Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Explore the Louvre Museum with Children

Egyptian mummy. Photo by Frog Mom
Can you freestyle the Louvre with kids? Hehe, maybe in the dead of winter when every Parisian's in the Alps skiing the winter away, but smack in the middle of summer you're pushing the ultimate frontier in extreme tourism. I tried it with my 6- and my 7-year-olds and guess what? They don't even resent me. The 6-year old enjoyed Flemish still lives of winter fruit while the 7-year old liked Mona Lisa. Even the über-crowded Ancient Egypt collections left a good impression on them.

Here is my experience, coupled with a few survival tips on how to skip long lines, find a restroom for emergencies and sit down for lunch at whatever hour without suffering more lines. Obviously the line factor is huge at the Louvre - some Disney execs had better enlighten the museum staff on efficient foot traffic. Ah well, c'est la vie.

Before going to the Louvre, get your tickets. Kids are free so it'll be only you adult. If you wait to get there to buy your tickets, better kiss your half day goodbye. I checked the stats - the Louvre Museum is the most visited art museum in the world in the entire galaxy. Meaning - you're not alone here. I bought my ticket at a FNAC store but you can also get them online. On D-day at 10am, I held my girls' hands in the metro and followed the Louvre exit signs through the crowds vaguely muttering, "What was I thinking?"

Check the lines! Photo by Frog Mom
Getting in
Once in the underground shopping area leading to the infamous pyramid, I stumbled upon, err -  wait, was this a line to get in? I almost fainted at the gazillion people in front of us so I walked straight to an information officer. Surely, he'd help a mom with two kids?

"You have your ticket madame? You need to go upstairs to the front of the pyramid. That's where you'll find your direct access." Phew. I wiped my brow and made for the Tuileries garden, crossed the street and headed to the pyramid entrance. Finally we were getting somewhere.

Under the pyramid. Photo by Frog Mom
Family itinerary
Or were we? We descended into the main hall of the Louvre - that's the hub for all three aisles of the building. I asked another information officer if they had museum itineraries for kids. You know, the kind of fun brochure for kids with bright drawings and treasure hunts?

He blanked. I showed the kids. Here, see? 6 and 7, the young one can't read. His eyes lit up and he grabbed three brochures. Two were indeed meant for kids but for much older children than mine - the kind that cares about who painted the ceilings. The last brochure was a postcard for an exhibition. Sigh. I thanked the guy and decided to freestyle the museum visit when he said, "Oh by the way, there is an audio-guide for kids." Well now, that was exciting news. "Where can I get one?" I asked. Up the stairs by the Denon entrance, he showed me. Off we went, up to the Denon entrance. Turns out the audio-guides were all gone. They were gone at the Richelieu entrance too, and the Sully entrance. Too late, love. My watch showed 11am. We hadn't started yet and the crowds were in - in full force. We better get crackin'!

Medieval Louvre. Photo by Louvre.fr
Medieval Louvre
I decided to start with Ancient Egypt, which when you follow the arrows from the Denon Gate, is a multi-level maze that takes you through the medieval Louvre. Though the Louvre is more often called a museum than a palace, it was a fortified castle in the 12th century and you can walk along the underground bases of the castle's towers. That's a part of the museum I really like if only because it shows the medieval city below 21s century Paris. You're 60 feet underground in front of the former stronghold of Paris. Pretty cool. Like many metropolitan areas in Old Europe, Paris is a Swiss cheese with many levels.

The Sphynx. Photo by Frog Mom
Ancient Egypt
A few tunnels later, we emerged in the Ancient Egypt collections. My 7-year old is obsessed with Ancient Egypt since she read the comic book "Astérix and Cléopâtre" so I knew we must at least see that.

Statues, old gods, pottery, jewelry, furniture, smithing work - we lingered on every single display so the girls would understand what they were seeing. The jewelry particularly caught their eye, as well as who the gods were and why they had animal heads.

When we reached the room with the mummies, I had reached my crowd saturation limit and we made a bee line for the stairs so we could escape to ... the Italian Renaissance, possibly the most visited area of the Louvre. Why oh why?

