Paris Opera House: A visit to the opulent Palais Garnier

The Paris Opera, an institution that dates back over 350 years, is one of the City of Light’s greatest cultural attractions. A reputation of this calibre calls for a location that reflects its importance. That’s why Paris isn’t home to just one but two Opera Houses, both of which are architectural marvels. The classical Palais Garnier is an ode to opulence and the modern Opéra Bastille makes a bold statement with its curved glass facade. This article focuses on Palais Garnier, the most historic Paris Opera House and a showpiece of eclectic Second Empire style architecture. As imposing as this Parisian monument may look from outside, the true grandeur of the most iconic Opera House in Paris can only be admired inside. Find out what makes Palais Garnier so spectacular and how you can visit it yourself.

Exterior and interior of Opera Garnier in Paris
Two little girls dancing in the Grand Foyer of the Opera House in Paris


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Short history of the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris

Soon after a new musical storytelling concept originated in Italy during the Renaissance, the Sun King Louis XIV, who lived in the Palace of Versailles, brought it to France. It perfectly matched his interest, since he was passionate about music and dance and fond of opulence. Louis XIV commissioned Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Italian-born French composer, to transform opera into a French art. Lully was appointed Director of the Académie Royale de Musique which performed in the Palais Royal in Paris. Two turbulent centuries passed, during which the theater was destroyed by fire twice and changed names numerous times to shake off its royal association.

In 1860, Emperor Napoléon III decided to build a grand theater in Paris, exclusively dedicated to French opera and dance. Architect Charles Garnier presented the winning design during a contest. It took him 15 years to construct the Académie Nationale de Musique, also known as Palais Garnier. This opulent Paris Opera House was inaugurated in 1875.

The romantic Opéra Garnier inspired Gaston Leroux to write his world-renowned passionate novel The Phantom of the Opera in 1910. This story came to life in the musical of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1986 and a musical drama in 2005. The musical is still very much alive. Dates and tickets are available on TicketNetwork (virtual and NYC performances) or Ticketmaster UK (London).

Highlights of the Paris Opera House

Exterior

Facade of the Garnier Opera Theatre in Paris

The large copper dome that overspans the auditorium is topped with a statue of Apollo. He was the god of music, poetry (and of the sun) in Greek mythologie. The lyre that he holds up emphasizes the dedication to music of both Apollo and the Paris Opera House. You’ll be seeing this instrument throughout your visit, depicted on murals, statues, doorknobs and more.

The two gilded statues that crown the pavilions are from the hand of French sculptor Charles-Alphonse-Achille Guméry. They represent Harmony and Poetry. Countless other references to music can be found on the facade, including the busts of many renowned composers. Other arts, such as danse, poetry and drama are depicted as well. The only exception are the letters N and E in the medaillons, which refer to the Emperor Napoleon and his spouse Empress Eugénie.

There’s one more statue that’s worth mentioning and that’s the group sculpture that sits on the steps, at the right side when facing the building (just left of the entrance to the gift shop and the restaurant). The name of this statue is La Danse and it represents a group of naked women dancing around a musician playing the tambourine. The sensual nature of this sculpture caused quite a scandal at the time.

Grand Staircase (Grand Escalier)

Grand Staircase at the Paris Opera House

After you’ve passed the Rotonde des Abonnés, where the ticketing office is located, the monumental staircase catches your eye. Oh yes, making an entrance is an understatement at the Paris Opera House. The white marble staircase with its red and green marble balustrades first leads to the orchestra or parterre. This exit is framed by two large statues of women representing tragedy and comedy. The staircase then divides into two divergent sections, both of which lead to the balconies and the Grand Foyer. Elegant candelabras held by graceful female statues illuminate the stairs.

Look out over this ceremonial staircase from one of the small balconies on the first floor. In its glory times, this was the place to see and be seen. Look up and admire the detailed scenes that are depicted in the ceiling painted by Isidore Pils. The mural show Apollo triumphant in his chariot, another one a woman representing the city of Paris receiving the Plan of the new Opera House.

Grand Foyer

Central mural in the Grand Foyer of the Opera Paris Garnier
Ceiling of the Grand Foyer in Palais Garnier

A true pièce de résistance, the most flamboyant of all rooms in the Paris Opera House, is the Grand Foyer. This is where the rich and famous gathered during intermission and after the spectacle. It’s so opulent that it almost makes the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles pale in comparison. Either end features a majestic fireplace as well as a golden buste, representing Charles Garnier and his spouse. The room features countless golden ornaments, including the omnipresent lyre, framing and adorning the most colorful mythological scenes. The fresco on the high ceiling is from the hand of Paul Baudry and depicts the history of music.

The Grand Foyer gives access to an outside loggia, which offers grand views over the Place de l’Opéra and the stately buildings that center around the Paris Opera House.

