No visit to Paris is complete, in my humble opinion, without stepping into the Louvre. Whether you just want to glimpse at its most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, or take a wander around the halls and take it all in, the Louvre is sure to delight.
Before I go into the history of this building and the wonderful works of art that you can encounter there, let me give you some practical tips.
The Louvre is free to enter every first Sunday of the month from October to March, but note that this is a very busy day to visit. To be honest, the Louvre is usually always busy, especially on Sundays, Mondays (apparently the worst day of all) and Wednesdays. If you can, try and visit when it is open late, which is on Wednesdays and Fridays, when it closes at 21:45 hrs (normal opening times are 09:00hrs to 18:00hrs). Note that the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
If you cannot visit on the free Sunday and you plan to visit other museums/sites in Paris, please invest in the Paris Museum Pass; see my previous post on this and visit their website for more information . This pass will save you lots of money, but more importantly, it will save you time, as you won’t have to queue for tickets. Note that children under 18 have free access to most museums/sites, as is the case here at the Louvre. If you need to buy a normal entry ticket use the self-service machines under the pyramid, as they are faster than the ticket window, or buy your ticket at the Tabac in the mall (cash only though).
Let’s talk about entering this vast building. Most tourists tend to enter at the main entrance at the pyramid, which is why the lines are so long. Again, if you have a museum pass, you will be in a different line, which will be much quicker. However, the Louvre has more than one entrance and I would encourage you to use one of these. The less grand underground mall entrance is accessed through the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall. This will, however, lead you past the inverted pyramid, made famous through the movie “The DaVinci Code”. There are two further entrance ways, the Passage Richelieu entrance and the Porte des Lions entrance. Please check the Louvre website for opening times for each of these entrances as they can vary, and the Porte des Lions seems to be closed at time of writing.
Once inside, you have to surrender you backpack/umbrella/jacket at the cloak room, as entry with anything bulky is not allowed. Note that you should not leave any valuables in your checked items. Be aware that pickpockets operate in the museum, so be vigilant at all times.
After this, make sure to pick up a free map at the information desk, situated in the middle of the ground floor. If you are pushed for time, make sure you make a list of “must see” art before your visit and plan ahead, using the Louvre website, to make the most of your visit. You can join a guided tour, for a fee, or you can get an audio or video guide, also for a small fee. Alternatively you can download a free audio guide from my favourite travel guide book author Rick Steves.
Before you head off into one of the galleries to start your Louvre experience, be sure to make use of the washrooms, as once inside the galleries, these are far and few between.
Photography without flash is allowed throughout the Louvre.
The Louvre has dominated central Paris since the 12th Century, when it was a fortress built to protect Paris, the largest city in Europe at the time, from the Anglo-Norman threat; only the Salle Basse (Lower Hall) remains today from this medieval building.
In 1364 Charles V had his architect, Raymond du Temple, change the fortress into a royal residence. After the death of Charles VI the Louvre palace was abandoned for a whole century until Francois I, in 1527 took up residence in Paris and converted the Louvre into a Renaissance palace.
Despite the transformation, the Louvre was, in the second half of the 16th Century, a mix of new buildings, work in progress and half-ruined structures over 200 years old. The lack of comfort, combined with the noise and smell of the encroaching city had Catherine de Medici order plans for the building of a new residence just a short distance away to the west. Plans for the Tuileries palace were drawn up in 1564, but work was discontinued only a few years later.
The Louvre we see today is largely a creation of Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Louis XV, although others after them have changed and added to the core buildings. However, as the palace of Versailles was completed and Louis XIV moved there permanently, royal interest quickly waned, plunging the Louvre palace, into a new period of dormancy.
In 1692, Louis XIV ordered the creation of a gallery of antique sculptures in the Salle de Caryatides in the Louvre, prompting the move of various different academies to move into the Louvre. The first exhibitions by one of the academies took place in 1699. Despite all this activity, the Louvre was not actually completed and work did not begin again until 1756 under Louis XV. In 1793 the Museum Central des Arts opened its doors on August 10. In those days admission was free with artists given priority entry over the general public, who were admitted only at weekends.
After the revolution the museum acquired numerous paintings and antiquities through treaties, as well as spoils from Napoleon I’s conquests. Napoleon’s empire fell in 1815, and each nation reclaimed its treasures and the museum was disbanded.
This didn’t last too long, as in 1824 the Museé de Sculpture Moderne was created and installed in the ground floor of the west wing. Bit by bit other wings were taken up by different museums and collections.
The birth of the modern Louvre museum took place in 1882, when the palace of Tuileries was demolished and the Louvre ceased to be a place of power and was almost entirely devoted to culture (the Finance Ministry was only moved out of the Louvre in 1981) .
These days the Louvre is dominated outside by its big glass pyramid, which was inaugurated on 30 March 1989 and serves as the main entrance to the large reception hall underneath.
The u-shaped building is separated into its three wings, Richelieu, Sully and Denon wing, starring some of the world’s most famous pieces of art:
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, located in the Denon Wing, First Floor, Room 6
- Venus de Milo in the Sully Wing, Ground Floor, Room 16
- Winged Victory of Samothrace, at the top of the Daru staircase on the First Floor
- Colossal statue of Rameses II, Sully Wing, Ground Floor, Room 12
- The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Caliari located in the Mons Lisa room
The Louvre constantly shuffles its collections around, rooms may be closed, and works of art may be out on loan or in restoration; so, if you cannot find the piece you are looking for, ask one of the many guards, who will be happy to help.
If you only have time for a few items, make sure the ones listed above are on your list. Now, a slight word of warning, everyone wants to see the Mona Lisa, so be prepared for crowds in Room 6. Everyone is trying to get as close as possible, in this case, as close to the wooden barrier in front of the painting. Get your elbows out and shuffle your way to the front, take your photos and then take the time to actually look at this rather smaller than expected painting.
Some random facts I managed to unearth about the Louvre and its art works:
- The Louvre is the largest museum in the world and is the most visited, with an average of 8.8 million visitors a year. It exhibits over 30,000 pieces of art spread across more than 650,000 square feet, with many many many more pieces in their cellars. A 2,000 strong staff look after this building every day.
- According to staff the two most asked questions they get from visitors: “Where’s the Mona Lisa?” and “Where are the toilets?”
- The 72-foot tall glass pyramid gets cleaned by a one-of-a-kind robot. Prior to this, only 10 years or so ago, the glass was cleaned by sure-footed climbers.
- It takes this robot and its “handler” two full days to clean all sides of the pyramid.
- When the glass pyramid was first unveiled, there was a public outcry – Parisians hated it (just like they hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built).
- The Louvre has 120,000 drawings, some of which have never been opened, as here are far too many to restore.
- In 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen by an Italian house painter. It was recovered two years later, when he tried to sell it.
- In fact, the Mona Lisa has had a hard time of it; she had acid thrown at her, a rock was hurled at her beautiful smile (both incidents happened prior to her being behind bullet proof glass) and even a mug was thrown at her.
A lot of people shun the Louvre as they hear horror stories of the crowds, the line ups and that you cannot view the art for the people stood in front of it taking photos with their i-pads. Yes it’s crowded, yes the line ups can be long, and yes there are people taking photos, but none of this should put you off visiting this fantastic museum, which will take you through human history through its art. If you spend a little time planning your visit ahead of getting there, are prepared for crowds, be patient and venture into the lesser visited galleries, I guarantee that you will emerge from this building with the “wow” feeling inside of you.