Imagine a place steeped in Parisian history, the former playground of kings and noblemen and the home of stunning frescoes and architecture. I’ll bet you thought of the Château de Versailles, the famed royal residence of King Louis XIV and later Marie Antoinette.
While Versailles is worth a trip out of Paris any day, this French gem is located right in the heart of Paris. The Palais Garnier, or Opera Garnier, gives the ninth arrondissement its name, and is located just a smidge outside of the centrally-located second arrondissement. Designed to be the crown jewel at the end of the Avenue de l’Opéra, the Opera Garnier is one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris.
Its lavishly appointed rooms rival, and I’d even say surpass, the beauty and overwhelming opulence of Versailles. Soaring ceilings, brilliant gold detailing, and dozens if not hundreds of sparkling chandeliers give the space a regal vibe, a feeling which only intensifies as more of the palais is unveiled.
The Palais Garnier is a relatively new addition to the Parisian cityscape, commissioned in 1860 to replace the temporary home of the city’s opera company on the rue Le Peletier. Emperor Napoleon III, perhaps spurred on by an attempt on his life at the existing opera house, introduced a competition to find the designer of the new opera house. As you might have guessed, the winner of this contest was Charles Garnier, whose name later became synonymous with his most famous work. The theater officially opened in January 1875, nearly 14 years after construction began, and is still welcoming guests today, though it is now known for its ballet performances rather than its operas.
After buying our tickets to visit the Palais Garnier, Dan and I stepped into the first room on our self-guided tour, and our jaws dropped. Get ready for all the beautiful pictures!
First up was the entry foyer, which led immediately to The Grand Staircase, featuring sweeping marble staircases, intricately sculpted arches, and a dizzying vaulted ceiling featuring paintings by Isidore Pils.
It’s easy to imagine opera-goes gathering on the balconies that surround the grand staircase, gathering to bask in the glow of the chandeliers and survey the scene below.
Now would be a good time to mention that the Palais Garnier served as the primary inspiration for the famous Opéra Populaire in the novel The Phantom of the Opera. Its influence can still be seen today in the film and stage adaptations of the book, and as we walked up the Grand Staircase, craning our necks to take it all in, I couldn’t help but think of the famous “Masquerade” scene in the 2004 film. Seriously, just watch the clip below and you’ll see what I mean.
The Palais Garnier put everything else we’d seen so far to shame. And to think, I could have visited in 2014, but didn’t! If I’d only known what was inside that beautiful old opera house.
After marveling for a long time at the Grand Staircase, we moved into one of the building’s foyers, where visitors would have mingled during intermission and after the night’s performance. If you thought the previous room was stunning, wait until you see this one!
It looks familiar, doesn’t it? Garnier based his design on the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Walking into a place and feeling like you’ve seen it somewhere before can be a bit unsettling, but in this case, we were delighted!
Aside from Dan and I, there were only one or two other small groups wandering the foyer and looking out the tall, narrow windows onto the grand avenues outside. We could not believe we had the whole place practically to ourselves. After visiting the real Hall of Mirrors and dodging all the tour groups and selfie takers the very next day, we were even more grateful to have experienced Garnier’s Grand Foyer without all the fuss.
We spent some time roaming from room to room, lingering in the various salons and smoking rooms, and admiring the art and music collections in the Library-Museum.
Every single room was beautiful, though none of them quite topped the Grand Staircase and the Grand Foyer…that is, until we reached the auditorium.
There were some serious Phantom of the Opera vibes going on here, and as I gaped at the red velvet seats and the gold-fronted balconies wrapped around the theater, I was reminded once more of a scene from the movie. (Start clip at 1:06 to see what I mean!)
Beautiful! Since there were only two balconies available from which to admire the room, this was the once space in the entire building where we had to crowd in a bit and wait our turn to take photos.
You might expect an elegant ceiling surrounding the chandelier, to match the light and airy paintings over the Grand Staircase…or I did anyway, based once again on its appearance in the 2004 film. What I found instead was a garishly bright and colorful ceiling that looked almost childlike in design.
This ceiling, created by Chagall and installed in 1964, actually covers the original ceiling design, a replica of which can be seen in the Library-Museum. It was interesting and a bit jarring to see the Chagall version, which is so different from the elegant, grand design of the rest of the building. I suppose the overall effect of the rainbow ceiling against the gold details, lush red seats and sparkling chandelier looks nice, but I would have much preferred to see the theater with its original ceiling, the way Garnier intended.
Here is the original, for reference, a replica of which is on display in the Library-Museum. I think it is much better suited to the overall look of the Palais Garnier. What do you think?
After seeing the auditorium, the final room in our little self-guided tour, Dan and I were pooped. Earlier that day, we had climbed the towers of Notre Dame, and later in the evening, we would ascend the Eiffel Tower amidst hail and lightning. The Palais Garnier left us thrilled and exhausted. You could say we were literally overwhelmed by its beauty. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Paris, and especially to those with an interest in the Phantom of the Opera. Seeing all those little details firsthand and recognizing elements of the famous story really elevated the experience and made it into more than just another pretty Parisian building. Next time we visit, we hope to take a tour and learn a little bit more about how the building has influenced the story. Spoiler alert: there is a real underground “lake” beneath the building!
Have you been to the Palais Garnier? I’d love to hear what you think of it!