You can learn a lot about a city by visiting a flagship1 department store. You’ll get a sense of what people wear when they’re dressed to the nines, and when they’re just lounging around the house. You’ll see how they decorate their homes, how they set their dining room tables, how they make their beds, what they cook in their kitchens, and so on.
You’ll also learn a lot by noticing what’s not for sale. In some places, people still prize a complete shopping experience under one roof. In others, department stores have shed entire departments because shoppers are flocking to convenient big box stores.
Here are some observations from flagship department stores around the world. A quick disclaimer: I haven’t been to a lot of these stores for a while, I may have missed a lot of things, and perhaps the stores have changed. Think of these as impressions, not reviews.
Macy’s Herald Square
This store is meh. The Macy’s name is still vaunted — can you imagine Thanksgiving morning without the Macy’s parade? — but the store itself seems like someone took the Macy’s in the mall by my house and crammed it into a space designed for a different time. The layout is confusing, the racks are overstuffed, and I remember a lot of fluorescent lighting. In a few ways, it reminds me of Walmart. There are some places to eat, but I can’t remember any of them looking especially appealing.
My favorite part of Macy’s is the wooden escalators, but you have to look for them, and they’re just, well, there. Macy’s has done very little to turn riding the escalators into an experience — a missed opportunity in today’s Instagrammable society.
Nordstrom Downtown Seattle
Now, this is what Macy’s in Herald Square should be — an iconic retail space that’s also an immersive experience. All the usual departments are there, but there’s a real upscale feeling that I don’t get at my local Nordstrom. I could tell that a lot of care had been put into the clothing and houseware displays — the focus was on quality, not quality, just like high-end boutiques. Someone had put a lot of thought into how things were organized.
While we didn’t eat at Nordstrom, we spent a wonderful hour at the bar. The bartender was a great conversationalist and gave us a lot of tips for non-touristy things to do in Seattle.
The following photo was taken when I was just a tiny bit chubbier than I am today.
Avoid at all costs! I’m not kidding. This isn’t a department store. This is a tourist trap that sells overpriced things. I remember as a kid in London it was exciting to visit Harrod’s — primarily because it meant we were going out to dinner afterward at one of the two American restaurants in Knightsbridge.2 Today, I get the feeling that the only reason anyone buys anything at Harrod’s is because they want to be able to boast they bought something at Harrod’s. The shopping bag is more important than what’s inside it.
There’s a lot of ostentatious stuff on the ground floor — and the price tags, if you can find them, will make your jaw drop — but the crowds make the entire experience miserable. And the displays aren’t nearly as attractive as you’d expect. If you must make a trip to Harrod’s, the only thing I recommend visiting is the food halls (I’ll admit these are pretty impressive) but don’t bother buying anything. Any souvenir you actually want to buy — whether it’s tea or a tea towel — will be waiting for you VAT-free at the Harrod’s shops at Heathrow and Gatwick.
The last time Britt and I spent any money in Harrod’s, we had been on our feet for hours and we spotted two empty seats at an ice cream counter in the mobbed food halls. We took them, figuring that we’d share a bowl of ice cream while resting for a bit. The ice cream was nothing special. The bill was £25, which, thanks to an unfavorable exchange rate at the time, was close to $50.
Oh, one more thing: Don’t go looking for the tacky memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed. It’s no longer there.
This is the epitome of a luxury department store: a modern institution that has lost none of its historic charms. It’s always bustling, but the crowds aren’t crushing. It’s well-lit and airy, and I always find something that delights me. It’s one of the finest stores on the planet, but it doesn’t feel as snobbish as Harrod’s. In addition to all the usual upscale familiar brands like Burberry, Ralph Lauren, and Gucci, there are a lot of exciting new things to check out. I’m always turning to Britt and saying, “hey, look at this.”
A few memories of Selfridges:
- It was the first place I saw rainbow bagels
- I was slightly tempted to buy a clear lollipop with a scorpion in the middle3
- It was the only place I saw the $10,000 limited edition gold Apple Watch on display
- The Pride rainbow Burberry ski parka was half off (£750 or so) but Britt wouldn’t let me buy it
Admittedly, the Selfridges food hall is nowhere as impressive as the one in Harrod’s, but who cares? Selfridges is where you’ll find one of my favorite restaurants in London, the Brass Rail. It’s not a luxury experience — you order at the counter and then schlep your tray to a table — but they have the best salt beef4 sandwiches you’ll ever put in your mouth.5
The most noteworthy thing we have ever purchased at Selfridges is a small, relatively inexpensive art print. It’s hanging in our living room, next to a print from Havana. You can’t imagine any two more incongruous shopping experiences.
