* Located in London, Harrods is one of the most famous department stores in the world.
* It is also one of the most expensive.
* I visited recently, and though it was just as fancy as I was expecting, it was the friendliness of staff that really blew me away.
* I felt very welcome, even though I’m not rich and normally hate shopping.
* I had so much fun, I’d go again – and would even recommend it to people visiting London.
Ok, so 80 grams of the gold ajwas comes to £20 ($26).”
I couldn’t believe what was happening. There I was, buying dates made with literal gold – at Harrods, no less, the famous London department store equally famous for its high prices as it is for its extravagance, as Insider Inc. CEO Henry Blodget discovered when he visited back in 2013.
I hated shopping. But there I was in the place where Asma al-Assad – wife of Syrian president Bashar Assad – would regularly spend thousands upon thousands of dollars, even as the Syrian Civil War raged. It’s also where actual lions, tigers, panthers, alligators, and even elephants (one, named Gertie, was apparently even sold to former US president Ronald Reagan, no less) were sold regularly (at least until the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s), and where even today you can find some of the most expensive chocolate and coffee in the world. Oh, and they also once had an actual live cobra guard a pair of shoes that had diamonds, rubies, and sapphires (which only cost £62,000, or $83,000) – that was as recently as this century.
Here’s what it was like to visit – and why, thanks to the friendliest and most welcoming store staff I’ve ever met, I’d go back again in a heartbeat.
Harrods is an institution. A very large, very expensive institution.
On its website, Harrods calls itself the “world’s most famous department store,” and it’s hard to argue. Dating back to the 1800s, it’s synonymous with luxury and opulence. With more than 300 departments and 1.1 million square feet of selling space, it’s also the largest department store in Europe. Allegedly even having its own post code, it has the motto “Omnia Omnibus Ubique” – Latin for “all things for all people, everywhere.”
It is also well-known for its association with Princess Diana.
At the time of her death in a car crash in Paris in 1997, Princess Diana was dating Dodi Fayed, the son of then-Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed. Harrods is owned today by Qatar’s royal family, and in 2018 a bronze statue depicting Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed was removed from the store, even though Mohamed Al-Fayed had previously claimed “Innocent Victims” (as the statue is called) would remain in Harrods forever.
Never one for shopping and anything but rich, I didn’t know what to expect.
“The next station is… Knightsbridge,” said the woman’s voice through the intercom on the tube. Stepping off the train, ample signage pointed me in the direction of Harrods. The Knightsbridge tube station was nice, but it wasn’t luxurious by any stretch of the imagination.
The outside didn’t exactly wow me, but then again, I’m used to Dubai opulence.
The cold wind stung slightly as it struck my face like so many splashes from an icy bucket of water. Looking around, the seven-story Harrods building was nice, but it didn’t wow me in any way. Maybe I’d been spoiled from living in Dubai for more than a year, or seeing amazing architecture on a regular basis as part of my travels.
I was struck by how ordinary it seemed.
There were no shiny Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bugattis, or Maybachs parked outside, like a coworker had said there would be. Likewise, I didn’t see people in fancy fur coats or carrying designer handbags and wearing expensive-looking shoes.
But that all changed as soon as I walked towards the door, and met a friendly doorman named Mustapha.
“Hello, how are you doing today?”
Dressed in a sharp green uniform reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz,” Mustapha’s friendliness was infectious – and not at all what I was expecting. I’d heard Harrods had a dress code for shoppers, and was fully expecting the people at the door to have dour faces as they acted more like stereotypical club bouncers keeping people out. Instead, Mustapha had a smile that seemed to stretch for miles.
Stepping inside, it was like I’d stumbled into another world — or at least left ordinary life behind
I was not expecting this. Passing through the doors that Mustapha graciously held open, I’d stepped into a gold-draped, gilded world where shiny things were so numerous, they weren’t at all extraordinary next to the other shiny things.
