The Ultimate Guide to the Louvre Museum

Pass any tourist shop in Paris, and you’ll spot objects printed with the Louvre’s famous Renaissance façade, as well as its equally famous glass pyramid. In the same shop, you’ll see keychains, magnets, t-shirts, tote bags, scarves, and more bearing the face of the Mona Lisa, the museum’s most famous masterpiece.

The Louvre’s iconic status is undeniable. But how did it come about? What was the Louvre before it was a museum, and what’s on display there today that’s worth seeing?

Let’s learn all about the Louvre and its art, as well as its place in French and popular culture.

The Louvre castle

The Louvre we know today is a massive, French Renaissance-style former palace. Although it’s centuries old, it was actually a modern (at the time) replacement for something even more old-fashioned: a castle built during the reign of King Philippe-August in the late 12th to early 13th centuries AD.

From its early days as a Greco-Roman city (then known as Lutetia (Lutèce in French)), into the Middle Ages, Paris was very small compared to its current size. The Louvre is located in the heart of modern-day Paris, but when the castle was built, it was deliberately placed against the wall that ran around the city limits.

Based on archaeological evidence, Paris probably had at least three defensive walls built around it before Philippe Auguste’s time.  These walls had been built to defend Paris from invaders, which in those days ranged from Vikings who would sail down the Seine from Normandy, to, farfetched as it may sound, Huns. Philippe Auguste built his wall particularly with the English in mind.  To the wall, he added a castle, which would eventually become the royal residence when the king and his family were in the city (they often traveled around the kingdom), and would also be a way to provide protection for Philippe Auguste’s wealth and, if necessary, the city’s inhabitants. It also served as a prison.

You can see an outline of Philippe Auguste’s wall around what was then the city of Paris, here. The wall is outlined in purple on the map. You can also find actual traces of the wall today in Paris.

No one knows for sure why the castle came to be called Le Louvre. But there are many theories. These include the idea that the word is derived from louve: a female wolf. This could refer to the fact that wolves were still found outside the city walls. Believe it or not, just beyond those walls, on what are now densely packed urban streets, you would find farmers’ fields, marshes, abbeys, the occasional church, dwelling, or tavern, and, well, wilderness.

But not all historians are content with this explanation. Another theory is that louvre is a shortened form of the word louverie, a place that housed teams specially trained and equipped to hunt wolves.

For former Louvre curator Geneviève Bresc, on the other hand, the name simply refers to what that area was called before the castle was built there. 

Yet another theory, put forth by a French etymologist, is that louvre could be related to the Latin word lupanar –a term for brothels in the Roman Empire. According to this source, aller au Louvre was even a Renaissance-era insult. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any concrete evidence or cited sources to back up this saucy theory, but why not?

Back to the more sensible: Another theory holds that the word is derived from a Germanic or Old French word that means “fortress”. Less exciting, but more probable.

We may not know where its name came from, but today that doesn’t really matter: Say “Louvre” just about anywhere in the world and people will know what place you’re talking about!

A few centuries after the Louvre castle’s construction, fashionable, forward-thinking Renaissance king François I decided that castles were démodés (too old-fashioned). Besides, by this time the city walls were much further way, so there was space to use for courtyards and gardens. Over time, the castle was demolished and an enormous palace rose in its place and in the areas around it.

Luckily, the castle did leave some traces behind.  Even today, a small portion of its walls can be seen in the basement of the current Louvre museum. In addition to giving a helpful idea of just how big the castle was, there’s a really neat, very human touch: many of its stones have crude drawings of things like hearts on them. These were the marks left by different stonemasons to show the stones they’d cut and were due payment for.

Exploring what remains of the Louvre castle in the basement of the modern-day museum.