Salons

The Salon du Soleil (Sun Salon) and Salon de la Lune (Moon Salon) flank the Grand Foyer, located on opposite sides and designed in opposite tones. Warm golden tones and images of salamanders characterize the Salon du Soleil while cool silver tones and images of night animals reign at the Salon de la Lune. The fire-themed Salon du Soleil was meant to be the smoking room and the ice-themed Salon de la Lune the sorbet room. Much to the frustration of Garnier, the decorater got the schemes wrong. As a result, the aristocrats enjoyed a cigar in the Salon de la Lune and a sorbet in the Salon du Soleil.

The Salon du Glacier is the one room that wasn’t completed by the time of the inauguration. It took over a decade to finish this space but the result is just mesmerising. It’s a circular salon with large windows allowing the sunlight to flood in and highlight the magnificent interior in Belle Epoque style. This former cocktail bar features a faun-and-bacchante-decorated ceiling as well as tapestries that depict an assortment of drinks.

Auditorium

Paris Opera House Phantom of the Opera auditorium

This is where the magic happens… after visiting hours, that is. But even without a performance on stage, the red velvet decor with plush seats and gold leaf accents makes for a glamorous place to linger. No less than 1,979 spectators can take place in the auditorium either in the parterre (or orchestra), the balcony or the boxes. These last ones are divided over 5 floors and fit 4 to 6 people each. A self-guided tour allows a you to peek through a balcony window but doesn’t give actual access to the auditorium, only a behing-the-scenes tour offers that privilege. It may not look that way from a distance but the stage is huge can accommodate up to 450 artists.

Fun fact: The Paris Opera House keeps the legend of the Phantom of the Opera alive by marking box number 5 with a golden plaque stating “Loge du Fantôme de l’Opéra”.

Chandelier and ceiling

Chagall mural and chandelier at the auditorium of the Paris Opera House

The centrepiece of the auditorium is the elaborate chandelier. It’s a bronze and cyrstal masterpiece, designed by Charler Garnier himself, that weighs no less than 7 tons. This crown jewel did partially obstruct the view from a certain box level and also partially hid the beautiful mural at the center of which it was attached. Garnier, however, strongly believed that an auditorium of this calibre called for an eye-catching chandelier.

Fun fact: In 1896, one of the counterweights of the chandelier broke down and killed a concierge named Madame Chomette. The papers overstated the incident by reporting that the actual chandelier had crashed. Gaston Leroux was working as a reporter for the Le Matin newspaper at the time. He picked up on this news item and decided to use the theatrical version of this dramatic accident in his novel. Over a century later, the crash of the chandelier still creates a spectacle on the theater stage.

The ceiling that can be admired today is not the original one. The first mural, “Hours of Day and Night” by Jules-Eugene Lenepveu, adorned the ceiling for almost a century. But then a certain Minister of Cultural Affairs decided it was too academic and commissioned Marc Chagall to create a modern mural. It was a controversial move.

The new mural, with its spectacular size and dreamy details, is an ode to music, featuring composers, instruments, scenes from operas and ballets as well as some Parisian landmarks. Purists didn’t like this modern approach in a Second Empire decor. To be on the safe side, Chagall donated his work to the Opera House and had it placed on a removable canvas.

Our opinion? We’re fans of Chagall’s work but we can see why his whimsical work may feel out of place. Then again, art isn’t meant to blend in, is it?

The elusive lake

The mysterious lake that inspired Gaston Leroux in his Phantom of the Opera is a creative adaptation of the rather boring but essential reality. The swampy terrain on which the Opera House in Paris is built caused problems during construction because the level of the groundwater turned out to be higher than anticipated. Garnier came up with a creative solution: a foundation that included a water cistern to eliminate the pressure of the ground water and stabilise the building. The tank doubled as a reservoir that would supply fire-fighters with water in case of fire. The lake is only accessible for fire-fighters who use it for training purposes.

Curious what the reservoir looks like? Then head over to Google Arts & Culture to catch a glimpse.

Visiting the Opera House of Paris

Getting to Palais Garnier

You can either walk the Avenue de l’Opéra from the Louvre to the Paris Opera House or you can rely on public transport. Metro lines 3, 7 and 8 stop at station Opéra and the RER stops at station Auber, both just steps away from this iconic landmark.

Hotels near the Paris Opera House

Many high-end hotels are located in the direct vicinity. Here are our favorites:

Tours of the Opera House in Paris

Palais Garnier can be visited every day from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.. The only exceptions are days with afternoon performances and the peak summer months). You need to present yourself at the entrance at least 45 minutes before closure. Self-guided tours cost €14 for adults and are free for kids under 12.

Guided tours are available on request and take approximately 90 minutes. Here are some options:

Note that a visit to the Garnier Opera is not included in any of the Paris passes.

If you want to see more but can’t make it to the Opera House in Paris, then we can highly recommend the museum views that are made available in the Google Arts & Culture virtual tour.

Visiting the Garnier Opera House with kids

Mother and daughters at the Palais Garnier loggia

We visited Palais Garnier on numerous occasions yet always accompanied by our kids. It’s their favorite Parisian monument as much as it’s ours. Even more so since the release of the movie Ballerina (titled Leap! in the United States) that tells the story of an orphan, Félice, who’s on a quest to become a prima ballerina in this very Opera House in Paris. So, why not let the kids watch this movie before you visit? And once inside, let them search for lyres. This stringed instrument is the gold thread that ties the Palais Garnier’s interior decoration together. It is depicted on statues, murals, doorknobs and more.