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa of course. The mysterious woman is so popular that there are signs pointing to the painting, rather than the overarching department. Wow.
The closest I could get. Photo by Frog Mom
We found Mona Lisa and I knew right away I'd never see it up close. Check the photo and see how you would carve yourself a nice path to the front. A blow torch maybe? Even that would be tedious work.

Trusting in my girls' abilities to fend off for themselves and find a way, I sent them to reach the front of the chaotic crowd. After 5 minutes, I was scanning the crowd anxiously. Why weren't they back yet? After 10 minutes I was about to yell their names and walked to the side of the painting. There they were, the two of them huddled together, admiring the enigmatic smile of the Florentine model. Oh dear, I was done with crowds. Off to the 19th century wing!
Napoleon IIIrd apartments. Photo by Frog Mom

Napoleon IIIrd Apartments
And so we changed wings, went up a flight of stairs and crossed the Renaissance medals department (great quiet restrooms if you feel so inclined) to find the glitzy gilded parlors of Napoleon the 3rd. That would be 1860s, the French equivalent to the Victorian era. Think lavish interiors, exotic palm trees and plump velvet couches. All that's missing is a lady in a lacy long dress and you got the Phantom of the Opera.

Finally a room where we could walk without bumping into a group lead by a flag-bearer. Ancient Egypt and Italian Renaissance took their toll on my nerves and my ears - I needed some down time.

"Mom, what are we doing here?" Kiddo, this is an oasis of tranquility. Can't you just enjoy? "Mom, I'm bored." OK, you're hungry. "Can we go home now?" Just you wait - one last floor and the marathon's over.

French Paintings
We strolled through the parlors, admired the collection of Renaissance glassware and pottery on the way, and crossed yet another wing to finish on the upper floor where my favorite paintings are. The 2nd floor of the Richelieu wing is dedicated to Flemish, German and French paintings, all of which I adore. All we needed to do was take our time, enjoy and relax - without obsessing over lunch. Good thing I'd thought about sneaking in a few dark chocolate nonpareils.

So there we were, on this extremely quiet floor. Very few visitors. Almost no sounds. Natural sky and window lighting. A far cry from the chaotic wrestling two floors below. Boucher, Chardin, Fantin de la Tour and Watteau were all present - painters I associate with a poignant romanticism. I was in heaven. By then my girls were exhausted but didn't realize it. The benches were comfortable enough. "Mom, can we have dessert at Angelina's" Yes sweetie pie, after we find some lunch.

At 2pm, we got out of the museum and picked one of the many restaurants of the international food court in the Carrousel du Louvre. The girls went Chinese, I went Oriental. Bliss. We sat down and ate. Despite the crowds, the commotion and the craze, the Louvre was a good museum experience. What better place to sharpen a child's art appreciation skills? I realize that when we browse through art databases and they stop me saying, "I know that image!" Darling, you made my day.

Zen. Photo by Frog Mom
Practical Details

  • Hours: Open Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesdays. 9am - 6pm. Closed Jan 1st, May 1st, Dec. 25th.
  • Rates: Kids under age 26 are free. General admission Euros 10. Free 1st Sunday of each month and Bastille Day (July 14).
  • Tickets: Get advance tickets online and at major department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, FNAC or Virgin Megastore. 
  • Museum Pass: buy a 1-day, 3-day or 5-day Museum Pass and get unlimited line-free access to 70 museums and buildings around Paris, including the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and the Sainte Chapelle. Pretty sweet deal. 
  • Tours: Tours in English every day at 11am and 2pm. Tour lasts 90 minutes and covers major highlights.
  • Food: there are 2 cafés inside the museum but if you wait, the Carrousel du Louvre has everything you need, from a Starbucks Coffee with free wifi to the international food court called Restaurants du Monde, open daily from 11am to 8pm (sort of a revved up airport food court with plastic trays and tons of tables).
  • Wifi: you can connect at the Starbucks Coffee or in the Apple store.
  • Give the kids a break: after the Louvre, stroll through the Tuileries garden and let the kids run around the trees, fountains and sculptures. They'll need it.

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