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The best way to thoroughly visit the Louvre would be to move in for a month. Not only is it one of the largest museums in the world, with more than 35,000 works of art displayed over 60,000 sq. m (645,835 sq. ft.), but it’s packed with enough artistic masterpieces to make the Mona Lisa weep. Rembrandt, Reubens, Botticelli, Ingres, and Michelangelo are all represented here; subjects range from the grandiose (Antoine-Jean Gros’s gigantic Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa) to the mundane (Vermeer’s tiny, exquisite Lacemaker). You can gape at a diamond the size of a golf ball in the gilded Galerie d'Apollon or marvel over exquisite bronze figurines in the vast Egyptian section. There’s something for everyone here.

Today, the building is divided into three wings: Sully, Denon, and Richelieu, each one with its own clearly marked entrance, found under I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid. Get your hands on a free museum map, choose your personal “must-sees,” and plan ahead. There’s no way to see it all; you’ll be an instant candidate for early exhaustion if you try. Mercifully, the museum is well-organized and has been very reasonably arranged into color-coded sections. If you’re really in a rush, or you just want to get an overall sense of the place, you can take the introductory guided tour in English (12€; 1 1/2 hr.; 11am and 2pm Wed–Mon, except 1st Mon of the month; 01-40-20-52-63). You won’t see as much as you would on your own, but at least you’ll know what you are seeing. Reserve at least 14 days in advance to secure a place.

The museum’s three biggest stars are all located in the Denon wing. La Joconde, otherwise known as the Mona Lisa (see the “Men Have Named You . . .” box, below), now has an entire wall to herself, making it easier to contemplate her enigmatic smile, despite her surprisingly small size. While everyone’s gawping at her, look behind you at the gigantic and sublimely beautiful 16th-century Wedding Feast at Cana painting by Paolo Veronese. Another inscrutable female in this wing is the Venus de Milo, who was found on a Greek isle in 1820. Possibly the most photographed woman in the world, this armless marble goddess gives no hint of the original position of her limbs or her exact identity. Recently restored and lovelier than ever, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, is the easiest to locate. Standing at the top of a majestic flight of stairs, her powerful body pushing forward as if about to take flight, this headless yet magnificent Greek sculpture once guarded the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace.

Because a complete listing of the Louvre’s highlights would fill a book, below is a decidedly biased selection of our favorite areas:

13TH- TO 18TH-CENTURY ITALIAN PAINTINGS: A few standouts in the immense Italian collection include Botticelli’s delicate fresco Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, Veronese’s aforementioned and enormous Wedding Feast at Cana, and of course, the Mona Lisa. The Divine Miss M is in a room packed with wonders, including several Titians and Tintorettos. Once you’ve digested this rich meal, stroll down the endless Grande Galerie, past more da Vincis (Saint John the Baptist, The Virgin of the Rock), as well as works by Raphael, Caravaggio, and Gentileschi.

GREEK & ROMAN SCULPTURE: While the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo are not to be missed, the Salle des Caryatides (the room itself is a work of art) boasts marble masterworks such as Artemis hunting with her stag and the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, an alluring female figure from behind—and something entirely different from the front.

THE GALERIE D’APOLLON: The gold-encrusted room is an excellent example of the excesses of 17th-century French royalty. Commissioned by Louis XIV, aka “The Sun King,” every inch of this gallery is covered with gilt stucco sculptures and flamboyant murals invoking the journey of the Roman sun god Apollo (ceiling paintings are by Charles Le Brun). The main draw here is the collection of crown jewels. Among necklaces bedecked with quarter-sized sapphires and tiaras dripping with diamonds and rubies are the jewel-studded crown of Louis XV and the Regent, a 140-carat diamond that decorated his hat.

Leaping over the Louvre Line

Don’t want to wait in line for tickets to the Louvre? The easiest option is to buy tickets in advance online (in English) at www.ticketlouvre.fr and print them out. Or try www.fnactickets.com; you can print out your tickets, get them mailed to you, or pick them up at any French branch of the Fnac bookstore chain. If you are of an improvisational bent and prefer to pick up tickets at the entrance, you have four ways to avoid the lines that often snake around the glass pyramid entryway. Either:

* Enter directly from the Palais Royal–Musée du Louvre metro stop.

* Take one of the two staircases on either side of the Arc du Carrousel in the Tuileries Gardens that lead directly down to the ticketing area.

* Buy your ticket from the Civette du Carousel tobacconist in the Carousel du Louvre shopping center (99 rue de Rivoli) where there’s never a wait. 

* Arrive after 3pm or go for late-night opening (after 6pm on Wed and Fri when the museum closes at 9:45pm), which is usually a quieter time.