Also in the basement of the Louvre museum is a model of the entire castle. That a pretty accurate model could be made of it isn’t only due to its ruins; another famous trace of the Louvre castle can be found in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Considered one of the greatest medieval illuminated manuscripts, it’s famous for showing a typical year of a French nobleman, his servants, and subjects. Realistic touches abound, including the scenery; you can find many castles, as well as Parisian monuments, in the background of its pages. Many are still standing and recognizable today. Others, like the Louvre castle, are a memory that it’s preserved for us. The Louvre castle is depicted on the page for the month of October. In this illustration, the duke’s servants are tiling the fields beyond the city walls. The castle, a high, many-roomed structure, towers over it. 

You can read more about the old Louvre castle (including its exact dimensions) here.

The Louvre palace

The difference between a castle and a palace is that a castle is built with defense in mind. The Louvre castle had small windows and was built high. A palace, on the other hand, is more of a celebration of royalty. Low and sprawling, they often feature big windows and lots of architectural flourishes.

The Louvre palace is no exception. Although it’s grown over the years (and was reduced a bit in 1871, when the Tuileries Palace,  the royal residence which was connected to it, was burnt down by angry Communards), the basic idea has remained the same: The Louvre gives an impression of grandeur and majesty – exactly what François I and subsequent French rulers wanted to evoke to their subjects, as well as to the rest of the world.

A wing of the Louvre

The palace today is a series of wings and courtyards, built in the French Renaissance style.  But, as this map illustrates, while some portions date to the mid-1500’s, others were constructed  as recently (relatively speaking) as the late 19th century. Today, you’ll see many decorative motifs and sculptures on the facades, and also a few monograms. A  fun game is to look for large, sculpted “N” ‘s both there and in parts of the museum’s interior – these are, of course, the initials of the proud and flamboyant Napoleon and Napoleon III.

But the palace wasn’t just about royals and emperors. It housed French government offices, as well. As late as 1989,a portion of the palace was used by the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The Louvre Museum: a Revolutionary concept

Over time, the royal family accumulated quite a lot of artwork, whether through the spoils of war, gifts, or purchases. When King Louis XVI and his family were deposed in 1793, the royal art collection was open to the public.

Before, you would have had to be a part of the nobility or clergy, or in some way notable, to see these works. Now, during the museum’s three weekly opening days, anyone could walk through the doors and admire them. It was a truly revolutionary concept.

Over the years, the Louvre has grown to become the largest museum in the world, with an enormous collection of art and decorative objects, and even additional branches (the Louvre Lens and the Louvre Abu Dhabi).  The museum’s collection was amassed from those original royal possessions, as well as art and decorative objects confiscated from the Church and other nobles during the Revolution.  Other works were gifts, donations, or purchases, while some, unfortunately, are arguably thefts – for example, spoils of wars or military campaigns of the past. 

One positive thing about the Louvre is that the idea of access for all has remained. Even if you can’t afford a ticket, the Louvre offers special times when entry is free. Most recently, this is the first Saturday of the month, from 6pm-9:45pm, and all day on July 14th (Bastille Day).

A notable thing that has changed is how the art is displayed. Until around the 1930’s, paintings in museums and galleries used to be cluttered together, often displayed in rows, filling up the walls. You can see this style of display in countless paintings and old photographs of the Louvre’s interior.

One of the most famous of these is an idealized view of the Grande Galérie, painted in 1796, by Hubert Robert, the first curator of the museum. Recently opened, the Louvre displayed “only” a few hundred works of art to the public, and was located solely in the Grande Galérie, a large corridor that runs parallel to the Seine. Robert’ s painting served as a sort of proposal to heads of government and finance. It shows a glimpse of the perfect art museum at the time. Robert wanted the ceiling to be pierced with large windows that would let in a lot of light (and he’d get his wish). But the cluttered walls weren’t an issue to him, and they wouldn’t be in most European museums at the time.

You can see this in artist Alexandre Brun’s “View of the Salon Carré at the Louvre”, painted nearly a hundred years later, in 1880. The cluttered (at least to modern eyes) Salon Carré wasn’t a place for minor works to be showcased; at the time, it contained some of the Louvre’s most famous canvasses, including the Mona Lisa.