Gift shop

Souvenirs at the boutique of the Paris Opera House Palais Garnier

The collection of Parisian Opera memorabilia that is offered in the gift shop is very tempting: ballet-inspired lamps, suede totes, berets, tea tins, books and so many other gorgeous little items that make it really worth-wile. Little girls will have a hard time leaving the gift shop… as will somewhat older ones.

Attending a performance at the Opera House in Paris

Are you looking to include a once-in-a-lifetime experience in your Paris visit? Make your trip to Paris even more memorable by booking tickets to a spectacle in the most iconic Paris Opera House. It’s been on our bucket list for ages but, now that the kids are a bit older, we can’t wait to make it reality.

The Ballet School of the Opéra National de Paris still calls Palais Garnier home, so most ballet performances take place here. But occasionally, classical music concerts and operas are on the agenda as well.

Places to see and things to do nearby

The magnificent Garnier Opera House is located in the southeastern corner of the 9th arrondissement. That’s just off the main tourist track, yet within walking distance of some of Paris’ most famous landmarks. With the Avenue de l’Opéra forming a direct connection between the Opera House and the Louvre Museum, there’s even no need for a map.

Grand Magasins

A visit to the Paris Opera House makes for the perfect prelude of a shameless shopping spree. The so-called Grand Magasins, Galeries Lafayette & Printemps Haussmann, are just around the corner and both offer the most amazing views of Palais Garnier from their rooftop bar. Prefer boutiques to malls? Then head to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré for a luxurious shopping experience.

Palais-Royal

Palais-Royal in Paris

Originally built as Cardinal Richelieu’s residence and later bequeathed to the Royal Family, the Palais-Royal was were Louis XIV spent his early years, before moving from Paris to Versailles. The Dukes of Orléans soon called the Palais-Royal home and, over time, the palace underwent many major alterations. It’s still home to the Théâtre du Palais-Royal and the Comédie Française but also houses the Ministry of Culture and other state institutions. Eye-catchers are the arcade lined with shops, the elegant courtyard with its modern artwork (the black and white Colonnes de Buren) and the intimate park called Jardin du Palais-Royal, which is open to visitors on a daily basis.

Place Vendôme

Just like the Paris Opera House, the Place Vendôme was created under the governance of Louis XIV. This octagonal square was designed around an equestrian statue of the Sun King. The neoclassical townhouses that frame the Place Vendôme were meant to house prestigious political institutions but ended up becoming residences for the aristocracy. The square takes its name from the Hôtel de Vendôme townhouse which was the residency of the Duc of Vendome.

After the French Revolution, the statue was replaced with a 44 m (144 ft) bronze column made of enemy canons. It was topped with a statue of Napoleon in Roman attire to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Throughout its history, the Place Vendôme managed to keep its luxurious status intact. Apart from the Ministry of Justice, it’s home to the Ritz-Carlton hotel and numerous jewellery boutiques with the most sparkling window displays.

The Louvre

Louvre and Tuileries Garden in Paris

Just a short walk from the Paris Opera House is the most visited museum in the world, the Louvre. The vast art collection is second-to-none, from Egyptian antiquities to Islamic arts and French sculptures. A solid preparation is recommended to make the most of your visit. First-time visitors could also follow the thematic trail, Masterpieces, In Search of Ideal Beauty.

Check out these Louvre ticket and tour suggestions:

Iconic Parisian treats

No better way to end your visit to the Opera House in Paris than with a treat at Fauchon. The assortment of mouth-watering éclairs is hard to resist. And if this foodie heaven leaves you craving for more, then head over to the iconic macaron brand Ladurée for even more sweet indulgence.

Pssst… Did you know that Fauchon has its own hotel in Paris? It’s not too far from Palais Garnier. Breakfast never looked so good, check it out!

Covered Passages

Over a dozen of glass-covered passages connect the Parisian streets. These enchanting shopping arcades are perfect to explore on a rainy day. Each has its own unique vibe and assortment of shops. Passage des Panoramas is the oldest one, Passage du Grand-Cerf the most popular one. We love the authentic atmosphere of Passage Verdeau with its wooden storefronts and antique shops.

Montmartre

Montmatre Paris

North of the Opéra Garnier is Montmartre, home to the Sacré-Cœur and the convivial Place du Tertre. It’s a lovely place for an evening stroll, taking in the sunset views and enjoying a drink at one of the Parisian cafés that dot the ever-charming streets.

When will you visit the Paris Opera House?

If there’s only one Parisian landmark that you decide to visit on your Paris itinerary, make it this one. Are you as fond of this magnificent Opera House in Paris as we are? Have you visited Palais Garnier yourself or are you planning to visit in the future? We’d love to read all about your travel plans so feel free leave a comment.

Pinning this post would be much appreciated!

Auditorium, Grand Staircase and Grand Foyer of Palais Garnier Opera in Paris
Interior decor and murals of the Paris Opera House Palais Garnier

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