A few minutes from the Champs Elysées, one is easily impressed by the La Défense district. Awaiting you is a panorama rich in architecture, an open-air museum, a temple of shopping and, against all odds, a lively district that is not just populated by office workers and managers. In fact, the Paris business district is definitely the most modern and futuristic district in the capital.
It is a meeting place for thousands of people who, every day, go to work in one of the countless towers or in the Arc de La Défense, stroll on the esplanade to discover the works of art that dot it, or shop in one of the business district’s two emblematic locations, CNIT and Westfield Les 4 Temps, which welcome more than 63 million visitors a year.
It’s hard to imagine, as you let your gaze wander among the buildings, that this area was still partly rural at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, La Défense is a district in perpetual movement and its buildings testify to the creativity and technical know-how of their time.
The birth of this business district is considered a unique urban development project. The geometry of the buildings and the symmetry of the lines are worth the diversions: you can admire a true architectural garden where the eye will be surprised by reflections, colours and shapes, where atmosphere and light dance throughout the day, offering an atypical spectacle.
Architects, town planners and landscape architects have made these spaces a place where the colour and mirrors of the buildings, the greenery of the gardens, the esplanades, the fountains and the works of art come together to offer the thousands of people who pass through them every day a pleasant, peaceful and dynamic place to live, where people walk around, without cars and without noise pollution.
The Grande Arche de la Fraternité, better known as the Great Arch, is a marvellous cube-shaped building open on the inside, an architectural masterpiece that over the years has become the symbol of the district. This hollow cube is so immense that it could easily contain the entire Notre Dame de Paris. Although its architecture seems airy, the Grande Arche weighs no less than 300,000 tonnes, the equivalent of 30 Eiffel towers. Today it houses the Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Regional Planning, as well as private offices.
Its construction was decided by François Mitterrand in 1983. From the 424 architectural designs submitted during the competition organised by EPAD in 1982, the design of a then unknown architect, Johan Otto Von Spreckelsen, was chosen. The Grande Arche marks the end of the grandiose perspective from the Concorde to the Esplanade, but also symbolises the opening of a window to the future and the rest of the world. The building, decorated with white marble, was inaugurated in 1989 on the occasion of the Bicentennial celebrations of the Revolution.
But the real marvel is its panoramic terrace: from the top of the arch you can embrace a 360° panorama of the whole of Paris. From its 110-metre height, ascending one of the 4 panoramic lifts to the 35th floor, you can admire the spectacular perspective of the historical axis of Paris: the Arc de Triomphe, the Obelisk de la Concorde, the Tuileries Gardens up to the Louvre Palace. Between light and transparency, this route aligns some of the greatest Parisian monuments, but all around are the towns of Puteaux, Courbevoie, Nanterre and La Garenne-Colombes.
The terrace of the Arc de La Défense has been closed since May 2023 due to high operating and maintenance costs, which have forced the CITY ONE group to discontinue visits.
No reopenings are currently planned, we will update you if and when it will be open again.
The heart of the district is the Esplanade Charles De Gaulle, closed to traffic: from here you can admire the garden of skyscrapers and futuristic glass and steel architecture surrounding the square, including apartment blocks and fountains, as well as some 70 works of contemporary art.
Take your time to laze around the square, admire the water features, perspectives and fantastic views teeming with people on their way to work every day.
A source of inspiration and imagination, La Défense has for decades attracted the greatest names in 20th century architecture. It is impossible not to admire these astonishing works of engineering.
In the 1950s, Emmanuel Pouvreau, an industrialist, planned the construction of a grand palace to promote French know-how. Construction work on CNIT3 (Centre National des Industries et Techniques) began in 1956. This ambitious building, intended to host trade fairs, required many architects and engineers to design its huge concrete vault of 22,250 m².
Also on the east side of the Grande Arche, but closer to the Seine, is an immense skyscraper, 187 metres, called Tour Total4.
Also not to be missed are the Cœur Défense5 twin towers, 161 metres high: the special feature is the large entrance hall, considered to be wider than the central nave of Notre Dame.