Some museums still use this display style today, or a slightly less cluttered version of it. This includes many areas of the Louvre. But the “white cube” display style (one work with nothing above or below it in a designated wall space) has become the norm. Even the Louvre’s Grande Galérie features mostly white cube-style displays today, as you can see in this recent photo of it.

But let’s go back to the 1790’s. In Robert’s ideal vision of the museum, you can also see that in addition to strolling around, visitors could set up their own canvasses to copy the works of masters that they had never been able to see before.  Art students as well as art-loving amateurs still sketch and (with permission) paint these same works at the Louvre today. Copying art is a great way for budding artists to learn. But you can also think of copying art as the 18th century version of taking a photo or buying a postcard of a painting in a giftshop.

Another notable thing about Hubert’s view of the Grande Galérie is that there are men and women, children and elderly people, reflecting that this was truly a space open to everyone.

The Louvre in the 20th century: Disappearances and a pyramid

The Louvre experienced many changes over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of them would ultimately raise a work of art from masterpiece to worldwide icon.

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from its metal hooks on the wall of the Salon Carré. The French police investigated desperately for two years, and meanwhile, people came to see the blank space where the painting used to hang, drawn in by headlines in newspapers around the globe, and lots of speculation about this astonishing mystery.

There were many theories about who could be the culprit. At one point, Pablo Picasso and his friend, artist and poet Guillaume Apollinaire were suspects, since Apollinaire’s former secretary Honoré-Joseph Géry Pieret, often plucked up Iberian sculptures from the museum (security, as you might have guessed, wasn’t exactly top-notch in those days). Picasso and other artists sometimes purchased these sculptures, which inspired aspects of their own groundbreaking works.

Two years later, the mystery was solved. An Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked as a carpenter for the Louvre, had simply removed the Mona Lisa from her frame one morning and hidden her under his work coat, leaving the museum behind. He kept the painting hidden in his apartment for nearly two years. Then, he went to Florence, Italy, which he considered the work’s rightful home.

Peruggia mistakenly believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Italy during Napoleon’s campaigns there. He contacted the head of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to tell him that he had brought the painting back to Italy. The museum verified that the painting was the real Mona Lisa, based on its craquelure the unique pattern of cracks that appears on a painting’s surface over time. Peruggia was arrested.

The well-intentioned art thief may have simply been moved by the painting and patriotism. Or maybe he also wanted money (he asked the Uffizi for a reward). Or, some have speculated that he might have been part of a bigger plan involving forgeries of the masterpiece. The Italians, though, took it all lightly. Peruggia’s trial was a spectacle, people adored him, and the painting was briefly displayed in Italy and then returned to France. Peruggia himself later returned to Paris with a new identity, but he didn’t steal any art ever again. Instead, he married and opened a paint shop.

The theft didn’t have the outcome Peruggia expected, but it did change something about the Mona Lisa. For the two years that the painting was missing, everyone was talking about it. Even in distant countries, people saw images of the lost Mona Lisa in newspapers and posters. By the time it was returned to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa had become the most famous painting in the world, and it’s been that way ever since.

If you’re interested in learning more about the theft of the Mona Lisa, this article has some great additional information.  And this video is an awesome source of photos and images related to the theft.

The next time artwork left the Louvre unexpectedly in the 20th century happened for an entirely different and much less fun reason. At the start of World War II, most of the museum’s masterpieces were secretly removed and stored in the Château de Chambord. This was to protect fragile works from possible damage due to bombardment, but also to keep them from theft by the Nazis, who had a habit of “collecting” art from those they considered their enemies.  The works of the Louvre remained safe in their hiding place during the war, and were brought back to the museum shortly after armistice was declared.

Visiting the Louvre today, you’d never know that these works had been hidden away. But Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa (and the resulting fame of the painting) has left its traces: The Mona Lisa is now on display in a special, high-security, bullet-proof case, and is still a star of the art and pop culture world.

