The Louvre is high on the list of things for you to see while you are in France. It houses one of the most magnificent collections of artwork in the world. And this artwork is displayed within the grand hallways and lavish rooms of a spectacular former palace, where kings and emperors of France, from the Middle Ages through Napoleon, lived and loved, governed and feasted. Visiting the Louvre as an historical edifice is as memorable an experience as viewing the art displayed within its walls. Grand staircases. Opulent rooms. Painted ceilings and inlaid floors. Expansive courtyards.
You will be able to see only a fraction of the Louvre and its collections during any single visit. So the best approach is to focus on having the full experience of the part of the museum you are able to absorb in one day, knowing that someday you will return. Each time you visit the Louvre will be an entirely different encounter.
In its first incarnation, the Louvre was a medieval wartime stronghold, built shortly after 1190 by King Philippe Auguste. During the 1300s, Charles V transformed the fortress into a fairy-tale castle–a splendid royal residence meant to impress his peers. In the 1500s, Françoise I refashioned the Louvre into a grand Renaissance palace, consuming much of the country’s riches on this and his many other projects. As a passionate patron of the arts, Françoise filled his palace with an extravagant collection of art and sculpture.
The palace continued to be expanded over the ages. When Henri II was felled by a lance that pierced his helmet during a tournament, his widow, Catherine de Medici, commissioned an additional palace for herself in front of the vast structure that was already in place, with magnificent gardens that reached all the way to Place de la Concorde. Catherine’s palace was burned during the uprising of 1871, but the gardens remain and are remarkable.
Come along on an imaginary tour of the Louvre, in preparation for when you visit it for real yourself. Prepare to be awed. When you actually do visit, you will have obtained in advance a Paris Museum Pass that will allow you to skip the line and enter the museum through the glass pyramid. As you explore this incomparable museum, and stroll its gardens, remember to look up at the ceilings and down at the floors. Observe the grandeur of the staircases, and the views from the windows. You will be walking in the footsteps of the kings, viewing masterworks that once were for royal eyes only.
Start outside at the glass pyramid
While you are still outside in the courtyard of the Louvre, stand facing the pyramid and orient yourself to the vast building that surrounds you. This palace is huge. It will be easier to get your bearings from outside than after you enter.
Directly in front of you is the medieval fortress section, called the Sully Wing. When you get inside, you will take the escalator to this wing first to visit the antiquities exhibits. To the right of you, along the Seine, is the Denon Wing. Later you will be walking through the Grand Gallery of this wing, to view Italian paintings from the 1300s to the 1500s, and to find the Mona Lisa.
To your left as you face the pyramid, is the Richelieu Wing. You will conclude today’s visit in this wing, exploring the glass-roofed courtyard, with its magnificent statuary, displayed on terraces and bathed in constant natural light.
Follow a path sequence from Sully to Denon to Richelieu
Once you are inside, follow the path sequence that you mapped out while you stood outside in the courtyard. Start with the Sully Wing. Move from there to the Denon Wing, and end your visit in the Richelieu Wing. Completing this circuit will take around two hours, plus whatever time you pause for a break at the Café Mollien, on the landing of the grand staircase in the Denon Wing.
Begin in the medieval Louvre
To begin your circuit, take the Sully escalator directly in front of you, and follow the signs to the Medieval Louvre on the lower floor. You are now underneath the Louvre of today. In front of you is the cylindrical tower that was once part of the fortress wall that King Philip II ordered to be built around Paris in 1190 as he was about to leave on the Third Crusade. To view the scope of the original fortress, locate the model beside the entrance to the fortress’ former moats.
Visit the Salle des Caryatides
This collection of Roman copies of Greek sculptures is phenomenal. The doorway entrance is a copy of the Caryatides, four giant sculpted female figures, supporting on their heads what was once the foundation of a musicians’ gallery. Other remarkable statues in this room include Diana of Versailles, Artemis with the Doe, and the Centaur.