The Tour Edf6, on the western side of the Grande Arche, which resembles a large steel and glass ellipse, the Tour T17 which resembles a large sail, the Tour Granite8 and the Tour First9. Erected in 1974 with a height of 159 metres at the time, the tower has been completely renovated to reach its current height of 225 metres , making it the tallest skyscraper in France.
Did you know that La Défense, besides being Europe’s first business district, is also home to a veritable open-air museum? Miró, Calder, César are just some of the great names in 20th and 21st century art exhibited throughout the district.
In the heart of the La Défense district, easily accessible every day from the centre of Paris, you can take a little walking tour to discover the many works of art scattered around the area. This extensive collection is the result of an ambitious policy of acquiring works, initiated since the construction of the district’s first towers: frescoes, sculptures, paintings and even stained glass windows, set in a unique architectural environment.
Over the last sixty years, more than 70 works of art have been scattered around, representing the major currents of contemporary art, from abstraction to surrealism, via kinetic art or land art. More recently, La Défense has even become an essential meeting point for street art through events such as Urban Week. Beyond the diversity of currents and forms, there is a common mission: to improve the living environment of the inhabitants and employees of the business district.
As you walk, you will discover emblematic works such as The Red Spider by Alexander Calder10, which amazes with its elegance. Or you will admire Deux personnages fantastiques11 by Jean Miró. Located near the Les 4 Temps shopping centre, this monumental sculpture expresses all the nonconformism of the Spanish artist.
Also on this artistic and pedestrian route, you will find yourself under Le Pouce de Cesar12, 18 tonnes of cast iron, a technical and artistic feat.
Located in the centre of the Esplanade de La Défense, Agam’s monumental Fontaine was designed as a spectacular work of art. It consists of 86 shades of Venetian enamelled glass paste colours.
It is a superb example of kinetic art: its 26-metre by 86-metre pool has a 72-metre spillway made of an enamel mosaic specially made in Venice. A system drives the 66 jets of water to aheight of 15 metres. A propulsion system with frequency variator almost unique in the world gives an effect of ‘balls’ of water in the sky. The water then cascades down a waterfall about 7 metres high, which flows into Place de La Défense. When the fountain is inactive, the shapes and colours of the pool give the illusion of movement along the waterfall.
Far from the usual image of the grey district full of concrete, the reality of the area tells a completely different story: a place where plants take root and grow to the delight of its inhabitants and employees.
Today, the green areas of La Défense account for 11 hectares, or almost 35% of the pedestrian area. This ecological vision does not only concern public spaces. La Défense requires that all new construction projects make room for plants, around or on the roofs of buildings. Three criteria are considered: the quality of green spaces, their aesthetics and their feasibility. Developers and companies are thus encouraged to develop greenery within their projects, while favouring species from the Paris basin that will also have positive effects on the ecosystem.
To date, there are no less than 7 parks, including one of the largest, Parc Diderot14, with an area of 12,000 square metres and a height difference of 14 metres.
With over 63 million visitors a year and more than 140,000 m² of shops, in the heart of La Défense, you will find the main shopping centre Westfield Les 4 Temps15 and the CNIT, two emblematic places for shopping.
If you like to shop, you can delight in a wide range of fashionable shops, brands, restaurants, cinemas, hypermarkets and increasingly innovative and personalised services in an elegant and spacious environment with many activities.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
La Défense is a business district and consequently is dotted with large hotel chains offering great rates for weekend stays. In fact, on weekends the neighbourhood empties out and hotel prices plummet: Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights become super cheap, exactly the opposite of what happens with hotels in central Paris. If you plan to stay in the capital over the weekend, you might consider staying in La Defense. If the peripheral location frightens you, know that the district is very well connected to the centre of Paris via the metro and the RER.
One thing to consider, for those planning to sleep in La Defense, is the evening. If during the day thousands of commuters flock here to work in offices, at night the neighbourhood is transformed: from teeming with life and activity to quiet streets, closed shops and deserted offices. The whole area suddenly becomes empty and lonely.
To get to La Défense, the quickest and fastest way is to take the yellow metro line 1: get off at the terminus La Défense – Grande Arche.
Alternatively, you can also use bus 73 or the Balabus in summer.
City Card allow you to save on public transport and / or on the entrances to the main tourist attractions.