Besides this, the most obvious change to the museum in recent times is the Louvre Pyramid. The project began when then-President François Mitterrand decided to change the function of the Louvre, making it fully a museum, not a museum shared with government space. This meant relocating the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, in order to display more artwork. But it didn’t stop there. Mitterrand commissioned the construction of what is today called Le Carrousel du Louvre – essentially an upscale underground shopping mall and transportation connection. It’s also an additional entrance to the museum itself.

Aboveground, architect I.M. Pei designed the now-famous glass pyramid that caps the underground ticketing and information area of the museum and serves as its main entrance. (There’s also a much smaller inverted pyramid just outside the underground museum entry, which plays a role in Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code.) 

Throughout the 1980’s, when the pyramid was being constructed, people were skeptical about how it would look in the middle of the Louvre. Amazingly, it somehow works. The modern, metal and glass structure’s dynamic lines contrast perfectly with the staid elegance and stone of the Renaissance palace around it.

The Louvre Museum today

Today, the Louvre is the world’s most-visited museum, with 10.2 million visitors in 2019 alone.

You’ll find 35,000 works of art and decorative objects on display there (although the total number in its collection is a staggering 380,000). There’s space for them: The Louvre is the largest museum in the world (in terms of gallery space), with 782,910 square feet ( 72,735) square meters to explore.

These impressive facts have their advantages, but also disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage is probably the fact that it’s more or less impossible to see everything in the Louvre in a single day’s visit, unless you run madly through the museum, which would be pointless and also probably a way to get in trouble with the museums’ guards. (More on all of this a little later).

So, when you go to the Louvre, plan to see what you want to see most, and hope that you’ll have time for some other stuff, too. But don’t be disappointed that you won’t be able to see everything. Fortunately, the museum is so big and there’s so much to take in that you probably won’t feel like you’ve missed out.

You can read more about how to plan your visit a little further on. And you can read lots of fun (and sometimes strange) facts about the Louvre here.

When is the Louvre open?

As a general rule, as of this writing, the Louvre is open every day except Tuesdays and a few holidays.  The museum’s opening hours are from 9am-6pm, but there are nocturnes (late-night museum hours) on Wednesday and Friday nights, from 6pm-9:45pm.

There’s also a nocturne on the first Saturday night of the month. The museum doesn’t charge for tickets at this time…but that means it might be really crowded and the lines may be so long that you won’t get much time (if any) to look at the art.

Things can change a lot at the Louvre when it comes to opening times. So, you should always check the museum’s website before going to get the latest opening hours, and to find out if there’s been an unexpected closing or change of times. For example, the 2019-2020 strike against retirement reform meant that the museum sometimes closed earlier than usual.

What should I know before I visit the Louvre?

Whenever you’re planning to visit a museum or monument anywhere  in the world, it’s a good idea to visit its website to find out details like opening hours, admission prices, rules about food and drink, what kinds of bags and/or carriages you can bring (if any), and so on.  The Louvre is no exception. Make sure you check its official site when you plan your visit, and the night before or day of, for good measure.

Here are a few things to know about the Louvre that might not be what you were expecting:

Rooms and galleries may be closed, and some works of art may be on loan to other museums.

Many large museums will shut down particular rooms or galleries, for a number of different reasons. So, be sure to check regularly to be sure you’ll get to see the things you wanted to, or what to expect in general.

Works of art at the Louvre may also be lent out for exhibitions or to other Louvre locations like the Louvre Lens in the north of France, and the Louvre branch in Abu Dhabi. Generally speaking, though, this is rare for the museum’s most iconic pieces, although it does happen. For example, Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” was on loan to the Louvre Lens for a time. Always check the Louvre’s official site to find out what might be closed or not on view. Also, don’t be afraid to contact the museum if seeing a specific work is really important to you.

It’s worth buying tickets in advance.

Lines to get into the Louvre can be brutal, sometimes lasting hours. Buying advance tickets means you’ll reserve a time slot, letting you bypass non-ticket holders or those who have later time slots. It may cost a few euros more, but it’s absolutely worth it – and I say this as someone who prides herself on not being a big spender when it comes to travel.

