In the Internet shopping age, classic department stores are still worth visiting
Among the best are Moscow's GUM, London's Selfridges and Paris's Galeries Lafayette
London's upscale Harrods is Europe's biggest department store
Imagine a shop where you can buy everything.
OK, OK, yes we’ve heard of the Internet, but we were thinking of an actual real-life shop. Because there’s something about a physical store that online shopping just can’t replace. And nothing beats a classic department store.
In addition to selling stacks of different merchandise and brands, these extravagantly designed stores-within-stores offer something else – an experience.
“Historically the big downtown department stores were almost like city centers,” says Jan Whitaker, a department store historian who’s penned two books on these emporiums of commerce. “They offered so many services in addition to all the latest products and fashions that they were really more than just stores.”
Here are 14 city-like department stores that are worth the trip, even for nonshoppers:
1. Le Bon Marche, Paris
Often considered the world’s first modern department store, Le Bon Marche Rive Gauche has been the chicest place to shop in Paris since its opening in 1852. And being top of the chic list in the capital of France takes some doing.
From the get-go, Le Bon Marche was an innovator coming up with ideas, like reading rooms for idle husbands, that were imitated around the world. As well as its swish merchandise, Le Bon Marche also boasts an impressive art collection that’s exhibited around the store.
In early 2016, the store was the first retail space to host Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Child’s Play” exhibition – showcasing two dozen whimsical bamboo and paper installations. The store’s 3,000-square-meter food market La Grande Epicerie is a slice of French food heaven.
Located along the Left Bank of the Seine, the store is less crowded than its counterparts on the other side of the river, making it popular with celebrities and with locals.
2. Selfridges, London
The store, on London’s Oxford Street central shopping drag, has a shrine-like shoe gallery – the world’s biggest for both men and women. In 2014, it splurged a whopping $432 million on creating the world’s biggest accessories department.
Its summer pop-up rooftop restaurants are as highly anticipated as its famous Christmas windows. In fact, it has the biggest Yuletide obsession in London – its festive shop opened in August last year.
3. Bergdorf Goodman, New York
When a department store inspires a documentary titled “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” it’s clearly not just any old shop.
There are also departments dedicated to home, books and children – plus restaurants. Bergdorf owns a separate three-story men’s department across the street.
Feeling lost? The upmarket store also boasts an army of personal shoppers, including 88-year-old Betty Halbreich, dubbed the most famous personal shopper in the world. Her office Betty Halbreich Solutions sits on the third floor.
4. GUM, Moscow
Moscow’s national department store GUM on Red Square has a rich and mysterious history that few can rival. It’s survived more than a century of tumult after opening in 1890.
The 242-meter-long, three-story structure escaped the bulldozer three times. And it became Joseph Stalin’s office in the 1920s.
Its lavish toilets were shut down for being a bourgeois luxury in 1918. One of them – branded Historic Toilet – has now been restored to its pre-revolutionary grandeur, and is open to anyone willing to spend $1.30 (or $7.50 for shower room with bathrobe, towels and slippers for ladies).
Its Communist era hasn’t been forgotten – there are two Soviet-themed cafes, Festivalnoe and Stolovaya No 57. An ice rink opens each winter.
5. Illums Bolighus, Copenhagen
The 75-year-old Illums Bolighus in Copenhagen is a four-story heaven for design fanatics. With six other stores around Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Illums Bolighus aims to showcase the best of Scandinavian minimalist design.
It also carries international brands that match its sleek style. The store stocks everything home-related, from kitchen equipment to furniture to bed and bath products from Nordic and international brands.
Products from famed Danish designers Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Borge Mogensen and Hans J. Wegner have been featured in the store since the 1950s.
Obsessed with Danish lamps? Well who isn’t? The third floor is where the magic’s at.
6. Isetan, Tokyo
Generating the highest sales of any department store in Japan, Isetan’s flagship store in Shinjuku is a massive nine-floor shopping maze. Plus there’s a roof garden. Standing behind it is Isetan Men’s – another mind-boggling 10-floor department store dedicated, unsurprisingly, to men.
The two buildings are connected by a bridge on the third and sixth floor. Isetan Men’s houses a golf school on its roof.
Like most department stores in Japan, Isetan has an impressive food market in the basement, especially for exquisite-looking desserts. Its promotional hall and a kimono department are on the top floor.
7. Galeries Lafayette, Paris
Golden art nouveau interior. Balconies inspired by the Paris Opera House. A magnificent glass dome ceiling.
Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris is the epitome of the golden age of department stores. Not just a retail space for upscale merchandise, the glamorous store is such a dazzling spectacle it’s a top tourist attraction in its own right. A free 45-minute tour of the Haussmann store is available upon request for parties between 10 to 20 people. Its rooftop terrace offers great views of the French capital.
8. Harrods, London
It’s hard to decide where to start looking inside Harrods. Once a humble drapery store, Harrods is now the biggest and the most extravagant – in terms of installations – department store in Europe, with a retail space of 90,000 square meters.
There’s the $39 million “Egyptian” escalator in the middle of the store. Recent renovations have also added a new eye-popping “amber and gold” chandelier by American artist Dale Chihuly.
