5 Incredible Facts About the Paris Opera House

The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris.
The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris.

Once upon a time during intermission at one of my first operas, I stood at the balcony overlooking several levels of cascading staircases beneath me, watching people as I sipped on Champagne.  The stranger next to me noticed my fascination and struck up a conversation.  And he shared something that has stayed with me at every opera I’ve seen since.

He told me that all opera houses were designed for people-watching because opera used to be as much about the music as it was a popularity contest among the aristocratic people who could afford to attend.  The winding staircases and balconies allowed people to see and be seen — the most important factor of the night.

The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris.
The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris.

I don’t know who that man was or where he was from, but since our conversation I’ve been to opera houses from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between and old or new, his point seems to ring true almost everywhere.  (There are a few exceptions, like San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.)  Even Barcelona’s Liceu opera house has plenty of places to gaze upon fellow opera-goers, even without a grand staircase.

Both sides of the Grand Staircase at the Palais Garnier in Paris.
The Grand Staircase at the Palais Garnier, surrounded by massive murals and statues.

When I first saw a photo of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris, I wasn’t thinking about how perfect it was for people-watching, I was mesmerized by its staircase.  (I have an obsession with stairs and always stop to snap photos of a good staircase!)  But I’d be lying if the opera house itself wasn’t one of the main reasons (combined with French pastries) that inspired me to add Paris to my trip to Spain.

Once in Paris, I wanted to know everything about Palais Garnier so, like in Barcelona, I signed up for a tour.  Of everything I learned, here are my favorite facts.

5 incredible facts about the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier

The staircase and ceiling of the Grand Foyer in the Palais Garnier, Paris Opera House.
The decorative details of the Palais Garnier are stunning.

1. Yes, Palais Garnier was designed for people-watching. 

The tour guide confirmed what that man had told me years ago: that the opera house was designed for people watching, especially the grand staircase.  Its several stories of balconies and open staircases beg you to gaze down at those below you — or across from you.  And the stairs themselves are really shallow, designed to prevent women from showing their — gasp! — ankles when walking up them.

The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier in Paris.
The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier rivals the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

2. The opera house is surrounded by banks. That’s because…

…All those fancy rich people who attended the opera with the intention to see and be seen decked themselves out with all their jewels, which they picked up from their bank vaults on their way there.  Several banks knowingly opened nearby and stayed open until the opera was over so the jewels could be put away immediately after the curtain fell.  While numerous banks still surround the opera house today, they are no longer open so late.

Related :: 5 Incredible Facts About the Vienna Opera House

The theater and ceiling inside the Palais Garnier in Paris.
The “chicken coup” is visible at the very top of the theater.

3. The top tier is called the Chicken Coup and there’s no visibility of the stage from there. But that didn’t matter because…

The top tier was primarily reserved for middle class people who didn’t come to see the opera, but to see the rich people who were there.  In fact, back then the house lights stayed on throughout the entire performance so that people could people-watch during the whole opera.  That is, until composer Richard Wagner decided that all lights needed to be off in order to better concentrate on the activities on stage.

The middle class people couldn’t afford to dine at the lavish Palais Garnier so they brought food with them.  When they saw someone famous they didn’t like, they threw spoiled food at them from the top tier.  Eventually, vendors selling rotten tomatoes and apples gathered outside the opera house for this very purpose.

As you can imagine, the aristocratic people weren’t very pleased about this (can you imagine being hit with a rotten apple?!), so the Palais Garnier put chicken wire around the top tier to catch thrown objects, hence the tier’s nickname “the chicken coup.”  Today the chicken wire is gone but the visibility from the top tier is still minimal, so if you’re planning to see an opera make sure you check the stage view from the seats before purchasing!  (There’s a stage view link next to each seat on the Paris Opera website.)

Venetian mosaics decorate the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris.
The ceiling is decorated with Venetian mosaics, the first use of them outside of Italy.

4. The basement of the opera house is flooded. And that inspired the famous book and musical…

…the Phantom of the Opera.  The site for the Palais Garnier was picked for its proximity to the center of Paris, but when construction began in 1861 workers discovered the ground was a swampy lake that continuously flooded the site.  It took eight months to drain but the water kept returning.  After construction began and several attempts to pump out the water failed, architect Charles Garnier created a huge tank to store the water and used it to add stability the massive building.

The “underground lake” and its surrounding cellars inspired Gaston Leroux to write the Phantom of the Opera in 1910 and he even mentioned in his book when the huge chandelier came crashing down from the ceiling causing the death of a worker.

Overdressed outside the Palais Garnier.
Overdressed outside the Palais Garnier before the opera/ballet Orphée et Eurydice.

5. Parisians don’t get dressed up for the opera. Which was awkward because…

… I was really dressed up.  In a building that beautiful, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything but a gown to the performance of Orphée et Eurydice.  Even at the other opera house in Paris, Opera Bastille, where we saw Les Capulet et les Montaigu (otherwise known as Romeo & Juliet), we were the most dressed up people there.  Everyone else was wearing leggings.  I couldn’t believe it!

Related :: Six days of beauty in Paris

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Tour the Paris Opera House

The Palais Garnier is one of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever been inside. Today, it’s mostly home to the ballet while the opera performs at the Opéra Bastille (with better stage visibility). I highly recommend seeing a performance there but if not, take a tour of the Palais Garnier (available daily in both English and French) or wander through it on your own during the day.

Book directly through the Palais Garnier website or tours through Viator.com, like this guided tour, this after-hours tour or one that includes the Galleries Lafayette Private Tour.

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  • I’m going to Paris for the first time in 14 days and it feels completely surreal! I’ve been obsessed with the Phantom of the Opera (the book as soon as I was old enough to read!) and then the musical. We are going to eat and drink our way through the city but I’m the most excited about seeing and touring the opera house. Enjoyed this article as I’m soaking up everything I can about Paris and the opera before we depart. It’s funny you said everyone was so casually dressed @ the opera b/c my husband asked if I wanted to go see a performance and I said “Nah. I don’t want to pack an evening gown and I doubt you want to bring a tux.” Lol. This really intrigues me that such a formal city wouldn’t demand formality for an opera. Anyways…love your blog.

    • Thank you so much! Definitely check out the opera house and, if you can, see an opera. Especially now that you know you won’t have to pack any formal clothes! Enjoy Paris. It’s a beautiful city!

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