Some people can get into the Louvre for free.

As of this writing, the Saturday nocturne (6pm-9:45pm on the first Saturday of the month) is free for everyone, as is admission on Bastille Day (July 14). But every day, the museum is free for people under 18 years old, as well as most European residents up to 25 years old. The Friday nocturne is free for anyone under age 26, regardless of their country of residence.

There are a few other ways you can visit the Louvre for free – for example, if you’re an art student or teacher in France, if you’re disabled or accompanying a disabled person, or if you have a Louvre membership card. You can find the full list of those eligible for free admission here.

You won’t see any art from later than about 1848 at the Louvre.

Barring temporary exhibits and the occasional art installation, the Louvre only showcases artifacts and artwork up to about the mid-19th century. The largest collection of art made after 1848 in Paris is housed at the nearby Musée d’Orsay, which features works from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Paris’s largest modern and contemporary art museum, meanwhile, is the Centre Pompidou. But these are the biggies. Paris is full of smaller museums that also have amazing art collections. You can find a list of all of them here.

What art should I see at the Louvre?

The Louvre is full of masterpieces from many different cultures and eras. Hopefully you’ll be able to spend enough time there to see a little bit of each kind. But everyone generally at least tries to see “the three ladies of the Louvre”:

1. The Winged Victory of Samothrace

Sculpted sometime in the 3rd-1st centuries BC, The Winged Victory of Samothrace is  what remains of a magnificent stone figurehead on the prow of a stone ship. The sculpture was probably an offering made by the city of Rhodes to thank the gods for victory in a naval battle. It was unearthed on the island of Samothrace in 1863, by a French archaeologist. The statue is a sort of “greatest hits” of many Ancient Greek sculpting styles, including the “wet drapery” style, which means that special attention was paid to sculpting the figure’s clothing to show her body and also add movement and dynamism. Even without her head and arms, the Victory is breathtaking .

In my personal opinion, of all the museums I’ve been to, she’s one of the best-displayed works of art I’ve ever seen. She reigns above a tall staircase, with a skylight illuminating her from above. However you feel about Classical art or sculpture in general, the Winged Victory really is a must-see.

2. The Venus de Milo

The Venus de Milo has been depicted and referenced in pop culture and high art for centuries, from paintings, to cartoons. Sculpted sometime in the 3rd-1st centuries BC (the same era as her fellow Lady of the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace), the Venus de Milo may not actually depict Venus (or Aphrodite, as she’s known in Greek mythology) at all. She has no attributes that would suggest what deity she represents, but her naked torso and sensual curves convinced the French archeologists who unearthed her in the early 1800’s that she must be the goddess of love. 

Besides her famously missing arms, her original jewelry and paint job (she was probably painted in brilliant colors, like most Greek sculptures at the time) have vanished, as well.

Although this Venus was sculpted in an era when balance was considered beautiful, when you see the sculpture in person, it’s strange to see how large and ungainly her feet are. This distortion may be due to the angle she was originally supposed to be viewed at (this was something many Ancient Greek artists and architects considered when they created their works), or it could be that she was displayed in a way that her feel weren’t particularly noticeable. Even today, her feet aren’t the first thing you look at when you come upon her. From a philosophical standpoint, you could even say it goes to show there’s no perfect beauty in the world.

3. The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500’s. Although there is some controversy regarding the subject, it’s most likely a portrait of Madonna Lisa del Giocondo, the daughter of one of Leonardo’s noble friends.

Many people say that the work was stolen from Italy, but it’s one of those relatively rare masterpieces in just about any European museum that actually rightfully belongs to the place it’s in; Leonardo was still working on it when he came to live in France at François Ier’s invitation. He left it to the king when he died.

Over the years, it remained in the royal collections, then was used by those who took power. It’s said that Napoleon hung it in his bathroom.  Whether or not that’s true, it shows something interesting about the Mona Lisa: she wasn’t always the iconic, most-recognized painting in the world.