It’s one thing to hear Harrods is fancy — it was something else entirely to really see it for myself
Eyes darting in every direction, all around were amazing things you normally only see in magazines, or being worn or in the homes of the rich and famous (or royals). This did not seem like just another department store: this was an experience far, far removed from the rather more humble horse farm I grew up on in the seemingly perpetually rainy hills west of Portland, Oregon, where a trip to a big, “fancy” store was either shopping at a local Fred Meyer or, on rare occasions, Macy’s or Sears.
The scale of everything was almost overwhelming. There was a department for seemingly everything — and a host of rather unique services.
There are more than 300 departments in Harrods, according to the BBC, spread across seven stories above ground and one below. That was intimidating enough, but it was the massive list of in-store services that really was almost overwhelming. There were the expected things like valet parking, lots of restaurants and cafes, a florist, cobbler, and luggage storage – but also some things that seemed truly over the top, like a “Champagne terrace,” luxury piercing (which I assumed was a bit more upscale than your typical shop on the street), and something called a “toy concierge.”
Of course, there were some things that, cool as they were, didn’t make sense. Like full-size glass guitars …
If you have a lot of money and don’t know what to do with it… well, even then there are probably other things you could spend your money on besides a full-size glass guitar.
I found it telling – and unsurprising – that a price for the guitar was not listed. In hindsight, however, I should have asked a staff member. Though I’m sure the number they’d list would be eye-watering.
… and boots made from what I was sure was real snakeskin — and possibly a species of snake that wasn’t common.
While these snakeskin shoes were not being guarded by an actual, living snake, I had a sneaking suspicion that, the minute I touched them, bad things would happen unless I was really going to buy them. Spoiler: I was not.
Some of the clothes were very cool. I liked this bright coat that looked like it was straight off a fashion week runway …
I like fashion. I like bright colors (at least a whole lot more now than during my high school goth phase). And, having arrived in London after traveling by train for several days and fitting all of my life’s possessions into just two suitcases, I needed a coat to keep warm. I normally bought all my clothes at secondhand shops, but London is of course a great fashion city, and I needed to up my fashion game.
… Until I saw it cost nearly £1,300 ($1,700).
I could not afford it.
Naturally, there was a lot of designer stuff …
I may not have been able to afford the clothes, but they were a lot of fun to look at. I kept thinking how I could take pieces I already had and style them to look a bit like the stuff I was seeing on the racks.
… And fur, too.
I was not surprised to see fancy fur coats at Harrods. The only thing that surprised me was that I did not see more of them.
The decor was as distracting as the actual items for sale, too.
A particularly fearsome golden lion on the second floor particularly stood out. I was actually surprised it was not for sale – or at least I didn’t see a price tag on it. But maybe it was for sale if someone offered the right amount.
I was most impressed by the staff, however. They made me feel very welcome.
It wasn’t just Mustapha. It was the man in the shoe department, the woman selling what looked like literal polo gear, Yasser selling dates (you’ll meet him in a minute), the uniformed security guards (of which there were surprisingly few) – everyone was smiling, everyone was friendly, and everyone was helpful. And, perhaps most surprisingly, no one seemed to be judging me, even though I was wearing scuffed old boots I wore when traveling.
It was crowded, but not as crowded as I thought it would be.
Yes, there were a lot of people – Harrods is a major tourist attraction, after all. But it wasn’t quite as shoulder-to-shoulder, pushing and shoving and shouting and screaming like I was afraid it would be, especially since it was the holiday season. In fact… it actually seemed less crowded than many stores I’d been in before.
I was also impressed by the diversity of customers and staff.
English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Turkish, Portuguese… the sheer number of languages I heard people speaking was beautiful. It was also heartening to see people of all ages, though fortunately none of the children I encountered were screaming or throwing tantrums.
With so many departments and floors, I could see why someone might easily spend hours at Harrods, even if they weren’t buying anything.
