HOW TO AVOID A LET-DOWN AT THE LOUVRE
The world-famous icon of France and Paris (and one of the world’s top museums)
The Louvre, located in the center of the city in the first arrondissement on Rue De Rivoli and along the River Seine, is a great choice to begin a Paris museum adventure. With its stunning French stone architecture and famous glass pyramid, it’s one of the most beautiful museums in the world. It’s also the biggest museum in Europe (some say, the world), in the biggest palace, with 16km of corridors for exhibition space.
The Louvre has a staggering collection of arts of all descriptions: Monumental, awe-inspiring, sobering as visitors ponder humankind’s earlier achievements in the museum’s displays.
The museum’s collections are housed on four levels with each floor a work of art in itself. Exquisite frescos, gilded accents and scrollwork adorn the walls, doors and moldings, with staircases and marble columns stretching under immense arched ceilings of leaded glass and detailed sculpture.
The Louvre started life as a fortress built by King Philippe-Augustus in the 12th century to defend Paris from the English invaders. Saint Louis, Philippe the Beautiful, and Charles V transformed it into a royal residence and eight centuries later, in 1793 during the French Revolution, it became the world’s largest museum.
Francois 1 had the dungeon destroyed and extended the palace, as did Henri 11 and Catherine de Medici, who also built the Tuileries Palace. It was further extended under Louis X111 and Louis XIV, but then Louis XIV decided to live at Versailles and it was only under Napoleon 1 that any new projects were undertaken—the North Wing was started and later finished under Napoleon III, and the great court to the north, the Cour Carrée, closed off.
Architect Ieoh Ming Pei added the final touch when he built the famous glass pyramid in the vast open Napoleon Court. The spectacular pyramid and the Hall Napoleon below it opened in 1989. A blend of technology and simplicity, innovation and tradition, the pyramid has evoked many reactions, but is now a firm part of the Louvre (and Paris) landscape.
The new Richelieu Wing, on the rue Rivoli side of the Napoleon Court, was inaugurated in 1993. From then, the Louvre comprised 3 wings: the new Richelieu; the Denon on the River Seine side of Cour Napoleon; and the Sully, around the Cour Carrée (literally, the square Square).
Visitors enter the museum on the level below the pyramid, from where they can enter any of the three building wings, plus a huge underground shopping area.
This huge museum can be overwhelming, and because it’s so famous it’s always crowded. The crowds are disconcerting, claustrophobic even. And yet, how can you not visit if you are in Paris?
What’s the best strategy for a first-time visitor—or a repeat visitor for that matter?
First, get hold of a floor plan (for example, on the web (www.louvre.fr/en ) or from a guidebook) and plot out what you’d like to see. Be selective, as it’s easy to get saturated and tired in this huge building where you’ll walk a lot. Pick 3-4 galleries you want to focus on and plan to do a couple before lunch and a couple after. The “biggies” (like the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory are going to be crowded no matter what, so be prepared to “go with the flow”…literally.
Planning in advance will also tell you about room closures (work is always being done somewhere in the museum!) and what temporary collections are in the Hall Napoleon (extra charge).
Second, try to arrive early in the morning and get in line early: there will be a line! It might be more romantic to enter from the top through the Pyramid, but it’s quicker and easier to arrive on the metro (Line 1, stop Palais Royal/Musee du Louvre). Follow signs to Louvre and Carrousel du Louvre (the large Louvre shopping area) and to the reception area under the large glass pyramid. There are ticket counters but also a whole row of automated ticket machines where the line moves quite quickly (can use credit cards).
Alternatively, arrive later in the afternoon on Wednesday or Friday and stay till late closing at 10pm; the crowds will thin out.
Another option now is to buy tickets in advance online.
There’s a WC at the entrance to each wing, a Starbucks and small café near the reception area, and a huge food court upstairs. The food court is always crowded and it’s usually hard to find a table.
So, third, take a breather and leave the museum for lunch: your ticket allows re-entry. Follow the exit signs to Rue Rivoli and Palais Royale, and there are a number of restaurants and cafes close by the square with the Metro station entrance and the Hotel de Louvre. We tried Restaurant Ragueneau (202 rue St. Honoré), plastered with posters of performances of Cyrano de Bergerac, which has a pleasant lunch menu.
After lunch, cross the square and re-enter the museum at the arcade with the big posters of special exhibits at the Louvre—there’s a small entrance at the right side for people who already have tickets that takes you back to the main reception area. Very easy.
On our last visit we went through Napoleon 111’s Apartments and the Apollo Gallery (with the Crown Jewels), which we’d never done before, and got a whole new view of the museum’s contents; the ornateness and opulence is staggering, the jewels so huge it’s hard to believe they are real. Wandering from the one to the other we went through the Renaissance Hall and were amazed at the number of beautiful tapestries.
Some of our all-time favorites in the museum: Michelangelo’s Dying Slave in Italian Sculpture, almost all the wonderful sculptures in Greek and Roman Antiquities (Denon Wing); the Code of Hammurabi and Winged Bull in the Mesopotamia Hall (Richelieu Wing); the French Sculptures in the Cour (an enclosed courtyard) Puget (Richelieu Wing).
Our family group’s reaction to the Winged Victory: “Gorgeous. How can that be stone?”, and “It looks like real fabric.”
And our reaction to the Mona Lisa: “A big commotion about not too much”, and “It’s just another painting, so why have the crowds chosen that one to venerate?” And, “Hard to say—we need more time to sit and contemplate, to absorb whatever it is the painting is showing, but the crowds don’t allow that.”
Note: we have some great photos of the various works in the museum, but I cannot use them here without permission. So, you’ll just have to go for yourself to see!
Hours: 9am-6pm daily, except Tuesdays, and Jan 1, May 1, Nov 11, Dec 25. Extended hours until 10pm Wednesday and Friday.
Entrance fees (permanent collections): €15, or €12 for evening on Wed/Fri (6-9:45pm); under 18 free; concessions for art students and teachers; free for all the first Sunday October-March and on July 14th.