Find the celebrated Venus de Milo and Winged Victory
Turn left out of the door of the sculpture room and walk through the rooms of Greek antiquities to find the Venus du Milo, with her broken nose and missing arms. This is one of the most famous of the ancient Greek statues, discovered in 1820 buried in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos. She is still lovely despite her disfigurements.
Retrace your steps towards the Denon Wing to the magnificent staircase, Escalier Daru, lit by the windows in the cupolas above. Here you will find, brilliantly displayed as though floating above you, the statue of Winged Victory.
Spot the many sun metaphors in the audience chamber of Louis XIV
Climb the stairs to the left of Winged Victory, and cross the rotunda to the entrance of the Gallery of Apollo. This part of the former palace was used by Louis XIV, the Sun King, as his audience chamber. Louis chose the sun as his emblem because of its links to Apollo, god of peace and arts. So, of course, sun metaphors abound. The painted ceiling in the rotunda depicts the fall of Icarus, flying too close to the sun. The gallery itself displays paintings that map the path of the sun. On the gallery’s vaulted ceiling are allegorical images of Apollo.
Walk the Grande Gallery and find the Mona Lisa
The massive Grand Gallery houses more Italian paintings than you could fully absorb in a lifetime. You will walk through room after room of them. Pause at those paintings that strike you, but otherwise keep moving. Watch for signs to the Mona Lisa, the masterpiece that Leonardo da Vinci himself carried across the Alps in 1515 as a gift for his patron and friend, Françoise I. The area surrounding this painting is a mob scene. But work your way forward, then take your time to fully see it. It is worth any amount of effort to stand before this mysterious work of genius, and to have this story to tell back home.
Pause for coffee or a snack at an outdoor table at Café Mollien
When your feet begin to ache, and your eyes have been blinded by all most too much magnificent art, pause for a break at the Café Mollien, located on the landing of the Escalier (staircase) Mollien. Find a table on the terrace outside, overlooking the pyramid. From this vantage point, you will be able to look across the courtyard to the Richelieu Wing, your final destination for today’s visit.
Walk through the Michelangelo Gallery
Take the time to walk down the stairs to the ground floor to visit the Michelangelo Gallery. Among the many lovely sculptures here are Michelangelo’s remarkable Rebellious Slave and Dying Slave, as well as Psyche and Cupid by Canova.
Enter the glass-roofed sculpture courtyard
Retrace your steps to the Escalier Mollien, and walk down to the lower ground floor to cross over to the Richelieu Wing. Here you will visit the vast glass-roofed Cour Marley, dedicated to the Marley statues. This enclosed courtyard was created by I. M. Pei in 1993 by covering with glass, in the same mode as the pyramid, what had been the open courtyard of the Finance Minister. The impressive statues in this courtyard, with rearing horses and racing gods, were formerly located at Marly, the country palace on the Seine that was the favorite residence of Louis XIV. The statues, with their missing fingers, toes, or noses, still bear the marks of living outdoors.
To your great relief, you will find benches here. Sit among the statues, and bask in the sunlight through the glass ceiling. Be sure to locate the incomparable Marly Horses.
Follow your Louvre visit with a walk through Tuileries Gardens
It is time to exit the Louvre for now, knowing that you will return. But do take the time to walk through the Italian gardens out front, created by Catherine de Medici. These gardens too were once for the eyes of royalty only. But they have been open to the public since 1667, and are genuinely lovely, with blooms that flower from May through October, and many magnificent statues.
Walk to the large octagonal pool at the other end of the gardens, surrounded by stature, but also by comfortable chairs. Find a chair for yourself, and pause to bask in the sun alongside the many comfortably relaxing Parisians.
Now you have visited (and survived) the Louvre, at least in your mind’s eye. You have walked in the footsteps of long-ago kings, who once hoarded these masterpieces of art and sculpture for themselves and their court. When you repeat your imaginary visit with a real one, the experience will become a lifetime memory.