De Bijenkorf and Peek & Cloppenburg
These two Amsterdam landmarks have smallish footprints but are grand in every other way. We always seem to end up in one or both on New Year’s Eve. Like most places in Amsterdam, the interiors are magnificent but not imposing, with a good balance of classic style and modern aesthetics. Both stores face the Dam.
Britt also liked the Vroom & Dreesmann (V&D) chain of department stores in the Netherlands, but they went out of business a few years ago. They had good baked goods and a cool stationery department.
This is the most famous department store in Helsinki. I went in specifically looking for shoes, as the ones I had brought with me weren’t very warm. The men’s shoe department was disorganized and pricey. I left empty-handed. The departments we walked through to get to the shoes didn’t seem particularly memorable. Finland is a beautiful country, but I got the feeling that the Finns put a premium on utility, and the store seemed to reflect that. It’s a get-in-and-get-out kind of place.
In one area, though, Stockmann beats every other department store. The WiFi was faster than a cheetah on amphetamines driving a McLaren, at least compared to other WiFi networks in 2014.
Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, and Le Bon Marché
I’m lumping these three famous Parisian department stores together because we visited them all on the same day, and I honestly can’t remember which one was which. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are across the street from each other, and Le Bon Marché is a short walk away.
These three stores were all impressive, easy to navigate, and très à la mode — I mean, it’s Paris, what else would you expect but impeccable taste and great fashion? Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché were spectacularly decorated for Christmas; Printemps was a little less noteworthy. Here’s a picture of the massive tree at Galeries Lafayette.6
This is Berlin’s most famous department store, and I’d say it measures up to Selfridges and the three Paris stores. We were there two days after Christmas, so we stocked up on discounted decorations.7 I liked the food hall very much: In addition to a spectacular glass atrium and the usual collection of places to eat, there were a few areas that felt like luxury food boutiques. We got some chocolate and a tin of gingerbread. I regret not trying a mulled wine donut.
El Corte Inglés
I’ve saved the best for last! This Spanish chain remains my favorite for sentimental reasons — and because there’s simply so much to see and buy. All the clothes, linens, small appliances, jewelry, and housewares you’ll expect are here, but there’s also an entire electronics department, sporting goods, restaurants, a food hall, major appliances, a bookstore, and plenty of toys and games.
No one will mistake El Corte Inglés for Selfridges, but I love spending time there because it brings back warm feelings of going there as a kid with my parents and brothers.8 The last things I bought at El Corte Inglés were candy, cookies, some Real Madrid9 gear, and two Tintin books in Spanish.
When I was growing up, El Corte Inglés had a policy of gift-wrapping everything you purchased. They just did it. You didn’t have to ask. They used thick, shiny paper with their green/white/black logo on it, and they would wrap things diagonally — watch the video embedded below.10 Everything got wrapped. I specifically remember them wrapping a box of pens on one occasion. Another time, I bought some CDs, and each one was wrapped separately.
I’ve visited other major department stores, but these are the ones that stand out the most in my mind.11 When the pandemic is over, I can’t wait to revisit my old favorites and seek out some new ones. Anyone up for a shopping trip to Takashimaya and Isetan in Japan?
1 This is only about flagship stores in urban areas, not the cookie-cutter places you’ll find in a suburban mall.
2 They were the Chicago Rib Shack and the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. I remember the rib place had a big sign on the wall that said “Bone Appétit,” which 8-year-old me thought was clever.
3 They also had candy bars with ants and grasshoppers
4 You ridiculous Americans call this “corned beef.”
5 This isn’t entirely accurate. The Brass Rail is in a neck-and-neck tie for the best salt beef sandwiches in the world with Brick Lane Beigel Bake, also in London.12
6 I had to check the geotag on the photo to see which store this was in.
7 Linus has already destroyed one of them.
8 The official flagship is on Calle de Raimundo Fernández Villaverde, but as a kid, we usually went to the one on Calle de la Princesa. That’s the one Britt and I usually visit in Madrid.
9 ¡Hala Madrid y Nada Más!
10 You’ll note that the speaker is using proper Castillian Spanish, which is what I speak. That’s why I’m right and you’re wrong when I insist I’m “Da-BEETH de Ma-DREETH,” you peasant.
11 Let’s face facts: The department stores on Fifth Avenue in New York all blend together after a while. And who wants to spend any time near that dump at 725 Fifth Avenue?
12 Yes, I’m counting Katz’s. The two London places are better. If you don’t agree, start your own damn salt/corned beef sandwich blog.