This doesn’t mean that the Mona Lisa is overrated.  Da Vinci’s use of sfumato, a blending of shadow and light, makes her seem alive, as do her mysterious smile and gaze. If you manage to get close to her at the Louvre (which isn’t always easy due to crowds, but be persistent  – that always works for me!), look at her hands. The realistic details of the veins you can see through her skin are due to Leonardo secretly dissecting corpses (at the time, this was considered blasphemy by the all-powerful Catholic Church) to learn more about the human body.

So, those are the ladies of the Louvre. But once you’ve seen them(or decided to skip them), what else is worth seeing?

It really depends on what you’re passionate about. I do think it’s worthwhile to visit the basement of the museum to see the old castle ruins, and I personally would recommend seeing Canova’s sculpture “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”, as well as the 19th century paintings like “The Raft of the Medusa”.

“Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”, 1787-1793

And of course, if you go looking for the Mona Lisa, don’t neglect the other masterpieces in the Grande Galérie that leads to the room she’s in, as well as the paintings in the room where she hangs. These include works by masters like Leonardo (yes, the Louvre has more than one Leonardo painting), Raphael, and Caravaggio, among many, many others. The galleries preceding these feature earlier Renaissance works by artists like Uccello and Botticelli, as well as Renaissance precursors like Giotto.

The room where the Mona Lisa is hung also houses some gorgeous paintings that are barely looked at by most visitors. One oversight that’s especially crazy to me is Veronese’s enormous, charmingly detailed “The Wedding at Cana”, which is on the wall facing the Mona Lisa and mostly sees tourists’ backs.

If you love Islamic art, the Louvre has an impressive collection. The same goes for Ancient Egyptian art. The Egyptian wing stretches enormously before you. In addition to all sorts of art and artifacts, you’ll also be able to see a few mummies, including a well-preserved, unwrapped one of a young princess. I always like to visit her. If you love historical European jewelry and the decorative arts, there’s a whole section of that, as well as arms and armor, and so much more. And then there are Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, as well as sculptures from the last few centuries, including works by Michelangelo. And then there are the often impressive temporary exhibits…

If there are works or periods/styles of art that you really want to see, it’s best to do a little planning before you go.

Here are some ways to plan what to see at the Louvre:

Use the Louvre’s official website.

You can find what the museum considers its “must-sees” in the “masterpieces” category on the “Selected Works” page, or explore their other thematic selections there.. 

You can also search by department (for example, “Paintings”, “Egyptian Antiquities”, “Decorative Arts”, etc.).

Buy or borrow a book on the works at the Louvre

This is how I planned my very first Louvre trip, for what it’s worth. The book I used was Treasures of the Louvre,by Michel Laclotte. It comes in a very small (although very thick) edition that makes it easy to take with you to the museum if you want.

Consider discovering something new.

If you don’t have a particular plan, why not try to see art that you wouldn’t normally get to see in museums where you live? For instance, maybe you have a local fine arts museum with lots of European or European-style art, but you don’t have a museum or gallery where you can see Ancient Egyptian or Islamic art.

The Great Sphinx of Tanis, ca. 2600 BC

If you’re traveling with kids or teenagers, ask what they’d like to see.

This will give them the opportunity to really connect with art – and also to be less bored and more willing to be patient while you check out  what you want to see. Trust me, this comes from experience.

If your kid isn’t old enough to have studied art or really have a lot of opinions about it yet, consider what might interest them in general. For instance, my toddler thought it was so cool to be able to walk alongside the towering ruins of the old Louvre Castle, and then, not far away, to see an enormous stone sphinx and a mummy from the Egyptian art collection. 

Don’t feel like your kid is going to stifle your enjoyment of the art at the Louvre.

Even if you’re a hardcore art nerd like myself, kids can give you a new perspective and even make you lighten up a bit. And, as I’ve said, by showing them art that they like, they’re likely to be a lot more patient when you take time to check out the works that you really want to see.

