Exploring art and cuisine in Paris’s lesser-known museums

From fashion inspired by Frida Kahlo to France's history of immigration and the best of aboriginal art, these niche exhibitions can be paired with inventive dining experiences

Inside Le Petit Palais in Paris. Photo: John Brunton
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With an exciting cultural calendar planned for Paris this year, many visitors to the City of Light will end up taking in at least one of its famous museums.

Some may opt to return to a favourite permanent gallery, such as Musee d’Orsay’s Impressionists or the Louvre’s priceless Islamic Art collection, while others will want to check out one of the city’s new blockbuster shows. For those looking to join the crowds at big-name exhibitions, there will be Manet and Degas at Musee d’Orsay, competing with Matisse and Modigliani at the Orangerie.

In France, culture and food are inextricably linked, so today, all Parisian museums also offer visitors a tempting variety of both gourmet restaurants and casual cafes. The Louvre has about 16 eateries — the roof of the Centre Pompidou offers a selection of drinks, and there's Guy Savoy’s eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant inside the quirky Musee de la Monnaie.

But it is not all expensive haute gastronomie. Here are five discrete museums worth tracking down both for both their art and cuisine.

Le Petit Palais

The landmark Grand Palais museum will remain closed for renovations throughout this year, making it the perfect opportunity to discover its little brother across the road — built in the same opulent Empire style for the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

The official title of Le Petit Palais is the Paris Fine Arts Museum, and its headline show this year is La Tres Parisienne Sarah Bernhardt, running from April 14 to August 27. It pays homage to the “divine” artist, illustrating her friendships with the likes of Gustave Dore, Alphonse Mucha and Victor Hugo.

The hidden secret here is Le Jardin du Petit Palais, a chic cafe in a magical interior garden of lush, exotic vegetation, encircled by towering colonnades decorated with vibrant frescoes and Art Nouveau mosaics. The cuisine is simple — pastas, soups and salads — and it's the perfect afternoon spot for Lenotre macarons and Mariage Freres tea.

Palais Galliera

Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances is on at the Galleria until March 5. Photo: John Brunton

Palais Galliera is another niche museum in the shadow of an illustrious neighbour, the monumental Musee d’Art Moderne. Inspired by the Italian Renaissance, this lavish 19th-century palace houses the Paris Fashion Museum, and apart from an extensive historical permanent collection, it draws in the crowds each year with eye-catching temporary shows.

On until March 5 is the not-to-be-missed Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances, dedicated to the famous Mexican artist, but also featuring a selection of dazzling gowns by designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen, who were inspired by Kahlo.

In May, 1997 Fashion Big Bang will be inaugurated, spotlighting designers who emerged in this landmark year, including Thierry Mugler, Raf Simons, Comme des Garcons, Martin Margiela, Hedi Slimane and Stella McCartney.

At the same time, Les Petites Mains, the Galliera’s magical outdoor terrace restaurant, reopens, serving seasonal Mediterranean and vegetarian cuisine paired with romantic views across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower.

Musee de l'Histoire de l'Immigration

France made a decisive gesture to acknowledge its colonialist past by transforming the magnificent Palais de la Porte Doree, a 1930s Art Deco masterpiece, from its origins as a eulogising Museum of the Colonies into an innovative Museum of the History of Immigration.

This year has kicked off with a typically quirky temporary show, Paris and Nowhere Else, showcasing the works of 24 foreign artists in Paris. But everyone is waiting for June, when a remarkable permanent multimedia collection dedicated to immigration will reopen.

The museum’s popular restaurant and cafe spreads from the ground floor out to a cool colonnaded terrace, where exotic friezes and mosaics take the breath away even though they brazenly glorify the white supremacy mentality marking France’s colonial history.

Families with children should head down to the basement for a tour of the fabulous tropical aquarium, which has been open since 1931.

Musee du Quai Branly

Dining at Musee du Quai Branly. Photo: Musee du Quai Branly

This architecturally audacious museum, with its green wall of living vegetation and wild, lush gardens, was designed in 2006 by the innovative Jean Nouvel for then French president Jacques Chirac.

The star of the show here is the museum’s awesome permanent collection of African, Asian and Oceanic art. Eclectic temporary exhibitions for this year begin with a display of 200 ornate Japanese costumes for Kimono (until May 28), while from April 4 until July 2, there is Songlines, an emotive selection of paintings, installations and performances by more than 100 aboriginal artists from Australia.

Be sure to splash out for a gourmet meal on the top-floor Les Ombres, whose to-die-for views are now complemented by a menu from young chef Alexandre Sempere, who was specifically selected by Alain Ducasse. He creates delicious dishes like delicately smoked beetroot and succulent spit-roasted pigeon.

Institut du Monde Arabe

France Europe French Paris 5th arrondissement Arab World Institute AWI Institut du Monde Arabe exterior outside building glass wall. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Dedicated to informing people about the Arab world, this visually arresting museum on the banks of the Seine has become a genuine, much-loved Parisian institution, 35 years after its opening.

It boasts an exciting programme of almost daily events spanning cinema, theatre, poetry, music and dance, complementing a regular series of high-profile temporary exhibitions.

Until June, there is a sumptuous show of 300 lustrous treasures from Uzbekistan illustrating the mythical Routes de Samarkand. The second part of the year will feature at least two exhibitions, debates and workshops dedicated to Palestine.

The institute boasts one of the city’s most stunning museum restaurants, with a rooftop terrace offering North African cuisine and panoramic vistas over Notre Dame, which is nearing its reopening. There is also the casual Cafe Litteraire for mint tea and delicious oriental pastries, and a self-service cafeteria serving mezze.

Updated: January 19, 2023, 11:45 AM
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