Museums 101

Take the audio tour (Photo )
Take the audio tour

A guide to getting the most out of visiting France's museums

France is just chock full o' history and art. It has enjoyed quite the prodigious output over the past millennia or so.

And, by the end of your vacation, you’ll feel like you must have seen it all.

You'll visit ample amounts of ancient ruins, a multitude of medieval castles, gobs of Gothic cathedrals, reams of Renaissance paintings, a plethora of palaces, numerous neoclassical sculptures, miles of modern art, and a heck of a lot in between.

It can get overwhelming, so take these few hints in your back pocket to help get the most out of these grand halls o’ great art without getting brain overload.

Ten Tips to Enjoying Museums

  1. Visit twice. Some museums are just too big to attempt in a day—the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, and the Pompidou all come to mind. If you have the time and the inclination, spread out the visit over several days. 
  2. Split up. Nothing is so subjective as taste in art, and there’s no reason you and your companions need to stick together in museums and spend equal time perusing all the same paintings. If you part ways at the front door and set a time to meet, you can each go through at your own pace and look at whatever darn well pleases you. This strategy also gives you some time apart (even the closest of friends and family get on one another’s nerves after a while). 
  3. Take the audio tour. The 1990s brought a wonderful revolution to museum visits. Almost gone are the ancient, stilted cassette audio guides that march every visitor in lock step from one masterpiece to the next. Nowadays, most audio “tours” are digital, often little wands that you hold like an elongated cellular phone. The works on display have numbers next to them, which you just punch into the wand’s keypad and it starts spewing out facts and background galore on the work, artist, era, and so on. When you tire of it, just hit stop and wander to the next painting. You go through at your own pace and hear only about what intrigues you. Brilliant.
  4. Take a guided museum tour. You can learn a lot more than you would on your own if you’re led through the collections by a certified expert, who will explain the significance and background of the most important works and answer all of your questions. » more
  5. Know your art history. Art is much more interesting and engaging when you have some idea what you’re looking at. Just a little brushing up on major artists and movements, whether you just skim your guidebook for it or take a course in art history before you embark on the trip, will enrich any museum-going experience.
  6. Draw cartoon balloons. Not on the paintings themselves. The guards take a pretty dim view of that sort of thing. I mean, put dialogue into the mouths of the figures on the canvas. Most of us get a little punchy after too many hours spent soberly contemplating creative genius. Feel free to make up stories to go with the scenes. Look for humorous details the artist painted in—any large canvas of a courtly scene or a banquet will feature things like a dog and monkey eyeing each other warily under the table, or two servants getting frisky with each other in the background.
  7. Know when the museum closes. Museums empty out in the later hours, especially the biggies that routinely stay open late on Fridays. If you plan to close the joint and are a fan of museum books and postcards, however, always check when the gift shop shuts its doors. For some idiotic reason, museum gift shops often close 30 minutes before the museum itself shuts the gates, so drop in early if need be (or plan to return for your shopping).
  8. Concentrate on the masterpieces. You have to pace yourself, or even a moderate-sized museum will overwhelm you. Do not feel obligated to look at it all. On a first visit, or if you have limited time, just concentrate your energies on select paintings. Skip whole wings if you don’t feel like going through. Many museums include on their floor plans a list of the masterpieces. Alternately...
  9. Look at what you like. In the end, art is supposed to be enjoyable, not a chore. There’s something liberating about going through a museum and just looking at the paintings, pausing at the ones that you find most visually intriguing and studying them, and moving on without ever even glancing at the little placard that tells the name of the artist, the title, and the background info. Enjoy the art for art's sake. I promise, there will be no test at the end.
  10. Try small, private museumsYou wouldn’t believe the places you can find where wealthy collectors left behind dusty old mansions jumbled with valuable bric-a-brac ranging from Ming vases and Roman reliefs to medieval suits of armor and occasional paintings by a Renaissance master. Although few of the individual pieces, or the collections as a whole, tend to be first rate, they offer fascinating insights into one man or family’s tastes and styles—and often as not these places are preserved exactly as the collector left them... » more
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  • Take the audio tour, Museums 101, General (Photo )
  • Take the audio tour, Museums 101, General (Photo )
Activities, walks, & excursions links
Useful French phrases