Think about pop culture.

I’ve often gone to museums and monuments with people who weren’t really into them…until they recognized something from a movie, TV show, video game, book, or even meme they like. I’ll mention some Louvre pop culture moments a little further on, but if none of those speak to you or the people you’re traveling with, think about the kinds of things you watch, read, and do, and if any of those involve the Louvre and/or the artwork in it. For instance, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you can see a copy of Il Porcellino, the famous Florentine Baroque boar sculpture that’s shown a few images of Hogwarts throughout the Harry Potter movies. 

Look for what you love.

You may prefer to experience art through what you love. For instance, I have a friend who’s fascinated by Tarot cards and is thrilled when she sees art that in some way reflects a common motif or card symbol. That sounds really specific, and that’s exactly my point. Art is so vast, especially in a museum with so many works from so many historical periods and styles, that you’re almost certain to find at least a few things that echo or connect with your passion. Say you love cats, for example (I know I do!). Before you go to the Louvre, do an online search for “cats Louvre” and see if any works come up. Then, plan your visit around seeing some of those. Not only will you get to enjoy them in person; you’ll also discover other, non-cat-related but equally cool works along the way.

Use a guide or take a tour.

Some people like to just explore museums on their own, but if you feel pressed for time or intimidated by the sheer size of the Louvre and its collections, a tour might be a good option. There are lots of ways you can do this, from hiring a local guide, to downloading an audio guide online (here’s a link to the Louvre’s official audio guide). And don’t be afraid to be old school, if that’s what you prefer. You can find lots of print guides — either standalone books or sections of guidebooks — that can give you a nice way to discover works at the Louvre, too.

The Louvre in French culture and pop culture

Although the Louvre has millions of visitors a year and contains world-famous art, it’s not a part of everyday French life. Parisians do appreciate their museums, and school groups do visit the Louvre frequently as well, but the everyday routine, as well as the crowds at the museum, mean that not every person in Paris is lined up to get into the Louvre on a regular basis.

This being said, the Louvre is a part of the Parisian landscape, and many Parisians praise the audacious combination of its old architecture with I.M. Pei’s pyramid. There are also exhibits that are a big draw locally, like the one recently devoted to Leonardo DaVinci.

But the Louvre isn’t so much French or Parisian, as global. For centuries, it’s been featured in all sorts of art, literature, and pop culture, both in France, and around the world.

The Venus de Milo, ca. 3rd-1st centuries BC

One of the Louvre’s most famous pop culture moments comes from the iconic 1964 New Wave film “Bande à Part” (“Band of Outsiders”). In this scene, the movie’s three protagonists attempt to break the record for visiting the entire museum in the shortest amount of time. We see them running through some of its famous galleries, being yelled at by museum guards, and laughing the whole time (and not really checking out much art). It kind of makes you want to try the same thing…but I will say, I don’t think the security guards would stand for it today.

Another world-famous cinema and literature Louvre appearance are its scenes in The Da Vinci Code, which includes a gruesome and suspenseful opening scene in the museum.

One of the biggest recent Louvre pop culture moments is the video for the Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s song “Apes**t”, which was filmed almost entirely in and around the museum, and features lots of its masterpieces, including, of course, the Mona Lisa herself. The video challenges traditional Western ideals of beauty and art, but it also ultimately supported the museum, bringing in thousands of dollars from the rental fee, and helping to increase visits by 25%.  Plus, like the scene in “Bande à Part”, the clip is visually surprising and stunning, bringing an air of modernity and rebellion back to a museum with revolutionary roots.

Do you have a favorite work of art in the Louvre? How about a favorite  pop culture moment?  And of course, if you have any tips or recommendations for visiting the museum, feel free to share them in the comments!

Photo 1 by Alysa Salzberg

Must reads

  1. What are the best French learning apps in 2024?
  2. The 16 best websites and apps for French conversation practice
  3. Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.