In Belle Époque Paris, the Grands Boulevards were the place to see and be seen: in the cafés, at the opera, or in the ornate passages couverts (glass-roofed arcades that served as the world's first malls). If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine the Grands Boulevards immortalized on canvas by the Impressionists, with well-attired Parisians strolling wide avenues dotted with shops, cafés, and horse-drawn carriages—all set against a backdrop of stately Haussmannian buildings. Today, despite the chain stores, sidewalk vendors, and fast-food joints, the Grands Boulevards remain the city's shopping epicenter, home to the most popular department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps, near Place de l'Opéra.
Shopping aside, the Grands Boulevards are a cultural destination anchored by the magnificent Opéra Garnier, commissioned by Napoléon III. The neighborhood is also home to some of the city's best small museums, all former private collections housed in 19th-century hôtels particuliers (mansions) that alone are worth the trip. The exquisite Musée Jacquemart-André displays an impressive collection of Italian Renaissance art, while the jewel-box Musée Nissim de Camondo remembers one family's tragic end. The Musée Cernuschi has a dazzling array of Asian art, and the Musée National Gustave-Moreau is an offbeat tribute to the Symbolist master.