But first…should you?
No, it’s not a crazy question to which the answer is an astonished, “Of course! In Paris? You have to do the Louvre!”
Do you know what?
When you travel, you can do anything you want. ANYTHING! There is plenty to do in Paris, the Louvre takes a good chunk of time, even done minimally, and if you’re not that interested in art, period or have other, less crowd-afflicted destinations that interest you..no, you don’t “have to” do the Louvre.
We met a family – a couple and teen daughter – who had spent 4 days in Paris and concluded that they didn’t like it. That it was the least favorite part of their 6-week European trip. Why? Partly because they found it dirty (I didn’t – and they were from New Zealand, which I concluded must be very clean), and partly, I think, when they told me what they’d seen, because they tried to cram all the popular and iconic tourist activities – incliding the Louvre – into those four days, they didn’t know how to use the public transportation, and they just felt that their time in Paris had been spent running around the city only to stop and wait in a line for a couple of hours here and there. To see the things you “have to” see when you’re in Paris.
Now, most of the time. the “have to sees” are that for a reason. The Eiffel Tower is iconic, yes, but deservedly so. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking structure. But even that? It can be appreciated quite well without ascending, although that definitely adds to the experience.
The Louvre, and specifically the Mona Lisa are the center of most tourists’ Paris expectations. Again, with good reason – it’s huge, has an amazing collection and a fascinating history that is in itself a helpful capsule of the history of Paris. But it’s also a daunting site, especially when you walk by and see the line snaking out of the entrance pyramid. Personally, I would say that if you’ve only got half a day left, you see the line is long and you’re not an art person and there are other sites you really want to see - don’t feel “obliged” to dive in. You can go to Paris without going to the Louvre.
BUT…if you go..here’s what we experienced.
- We went four times in the almost five weeks we were there. The first time was late and we didn’t have much time – I had misread the closing times and thought we had three hours, when we only had 45 minutes. The second time was probably our most substantive.
- I bought a museum pass once – for a time period in which I planned to hit a lot of museums. I don’t know if it paid off financially, but it did in terms of line time – not so much at the Louvre, though, as at the Musee D’Orsay and L’Orangerie. The thing about the Museum Pass is that it is good for consecutive days – so in order to get your money’s worth, you will be doing a lot of museum-going on those days. It can end up being a trap.
- The thing about most Paris museums, including the Louvre, is that children are free. It makes planning and revisiting a lot easier for families, I think. You just don’t have that frantic, “WE HAVE TO SEE EVERYTHING NOW BECAUSE WE PAID ALL THIS MONEY SO JUST KEEP GOING” feeling. I missed that – free admission for kids – in Rome.
- Your first step is to buy a ticket. You don’t have to buy your ticket at the Louvre itself. You can buy them online and pick them up at any number of sites in Paris, or just walk into one of those sites (a store) and buy it there. One of the more visible and easy to find chains at which to buy tickets is FNAC – which is sort of like the French Best Buy, with the addition of huge book sections. There are several in Paris, very easy to find.
- If you want to buy tickets at the Louvre itself, the best spot is the gift shop that is in the mall under the Louvre called Galerie du Carrousel. There is hardly any line, and if there is, it moves quickly. Just know that they only take cash. No credit or debit cards. Only cash.
- There are also a slew of automated ticket machines in the Carrousel underground courtyard – those lines tend to be long, too, especially on busy days, even though there are so many machines. I think it is a factor of people just not knowing how to use them.
- Buying tickets isn’t the big hassle – going through security is. That’s where the lines are. My experience wasn’t bad. We entered through the Galerie three times, and the lines were either minimal or had maybe thirty people in them, and they moved quickly. The one time we entered at the Pyramid, the line coming out was quite long…but it was for those who didn’t have tickets. We already had tickets, so we walked right in into a quick security line.
- Take note of opening hours. They say the crowds tend to be lighter in the evenings, but we never went in the evening, so I can’t say.
- Now: the crowds. They are pretty intense, especially, I think, late morning to mid afternoon. And take note of this: PAY ATTENTION TO THE SCHEDULING OF FRENCH SCHOOL HOLIDAYS. They are frequent, and not just during the summer. The third time we went, with a visiting friend, it was a Monday and the crowds were unreal. Unlike anything we’d experienced. Ridiculous. Then I realized, looking at and listening to all the French children and families, that it was the first Monday of the All Saints’ break (late October -early November). It was like being in Washington on the Fourth of July weekend. I wouldn’t recommend it.
- There are audio/visual guides which are on Nintendo 3DS systems. I didn’t use it, but my sons did, of course. They found them easy to use, but I don’t know if you will!
- You’ll need a map. The museum is huge, and spread out in several wings. The maps will give you the location of notable iconic holdings – so if all you want to see is the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo – you can fly right there.
- Eating? Eat before you come, especially if the museum is crowded. There are some eating spots, but we found the main cafeteria too crowded and by the time we got there, they were also running out of food. As in: we waited in line at one station where they were advertising pizza, only to get up to the front after 20 minutes to be told, “No pizza. It’s finished.” (“It is finished” is what, I’ve found, French and Italians say in English when an item has run out. ) So…would it kill you to put up a SIGN?
- There’s a food court in the Carrousel mall, but it’s quite expensive (except for McDo’s, of course), and there’s not a lot of cheapish (for Paris) food directly around the Louvre. Across the river, you’d do better, and down in the park there are crepes and such. But really – go with a full stomach.
- What should you see? Whatever you want. There are some things you won’t see at the Louvre. You won’t see contemporary art, and you won’t see many Impressionists – they are at other Paris museums. You will see a good, helpfully arranged collection of European painting from the Renaissance through the Early Modern period. You’ll see some huge masterworks like The Coronation of Napoleon and The Raft of the Medusa. Magnificent sculpture. Most intriguingly, in my mind, though, are the Louvre’s antiquities – especially Egyptian and Near East.
- I was deeply impressed by these, and I’m generally not an antiquities person. The arrangement and depth of the Louvre’s antiquities collection was revelatory to me. I learned a lot and was moved at times – by, for example, the collection of Egyptian statuary depicting spouses seated together, occasionally with a child at their feet.
- These were a surprise to find and a huge hit.
- The Code of Hammurabi!
- Let me put it this way. Let’s see. If you are a painting person, have had a lot of exposure to art in various museums and have no burning desire to see anything in particular in the Louvre’s painting collection – no Medusa, Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, Napoleon or Vermeers, and don’t have a lot of time and would like to see other things in Paris..I wouldn’t feel awful about skipping the Louvre. It’s a commitment, it’s probably going to be crowded and there are so many wonderful smaller museums in Paris that are more relaxing experiences.
- But even so…that Egyptian and Near Eastern collection is quite something. And aside from the crowd snapping photos of Hammurabi’s code, your wandering will be far less hemmed in than it is in other galleries.
- Not that the other museums in Paris are all empty, either. I actually found the Musee D’Orsay to be a bit more harried than the Louvre, even on its worst day. The room with the Van Goghs, especially - it was small and one had to move through in a tightly packed line.
- It helps to get a good guidebook before you go – and there are many, and some for kids. I’ll add to this post later with some suggestions.