Mona Lisa helps make Paris' Louvre world's most visited museum

The Louvre Pyramid, completed in 1989, is made The Louvre Pyramid, completed in 1989, is made of glass and metal standing in the main courtyard of the Louvre Palace in Paris and is the main entrance to the Louvre Museum. Photo Credit: Timur Emek

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What a rock star.

The crowds are so dense you can barely get a glimpse of her famous smile, but people push and maneuver to take selfies anyway.

I wonder what Leonardo da Vinci would have made of all the commotion over the Mona Lisa, the small portrait he painted in the early years of the 16th century.

"It's always like this," says Isabelle Southgate, our guide from Localers (localers.com), a tour company that matches visitors with local guides, sighing as she watches the jockeying at the Louvre. She encourages kids to scoot up to the front of the crowd. "People are usually kind," she says.

Southgate specializes in family tours of Paris and the Louvre for Americans.

Medieval fortress

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The Louvre -- the most visited museum in the world, with nearly 9 million visitors last year -- can be overwhelming for an adult, much less a child. There are, after all, some 35,000 pieces of art on exhibit representing most every civilization in the gargantuan building, which started as a medieval fortress and became a royal palace before opening as a museum at the end of the 18th century.

That's why I figure if you are going to splurge on a private tour, this is a good place to do it. You'll at least skip the long entrance lines. These tours, however, aren't cheap -- they can be more than $100 per person, including the museum admission charge that's roughly $22 (free for kids younger than 18).

If that price is too steep, there are many group tours available, and you can skip the lines by purchasing tickets in advance from TicketWeb, or if you are planning to visit many of the city's top attractions, purchasing a Paris Pass (parispass.com) with discounted admission.

To tour on your own, purchase a multimedia guide or download the appropriate one for your smartphone for $1.99. The museum offers 90-minute group introductory tours in English, though kids might not have the patience.

Why so small?

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However you choose to visit, Southgate's expertise and suggestions can de-stress the experience here and at other major museums: Come prepared. Bring crayons and sketching pads. Make sure the kids have eaten and are well rested.

Discuss what you are seeing. Why is this artwork a masterpiece? Kids aren't very impressed by the Mona Lisa, Southgate says. "She is so famous they expect something much larger."

Kids do like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which dates back to 190 BC, though its head and hand are displayed separately, as well as the armless Venus de Milo. Talk about why these body parts aren't replaced, Southgate suggests.

Look around at the building. Kids can't help but be awed by the walls and ceilings painted and decorated with gold. We see some of the walls from the original medieval fortress. Southgate points out the hearts and circles on some of the stones that were the stonemason's marks -- a great place for a scavenger hunt.

Bookstore for kids

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Let's not forget the iconic glass pyramid built in 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution after which the Louvre became a museum where working artists could study and the public could see previously hidden treasures. Beneath it is a shopping mall that tourists love. (There's also a separate kids' Louvre bookstore.)

Plan a theme in advance of your visit. If a family is religious, maybe it is the Italian paintings, Southgate suggests. Maybe it's angels or soldiers or mummies.

Southgate says kids are fascinated with how the Egyptians buried their hearts, liver and intestines in separate boxes in their tombs and that they were buried with mummified animals. She points out some cat mummies, and even a mummified crocodile.

Know when to go

Leave when everyone has had enough and head outdoors to the famous Tuileries Garden behind the Louvre where in the summer there's a Ferris wheel and a small amusement park. It's always a great place to get some gelato, a sandwich and those famous French frites.

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Truth be told, says Southgate, if families have time for just one museum in Paris, she suggests skipping the Louvre in favor of the Centre Georges Pompidou which showcases modern, contemporary and pop art. "More fun," she says.

The Mona Lisa will be here next visit.

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