Those who have walked the paved boulevards of Paris will attest to its extraordinary depth of history and intrigue. This is a city whose immense heritage cannot be easily digested in a single visit, nor in the next three, four – perhaps ten. With a museum, gallery or monument seemingly flanking each and every one of the city’s quaint rues, there is more to see in this feast of a capital than is possible to squeeze into a single lifetime, but we’re more than happy to give it a try.
Given the complexity of Paris’ history and culture, it’s often prudent to plan in advance the sights you’d like to see ahead of travel. Scenic, who offer luxury river cruises to Paris and other destinations across Europe, recommend theming each visit to concentrate on a single facet of the city’s heritage – be it tracing the steps of the Lost Generation or absorbing the impressionist works of Monet.
No matter how many times you’ve frequented the French capital, one area of Parisian heritage which remains enduringly popular is its numerous instances of opulent Belle Epoque architecture, which are spread at regular interludes across the city. Literally translating as the ‘Beautiful Era’ in French, La Belle Epoque emerged in the late 19th century as result of economic stability, regional peace and growing optimism for the future across Europe. Similarly in other cities across the continent – particularly Vienna, Budapest and Berlin – the Belle Epoque brought cultural innovation and an increased enjoyment of the arts to the boulevards of Paris, not to mention a bounty of glorious new architecture.
If you’re interested in unearthing the lavish facades that came to typify this majestic epoch, here are a selection of the best architectural gems of Belle Epoque Paris.
Arguably the best example of the Belle Epoque at play in Paris, Galeries Lafeyette is an opulent department store on the Boulevard Haussmann, containing many of the city’s most esteemed fashion brands. First opened in 1912, Lafayette is by no means the earliest instance of Belle Epoque era architecture in the city, but it is one of its most decadent, with an exterior and interior rich in art nouveau embellishments. While the outside of the building is well worth capturing on camera, Lafayette’s showpiece remains its central glass and steel dome.
Housed in the triumphant Orsay Station – which itself transmutes the extravagance of the age – Musee d’Orsay houses the largest collection of Belle Epoque era works anywhere on the planet, making it the premier destination for those intrigued by this indulgent era of Parisian history. First built ahead of the Exposition Universelle of 1900, Orsay Station is a masterstroke of glass and iron, whose fabulous domed structure has become one of the city’s most celebrated landmarks. Inside, expect a feast of prestigious artistic works from the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Odilon Redon, Maurice Denis and Henri Matisse.
The Petit Palais
Another building constructed exclusively for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 is the Petit Palais, which stands opposite its loftier neighbour, the Grand Palais, on the right bank of the Seine. Thanks to its opulent stone and ironwork, the Petit Palais is often considered the height of Belle Epoque era architecture in the city, and houses a raft of fine artistic works from the likes of Rodin, Lalique, Bonnard, Maillol and Renoir.
The Opera Garnier
Provided you book your seats before booking your actual holiday, it is possible to see a show at Paris’ premier classical music venue, the Opera Garnier. If you’ve ever wondered if the venue’s flamboyant Belle Epoque exterior is echoed on the interior, it is – with a simply ludicrous array of neo-gothic styling lending a playful and extravagant edge to this remarkable 19th century structure.
For more tips and advice on your upcoming visit to Paris, be sure to check out the rest of our features on our France destination page.