If you have ever been to Paris you may have noticed, amongst all the beautiful architecture, that there are not many skyscrapers in the city. Instead, those tall concrete buildings have all been relegated to the west end of the city, in an area known as Place de la Défense.
Dominated by large glass-fronted modern buildings, you can easily spot La Défense from the top of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and other higher vantage points in the city.
From a distance, La Défense looks likes it belongs in a modern North American city. Essentially this area came about in the 1950s when the decision was made that no one wanted these large office buildings within Paris intra-muros to spoil the look of all those lovely 18-century Hausmannian buildings.
It was decided then, to construct those new office towers in an area west of Paris. This new business area would be placed along the Axe Historique de Paris, showing the movement from Old World to the New Industry. (Only the Tour Montparnasse office building and a few residential buildings in the 13th arrondissement escaped this relegation, and they have been despised by local Parisians ever since.)
The La Défense district is managed by a local government entity known as “Paris La Défense”, which is what all the companies in the area put on their business cards. But while it has “Paris” in its name, the area is not actually within the city of Paris.
It is about 2 miles (4km) outside in the department of Hauts-de-Seine, straddling two nearby towns, Puteaux and Courbovoie. (The town of Neuilly-sur-Seine stands between Paris and Place de la Défense.)
Today, La Défense is a hub for multinational corporations and is considered the largest business district in Europe, with the highest concentration of offices.
It is home to some of the biggest French and international companies, including Total, BNP Paribas, KPMG, EY, and Société Générale, in addition to many others.
The main part of La Defense is completely pedestrianized, with cars, busses, parking lots, and even a highway banished to run under an elevated dalle (platform).
Other roads like the Boulevard Circulaire run around that central part, leading to large walkways being constructed to link the nearby towns to La Défense. The result is an asphalt jungle, with small patches of greenery peaking about, meant to disguise all that concrete.
As you can imagine, the locals in the area have a love-hate relationship with La Défense, happy to have it outside the city but reluctant to fall into that commuting trap of métro-boulot-dodo (meaning “commute-work-sleep“).
Access: How to get there
Because it is outside Paris, the La Défense district is one of the most accessible. Close to 500,000 people work, live, and travel to the area every day.
It is located on Metro line 1, with metro stations La Défense and Esplanade de la Défense located on each end. It is also located on the RER A train line which follows the same path as metro line 1 but is longer, running east-west across much of Grand Paris, Val de Marne and the Yvelines.
Other lines running to La Défense are Tram line T2 and the Transilien trains U and L. There are also several bus lines in the area coming from the western suburbs.
From the airport
If you are coming to La Défense from the CDG Roissy airport in the north, you can access the area by taking RER line B to the Châtelet-Métro-RER station, and then changing to the RER line A to La Défense station.
If you are coming from Paris-Orly airport in the south of Paris, however, there is no easy way to get to La Défense. You could take the Orly bus to Denfert-Rochereau-Métro-RER, then take the RER B to Châtelet-Métro-RER station, before finally changing to the RER line A to La Défense station.
If you are travelling in a group, or for business purposes however, I highly recommend taking a taxi! It is a bit of a boondoggle if you are traveling in a group, and especially if you have a lot of luggage.
Plans are in the works to have the CDG Roissy airport connect to La Défense, but these have been temporarily deferred due to the high cost.
Grande Arche de la Défense
When you arrive at La Défense, you will immediately notice one of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Grande Arche.
It is a large rectangular cube building with a hollow middle, quite an impressive feat of architecture.
Construction took 4 years, with the building being completed in 1989. The design was based upon a competition by French President François Mitterrand who selected the Danish team of architect Johan Otto von Spreckelsen and engineer Erik Reitzel.
While much of the building remains dedicated to office space, there is a restaurant “Les Jardins de Joséphine” on the top floor under the direction of chef Jean-Christian Dumonet.
The restaurant leads out to a rooftop terrace and garden with expansive views of Paris in the distance. The Grande Arche is directly in line with the Axe Historique de Paris. The distance from the Grande Arche to the Arc de Triomphe is 2.5 miles (4km).
The Grande Arche is flanked on either side by a giant shopping mall that is split into two buildings. The older side is called the CNIT, and this is one of the oldest buildings in La Défense.
At the time that it was built in the 1950s, this area was just steps away from the bidonvilles de Nanterre, the large slum area which held around 14,000 people in Nanterre.
These days the slums are long gone (or moved), and the CNIT is home to popular shops like electronic giant FNAC and sportswear brand Decathlon.
