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World’s Greatest and Largest Museum: The Louvre Acquire Traveler’s Ultimate Prize

The most recognized symbol of Paris is the Tour Eiffel, but the ultimate traveler’s prize is the Louvre. The Louvre is comprised of three wings—the Richelieu, the Sully, and the Denon—arranged like a horseshoe, with the Pyramide nestled outside in the middle. This is the world’s greatest art museum—and the largest, with representative examples from almost every civilization on earth.

The three most popular pieces of art here are, of course, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory. Beyond these must-sees, your best bet is to focus on highlights that interest you personally—and don’t despair if you get lost, for you’re bound to stumble into something fascinating. When you arrive, pick up a copy of the museum’s excellent color-coded map to get your bearings.

The Louvre is much more than a museum—it is a saga that started centuries ago, as a fortress at the turn of the 13th century, and later a royal residence. It was not until the 16th century, under François I, that today’s Louvre began to take shape, and through the years Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XV, Napoléon I, and Napoléon III all contributed to its construction. Napoléon Bonaparte’s military campaigns at the turn of the 19th century brought a new influx of holdings, as his soldiers carried off treasures from each invaded country. During World War II some of the most precious artworks were hidden, while the remainder was looted. Most of the stolen pieces were recovered after the liberation of Paris, but no large-scale changes were made until François Mitterrand was elected President in 1981, when he kicked off the Grand Louvre project to expand and modernize the museum.

Mitterrand commissioned I. M. Pei’s Pyramide, the giant glass pyramid surrounded by three smaller pyramids that opened in 1989 over the new entrance in the Cour Napoléon. The Louvre is comprised of three wings—the Richelieu, the Sully, and the Denon—arranged like a horseshoe, with the Pyramide nestled outside in the middle. Entering from the Pyramide, head upstairs to the sculpture courtyards in the Richelieu Wing, where you’ll find the Marly Horses,four horse sculptures—two carved for Louis XIV, and two for Louis XV—in Cour Marly. The ground floor and underground rooms in this wing contain French sculpture, 18th-century French art, and the Near East Antiquities Collection, including the Lamassu,carved 8th-century winged beasts. On the first floor of this wing you’ll find the Royal Apartments of Napoleon III,a dozen elaborately decorated reception rooms. Continue to the second floor to marvel at the French and Northern School paintings, including Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, a small but famous work. If you need a bite to eat, check out Café Richelieu on the first floor, or Café Marly, accessible only from outside—both spots offer good views of the Pyramide.

The entrance to the Sully Wing is the most impressive—you get to walk around the 13th century foundations and the site’s original Medievel Moat (no longer filled with water). Below ground you’ll find the largest display of Egyptian antiques in the world after the Cairo museum, featuring such artifacts as Ramses II,a beautifully proportionate statue from the site of Tanis. Upstairs in Salle 12 is the famous 2nd-century Venus de Milo,a beautiful armless statue that’s one of the most recognizable works of art in the world. The first and second floors of the Sully Wing boast decorative arts from all over Europe, as well as 17th-century French paintings, including the Turkish Bath by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres.

To the south and east of the Pyramide entrance are galleries displaying early Renaissance sculpture in the Denon Wing. Don’t skip the coat check on the ground floor tucked behind the stairs—much of the museum is hot and stuffy. Walk up the marble Escalier Daru to discover the sublime Winged Victory of Samothrace,a statue found on a tiny Greek island that was carved in 305 BC to commemorate the naval victory of Demetrius Poliocretes over the Turks. In the Paintings section of the Denon Wing, you’ll find four by Leonardo da Vinci, including the most famous painting in the world: the Mona Lisa,located in Salle 7. Head across to Salle 75 for the Coronation of Napoléon,or to Salle 77 for the gruesome 1819 The Raft of the Medusa.

The underground entrance to each wing has audio rentals; for EUR 5 you get information about the entire museum. Thematic leaflets (including some for kids) and Louvre guided tours are available from the front desk. To save time, head for the entrance in the underground mall, Carrousel du Louvre, which has automatic ticket machines, or book your tickets online and have them mailed to you before you even leave home. Be sure to hold on to your ticket; you can come and go as often as you like during the day. The shortest lines tend to be around 1 PM. Prices drop after 6 PM for the late-night Wednesday and Friday openings; crowds thin out in the evenings. Remember that the Louvre is closed on Tuesday!

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