Don’t Wait for the Louvre

An ordinary day at the Louvre. Photo Guia Besana for The New York Times

One cloudy afternoon this month, the line to enter the Louvre stretched around the entrance pyramid, across one long courtyard and into the next,” according to yesterday’s New York Times article about the ever increasing crowds at premier art museums. Scenes like that are why we regretfully decided not to revisit the Louvre on our most recent trip to Paris.

The Times focuses mostly on worries that such large crowds may start damaging the artwork. It goes without saying that these crowds also routinely ruin what is supposed to be a peaceful and contemplative experience for visitors. But they don’t have to. There are ways to beat the crowds.

On one hand it’s nice to think that increased museum attendance reflects growing appreciation for art. And maybe that’s part of the story. The other, almost certainly larger, reason for the crowds is an increase in bucket-list tourism. People visit places like the Louvre not necessarily to appreciate great works of art but to check something off a list.

The ever-present hordes amassed in front of the totally unimpressive, but world famous, Mona Lisa is just one indicator of this bucket-list driven tourism. (I wonder if people would still crowd in to photograph the Mona Lisa if they knew it wasn’t especially highly regarded until it became famous by being stolen in 1913?) Meanwhile, the near emptiness of entire “lesser” museums might be explained by the fact that they’re not on anyone’s bucket list.

For art lovers, this is an opportunity.

Japanese Pavilion of Art, LACMA

A nearly empty Japanese Pavilion at the world’s 50th most visited museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

You don’t  have to move far down the list of the world’s most visited museums to get some breathing room. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art ranks third by annual attendance (behind the Louvre at number 1 and London’s British Museum at number 2) and yet it receives a whopping third fewer visitors than does the Louvre. But get this, the Met has a permanent collection more than 30 times larger than that of the Louvre. If you’re interested in art, the Met gives you far more bang for your proverbial buck.

Now no one would claim that the Met isn’t crowded, but it’s 30% fewer visitors are spread throughout a building that is three times larger than the Louvre. That’s got to free up some elbow room.

Move further down the list and things empty out more. Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts ranks among the top 100 most visited museums in the world. We went at what was perhaps the worst possible time for crowds. A traveling exhibition of King Tut artifacts drew major interest the day we were there. And while the King Tut exhibit was packed tight, we found the entire rest of the museum completely vacant. Tons of people came all the way to the museum, paid for admission, saw a few Egyptian artifacts, and then totally blew off everything else on display.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston

This is what the 76th most visited museum in the world looks like. Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s pretty typical. We’ve probably visited more than two hundred museums over the past couple of years, plenty of which were chock full of masterpieces. For the most part we’ve had them to ourselves.

I even popped into the world’s 27th most visited museum yesterday to see what I’d find. And while Edinburgh’s streets were pretty crowded, the city’s wonderful Scottish National Gallery was mostly empty. 

(crowded streets, empty museum)

The amazing thing is that the Scottish National Gallery doesn’t even charge for admission. What else can you do in Edinburgh for free that draws so little attention? It’s quite a contrast to the Louvre where you wait on line for hours and pay for the privilege of squeezing into the building.

Meanwhile, the Gallery’s “busiest” room is nothing like the scene in front of the Mona Lisa. Rather than seeing just one popular portrait, this space holds an impressive collection of Impressionists that includes six Degas, three Gaugins, two Van Goghs, two Rodins, two Seurats, a Cézanne, a Monet and nearly no one to view them. 

A Monet to myself and a Van Gogh of my own.

A Monet to myself and a Van Gogh of my own.

Elsewhere, a famous Rembrandt self-portrait waited for some Mona Lisa type love.

The best part of these lesser known museums is that they’re everywhere. According to the Washington Post, there are more museums in the U.S. than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined; a lot more. That means there’s probably one, or maybe a dozen, right near where you live. There’s almost certainly a handful near your next travel destination.

So by all means, go to the Louvre. It is a spectacular building with a great collection. But if what you’re interested in is seeing amazing art, there really is no reason to wait for the Louvre.

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25 Comments on “Don’t Wait for the Louvre”

  1. Albatz Travel Adventures July 30, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    The only time I was in Paris was for three days in 1978, and even though I’m an artist, and love going to art galleries, I made the decision to skip the louvre and go for the Pompideau center instead. But my favourite day in Paris was the one where I got lost and ended up in a district with tons of tiny art galleries. I spent the whole day in bliss, wandering from gallery to gallery. I still have no idea where I was although I think it was near the area where most of the North Africans were living as I also ended up there and spent another period of bliss munching their nutty beautiful pastries…