Quatre Temps (4 Temps) mall
The CNIT mall connects underground to metro station and an underground series of shops, before connecting to the other side, the 4Temps mall.
While there are 20+ shops on the CNIT side, it is the newer 4Temps side that made this one of the biggest malls in Europe. With over 200 shops and restaurants, it is the most visited shopping center in France with 42 million visitors.
There are no high end shops in 4Temps, if you want French brands like Chanel or Louis Vuitton, you will have to visit the Champs Elysées, Avenue Montaigne or Rue Saint Honoré in Paris.
The 4Temps mall instead has more mainstream brands like Zara, H&M, and Aigle. There are also shops for the budget-conscious like C&A and grocery giant Auchan.
Where to stay: Hotels in the area
Being the business district, there are several hotels in La Défense. From 5-star accommodation to long-stay apart-hotels, there is a wide variety to pick from.
Recommended hotels in the area are:
- Pullman Hotel €€€€€ – near 4Temps mall.
- Melia Hotel €€€€ – at Esplanade de la Défense metro with beautiful views of the Arc de Triomphe.
- Citadines La Défense Paris €€€ – aparthotel (with kitchen) at Esplanade de la Défense metro.
Statue of La Defense
The area La Défense is named after the statue of La Défense de Paris by Louis-Ernest Barrias, which was erected in 1883. It was meant to commemorate the soldiers who defended Paris during the Siege of Paris (1870-71) in Franco-Prussian War.
During the war, German soldiers surrounded the city of Paris defeating the French army of Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte‘s nephew). During the siege, Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871 at the Palace of Versailles.
German troops would finally leave after France paid an indemnity of two hundred million francs. (They would return 70 years later during WWII.)
Today, the statue of La Défense is still visible in the center of the business district, but it is quite small and does not usually draw much attention among the tall skyscrapers. It does however remain a visible reminder of the history of this area.
Esplanade de la Défense
La Défense as an area is so large, it is served by 2 metro stations. There is La Defense metro near the Grande Arche, and on the other end close to Paris is the Esplanade de la Défense metro.
It can take a good 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. On the edge of the Seine River, you can see the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel tower from different vantage points of Esplanade de la Défense.
Open-air Art museum
In an attempt to soften up the image of La Défense, several modern sculptures and art projects have been installed across the platform.
Some of the sculptures are permanent such as the Deux personnages fantastiques by Joan Miro, an artist also featured in Centre Pompidou.
Other pieces of art are temporary installations that are regularly renewed, making for a very interesting open air museum.
Restaurants and food trucks
There are several restaurants in both 4temps and CNIT, however there are also new brasseries and bars that have been opened in the main part of La Défense as well.
From the 3 Brasseurs pub to the chic Octopus bar, there are a wide variety of options. There are also restaurants that are under the main platform, with open air terrasses in Quartier Michelet and Quartier Reflets. These can be more difficult to find if you are not familiar with La Défense, but well worth a visit.
Several times a year food trucks are also allowed to set up in La Défense, making for a festival atmosphere. All the restaurants and dining options tend to be packed at lunchtime, so be sure to make a reservation or head over before noon in order to secure a table.
The 4temps mall holds a large movie theatre on the top floor where a wide variety of English and French movies are screened. Unlike many other movie theatres in France, here you will find films in their original language (English), with French subtitles.
Just look for “VO”, meaning “version originale“, amongst the movie listings, instead of VF, meaning “version français“. That is, unless you want to watch Star Wars in French.
Paris-La Défense Arena
About 700m behind the Grande Arche de la Défense is the new Paris-La Défense Arena. Built to accommodate the 2024 Olympics in Paris, the arena was completed in 2017.
It regularly hosts rugby matches, concerts, and indoor sports like track and field, with a seating capacity of around 40,000 people.
Christmas Market in December
There are many events and festivals held in La Défense all throughout the year, but the biggest has to be the annual Christmas tradition of the marché de Noël (market) during the month of December.
Between 30-50 wooden stalls are set up in the center of La Défense in front of the Grande Arche offering everything from raclette sandwiches to toulousian sausages. There are several other local specialities as well as non-traditional things as well, like crystal necklaces, bonbons, candles, beer, and other oddities.
It does get quite crowded with office workers during lunchtime on weekdays, so I recommend visiting outside of those hours. And don’t forget to try the vin chaud!
So are you planning a trip to La Défense any time soon? If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about visiting Paris. A bientôt!