Musée d'Orsay at night
Stuart Bak

Best Time to Visit Musée d'Orsay

A mere whippersnapper in both age and size when pitted against its more popular neighbor across the Seine, the mighty Musée d’Orsay nevertheless packs a very considerable punch. Go for the fine Beaux-Arts architecture and stay for the art, only the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces on the planet, as well as a vast panoply of fine French sculpture, photography and decorative arts. But what’s the best time to visit Musée d’Orsay? Read on for our expert guide…

Musée d’Orsay: a Short History

Young couple viewing a Renoir in Musée d'Orsay

The Musée d’Orsay began life as a train station, a fact that will be all too obvious to anyone regarding its monumental exterior, all arched windows, decorative Beaux-Arts flourishes, and a great clock to help keep trains – and passengers – running on time.

Gare d’Orsay opened in 1900 in time for the Paris Exposition of the same year, but rapid technological progress in the early 20th Century (and new trains longer than its platforms) had rendered it largely redundant by 1939.

The station remained largely unused and was, by the late 1960s, under threat of demolition. Happily for art fans everywhere, it avoided such ignominious fate by being designated a protected Monument Historique in 1973 and, later the same decade, being earmarked as a space for displaying art.

Musée d'Orsay exterior viewed across the Seine

The Louvre had the Old Masters covered, and modernism was amply taken care of at the recently opened Pompidou Center. But whither 19th-century French art? It was Michel Laclotte, then paintings curator of The Louvre, who proposed Gare d’Orsay as the ideal place to plug this gap. And so, in 1986, the Musée d’Orsay as we know it today was born.

And what a treasure trove of delights awaits inside. We’re talking substantial sculptures including Rodin’s The Thinker, Degas’ Small Dancer Aged 14 and Francois Pompon’s minimalist Polar Bear. And that’s just for starters: fans of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism will find much to admire, with instantly recognizable showstoppers that include van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône and Self Portrait, Monet’s Poppy Field, Whistler’s Mother, and Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, to name just a few.

The Musée d’Orsay in Numbers

Large painting by Thomas Couture at Musée d'Orsay in Paris

Trivia addicts, this section’s for you…

  • The Musée d’Orsay boasts a collection of around 18,000 pieces, running the gamut from Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces to fine French sculpture, photography and decorative arts. There are around 3,000 pieces on display in the museum at any given time.
  • With around 3.2 million annual visitors it’s the second-most popular art museum in France, after (yup, you guessed it) the Louvre.
  • At 574 feet long and 246 feet wide, the Musée d’Orsay is no shrimp, albeit it’s considerably smaller than its Right Bank rival. 
  • Thanks to its previous life as a train station, Musée d’Orsay contains 12,000 tons of metal – believe it or not, that’s even more than the Eiffel Tower!
  • The museum’s five floors are organized by art movement. Go right to the top for the best in Impressionist painting, as well as far-reaching views through the café’s station-clock window that take in the Seine, the Louvre, and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.

Best Time to Visit Musée d’Orsay and Avoid Queues

Silhouettes gazing out through the fifth-floor clock window at Musée d'Orsay

Like most of Paris’s top attractions, the Musée d'Orsay is busy most of the time. It is rarely, however, like the seventh circle of hell that tends to open around the Louvre’s entrances in the hour before opening. It’s comparatively modest collection and smaller size also makes it a little easier to navigate, ideal if you don’t have the time (or patience) for endless queues and seas of bobbing heads that will likely block your view of the most prized artworks anyway (looking at you, Mona Lisa).

Musée d'Orsay is open Tuesday–Sunday from 9.30AM to 6PM, except Thursdays, when it stays open until 9.45PM. Tuesday is perhaps the busiest day (because that’s the Loiuvre’s day off, natch) and Sundays can also get a little hectic. The best time to visit the Musée d’Orsay tends to be weekdays first thing or in the late afternoon. But take care not to pitch up too late and be sure to factor in queuing time – the last thing you want is to find out it’s closing five minutes after you’ve set foot inside. Visit during low season (November to March) for the shortest possible midweek lines.

Main hall at Musée d'Orsay

Thursday evenings are also a great time to visit Musée d’Orsay, as the galleries stay open later than usual. This isn’t as popular an option as you might expect and, as a result, presents a fine opportunity to roll up after the usual 6PM closing time and ogle all those marvelous masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Matisse, Millet and more in relative peace and quiet. It’s also cheaper than going during the day. Go figure!

Top tip: it’s free to visit Musée d’Orsay on the first Sunday of the month. Booking is essential and, inevitably, you’ll still have to queue, but this is a good option if you’re traveling on a budget and happen to be in the right place at the right time.

More Tips for Visiting Musée d’Orsay

Woman viewing a Monet at Musée d'Orsay
  • Book your tickets online in advance. You’ll be given an allocated slot that will save you a fair bit of time waiting in line once you get there. And be sure to join the right queue when you do arrive! It’s entrance C on the Rue de Lille side for ticket-holders. You’re welcome. Planning to tick off a few big hitters while you’re in town? Buy a Paris Pass for entry to dozens of Paris attractions (including Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and many more) for one money-saving price.

  • Ok, so it’s no Louvre, but it’s still way more than any human can realistically take in on a single visit. Our advice? Do your research and decide what are your must-sees and what you can miss. Better to focus on one or two wings or floors, rather than frantically running around seeing everything but appreciating nothing.

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