Useful French for sightseeing

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Où est? ou eh
...the museum le musee luh moo-ZAY
...the church l'eglise leh-GLEEZ
...the cathedral le cathédrale luh ka-teh-DRAHL
When is it open? Quand est-il ouvert?  coan eh-TEEL oo-VAIR
When does it close? A quelle heure est-ce que cela ferme? ah kell eur es kuh suhla fair-MAY
ticket billet d'entrée bee-YAY dahn-TRAY
two adults deux adultes dooz ah-DOOLT
one child un enfant ehn ahn-FAHN
one student un étudiant uh-NETOO-dee-YON

Basic phrases in French

English (anglais) French (français) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you merci mair-SEE
please s'il vous plaît seel-vou-PLAY
yes oui wee
no non no
Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? par-lay-VOU on-GLAY
I don't understand Je ne comprende pas zhuh nuh COHM-prohnd pah
I'm sorry Je suis desolée zhuh swee day-zoh-LAY
How much does it cost? Combien coute? coam-bee-YEHN koot
That's too much C'est trop say troh
Good day Bonjour bohn-SZOURH
Good evening Bon soir bohn SWAH
Good night Bon nuit  bohn NWEE
Goodbye Au revoir oh-ruh-VWAH
Excuse me (to get attention) Excusez-moi eh-skooze-ay-MWA
Excuse me (to get past someone) Pardon pah-rRDOHN
Where is? Où est? ou eh
...the bathroom la toilette lah twah-LET
...train station la gare lah gahr

Days, months, and other calendar items in French

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quand est-il ouvert? coan eh-TEEL oo-VAIR
When does it close? Quand est l'heure de fermeture?   coan eh lure duh fair-mah-TOUR
At what time... à quelle heure... ah kell uhre
Yesterday hier ee-AIR
Today aujoud'hui ow-zhuhr-DWEE
Tomorrow demain duh-MEHN
Day after tomorrow après demain ah-PRAY duh-MEHN
a day un jour ooun zhuhr
Monday Lundí luhn-DEE
Tuesday Maredí mar-DEE
Wednesday Mercredi mair-cray-DEE
Thursday Jeudi zhuh-DEE
Friday Vendredi vawn-druh-DEE
Saturday Samedi saam-DEE
Sunday Dimanche DEE-maansh
a month un mois ooun mwa
January janvier zhan-vee-YAIR
February février feh-vree-YAIR
March mars mahr
April avril ah-VREEL
May mai may
June juin zhuh-WAH
July juillet zhuh-LYAY
August août ah-WOOT
September septembre sep-TUHM-bruh
October octobre ok-TOE-bruh
November novembre noh-VAUM-bruh
December décembre day-SAHM-bruh

Numbers in French

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 un ehn
2 deux douh
3 trois twa
4 quatre KAH-truh
5 cinq sank
6 six sees
7 sept sehp
8 huit hwhee
9 neuf nuhf
10 dix dees
11 onze ownz
12 douze dooz
13 treize trehz
14 quatorze kah-TOHRZ
15 quinze cans
16 seize sez
17 dix-sept dee-SEP
18 dix-huit dee-SWEE
19 dix-neuf dee-SNEUHF
20 vingt vahn
21* vingt et un * vahnt eh UHN
22* vingt deux * vahn douh
23* vingt trois * vahn twa
30 trente truhnt
40 quarante kah-RAHNT
50 cinquante sahn-KAHNT
60 soixante swaa-SAHNT
70 soixante-dix swa-sahnt-DEES
80 quatre-vents  kat-tra-VAHN
90 quatre-vents-dix  kat-tra-vanht-DEES
100 cent sant
1,000 mille meel
5,000 cinq mille sank meel
10,000 dix mille dees meel

* You can form any number between 20 and 99 just like the examples for 21, 22, and 23. For x2–x9, just say the tens-place number (trente for 30, quarante for 40, etc.), then the ones-place number (35 is trente cinq; 66 is soixsante six). The only excpetion is for 21, 31, 41, etc. For x1, say the tens-place number followed by " un" (trente et un, quarante et un, etc.).

‡ Yes, the French count very strangely once they get past 69. Rather than some version of "seventy,' they instead say "sixy-ten" (followed by "sixty-eleven," "sixty-twelve,' etc. up to "sixty-nineteen.") And then, just to keep things interesting, they chenge it up again and, for 80, say 'four twenties"—which always make me thinks of blackbirds baked in a pie for some reason. Ninety becomes "four-twenties-ten" and so on up to "four-nineties-ninteen" for 99, which is quite a mouthful: quartre-vingts-dix-neuf.