I’m not sure why, but I was expecting the Galeries Lafayette to be a shopping mall, with a collection of small stores inside. It turns out to be more of a large department store. Multiple levels of displays and kiosks look down over this central atrium, and the whole place smells faintly of perfume.
Galeries Lafayette is across the street from the Opera Garnier – the Paris opera house of Phantom of the Opera fame – in a neighbourhood that has been the playground of the rich since the time of Napoleon III in the 19th century.
Victor, the guide on one of the tours I took on Thursday, told us the Galeries Lafayette can be a fun place to browse, and that the prices aren’t actually that bad. But best of all, there is access to the roof, which offers a spectacular view over Paris.
I headed in on Friday, after starting the morning at the Opera’s box office. (I scored tickets to a ballet on Saturday night for 12€, so the hour-long wait in line while little old ladies made the clerks talk through the available seats for every. single. performance. in the next three weeks turned out to be worth it.)
Unlike, say, the Arc de Triomphe, which also has a wonderful view over Paris, the Galeries Lafayette has both escalators and elevators, and there is no cost to go up. I took the escalators, so I could get off at every level and take pictures down into the atrium and up to the stained-glass dome overhead.
Up on the roof, they have laid out fake grass and plastic sofas to make the atmosphere more inviting. And it looked as though there was also a cafe there for when the weather was nicer, although it was closed the day I visited.
The view of the Opera Garnier is impressive, and provides a chance to see the architectural work from above. Victor had explained that bee hives were installed on the roof of the opera house (the honey is sometimes for sale in the opera’s gift shop, although they were sold out when I checked), and he suggested we try to spot the hives from Lafayette. I am sad to report that I both tried and failed.
(The Opera Garnier is not the only building in Paris with bee hives on the roof. Urban beekeeping has been on the rise in Paris over the last decade – in 2010, it was estimated there were more than 400 hives in the city, including on the roofs of the Grand Palais, La Defense, and certain hotels and restaurants.)
The Eiffel Tower stands over the skyline to the right of the Opera House, and if you head all the way to your left (as you face the opera) and then turn around, you’ll be able to see Sacre Coeur cathedral between two bits of the Lafayette building. I was surprised to find it looked both larger and closer than I was expecting, and due to the strange way it was framed by the building, it seemed like it was floating in the sky above Paris.
The roof was a lovely place to spend some time. I was a little afraid that snooty French salesmen might frown on the ragged tourist as she trooped through the store to get to the view on the roof, but the Galeries Lafayette have gone out of their way to make it feel welcoming.