There are so many historic places that make you fall in love with Paris, but can you blame a girl for loving a Parisian store? And not just any old store, but the oldest department store in the world, and no doubt one of the most beautiful.
Yes, Paris has a few stunning department stores, all worth a visit. There is Printemps, whose roof terrace I adore; there is Galeries Lafayette, which not only has the best Christmas tree every year under its glorious glass dome, but also a champagne bar placed such that you can take in the beauty and the bustle of the place. There is the lovely BHV in the Marais, where you can get your own enamel street sign made, and then there is, of course, the recently renovated Samaritaine, which is a real stunner.
But my personal favorite will probably always be the Bon Marché despite its oxymoronic name — with bon marché meaning a bargain or good deal in French, while the Bon Marché’s goodies, even the smallest trinket, can send you bankrupt. But then, the store is part of the luxurious LVMH group. Here are my reasons for putting Bon Marché on your to-do list when next in Paris.
1. The History
When originally founded as a store selling ribbons and frippery in 1838, the name was probably appropriate, as it was deemed a novelty store. But a few years later, Marguerite and Artiste Bouciaut, wealthy entrepreneurs, revamped the site and opened the chic department store in 1858, reportedly wanting to offer Parisians “a new kind of store that would thrill all the senses.” And that they did. Designed by architects Louis Charles Boileau (1837-1914) and engineer Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) of tower fame, the building is a shrine to Art Nouveau, with great glass domes, metalwork, curlicues, and organic swirls, but in an understated elegant way.
2. The Escalators
The escalators zigzagging across the main atrium are a work of art. The minimalistic elegance of their simple white — unless covered in art — is worth a visit to the store, especially when photographed from the second floor. Go and see for yourself; you never knew escalators could be so chic.
3. The Shoes Under The Dome
You might not have room in your travel budget for Louboutins, but there is no harm in looking. On the top floor, near the walkway to the second building where home and kitchen wares as well as the Grand Epicerie are housed, lies a shrine to shoes. Displayed like sculptures — and only marginally cheaper — stand the world’s most extravagant shoes under a stained glass domed roof. The staff, although coming across as quite haughty, are more than happy for you to meander and dream.
4. The Grand Épicerie
If only I lived in this arrondissement and had the money to make the Grand Épicerie, the food hall of Bon Marché, my local weekly supermarket destination. On the first floor of the second building — with the wines and champagnes in the basement — you find a wonderful display of foods from around the world. And you do not only get the best quality, and many a homesick expat’s favorite nibbles, but it is the way that these goodies are displayed that is key.
The simple salt shelf, filled with salts from around the world, in lovely colors and various sizes of grain, or the numerous olive oils that stand not just to attention but have been assorted like art by a curator, and even the water bottles make your heart soar. When it comes to eating with your eyes, here you buy ingredients with your eyes, and even the display of carrots makes you want to create a recipe to do them justice.
5. The Fashion
Obviously, this being Paris, there is fashion in this department store. While on the first floor, you find handbag stores from Louis Vuitton to Chanel, the top two floors have wonderful displays of local and international fashion from Alaia to Zadig & Voltaire. You can find more affordable fashion on the second floor, while on the third it becomes high fashion and at times the pieces are more fashion show, fun pieces you could never imagine wearing. But there is nothing better than to stroll beneath the typical Eiffel steel beams and soak up the color and designs. Window shopping at its best.
6. The Art Collaborations
Every year, often several times, the department store collaborates with international contemporary artists who are allowed to display their projects in the showrooms and along the escalators. When I was last there, in March 2023, the entire store had basically been turned into an aquarium with stencils of fish designed by Teamlab all over the interior; whereas previously the crockery and cooking pot installations by Indian artist Subodh Gupta were center stage. Basically, with Bon Marché you not only get a lovely shopping experience, but always also get a gallery visit while you’re there.
7. The Christmas Displays
The Bon Marché comes into its own at Christmas time. Not only are the windows decorated, but also the inside, the atrium, and the escalators get dolled up with decorations. Often it is Christmas trees hanging from the ceiling, which might sound silly, but it looks fabulous. Other times, the department store gets together with an artist to work on the display. Either way, it is never dull.
And then there is the Christmas decorations pop-up store. Every year, part of the second-floor showroom is set aside to sell baubles and decorations, and they are as quirky as they come. From iconic French baubles such as garlic bulbs, baguettes, and croissants to more traditional fairies and snow globes, I dare you to leave without purchasing a single thing. It is practically impossible.
Pro Tip: For a high fashion, decadent day out, dress up, go (window) shopping at Bon Marché and then pop across the street to the historic Hotel Lutetia and have a glass of champagne in the stunning Bar Josephine. When in Paris…