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I’ll confess, I’m not much of a museum dweller. The true charm of Paris, for me, is best revealed by exploring its streets and meeting its people. Nevertheless, there is something infinitely satisfying about a day spent surrounded by masterpieces, and I regularly set time aside to explore the city’s abundant art collections. Musée d’Orsay is, without a doubt, one of its most iconic destinations for art lovers.
Like any other large museum, you will need several days (weeks?) to properly explore its permanent collections, as well as what’s currently on display. If, however, you’re short on time, here are my recommendations on what not to miss on your first visit.
You might have heard that the Orsay was originally a train station, which explains the presence of not one, but three very large clocks. Two of them, several feet tall and also acting as windows, are on the facade, looking out towards the Seine and the Louvre, and offering fantastic views all around the Right Bank.
The subject of countless Instagram photos, the northeast-facing clock is a destination in itself, and you’ll have to wait in line for a selfie turn. The northwest-facing clock is situated in one of the museum’s restaurants, Café Campana, and you can admire it to your heart’s content while you’re enjoying your café crème and baba au rhum in the gorgeous Art Nouveau-inspired interior.
The third clock is located above the main entrance of the museum, and it is a masterpiece in itself. The gilded, intricate Belle Époque piece is credited to Victor Laloux, the brilliant architect who is also responsible for the museum’s very existence.
Very few art currents have generated such an abundance of glorious art pieces as Impressionism did in just a few decades, despite strong initial dislike and opposition by critics and the general public alike. The Orsay hosts the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world, and it is, quite possibly, the museum’s main attraction. You will find Claude Monet’s most beloved and celebrated works, alongside masterpieces by Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Manet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and many others.
Fans of Impressionism, don’t miss the Musée Marmottan Monet either. This intimate museum in the 16th Arrondissement is home to the largest Monet collection in Paris.
Part of the decorative arts collection, this is a must-see section of the museum. In the sinuous lines and flamboyant designs you’ll recognize names steeped in Parisian Art Nouveau history: Guimard, Mucha, Lalique, Majorelle, Horta, as well as works by Carlo Bugatti and Antoni Gaudí.
Located on the main floor, the numerous 19th-century sculptures will have you zig-zag between them while trying to acknowledge them all. One easily recognizable work is a ten-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
A personal favorite is the marble statue of Sappho by James Pradier. There is deep sadness and defeat in her gracefully curved neck, her downcast gaze, the lyre set down next to her. It is said that the sculpture depicts Sappho as she contemplates suicide. You won’t have any trouble finding this remarkable piece, as it is displayed at the very center of the main gallery.
After thoroughly enjoying the Impressionist paintings on the fifth floor, open the door and step outside on the roof terrace. Walk around and take in the stunning views of the Seine, the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Gardens, all the way to Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur basilica in the distance. What better way to end an art-filled day, than to let your eyes roam over the streets of Paris laying at your feet, awaiting yet another day of discovery and adventure!
After exploring the city’s world-famous museums, don’t miss these Little-Known Paris Art Museums.
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