It went on. And on. And on. And on. And on. And on. And on.
You get the idea.
The elevators were rather opulent …
I was surprised by how old-timey the elevators felt. I was also surprised how empty they were – again, I was expecting to have to squeeze in to fit. Instead, by the time I got off on the fifth floor, there was no one else on.
… As were the escalators …
Sixteen escalators clad in nickel and bronze can be found in the new entrance hall at Harrods – a project that only cost about £20 million ($27 million).
But Harrods’ relationship with escalators runs much deeper. In fact, Harrods had among the first “moving staircases” in Britain, making its debut in 1898.
… And even the ceilings.
I shouldn’t have been surprised the ceilings were nice. Still, they reminded me more of an actual palace than a store.
While I normally hate shopping, I didn’t mind this.
In this labyrinthine realm of luxury and refinement, time seemed to be meaningless. Before I knew it, I’d been in the store for more than two hours – quite possibly longer than I had ever been in any other store, anywhere.
I wandered down to the food halls, which seemed to go on forever.
The ground floor food halls reminded me in a way of Seattle, Washington’s famous Pike Place – but far, far fancier. Entire rooms were dedicated to different kinds of foods. “Wow,” was a word people were heard saying often.
The food halls alone were a sight to behold — and there was a lot to smell.
By far the busiest part of Harrods, the food on display seemed almost too perfect to be real. It was an absolute feast for the eyes – and probably the stomach, if one could afford it.
I kept telling myself I wouldn’t do it — there was nothing I needed to buy. But as if under the spell of Harrods, I found myself giving in.
Perhaps it was the large straw hat that Yasser, the man who’d later serve me, was wearing that caught my eye (a lot of staff were wearing them. As a fine millinery aficionado, I was envious). Or maybe it was his friendly greeting and wide smile, which though not as wide as Mustapha’s was still one of the widest I’d ever seen. Or maybe it was the fact out of the corner of my eye while walking past I saw rows upon rows of fancy dates, a food I’d come to love from my time living in the Middle East. But the next thing I knew, I’d sharply turned 90 degrees on my heels, and was bending over to intently examine the dates on display.
Harrods had me.
They were covered in gold, and cost £20 ($26) for 80 grams, or seven pieces.
I’d never eaten anything covered in gold before – or even seen food covered in gold before with my own eyes.
“What can you tell me about these?” I heard myself saying.
Without thinking, I bought seven pieces – just enough to take back to the Insider office and share with some of my coworkers. At £25 ($33) per 100 grams (or an eye-watering £250, or $330, per kilo), the seven pieces of gold-covered ajwa dates cost £20 ($26).
What had I done?
Eventually though, I did feel it was time to head back to work. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to get out …
Wandering the halls with my newly-purchased gold dates, I glanced at my phone – and discovered I’d been in Harrods for about three hours. I needed to get out, lest I end up spending even more money on things I really didn’t need.
… But another friendly staffer was able to show me how to locate the nearest exit, which still took quite a few minutes to reach.
With a smile, the woman told me to take a right and walk to the end of the hall, where the escalators would eventually lead down to the ground floor.
“Don’t forget to follow the signs!” she said, laughing.
I thanked her for her help – for without it, at least with my famously poor sense of direction, there’s a fair chance I might still be stuck in Harrods.
Stepping outside into the London rain again, it felt like returning to reality.
I couldn’t believe it, but I was actually sad to leave. Never in my wildest thoughts about what it would be like to visit Harrods did I think I’d feel that.
Harrods seemed so welcoming, and staff so friendly, I’d go back — and would even recommend others visiting London to stop by.
Harrods was not at all like my expectations. I was expecting cold, indifferent – and boring. Instead, it was warm, welcoming, and far more exciting that I could have anticipated. While I normally can’t stand shopping, this really was so fun, I’d have no hesitation telling others to have a wander through – and maybe even ask if I could tag along.
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