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It isn’t until you’re standing in the vast courtyard of the Louvre, with sunlight shimmering through the glass pyramid and crowds milling about beneath the museum’s ornate façade, that you can truly say you’ve been to Paris. Holding tens of thousands of works of art – from Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek antiquities to masterpieces by artists such as da Vinci (including his incomparable Mona Lisa), Michelangelo and Rembrandt – it’s no surprise that this is one of the world’s most visited museums.
The Sully Wing is at the eastern end of the complex; the Denon Wing stretches 800m along the Seine to the south; and the northern Richelieu Wing parallels rue de Rivoli. Long before its modern incarnation, the vast Palais du Louvre originally served as a fortress constructed by Philippe-Auguste in the 12th century (medieval remnants are still visible on the lower ground floor, Sully); it was rebuilt in the mid-16th century as a royal residence in the Renaissance style. The Revolutionary Convention turned it into a national museum in 1793.
The paintings, sculptures and artefacts on display in the Louvre have been amassed by subsequent French governments. Among them are works of art and artisanship from all over Europe and priceless collections of antiquities. The Louvre’s raison d’être is essentially to present Western art (primarily French and Italian, but also Dutch and Spanish) from the Middle Ages to about 1848 – at which point the Musée d’Orsay takes over – as well as works from ancient civilisations that formed the West's cultural foundations.
When the museum opened in the late 18th century it contained 2500 paintings and objets d’art; the ‘Grand Louvre’ project inaugurated by the late president François Mitterrand in 1989 doubled the museum’s exhibition space, and both new and renovated galleries have opened in recent years devoted to objets d’art such as the crown jewels of Louis XV (Room 66, 1st floor, Apollo Gallery, Denon). The Islamic art galleries (lower ground floor, Denon) are in the restored Cour Visconti.
The richness and sheer size of the place can be overwhelming. However, there’s an array of innovative, entertaining self-guided thematic trails (1½ hours; download trail brochures in advance from the website) ranging from a Louvre masterpieces trail to the art of eating, plus several for kids (hunt lions, galloping horses). Even better are the Louvre’s self-paced multimedia guides (€5). More formal, English-language guided tours depart from the Hall Napoléon, which has free English-language maps.
For many, the star attraction is Leonardo da Vinci’s La Joconde, better known as Mona Lisa (Room 6, 1st floor, Denon). This entire section of the 1st floor of the Denon Wing, in fact, is hung with masterpieces – Rooms 75 and 77 have enormous French paintings from Ingres, Delacroix (Liberty Leading the People) and Géricault (The Raft of the Medusa), while Rooms 1, 3, 5 and 8 contain transcendent pieces by Raphael, Titian, Botticini and Botticelli. On the ground floor of the Denon Wing, take time for Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave and Canova's Psyche and Cupid (Room 4).
Others, meanwhile, will prefer the treasures from antiquity: the Mesopotamia (ground floor, Richelieu) and Egypt (ground and 1st floors, Sully) collections are both superb. Highlights include the Code of Hammurabi (Room 3, ground floor, Richelieu) and The Seated Scribe (Room 22, 1st floor, Sully). The mosaics and figurines from the Byzantine Empire (lower ground floor, Denon), which merge into the state-of-the-art Islamic collection in the Cour Visconti, are also notable. Topping the list of ancient masterpieces are the armless Greek duo, the Venus de Milo (Room 16, ground floor, Sully) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace (top of Daru staircase, 1st floor, Denon).
Also of note are the gilded-to-the-max Napoléon III Apartments (1st floor, Richelieu), Dutch masters Vermeer (Room 38, 2nd floor, Richelieu) and Rembrandt (Room 31, 2nd floor, Richelieu), and the 18th- and 19th-century French painting collection (2nd floor, Sully), which features iconic works like Ingres’ The Turkish Bath (off Room 60).
The main entrance is through the 21m-high Grande Pyramide, a glass pyramid designed by the Chinese-born American architect IM Pei. If you don't have the Paris Museum Pass (which gives you priority), you can avoid the longest queues (for security) outside the pyramid by entering the Louvre complex via the underground shopping centre Carrousel du Louvre. You'll need to queue up again to buy your ticket once inside; buying tickets online (€2 surcharge) and renting a multimedia guide in advance will save you time.
Tickets are valid for the whole day, so you can come and go as you please.