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A Worthwhile Guided Tour: Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier)

I much prefer taking guided tours when I travel because the learning is interactive. I often start to daydream when the self-guided audio-tour I’ve been given goes on and on and on. After a while it just becomes boring and I zone out. That’s why I especially liked taking the guided tour of the Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier), which, according to Tripadvisor, is #4 on the list of top attractions in Paris attracting almost 480,000 visitors a year. 

The in-depth, expert commentary about the building’s creation, architecture, and history was one thing. But being able to ask questions and discuss things with our tour guide made the experience more meaningful and worthwhile and our tour guide really brought the building and history to life. If you’re going to do a guided tour, do it at the Palais Garnier, considered one of the world’s grandest theatres.

1. Palais Garnier Opera House Tour, Paris

Paris Opera House-Palais Garnier

About a month before visiting the Paris Opera House, my niece, her husband, and I ordered tickets online for the guided tour. We chose one of the morning, English-speaking tours. In addition to French and English tours, there are also Spanish speaking tours with a maximum of 30 people. The cost of the guided tour is currently 18.5 €  and the self-guided visit is 14 € where you get access to the public areas and any exhibitions going on.

With the self-guided tour you can pay an extra 6.5 € to get a tablet which will provide you with a 1 hour multi-media tour through the opera. So it’s actually quite reasonable to take the guided tour.

We arrived 30 minutes before the tour was to start to exchange our voucher for our tickets. We then had to go through security and join the other ticket-holders in a waiting area, the Rotonde des Abbonées.

(a) The Rotonde des Abbonées

Meeting place of tour in the Rotonde des Abbonees-Paris Opera
Bassin de la Pythia leading to the Grand Escalier

The Rotonde des Abbonées is a circular room or vestibule that has pillars on the perimeter, mosaic tiles on the floor, and a very decorative ceiling. Throughout much of the Paris Opera there are symbols of Greek mythology and as you head to the Grand Escalier (Grand Staircase) you pass by La Pythonisse (or Pythia), priestess of the god Apollo greets you.

Interesting fact #1: the Pythia sculpture was done in bronze by Marcello who was actually a woman, Adèle d’Affry, the Duchess Castiglione-Colonna.

(b) Special Headphones

Our tour guide spoke excellent English and explained how the opera house can get very busy and crowded and rather than try to speak over all the voices, she would speak into a microphone and we would be able to clearly hear her using special headphones. These headsets amplified her voice but her words remained very clear. And no matter how close or far we were from her, we could hear her.

We did have to provide her with a piece of identification (ie. license or passport) that she held onto in exchange for the headphones. This is not uncommon when you borrow audio-guides at museums.

During our 90 minute tour, was informative and provided interesting commentary. Of course, she elaborated on the Phantom of the Opera and parts of the story that were true and not true. She took us to various areas and rooms and gave us time to take photos, wander around a bit, and ask questions. 

2. History Of Palais Garnier

She began our tour by telling us some stories about the opera’s history. Napoleon III was on a mission to reconstruct and modernize Paris, adding sewers, creating grand boulevards and more light to the area. This was done with the help of Baron Haussmann.

A competition was established to choose a design for the new Opera House. There would be 2 phrases where applicants would be narrowed down to 7 in the 2nd phase. Architect Charles Garnier was one of 7 finalists and after revising his project, it was finally selected as the winning design. He began construction of the Opera in 1861.

The Paris Opera house was one of the most expensive buildings to be built at a cost of 7.5 million francs.

Interesting fact #2: the Opera House was so expensive that the government had to borrow over half of the money (4.9 million francs) from wealthy entrepreneur, François Blanc, who managed Monaco’s Monte Carlo Casino.

Palais Garnier was finally completed January 5, 1875. Electrical lighting was installed in 1881. Up until then gas lighting was used. The opera house was originally called Salle des Capucines but became known as the Palais Garnier, named after the architect.

Interesting fact #3: during the construction, water kept seeping into the basement,  and eventually a pond was formed and Garnier decided to create an artificial reservoir or pond to hold the water.

Interesting fact #4: in 1896, a part of an enormous chandelier—a counterweight—broke free and fell, killing one person. In 1910, author Gaston Leroux used the area of water or “lake” of stores as well as the chandelier incident as inspiration for his famous story, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera). The story and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name has certainly made the Palais Garnier even more famous.

The Paris Opera House is one of the largest and opulent opera houses in Europe, seating almost 2000 people. It became a national heritage site—“Monument Historique“—  in 1923.

3. The Highlights Of The Palais Garnier

We were brought to various rooms and areas in the building, including the famed auditorium, where you can see the famous painting that Marc Chagall did on the ceiling. The style of the architecture throughout was eclectic with a mix of Greek, Baroque, Renaissance, and Beaux-Arts styles.

(a) Grand Escalier (Staircase)

Grand Escalier-Palais Garnier

As you climb the Grand Staircase from La Rotonde des Abbonées, you are presented with additional staircases and landings which take you to the different floors, salons, and foyers. The staircases are made primarily of white marble with additional added coloured marble columns (balustrade) supporting the railings. There are two female sculptures, dressed in robes, on each side of the entrance to the orchestra and balconies.

This whole area was for socializing before the performance. Spectators were surrounded by broad staircases, painted ceilings, and elaborate chandeliers.

