderful. That’s a sweet story about the Cluny. Sometimes that happens to me when I travel, too: I see something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid, and then there I am staring at it in person, and I get all choked up.

Singles Holidays February 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm

I think travelling alone is a great way to meet people. It forces you to get to know people although it can difficult for some people especially if they are a bit reserved. The Louvre is an amazing place although its sooo busy at times

Becky Allyn Johnson February 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Museums are definitely one of my favorite things about traveling solo. I love how you added info about the cafes in your descriptions of the different museums. Taking a break really helps when everything starts running together. Sipping some tea and watching the fellow visitors go by is one of my favorite parts of the museum experience.

Like you, my favorite museum in Paris was the Musee D’Orsay. I was also far more impressed by the Mona Lisa at the Louvre than I expected to be. At Versailles, I really liked the Petite Trianon. The palace was certainly impressive, but the history felt more real and personal at the Petite Trianon.

Gray February 8, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Yes, I so agree. That mental break as you refuel with some food before continuing on in a museum is crucial. Everyone keeps mentioning the Trianon…clearly, I need to go back to Paris so I can see it. Thanks for chiming in, Becky!

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