Harrods goes by the motto “omnia omnibus ubique” (Latin for “all things for all people everywhere”). Needless to say, almost everything can be found in this seven-story building. Last year it even started selling property.
Until 2014, it had an animal department – where former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once bought a baby elephant and playwright Noel Coward purchased an alligator. Harrods also once deployed a cobra to guard a pair of sandals (studded with ruby and diamond) that was valued at about $90,000 (£62,000).
9. Kaufhaus des Westens, Berlin
Kaufhaus des Westens (commonly known as KaDeWe) is the largest department store in mainland Europe, spanning 60,000 square meters of retail space. The historic establishment – first opened in 1907 – was severely damaged when an American plane crashed into the building during World War II.
That didn’t stop business for long. It was restored in 1950 and has stood as a significant landmark of post-war Berlin ever since.
KaDeWe’s food hall is one of the biggest in the world, selling about 35,000 different products and hosting more than 30 gourmet bars helmed by 150 chefs. The 109-year-old store recently commissioned a Rotterdam-based architecture firm to redesign its interior space. The current plan looks refreshing with cool escalators and more glass on top.
10. Nordiska Kompaniet, Stockholm
Standing in the heart of Stockholm, Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) is Sweden’s oldest luxury department store.
“[NK was] founded by Josef Sachs in 1902 with a vision for it to become a cultural and commercial theater,” a spokesperson tells CNN. “The store has become both a meeting place and cultural institution that continues to be the stage for many exclusive launches and appearances.”
NK was the first place in Sweden to sell Barbie dolls and jeans. It also had the first escalator in the country. Its beautiful atrium with marble floor and brass banisters has remained unchanged since 1915.
“The marble in the floor is Swedish marble from Kolmarden,” says the spokesperson.
One of NK’s best secrets are its mints. They’re produced using a 100-year-old recipe each morning by the in-store bakery – which many people don’t know exists.
11. 10 Corso Como, Milan
Not anyone’s idea of a traditional idea of a department store, 10 Corso Como was among the originators of the widely imitated concept store.
Having begun life as an art gallery and book store in a converted garage in 1991, 10 Corso Como soon grew into a celebrated dining and shopping destination.
Founder Carla Sozzani hopes to promote the idea of slow shopping through her carefully curated selection. Its eclectic space showcases hot and bold fashion labels from Vetements to Maison Martin Margiela.
Its book shop has an artistic focus, especially photography. The beauty section stocks some of the rarest fragrances in the world. It also has a restaurant, a courtyard garden and a mini hotel. The boutique department store now has outposts in Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing.
12. Eslite Spectrum Songyan Store, Taipei
Mainly known for its book-selling business, Eslite Spectrum doesn’t fit the usual department store profile. The 27-year-old alternative store sells various lifestyle products, including specialty foods and handicrafts from Taiwan.
“From its very beginning, Eslite has developed a comprehensive business model centered on culture, creativity and cares for humanity,” director of Eslite’s public affairs division Sheersong Tseng tells CNN.
The lifestyle brand now owns more than 40 stores around Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as one in China.
“The space, services and events are all designed according to the traits of the city in which the store is located,” says Tseng. “Therefore no two Eslite Spectrum stores are alike.”
Our favorite is Eslite Spectrum in Songyan, a former tobacco factory turned creative park. The new building, designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, houses two interesting sub-sections. Axes features edgy street apparels from 36 Taiwanese designers. Expo is a platform for creative lifestyle products by hundreds of brands.
“Visitors can also participate in handicraft classes such as pottery, glass, wood, metalwork, hand-crafted music boxes and paper art,” says Tseng.
13. Barneys New York
Just to prove department stores will prevail in the era of online retail, here’s one that’s freshly opened in 2016. OK, so the original Barneys originally opened close to this 7th Avenue spot in 1923, but this is a new incarnation of the chic fashion store.
The 5,388-square-meter new premises was designed by New York-based Steven Harris Architects firm. The interior is decked out in cool muted colors, with touches of brass.
Its five floors are connected by a four-story atrium and an elegant spiral staircase – a concept inspired by the old store.
“I think if you ask anyone who remembers the original store, the thing that everyone recalls is the stair,” Steven Harris tells Barneys’ blog The Window. “That was the thing that was the most beautiful, but it was also about display and an element of performance – being watched as you descended the stairs. It was truly the center of the space and the most dramatic element.”
Barneys New York, 101 7th Avenue, New York City
14. Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store, Tokyo
Japan’s oldest department store chain had an unusual hire last year – a kimono-wearing android.
Aiko Chihira, the Toshiba-developed robot is in charge of the information desk at Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Chihira, pretty and aged 32, can’t answer inquiries yet but can offer directions by running through a pre-recorded message in Japanese.
Mitsukoshi’s main store in Nihonbashi may not be Tokyo’s most fashion-forward store – that honor goes to Laforet Harajuku – but the century-old store has a renowned gentleman’s department. Need a color analyst to pick out a tie that matches your skin? Seeking a new tailored suit? This is the right place.
Maggie Hiufu Wong is a former CNN staff writer now working as a freelance journalist in London.