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Flamboyant, extravagant, and baroque, this opulent opera house is a splendid example of Second Empire architectural excess. Corinthian columns, loggias, busts, and friezes cover the facade of the building, which is topped by a gold dome. The interior of the building is no less dramatic. The vast lobby, built in a spectrum of different-colored marble, holds a spectacular double staircase that sweeps up to the different levels of the auditorium, as well as an array of glamorous antechambers, galleries, and ballrooms that make you wonder how the opera scenery could possibly compete. Mosaics, mirrors, gilt, and marble line these grand spaces, whose painted ceilings dance with fauns, gods, and nymphs. The main event, of course, is the auditorium, which might seem a bit small, considering the size of the building. In fact, it holds not even 2,000 seats. The beautiful ceiling was painted with colorful images from various operas and ballets by Marc Chagall in 1964.

All of this (with the exception of the Chagall ceiling) sprang from the mind of a young, unknown architect named Charles Garnier, who won a competition launched by Napoléon III. Though the first stone was laid in 1862, work was held up by war, civil unrest, and a change in regime; the Palais Garnier was not inaugurated until 1875. Some contemporary critics found it a bit much (one called it “an overloaded sideboard”), but today it is generally acknowledged as a masterpiece of the architecture of the epoch.

And what about that phantom? Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel, “The Phantom of the Opera,” clearly was inspired by the building’s underground lake, which was constructed to help stabilize the building.

You can visit the building on your own, but you might want to take advantage of the guided visits in English (14€ adults, 12.50€ children under 10; Sept–June Wed, Sat–Sun 11:30am and 2:30pm; July–Aug daily 11:30am and 2:30pm). Either way, your visit will be limited to the lobby, the surrounding foyers, the museum, and if there’s not a rehearsal in progress, the auditorium—sorry, you won’t get to see the lake. Or simply buy tickets to a show; consult the Opéra website to see what’s on at the Palais Garnier.