If you’ve followed my three months in Paris adventure, you’ll know by now that Paris is essentially one huge museum. As you walk the streets of Paris and the halls of its museums like the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay – you start to develop this strange sense of apathy. You get so used to walking passed so many beautiful things (not to mention a stiff neck), that it starts to become the norm. And like with many things in life, as time passes by, your level of expectation rises. However, if there’s one place in Paris that completely left its mark on me, it’s my visit to the Palais Garnier. No matter how high your standards are (or have become after a few days in The City Of Lights), visiting the Palais Garnier will blow your mind. It’s definitely one of the top sights to see in Paris – period!
Why should you visit the Palais Garnier?
The Palais Garnier, also known as the Opera Garnier, is named after Charles Garnier, the genius who designed this place to house the grand opera of Paris. Built between 1865-1872, it was designed to impress from both outside and inside. This was the time of Napoleon III, when much of the Paris we know and love today was built. The whole area of the Opera Garnier was completely reconstructed by Baron Haussmann, appointed by Napoleon to modernize Paris but especially to open up this congested medieval city.
The result is a stunning masterpiece, inspired by Classic Italian architecture but finished off in classic French form. From the outside, a multi colored marble facade is topped by golden statues and the names of opera legends. Inside, it just keeps getting better and you’ll have to read further to see why. During early construction, it was discovered that the site sat on a mini lake, which had to be drained. This, along with another incident that I’ll share with you – inspired another classic, The Phantom of the Opera, which takes place in… Opera Garnier!
By the time the Palais Garnier was completed, the French had managed to revolt yet again and the Third Republic was in full swing. With ‘fairness’ & ‘equality’ the order of the day, even Charles Garnier had to pay for his opening night ticket!
Before heading to Paris, pick up your copy of The Rough Guide To Paris (only $17 on Amazon). Together with this guide to the Palais Garnier, it’ll be your best friend in The City of Lights.
When to visit the Palais Garnier?
The Palais Garnier is a functioning opera house (the more modern Opera Bastille is nearby). You could be among the lucky 2,000 spectators at one of the shows if you buy tickets to the Opera Garnier in advance. Just make sure the show takes place at Opera Garnier and not Bastille (if you hurry up, you can get reasonably priced tickets). I’ll share with you a surprising update at the end of this post – stay tuned!
If going to a show is not an option, not to worry! The Palais Garnier is open almost every day of the year. Tickets cost only €11 per adult and for an extra €5, you can get the self-guided audio tour- which I strongly recommend in such a place (you want to know the small details). You can book your ticket in advance, avoiding the queues. Keep in mind that this is a popular place with both groups and individuals visiting. Coming here early or late, on a weekday, is probably your best option. I visited on a bank holiday Friday morning, and it was quite crowded (but totally manageable). The auditorium may be closed off in the case of rehearsals but there’s no way to plan around that. Visiting the Palais Garnier can also be a good option for a rainy day itinerary in Paris.
How to get to the Palais Garnier?
As always in Paris – take the metro! The closest stations are Opera and Chaussée d’Antin – La Fayette. If you get off at Opera, you’ll get a stunning view just as you exit the station.
How long should you spend at Palais Garnier?
Allow yourself about two hours give or take to fully enjoy visiting the Palais Garnier. You can combine your visit with exploring the Grand Boulevards area of Paris, the famous Passages and the iconic department stores of Gallerie Lafayette and Printemps – just around the corner (Printemps has an amazing & free terrace with 360-degree views of Paris).
What to see at the Palais Garnier?
Are you ready to be wowed? Let’s start exploring the Palais Garnier!
Be sure to walk around the entire structure, seeing from up close every possible angle. Every inch of the building is a work of art, especially the facade. To get a good view of the facade, first, visit the front steps and then walk further down Avenue de l’Opéra (of course, you can do this after your visit).
The top of the main facade is adorned with golden statues representing harmony and Poetry. Looking over those two is Apollo. Below, you’ll find tributes the classical music legends like Mozart, Beethoven, and others.
