As all Paris lovers know, it's not just the major monuments that make this the world's most compelling city. The real Paris lies behind the doors and in the hidden gardens of the city's smaller museums: the town houses and mansions of extraordinary people who exemplified what life in Paris is all about—passion, splendor, inspiration, and most of all, l'art de vivre.
Nissim de Camondo Museum
This stupendous mansion was bequeathed to France by Moïse de Camondo, scion of an Ottoman banking dynasty, in honor of his only son, who was killed in World War I. With an unerring eye—and the means to back it—de Camondo built a private collection of rare magnificence, seen just as it was when the family lived here.
63 rue de Monceau, 8th, 01 53 89 06 50, Closed Mon and Tue.
In the heart of the Marais, this splendid hôtel particulier (private mansion) and gardens—one-time home to Théodore-Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay, founders of Paris's La Samaritaine department store—exemplify the elegant Paris life via a superb private collection of 18th-century French furniture, tapestries, and important paintings by the likes of Watteau, Chardin, Boucher, La Tour, and Fragonard.
8 rue de Elzévir, 3rd, 01 40 27 07 21, Closed Mon.
Museum of the Romantique Life (Musée de la Vie Romantique)
Tout Paris congregated at this Italianate villa on a lovely cobbled street, home of painter Ary Scheffer, whose salon attracted the leading artistic and intellectual lights of the day: Georges Sand, Chopin, Rossini, Ingres, Delacroix, Turgenev. Now devoted to Sand and Scheffer's memorabilia, the museum's charming garden tea salon is a favorite spot to while away an hour or two.
16 rue Chapital, 9th, 01 55 31 95 67, Closed Mon.
Cernuschi Museum for Asian Art
Paris's oldest museum and home to France's second most important assemblage of Chinese and Asian art, this graceful mansion once belonged to world traveler and connoisseur Enrico Cernuschi, who built the collection with passionate devotion. The Chinese collection, which spans prehistory to modern times, has been enriched over the years through private donations, and now includes sections dedicated to the art of Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
7 ave Vélasquez, 8th, 01 53 96 21 50, Closed Mon.
This gem of a museum in an exclusive Paris neighborhood is a must for appreciators of African art and artifacts. The museum has no permanent collection, but is recognized as an important leader in organizing superb long-term exhibitions acclaimed for imagination and scope.
35 bis rue Paul Valéry, 16th, 01 45 00 91 75. Closed Tue.
Two steps from the Luxembourg gardens, Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine lived and worked at this verdant home-atelier from 1928 until the late 60s. Upon his death, his wife bequeathed everything to the city of Paris, and the secluded gardens, filled with Zadkine's modernist sculptures, are a true Paris oasis.
100 bis rue d'Assas, 6th, 01 55 42 77 20. Open daily.
Gustave Moreau Museum
Remaining almost as it was when Moreau painted here, this elegant town house offers a rare glimpse into the enigmatic artist's life and times. A respected teacher—Matisse and Rouault were his students—Moreau caused a sensation in Paris with his hallucinatory paintings. A primary influence on the later surrealist and symbolist movements, Moreau's work also had an impact on the literature and music of his day.
14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, 9th, 01 48 74 38 50. Closed Tue.
Photo Credits: Nissim de Camondo Museum: By Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Cognacq-Jay Museum: By Siren-Com via Wikimedia Commons; Museum of the Romantique Life (Musee de la Vie Romantique): By Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons; Cernuschi Museum for Asian Art: By Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Dapper Museum: Dapper Museumvia Musee Dapper; Zadkine Museum: Musee Zadkine by Art Poskanzer; Gustave Moreau Museum: Gustave Moreau Museum RMN/Rene-Gabriel Ojeda/Musee Gustave Moreau (Officiel)