Usually, a first-time trip to Paris is not complete without a day spent traipsing around the Louvre. Whether you are an art connoisseur or just want to judge the real size of the Mona Lisa for yourself, visiting the world’s largest art museum is an experience unlike any other. My first Paris apartment was less than a mile from the Louvre, and therefore I spent many early mornings running through the gardens and late nights crossing through its illuminated courtyard on my journey home… and you know what? It’s beauty and wonder never got old.
What CAN get old is a daylong race inside the Louvre to see as many art pieces as possible, but repeatedly getting lost in its labyrinth of floors that never seem to have a nearby bathroom. Here are my tried and true tips- not just on how to avoid such frustrations, but to make your day at the Louvre a truly special experience.
Enter through the Tuileries Gardens.
It’s best to begin your visit with a walk through the Tuileries gardens, as you probably aren’t going to be up for walking the entire stretch at the end of your museum day. My first time ever visiting the Louvre, I made the mistake of visiting the gardens after a full day in the museum and as a result, my tired legs carried me to the nearest available green chair, and that was that. Then I moved to Paris realized how much beauty I missed during that initial visit!
Walking from Concorde through the Tuileries to the Louvre museum entrance will ensure you see some of the most iconic views and photo ops in the area. After passing the garden carousel and 18th century statues installed “en plein air” throughout the gardens, you will walk through the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, where the baroque-style architecture of the Louvre and the modernity of Pei’s glass pyramids will stretch before you. Then, simply turn around and look back take in views that stretch all the way to the much larger Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile at the top of the Champs-Élysées. Plus you’ll find the Eiffel Tower peaking out on the left!
You can’t do it all. Accept that in advance.
I mean, let’s be real people. At 782,910 square feet spread out over four main levels, the Louvre is the largest art museum in the world and its entirety can’t be completed in a day… even if you get there right at 9 AM and stay until close (which honestly, unless you’re on your own and have the universe’s most comfortable shoes, I don’t recommend).
Know your “must-sees” before you go and knock them out first.
If it’s your first time visiting the Louvre, you are probably wanting to see most of the famous highlights: Venus de Milo statue, Leonardo Di Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, the Hammurabi Law Code, etc.. These are located in busy areas of the Louvre, surrounded by similar works of art (for example, the lovely Mona is on Level 1 surrounded by other Italian paintings from 1250-1800). On a first visit, I recommend you do a little reading before-hand to know what is on display in each wing, map out a path that connects all your “must-sees,” and do this first thing without stopping in between. Yes, this will require not getting too distracted while walking through rooms upon rooms of other magnificent art when getting from “must-see 1” to “must-see 2″ and so on, but the alternative is running out of time (or steam) to see all that you came for.
Once you knock those “must-sees” out, breathe a little and reward yourself with time to wander and discover wings and pieces without a map. Among the many first timers I’ve accompanied to the Louvre, I find this to be the least-stressful and most gratifying way to visit. In essence, you can’t do it all, but you can do a lot- especially with a little premeditation. Know your interests, know your body, and plan accordingly.
You are not just observing art and history, you are walking through it!
Remember, the Louvre is a fortress turned royal palace with an insane amount of French history tied to it. To me, the intricacies of the actually building that continued to expand throughout history is the greatest piece of art you’re going to witness while visiting. Don’t just go see The Winged Victory of Samothrace, take in the grandeur of the Daru staircase that leads to it. While in the Salle des Bronzes Antiques of the Sully Wing, don’t forget to look up! Otherwise you’ll miss the magnificent Cy Tombly ceiling mural.
Look up and look OUT.
No, I don’t mean look out for pickpockets (although it’s always good to be on guard). When you find yourself in the above ground sections of the museum- make sure to look out the windows you are passing by! Whether it’s a high-perched view of Pei’s pyramids, spring blooms in the Tuileries gardens, or the stone fountain in the east courtyard, you will walk away with some beautiful mental pictures and/or some very instagrammable content depending on how you roll.
Wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers.
The comfortable shoe advisory is just common sense when visiting any big city, let alone a massive museum. As deeply as you may desire to look as chic as a French woman on the metro, now is not the time- leave those high heels at home.
Regarding layers- you know the Louvre was constructed well before modern amenities! Therefore, there are parts without air conditioning that can get pretty toasty in the summer. This is especially true directly below the glare of the sun coming through the transparent glass pyramids. On the other hand, during the cold fall and winter months, the Louvre (like many other large, old Parisians buildings) can get really drafty. Think about when you are going to be visiting and plan your layering options accordingly!
Take a breather on Le Café Marly’s patio.
There is nothing like hours upon hours of crowded museum exploration that can turn the happiest of travelers into stressed, hangry curmudgeons. Allow yourself to take a breather and stop for a snack or afternoon coffee in order to rest your feet and prolong your energy.
There are multiple dining options within the Louvre, but I suggest the patio of Le Café Marly because at this point, some fresh air will do you some good. Plus, this is a patio with a VIEW- you will be directly facing Pei’s pyramids in a spot that is particularly stunning when they are lit up at night. On a cold or dreary day, I highly recommend un lait chaud vanille (hot vanilla milk). No worries if you are making the most of a rainy Paris day to explore the museum, all of Café Marly’s outdoor space is covered.
Wednesdays and Fridays are best. Tuesdays are not an option.
The Louvre is closed Tuesday. I REPEAT, the Louvre is closed Tuesday! I don’t know how many people’s trips to Paris have been severely disrupted by this fact, but I truly hope to single-handedly reduce that number and the associated disappointment.
The Louvre’s regular hours are 9 AM to 6 PM (09h-18h), but on Wednesdays and Fridays they push back closing time to 9:45 PM (21h45). So naturally, when buying a one-day museum pass, these are the days you are going to get the most flexibility and bang for your buck.
Also, if you happen to be in Paris the first Saturday of the month, as an added bonus, the Louvre offers free entry to all visitors from 6 PM – 9:45 PM (18h-21h45). That’s also true on every Friday night if you are 26 or younger- just bring your ID!
Make sure to see the Louvre at night.
The Louvre transforms into a completely different experience at night. Dimmed lights, splayed sculpture shadows and star-filled windows make for a simply magical ambiance within the museum and make you marvel at the idea of its previous royal residents navigating all the vast halls and staircases by candle light.
Even if you are not able to explore the inside of the museum at night- just come to see the lit pyramids and surrounding outdoor architecture illuminated in the moonlight! Enter the east courtyard, walk through the echoing arches and pray that there is a local violinist or cellist taking advantage of the awesome acoustics (there often is), then walk on to take in the pyramids, Louvre courtyard and Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel all glowing under the stars. Walk a little further, and you can find the top half of the sparkling Eiffel Tower raised over the Tuileries. This is the stuff of magic, I’m telling you.
Can’t stop staring? I usually can’t either. Thank our lucky stars that the previously suggested patio at Café Marly is open late and accessible from the outside of the Louvre too. Time to go try one of those lait chaud vanilles I told you about earlier!
Plan to return, but do it differently.
If you are fortunate enough to be returning to the Louvre, I highly recommend leaving Mona and her fans alone for the day and wandering some of the less-frequented corners of this massive museum instead. Walk through remains of a medieval castle on a path that was once a moat in Pavillon de l’Horloge or take the time to sit and admire some of the lesser known neoclassical French figurative painters on the first floor of the Sully Wing. Bring a good old fashioned notebook, turn off your cell phone, and let yourself get lost in the wonder and history.