(b) Ceilings

Chandeliers in the hallway leading to the Salon du Glacier
Chandeliers above the Grand Staircase

Remember to look UP in the Opera house where ever you are because you’ll see elaborate ceilings and enormous chandeliers. The ceiling above the Grand Staircase was done in 4 panels with scenes from Greek mythology by Isidore Pils (1815-1875).

Interesting fact #5: part way through the painting of the ceiling, Pils became ill and his students (many who became famous in their own right), had to finish his work.

(c) Grand Foyer

Grand Foyer-Palais Garnier

The Grand Foyer is quite impressive and ornate. It reminds me of Château de Versaille’s Hall of Mirrors where the light streams through the many windows and illuminates the many chandeliers, gold painted pillars and walls, grand mirrors, and the colourfully decorated paintings on the ceiling by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1828-1886).

(d) Salon du Glacier

Salon du Glacier-Paris Opera House

The Galleria du Glacier is a long hallway featuring elements and designs of the Belle Époque and it leads to the Salon du Glacier, a rotunda that was opened after the opening of the Opera House. It has another large chandelier and an decorated ceiling painted by Georges Clairin (1843-1919). In this area there are also marble busts, tapestries of hunting and fishing scenes and paintings of dancing Greek Bacchantes.

(e) Library-Museum Of The Paris Opera

Library-Museum Paris Opera

Quite surprising to many of us was that the Paris Opera is also a library-museum (Bibliotèque-Musée de l’Opera de Paris). There are many sites that belong to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France) including the Richelieu Library which I recommend visiting so you can see the magnificent Labrouste Reading Room (the Salle Labrouste).

This particular library and museum contains hundreds of thousands of documents, paintings, photographs, letters, and other items which date back hundreds of years.

(f) Auditorium: Marc Chagall’s Painting On The Ceiling

One of the items on display in the Library-museum is actually the initial ceiling for the auditorium. It was painted by Jules-Eugene Lenepveu and was called, “The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night”.

Paris opera ceiling by Jules-Eugene Lenepveu
Ceiling painted by Jules-Eugene Lenepveu
Painting by Marc Chagall in the Paris Opera auditorium
Ceiling painted by Marc Chagall

Interesting fact #6: Lenepveu’s painting was considered too old-fashioned and in 1964, French Culture Minister, André Malraux, commissioned artists Marc Chagall to paint a new ceiling. This is the painting that is there today; however, there continues to be controversy about the painting and whether it is appropriate for its surroundings, where many consider it too modern.

The chandelier in the centre has 340 lights, weighs 8 tons, and is made of bronze and crystal. At the time it cost 30,000 francs. Even the chandelier had controversy. There were complaints that the chandelier obstructed the view and Lenepveu’s painting of the ceiling by those sitting in the box seats on the fourth level.

There is NO guarantee that you will have access to the auditorium on the self-guided or guided tours as there could be rehearsals going on. We were fortunate to be able to visit it and sit on the very plush seats.

Our tour also allowed us to “peak” into one of the opera boxes) which are located on the side or facing the stage called loge de côté and loges de face)—-a separate room where 4-6 guests can watch a performance in the privacy of their own “space”. You might also be able to visit box #5, which is the Phantom’s box in the story. The plaque on the door, “Loge du Fantôme de l’Opera” indicates the box is reserved for the Phantom. 

4. Attend A Performance At The Paris Opera House

We didn’t really have much time to gaze around the horseshoe-shaped auditorium; however, many years before this tour, I did attend a ballet with a friend.

When we arrived at the Opera, we couldn’t get a ticket for a tour, but we could get last-minute tickets to see a performance by the American Ballet, so we bought tickets. Our box was very high up and we had it all to ourselves. I will be very honest and say I had to leave early. It was in the summertime and the heat was just too much. (Remember, hot air rises!) I was getting faint! It was a long time ago and there wasn’t air conditioning.

Does the Palais Garnier have air conditioning today? I have heard yes, however, if you are on one of the highest levels it can still get stuffy and hot in those boxes. The only downside of seeing the ballet was that we didn’t really get to see all the salons, rooms, and areas of the Opera House, which is why I did the tour many years later.

5. The “Other” Opera House: Opera Bastille

There is another opera house in Paris. In 1989 the Opera Bastille was constructed and is located at Place de la Bastille. This is now the location for operas. Palais Garnier is primarily used for ballet performances.

Between 1994 and 2007 major renovations were made on the Palais Garnier to modernize the stage, improve the electrical components, and reinforce the structure and foundation. The architecture is stunning and the Opera House Paris tour is well worth the 18.5€ . On the Palais Garnier website you can see that their calendar indicates the number of available spots on the tour and quite often many are available.

6. Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier)

  • Visit The Palais Garnier (website): https://www.operadeparis.fr/en/visits/palais-garnier
  • Hours: open daily 10:00-5:00  (and 10-6 pm in the summer) except for afternoons when there are performances
  • Most guided tours: are at 2:00 pm.
  • Cost for the guided tour tickets: 18.5€*
  • Reduced rate: if you have a ticket from the Musée d’Orsay or Musée Gustave Moreau that is not greater than 8 days old you can save a few Euros on the cost of your ticket.
  • Address: Place de l’Opera

*Prices are subject to change.

Check out my post about booking tours in advance for more information: Trip Advice Part 1

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Guided tour of the Paris Opera House Palais Garnier

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