  2. She Dreams of Travel July 30, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    I would’ve never thought that there are more museums in the US than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. That’s an impressive fact. I went to Paris recently and decided to check out the Louvre. I found that going in the late afternoon or early evening that the lines weren’t so bad. I actually walked right in without waiting. Inside, however, the crowds were huge. I’m happy someone told me the Mona Lisa would be a disappointment before I got there so I could just glance at the tiny painting and move on to see the other, much more impressive art. Unfortunately I think you’re right in saying that a lot of people just visit these places to say that they’ve done it and not to actually appreciate the art that these museums have. I do hold out hope though that maybe even one thing in the museum could spark some genuine interest from these bucket list tourists


    • Brian July 30, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      You definitely make a good point. Someone might go to the Louvre, or the Uffizi, because it’s one of the things you’re supposed to do in Paris or Florence and end up getting hooked on the art. All us junkies got our first taste somewhere. 😀


  3. KleesButterfly July 30, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    Happy that finally someone says it openly that the Mona Lisa is totally overrated. But as you said, you can say this too about some other bucket-list-places to see. For example, I was always wondering why people in London want to see the changing of the guards. Standing in a crowd and watching an incredible boring procedure, I don’t get it. And I’ve recently realized that some other cities have established a ‘changing of the guards’ to attract tourists.


    • Brian July 30, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

      Ha. By chance we caught the changing of the guard in Madrid. Never bothered to see the one at Buckingham Palace. 😛


      • KleesButterfly July 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

        And the one in Madrid – do you think it’s a must-see?


        • Brian July 30, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

          It’s not something we’d go out of our way for, no.


    • writecrites July 30, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

      If you get to Turkiye, I’d recommend the changing of the guard at the tomb of Ataturk in the city of Ankara just because it’s different. And btw, the museum there is really excellent. Also, if you hang around in the courtyard, groups of school children with their teachers will be drawn to you. Turkish people outside Istanbul are fascinated by foreigners. And they’re very friendly.


  4. Gunta July 30, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    I’ve always wondered what the big deal was about the Mona Lisa. Thanks for the explanation! 😀


  5. sweetsound July 30, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    You’re in Scotland!!!! Where I did my matters degree and am aiming at moving back as soon as humanly, legally possible.


  6. lsedgers July 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    Great piece, I always feel a little smug when I discover overlooked gems like this!


  7. writecrites July 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. I took one glance at the tiny Mona Lisa and hoards of camera-clicking tourists and hightailed it to more interesting sections, like the gallery of giant paintings (sorry, can’t remember it’s formal name, but they were incredibly impressive), and the halls of statues. Even the gift shop was more interesting than ML.


  8. wineandhistory July 31, 2014 at 12:11 am #

    Great post! I saw the most wonderful collection of Faberge eggs at the Cincinnati Art Museum. And an amazing collection of Picasso and Matisse in the nearly empty Detroit Institute of Arts. There are lots of treasures to be seen!


  9. Tammy July 31, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    The Louvre drives me nuts too! My advice is to avoid weekends especially Sundays when it’s free. Even the busy Gare d’Orsay Gallery is a better bet as the crowds seem to even themselves out better throughout the gallery spaces.

    The Uffizi in Florence is another nightmare! And the Vatican Museum is bonkers especially the Sistine Chapel.

    I wrote this article a few months ago about some of the best and worst experiences in galleries and museums… hope it provides food for thought!


  10. salciccioli August 1, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    I made the same trip–saw the tiny Mona Lisa!! so surprised! 🙂


  11. mytimetotravel August 8, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    On a related point, I’m always surprised by how empty the Sackler and the Freer are in Washington DC. I was just there, on a weekend when the mall was as busy as I’ve seen it aside from a march, and the Sackler/Freer were, as usual, virtually deserted. (And there were two excellent exhibitions, one Iranian and one Chinese.) The Chinese porcelain rooms in the National Gallery of Art were pretty empty too. Makes me wonder whether Americans have something against Asian art!


    • Brian August 9, 2014 at 3:59 am #

      Can’t speak for my fellow Americans but Shannon and I have become very fond of Asian art. And we absolutely love all the free museums in D.C. – including the Freer/Sackler.


  12. judyjudygirl November 6, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    Yes amazing,I was quite surprised to find that most London museums don’t charge for commissions only for special exhibits and they are not crowded take for instance the Wallace collection which is a three-story townhouse Grampell of paintings furniture porcelains etc. and you can stroll around there for hours free of charge fantastic!


  13. Jiday April 29, 2016 at 10:56 pm #

    I can’t believe the Met building is three times larger and has a 30 times larger (30!) collection than the Louvre….


  14. judyjudygirl November 6, 2014 at 7:14 am #

    Amazing amounts of museums charge little to nothing in London !! The Wallace collection is such a gem, no lines… 3 stories and more art ,furniture,porcelain than you can absorb !!!



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