An entire room filled with ticket machines is under the glass pyramid.

THE EGYPTIANS: This is the largest collection outside of Cairo, thanks in large part to Jean-François Champollion, the 19th-century French scientist and scholar, who first decoded Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sculptures, figurines, papyrus documents, steles, musical instruments, and of course, mummies, fill numerous rooms in the Sully wing, including the colossal statue of Ramses II and the strangely moving Seated Scribe. He gazes intently out of intricately crafted inlaid eyes: A combination of copper, magnesite, and polished rock crystal creates a startlingly lifelike stare.

LARGE-FORMAT FRENCH PAINTINGS: Enormous floor-to-ceiling paintings of monumental moments in history cover the walls in these three rooms. The overcrowded and legendary Coronation of Napoléon by Jacques-Louis David depicts the newly minted Emperor crowning Joséphine, while the disconcerted pope and a host of notables look on. On the facing wall, Madame Récamier (also by David), one of Napoleon’s loudest critics, reclines fetchingly on a divan. Farther on are several tumultuous canvases by Eugène Delacroix, including Liberty Guiding the People, which might just be the ultimate expression of French patriotism. In the painting, which evokes the events of the revolution of 1830, Liberty—breast exposed, a rifle in one hand, the French flag in the other—leads the crowd over a sea of dead bodies. High ideals and gore—sort of sums up the French revolutionary spirit.

Men Have named You . . .

Everything about the Mona Lisa is mysterious—the identity of the sitter, how long it took to paint, and how it got into the French royal collection, among other things. Most scholars agree that it is a portrait of Lisa Gheradini, the wife of one Francesco del Giocondo, but Ms. Lisa could also be Isabella of Aragon (as suggested by the patterning of her dress) or simply an embodiment of beauty and happiness (hence the smile), as suggested by the Italian word gioconda.

A few years ago, researchers found evidence of a fine, translucent veil around the subject’s shoulders, a garment women in Renaissance Italy wore when they were expecting, provoking an onslaught of speculation that her secret smile had to do with her being pregnant.

What’s certain is that the painting created a sensation. The overall harmony of the composition, the use of a distant landscape in the background, the lifelike quality of the subject, had a huge impact on early-16th-century Florentine art. As Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance painter and biographer lamented, “It may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every valiant craftsman, be he who he may, tremble and lose heart.”

The painting’s history is action packed. One morning in 1911, an artist named Louis Béroud came in to the museum to sketch a copy of the famous portrait and found a bare spot with four hooks in the wall. After a concerted effort, he convinced the lackadaisical guard to find out what happened. In fact, the Mona Lisa had been stolen. The thief had entered the museum posing as a visitor, hid in the building overnight, and in the morning disguised himself as a workman and made off with the painting while the guard went out to smoke a cigarette. Needless to say, panic ensued. There was a nationwide investigation, and the borders were sealed. What the police didn’t realize is that the painting was at first hidden only a mile from the Louvre. Conspiracy theories spread through the newspapers—some thought it was merely a publicity stunt. There was a lot of criticism about the Louvre’s lax security, in particular from the poet Apollinaire. He soon found himself arrested as a suspect, and his friend Pablo Picasso was also brought in for questioning after they were caught in possession of some other art objects of dubious origins. After they both broke down in tears before the bench, the judge let them go with a slap on the wrist.

After 2 years of false leads and bungled investigations, the Mona Lisa was finally found when the thief, Vincenzo Perugia, tried to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. What was the motive for the crime? It seems that Perugia, an Italian patriot who had once worked at the museum, simply felt that the Mona Lisa belonged in her country of birth, Italy. During his trial, Perugia claimed to have been bewitched by the painting—and indeed, who hasn’t been?

The life of a superstar certainly isn’t easy. With millions of admirers around the world, at least a couple are bound to have a few screws loose. Once she was back at the museum (under increased security), things calmed down until 1956, when a deranged visitor threw acid on the painting, severely damaging its lower half (restoration took several years). A few months later, someone threw a rock at her. The painting is now covered with bulletproof glass, and a full-time guard stands at the ready. So be patient with the lines and velvet ropes—if Mona Lisa gets the kind of security usually reserved for rock stars or heads of state, she has certainly earned it.

Note: When visiting the museum, watch your wallets and purses—there has been an unfortunate increase in pickpockets; thieves even use children to prey on unsuspecting art lovers. On a more positive note, the Louvre has made great strides in improving accessibility for travelers with disabilities in recent years, including special programs, ramps, free wheelchairs, and folding chairs. For more info, click “accessibility” at the top of the museum's website.