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The Centre Pompidou is one the most fun things to do in Paris and it hosts one of the best museums in Europe. I know that now. But I’ll admit that on my first visit to Paris, it wasn’t on my radar at all.
I remember our last day in the city, a Paris Museum Pass in hand, thinking, “I’ve just spent the last three days seeing the best artworks I’d ever read about at the Louvre, the D’Orsay, the Cluny…why do I need yet another art museum?” But we had a few hours before leaving for the airport, and it would be free with our pass, so we decided to go in.
Picasso, Bourgeois, Mondrian, Soulages: the modern art in the Pompidou blew my mind.
It could not have been clearer that, no matter what any artists may have created hundreds of years ago, there would always be a reason for new art. That there’s no such thing as no new ideas. And that Masters are called that for a reason, but they are mostly dead. There’s something powerful in discovering work by artists who are still very much alive.
I put the museum on my must-see Paris list that day, and forever. I would be so very happy if I could convince you to visit the Centre Pompidou as well.
Not sure if the Pompidou is worth your money and your time while visiting Paris? Here are my 10 reasons the answer is a definite oui.
1. The building itself
The Pompidou is one of the most famous buildings in Paris – or should I say infamous. It was commissioned by Georges Pompidou, President of France from 1969 to 1974. When it opened in 1977, many Parisians hated it. It certainly stood out – with its bright colours and industrial design. The concept is to show the insides of the building on its outsides. Stand in front of it and take a look at each colour – the green pipes are coded for plumbing, yellow are electrical wires, etc. It’s a marvel of art and engineering and different from any other building you’ll see in Paris.
2. Free views of Paris
One of the best views of Paris is from the top of the Pompidou at sunset. Tickets to the museum are only validated once you reach the galleries so you can enter the building and ride the elevator up to the top without paying. Like all the infrastructure of the Pompidou the elevator is outside the building. So you can look out and the public can look in at you too.
From the domed viewing platform at the top you can see the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and more.
This is an excellent free thing to do if you are wandering the Marais and it starts to rain.
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3. Musée National d’Art Moderne
The National Museum of Modern Art is the name of the actual museum inside the Centre Pompidou. It is the second largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the world, after the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and is dedicated to art from 1905 to present day.
Amongst the more than 100,000 items in its collection are important paintings, photography, sculpture and other works from famous names like Picasso, Kahlo, Starck, Pollock, Bourgeois, Mondrian, Warhol, etc. There’s also video, audio and light installations. But for me, the delight from a visit to the Centre Pompidou is discovering artists you’ve never heard of. Or even better, kinds of art you had never even thought of.
I remember walking through a retrospective exhibition of Pierre Soulages, then France’s most famous living painter. There were rooms of giant paintings, all black. Soulages called them Outrenoir. This show showed me how much emotion and light you can pour into an all-black canvas. Now I look for Soulages and similar works in every art gallery I visit in the world, and am happier for it.
Yes, yes, I realize my artist friends, my art school friends, my academic friends, and perhaps you, dear reader, already know a lot about modern art and have less to discover from your visit to Centre Pompidou than I. But…there are new artworks all the time. On my last visit that included “Evidence” an audio/visual installation from Patti Smith with the Soundwalk Collective. No matter how much art you have seen, the Pompidou can show you more.
4. So Many Women Artists
On my first visit to the Pompidou, I was lucky enough to catch what was then largest all-female art exhibition in the world. I was confronted with a black and white photograph of dental surgery overlayed with the text “You Substantiate our Horror” in cut and paste, like the fanzines of my youth, or some kind of ransom note. This was my introduction to Barbara Kruger, the American feminist collage artist. And the Guerilla Girls activist collective. And photographer Cindy Sherman. I saw the famous “Flesh Dress” by Canada’s Jana Sterbak. This was not work I was used to seeing in famous cultural institutions.
At the Musée National d’Art Moderne, women are more than nude models on canvas. They are the creators. The permanent collection features works from Frida Kahlo, Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Bourgeois, Diane Arbus and the like. I always see something interesting from a feminist perspective there.
On my most recent visit I fell in love with a sublime large installation by Alicja Kwade. I’ve seen enough horror movies set in strange cabins in the woods to be unnerved by her optical illusion involving mirrors and natural elements. But I kept walking around it anyway, trying to figure it out. I couldn’t. Only smile and laugh. I know you will discover something equally wonderful if you visit.
5. You can visit the Centre Pompidou late
Two floors of galleries are open until 11pm on Thursdays. So civilized! Not everyone wants to hit up a bar at night when they travel, or has the budget for theatre shows. Solo women travellers especially can enjoy a safe, affordable environment to explore Paris after dark.
6. You can work in the library
The Centre Pompidou is more than the art museum. On the second floor is the Bibliothèque Publique D’information, or BPI, a free place to study or work. This public library is filled everyday with locals taking advantage of the quiet environment and good Wi-Fi. It’s one of my top tips for visitors to Paris who need a place to work for a while and don’t want to spend money in a café.
The library is open every day except Tuesday, from noon to 10pm weekdays and 10am to 10pm on weekends. You can check in advance how busy it is too. To enter, look for the “BPI” signage outside to by-pass the line for the museum. You will need to grab a free ticket and go through security.
7. It’s so accessible
Art is for everyone. Or it should be. But cultural institutions are just now starting to make their spaces more accessible. The Pompidou has such well thought-out accommodations for differently abled visitors, and they are all free. Here are just a few services available
- Free Admission to museum for visitors with disabilities, and their companions.
- Wheelchairs and “Seat Sticks” to borrow
- Neurodivergent guests or those with learning disabilities can download an app to prepare for their visit and access adapted content on site (Only in French)
- Guided tours in sign language, lip reading tours for the hard of hearing, audio description tours for the blind or sight impaired.
- Colour blind guests can sign out EnChroma glasses, to help them see work as the artist intended.
- Special adapted tours for visitors with Alzheimer’s disease.
8. It’s sometimes free
On the first Sunday of every month, admission to the permanent collection and the Children’s Gallery is free for everyone. And if you understand French there is a free guided tour at 11:30am (reserve a spot in advance).
9. Guided tour in English
Some days it’s tough to speak only English in Paris. But on Saturdays at 11:30am there’s an English language guided tour of the Pompidou’s most famous artworks where you can ask lots of questions about modern art in the company of other English-speaking solo travellers. And it’s only 4.50Euro on top of your admission ticket.
10. It’s about to close for 4 years!
This is the top reason you should go to the Pompidou in 2024: at the end of the year the whole building will close for four years for a complete renovation. Apparently, it hasn’t had a good overhaul since opening in 1977. So if you miss out now, you’ll have to wait.
This book documents an important exhibition of women in modern abstract art held at the Pompidou in 2021, and will inspire, educate and entertain you with more than 100 artists you need to know and the context they created their work.
Know Before You Go
- The Centre Pompidou is located in the 4th arrondissement of Paris in the Beaubourg area, near the Marais and Les Halles.
- The nearest Metro stations are Rambuteau, Hotel de Ville and Chatelet.
- Tickets for adults are 15Euro for the permanent collection. Buy tickets in advance here.
- The Pompidou is included in the Paris Museum Pass.
Every time I visit Paris I always find a new reason to visit the Centre Pompidou. Tell me yours in the comments!