Mona Lisa or Moaning Lousy: The Best Way to Visit the Louvre
© 2011 by Aurelio Locsin
Ask anybody what the most famous art museum is, and most likely you’ll get “The Louvre” as your answer. It boasts the Mona Lisa, for heaven’s sake, plus a lot of the art you’ve read about in schoolbooks. It was certainly the museum on my most wanted list when I visited Paris, France, for the first time recently.
I soon discovered, however, that a visit to its hallowed halls could either be a moaning nightmare of crowds and long lines rivaled only by a summer day at Disneyland, or an enlightening experience, akin to a class with a beloved teacher. To ensure your experience is closer to the latter, which mine was, follow these simple tips.
Check the schedule.
Being the prepared traveler that you are, you already know that the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. But did you know that different galleries also close on different days? This is because the museum does not have the staff to keep everything open all the time. You’ll need to check the Schedule of Room Closures on their website to make sure that your favorite room is available on the day you intend to visit.
The Louvre is open from 9 AM to 6 PM, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, when certain galleries are open until 10 PM. The least crowded times to go are in the evening. The most crowded times are Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and mornings.
Research the art.
Much of the collection’s 35,000 pieces of artwork is stored in the online index, so you can search for specific pieces or styles that you favor. Each piece is described by title; artist; size; creation date; whether it’s on display, stored or traveling; and a map showing its location. You can collect the art that you want to see in your own personal space, which is free to sign into. You can thus create a personal list of pieces, their graphics and their locations that you can take with you on your visit. This enables you to efficiently use your time, instead of wandering aimlessly hoping to bump into your favorite artwork. An interactive and downloadable floor plan is also available online to help you navigate.
I discovered that the database is about 95 percent accurate. Unfortunately, while the its maps give you the gallery location, they don’t tell you where in the gallery a piece is located. You can thus waste time searching for something, especially when a room contains dozens of works. The easy solution is to show your list to museum attendants, who are all over the place. They can point out the item to you.
Plan a route.
The worst way to see the Louvre is to spend 12 hours wandering from room to room in sequence, to study each piece individually. Given the number and magnificence of art available, you’ll be exhausted by the second gallery. A better way, if you have limited time, is to spend two or three hours doing one of the following:
- Use the list you’ve created to visit only your chosen items.
- Go on one of the English guided tours, included free with admission, for an introduction with a human being.
- Print out and take one of the Thematic Trails, which are self-guided tours. The Masterpieces of the Louvre trail is the best option for beginners.
- Buy an independent book or audio tour, available from bookstores or in the museum gift shop. My favorite is the free MP3 tour produced by travel guru Rick Steves, complete with printed maps. He actually gives you a path through the museum’s best pieces, with intelligent commentary, through the museum’s best works including the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory and Michelangelo’s Slaves.
Take your time.
If you’re spending several days in Paris, block out two-hour chunks each over three or more days. And then get yourself a Paris Museum Pass. This magic ticket enables you to visit over 60 of the city’s top attractions, including the Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pompidou Center, and the Louvre. It’s good for four two, four or six days.
Its best feature for me, other than the multiple free entries into the Louvre, was the ability to bypass the museum’s two interminable lines:
- The first line, simply to buy the ticket, can last an hour or two, but can be avoided by buying your tickets at the museum website.
- The second line, which is unavoidable, can take half-an-hour as your go through security.
These waits can take a significant chunk of your touring time and sap your energy.
With the Museum Pass, you enter a special door only for passholders that is north of the glass Pyramid. This isolated entrance has its own security check, and never any lines. We strolled right in on all of our three visits, reaching the galleries within minutes.
Spend your first visit going through the highlights of the collection through your tour of choice. Then spend your second and subsequent visits seeing just the pieces you’ve highlighted on your artwork list. Using several short trips enables you to remember and enjoy each piece, keeps you fresh for other city touring, and whets your appetite for future visits.
Take a break.
Negotiating the Louvre can be exhausting whether you take just a couple of hours or a full day. Take an occasional break by sitting for a few minutes after an hour or so to recharge your energies. If you're feeling thirsty or hungry, and don't want to leave the museum, the Café Mollien serves light snacks and is located in the Denon wing, not too far from the Mona Lisa. Otherwise, you will have to exit the museum to visit one of the remaining 14 eateries that are close by. You cannot bring food or drink into the museum, although some water and a small snack may be allowed.