The Grand Staircase
Garnier did not waste much time and intended that visitors would go from one climax to another. For us, this means ascending to the Grand Staircase. The Grand Staircase is… huge. It’s actually quite a piece of engineering marvel. The staircase is housed a huge nave made of pink, green and white marble. The size of this nave is comparable with the size of the actual 2,000 seat auditorium, designed and intended to provide enough space to see & be seen!
This is where guests would walk up towards the auditorium. Think of it as a ‘catwalk’ of those days – allowing couples to showcase the latest fashion of the day and their fortune.
Just from above, there was plenty of space to chit-chat, see & be seen but without losing sight of who is coming up the stairs, and what they’re wearing. The attention to details in the Palais Garnier is unbelievable.
Lucky for me, the auditorium was accessible to visitors when I visited. You couldn’t actually go down to the stage level but could get a great view of this massive horseshoe shaped theatre.
There are lots of fine details all around the auditorium but the main highlight is the famous Chagall ceiling and the 8-ton chandelier hanging down from it. Chagall’s masterpiece was actually painted only in 1965, replacing a few others before it.
Standing here, I can’t imagine what it looks and sounds like during a live performance. I wish I could come here for an opera or a ballet, even though I am by no means a huge fan. There is no other place like this, at least not one I’ve been to before.
The Phantom of the Opera
So, during one of the performances in 1896, one of the chandelier counterweights came lose, flying down to the crowd and killing an audience member. This incident, along with the fact that the Palais Garnier actually sits on an underground lake – inspired the legendary Phantom of the Opera. You can actually peek through the No 5 booth and who knows? Maybe the Phantom is there!
The Grand Foyer
No doubt, the highlight of your visit to the Opera Garnier, is the Grand Foyer. This huge 18 meters high, 154 meters long and 13 meters wide hall, was intended as a place to take a break, mingle, and perhaps close a few deals. It is purposely located just outside the highest paying boxes.
Garnier cooperated on the making of this exquisite hall with Paul Baudry, who specialized in painting Sistine Chapel replicas. There is a lot of gold used in this hall but Garnier opted for using a mix of gold and gold paint, as he came to the conclusion that in many cases, gold paint brings out more details in an object when looked at from far away.
What can I say about the Grand Hall, you won’t want to leave! Take the time, look to the sides, above you and at the huge fireplaces. This is as good as it gets. But there’s still lots to see so let’s move on.
Just outside the Grand Hall, you can step out for some ‘fresh’ Paris air and enjoy fine views out on the balcony. You can imagine how the opera goers felt when sipping champagne up here, having the whole town watching them from down below.
Also in the vicinity of the Grand Hall are the sun & moon rooms. What’s interesting about both of these rooms are the ‘infinity mirrors’ – cool, ah?
Last up on our list of highlights is the Salon du Glacier – a bright rotunda loaded with paintings and sculptures that pay tribute to the celebrities of those days.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. It is widely known that honey is harvested from bees grown on the roof of the Palais Garnier – of all places! Over 300 kg of honey are produced every year and you can buy some in the gift shop as you exit.
What can I say? Visiting the Palais Garnier was definitely one of my top Paris highlights. This is by far, the nicest building I’ve visited in Paris and perhaps in my entire travel history. The amount of details, the gold, and sheer size – among so many other things, just challenge your senses in a way that you rarely experience (when not eating, of course). I was a little disappointed that you couldn’t actually go inside the auditorium and I would love to see a performance here – but hey, you can’t have everything. I am happy I opted in for the audio tour as I wouldn’t be able to bring you this post without it.
I would definitely recommend visiting the Palais Garnier, even if you’re a first time visitor to Paris. It also makes for a good option for a rainy day thing to do in Paris. You won’t be disappointed!
In a surprising twist, my lovely girlfriend Isabelle was very persistent and somehow found last minute tickets to a show at the Opera Garnier. The tickets were only 18€ and we were seated in one of the side booths (not the Phantom’s, thank God).
The show featured music from the Renaissance era and the experience was amazing. When I visited during the day, I was imagining what it would like to come for a real performance and I was not disappointed.
We headed up the Grand Staircase, just like I imagined and felt like a true Parisian for 90 minutes! Unfortunately, the Grand Foyer was sealed off so there is some value, after all, in visiting the Palais Garnier during the day.