New museum openings, including the anticipated debut of the Musee de L'Orangerie, make deciding what to do in Paris even more difficult.
Paris was spurned in its bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, but you wouldn't know it amid the bustle of construction along the Seine. This spring, the city is positively abloom with museum openings and renovated architectural treasures.
The most long-awaited debut is the Musee de l'Orangerie, which opens on May 2 after an unexpectedly drawn-out six-year reconstruction. An 1852 former orange-tree greenhouse in a corner of the Tuileries garden, l'Orangerie was transformed into a museum in 1927 to house Claude Monet's Water-Lilies, giant panels inspired by his pond in Giverny. But the oval gallery where the paintings lived became dark and claustrophobic when a new exhibition floor that covered existing skylights was added in 1960.
Construction was well under way when the discovery of a 17th-century limestone wall under the museum caused a delay; new permits had to be obtained and plans were altered. Now, the upper floor has been removed, letting in natural light, and the entry hall has been remodeled to allow direct access to the marquee art. Additionally, builders created a subterranean gallery and installed air-conditioning to protect the collection, which also includes works by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir.
Less famous--but no less worthy--are the sister palaces, the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, 19th-century jewels built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Each underwent serious renovations, and reopened late last year. The Petit Palais, a flamboyant, domed confection of gilded wrought iron and Italian mosaics, is home to the Musee des Beaux-Arts, which has permanent works by Delacroix and Courbet. An $86 million makeover restored the palace's stone exterior to its original wedding-cake whiteness; vivid blue ceiling panels representing themes of Beauty, Thought, Mysticism, and Matter were touched up. In the half-moon garden courtyard, gardeners replanted species of palm trees that had been there in the early 20th century.
Across the street, a four-year face-lift was the first stage of a $120 million total renovation at the Grand Palais. It bolstered the foundation and the structural safety of the glass-and-steel exhibition hall. (The building had been closed since 1993 after a metal bolt from the ceiling plunged 115 feet into a display case.) The showpiece is an art nouveau cupola framed by 9,370 tons of green steel. The Grand Palais also has temporary exhibits; a collection of contemporary French art will remain on display through July.
Workmen recently finished a big job at the Aquarium du Trocadero, which was closed for more than two decades. The aquarium, on a hill facing the Eiffel Tower, opened in April with over 10,000 fish, three cinemas, and an underground glass tunnel that is supposed to simulate an undersea swim.
One other noteworthy museum is in a burst of final preparations. The Musee du Quai Branly is slated to open June 23. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, is intended to resemble a giant footbridge; what looks from afar like a long elevated strip is surrounded by a garden with 178 types of trees, including sugar maples, cherry trees, and magnolias. The museum--which assumed the collection of the Musee des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie--will be the only one in Paris dedicated to ethnography and indigenous peoples.
If it feels like you'll need to add night shifts to squeeze in all the new museums, no worries: The Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in the east wing of the Palais de Tokyo, now lets guests wander around until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. As part of a two-and-a-half-year renovation completed in February, exhibition space was added in the basement, and a special "black room" was built to screen art videos. Work was also done to Raoul Dufy's 1937 La Fee Electricite, an epic celebration of electricity. The 6,450-foot oil mural, composed of 250 wood panels, had its asbestos backing stripped off, and is mounted on curved walls and illuminated from the floor, carrying out the artist's original vision.
In 1998, the government bought a Frank Gehry-designed building formerly home to the American Center of Paris. It took six years and $41 million, but in September, the Cinemathèque Française opened within. The Cinemathèque is a shrine to cinema, with daily screenings of classics, and a collection of antique film cameras and memorabilia--among them a dress Vivien Leigh wore in Gone With the Wind.
Finally, there's the newly restored 1930s apartment of Le Corbusier. The spare two-floor penthouse, where the architect lived and painted from 1935 to 1965, is part of a seven-story building that he designed. A sculpted spiral staircase ascends to a top-floor terrace; the minimalist bathroom has a white, tube-shaped shower; and throughout are glass-block accents and stone walls. Unlike at other museums, visitors are welcome to touch the works. Which means after a full day of museum hopping, you can settle into one of the black leather Le Corbusier couches, look out a picture window, and catch your breath.