I often get asked for suggestions of smaller museums to visit in Paris. The Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay may be world famous, but they can also be overwhelming. Luckily, Paris has hundreds of other museums to visit, many of which can easily be visited in an hour or two. One of my favourites of the smaller museums is the Musée de Cluny in the Latin Quarter. However, I’ve had to caveat my recommendation in recent years with the fact that the museum was under refurbishment, and therefore partially closed. And for the last two years, it’s been closed entirely. But not anymore! As of last week, the Musée de Cluny is fully reopened, and I can’t wait to see its new look.
A 15th Century House on 3rd Century Ruins
The Musée de Cluny is housed in the former residence of the Abbots of Cluny, hence the name. The original building was constructed in the early 14th century, but was later rebuilt between 1485 and 1510. Today, it is one of the finest examples of medieval architecture left standing in Paris. Personally, I love the facade of the Musée de Cluny. It looks like something straight out of a fantasy novel. But what drew me to this museum in the first place was not its beautiful architecture. It was the Roman ruins that the building is standing on.
Paris was under the rule of the Roman Empire for over 500 years. However, very few remains from this time period survive to this day. There is the Arènes de Lutèce and the archaeological crypt under Notre Dame Cathedral. And then there’s the Thermes de Cluny, or the Roman baths, located under the Musée de Cluny. These thermal baths were built in the early 3rd century, and many elements and features of what was once a vast complex remain. The most impressive is the frigidarium, complete with intact Gallo-Roman vaults, paintings, and mosaics. It is truly an extraordinary window into Paris’ Roman history.
A Journey Across the Centuries
As part of the refurbishment, the museum layout has been completely redesigned to represent a journey through time. You start in the 3rd century with the Roman baths, and then slowly make your way through the centuries. Over 1,600 pieces are now presented in chronological order across 21 different rooms, ending with The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These tapestries were woven in Flanders around 1500, and they are considered to be one of the greatest works of art from the Middle Ages in Europe.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are stunningly beautiful. I spent almost 20 minutes just staring at them the last time I visited the Musée de Cluny. There are also countless other incredible treasures housed in this museum, including original statues from Notre Dame Cathedral that were torn down during the French Revolution and only rediscovered in 1977. But for me, the highlight of the Musée de Cluny will always be the Roman baths. They are an incredible glimpse into a different time and social structure.
They are also the location of one of my favourite stories in Paris. In February of 360, the Thermes de Cluny was where Julian the Apostate’s troops rebelled against their orders to return east and defend the Empire from the attacking Persians. The soldiers did not want to leave Paris, so instead, they proclaimed their leader, Julian, to be Augustus, or Emperor. This set the stage for a civil war between Julian and the actual Emperor at the time, Constantius II. The proclamation happened at the Thermes de Cluny, and it had enormous ramifications for Paris, the Roman Empire, Europe, and the future of Christianity. As I said, it’s a great story.
Time to Return to the Musée de Cluny
It has been a long wait, but the Musée de Cluny has finally reopened. And I can’t wait. I can’t wait to walk through the frigidarium and imagine the scene of February 360 when the history of the Roman Empire changed forever. I can’t wait to see the medieval artworks, stained glass windows, and stonemasonry. And I can’t wait to sit in front of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries and take in their beauty once more. If you’re looking for a smaller but amazing museum in Paris, I wholeheartedly recommend the Musée de Cluny. No caveat needed.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.