The two department stores Au Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette are both on the same street, Boulevard Haussmann. They are both in large historic buildings with Art Deco cupolas. And they both sell the same fashionable products with prestigious brand names that everybody except me has heard of.
It turns out that Au Printemps is the older of the two stores, having been founded in 1865. Galeries Lafayette wasn’t started until thirty years later, in 1895.
From a purely touristic point of view, I would say Galeries Lafayette is the one to visit, because of its beautiful interior and its rooftop observation deck. Au Printemps is also attractive, but by comparison it is somewhat less remarkable. When I was there the inside looked a bit bedraggled, except for the dedicated brand-name areas.
But what struck me in Au Printemps (which means ‘in spring’ in French) is that the customers look fantastically elegant and well dressed, more so than at Lafayette. This might be because Lafayette does a lot of advertising in English to attract tourists, whereas Printemps concentrates on its French clientele. Or it might be that Printemps is simply the place to go for serious fashion shopping. But this is all just speculation on my part, so I’d be interested in getting comments from any fashionistas or other knowledgeable people who might happen to read this post.
The downside of having elegant customers is that they tend to arrive in elegant cars, so it comes as no surprise that Printemps has a voiturier service, known in English as valet parking. I am opposed to this sort of ‘service’, since it only serves to generate unnecessary motor traffic in the public streets, with the resulting noise, congestion and air pollution.
On the first floor of Au Printemps (i.e. one flight up) there is an area devoted to whatever sort of products are sold under the brand name of Louis Vuitton. This is the one brand name that I instantly recognize, thanks to the lovely Swedish soprano Anna Ryberg, who was a member of the opera ensemble in Frankfurt from 2004 to 2015. In Rossini’s opera Il viaggio a Reims, Anna sang the role of a capricious and fashionable French lady called the Countess of Folleville (Folleville means ‘crazy city’). Towards the end of the opera there is a scene in which all the characters make suggestions about what the topic of the final song should be. The others propose serious topics like Joan of Arc, the citizens of Reims or the Battle of Tolbiac, but Anna always got a laugh by suggesting Louis Vuitton.
Of course this was not in the original libretto from the year 1826. There the Countess of Folleville suggested San Luigi (Saint Louis), which wouldn’t have gotten a laugh even then.
The winning suggestion turned out to be “Charles X, King of France”, which was not surprising since the opera had been specially commissioned for his coronation. Tradition has it that the new king fell asleep during the world premiere of his opera, but it may be that he was just all tuckered out after a long week of being coronated.
Under the dome of the cupola in Printemps there is a restaurant called Brasserie Printemps which friends of mine have recommended, but I have never eaten there myself.
To find the rooftop observation deck of the Au Printemps, you have to go into their building at the corner of Boulevard Haussmann and Rue du Havre. This is not the building with the cupola, but the other one, the one further west. You’ll know you’re in the right building when you see a big display of children’s perfumes on the ground floor. (I’m not making this up.)
The escalators are not designed to get us up to the roof in a hurry. You have to walk around in a circle on each floor to get to the next escalator going up to the next floor. But with some persistence you can make it all the way up to the roof.
Unlike the roof of the nearby Galeries Lafayette, where there is plenty of room to walk around, the roof of Au Printemps is taken up mainly by a restaurant and café. But even if you don’t want to sit down and consume, it is still possible to walk around the edges and look at the views.
Here (above) we are looking northeast towards Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur. The older-looking church steeple in the center of the photo is the Trinité.
Here we are looking west towards the Arch of Triumph.
Update: I have recently discovered that my father went to Au Printemps on April 14, 1931, to buy some presents for his relatives back in Gablonz.
My photos in this post are from 2013.
I revised the text in 2018 and added an update in 2022.
See also: Galeries Lafayette in Paris.