To the west of Paris, Nanterre is a residential suburb that overlaps with some of the ultra-modern business district La Défense.
Paris-Nanterre University is a local claim to fame as it’s rated among the best in the country.
In Nanterre you’re a short drive or train ride from all sorts of cool places, whether it’s the avant-garde architecture of La Défense, 19th-century forts or stupendous royal châteaux.
We won’t ignore Paris, which could hardly be more convenient on the RER Line A and the Transilien suburban rail network.
But while you’re staying in the western suburbs you’ll have the chance to see things that most tourists in Paris cannot.
Lets explore the best things to do in Nanterre:
1. Grande Arche
An avant-garde symbol for La Défense, the Grande Arche was built during the 80s when this district was really coming together.
It was a collaboration between two Danes, engineer Erike Reitzel and Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, who won the design competition ordered by François Mitterrand.
This 110-metre-high hollow cube is the western terminus of the Axe Historique, an arrow-straight line of monuments and squares that runs from La Defense all the way to the Louvre.
So you will get a kick out of standing beneath the Grande Arche and being able to look through the arch of the Arc de Triomphe several kilometres away.
2. Esplanade de La Défense
Just the spot to get your bearings in La Défense, this gigantic plaza is like walking into a retro-futurist sci-fi movie.
In the space of a couple of hundred metres there are dozens of monuments and works of contemporary street art to contemplate.
It all began with the Centre of New Industries and Technologies (CNIT) from 1958, now used as a convention centre, with a branch of the retailer fnac inside.
Among the other things to look out Le Pouce by César Baldaccini, which is a 12-metre bronze thumb, and “Fontaine” by Yaacov Agam a huge 57 by 26-metre fountain with multicoloured enamel and illuminations.
3. Parc André-Malraux
You wouldn’t imagine it today, but until the 1970s this area was rather grotty.
On the site of the 25-hectare Parc André-Malraux there were slums and vacant lots, while the landscape was scarred with abandoned gypsum quarries.
That changed 40 years ago, and this park was laid out around the time that La Défense was being developed.
Now there are gentle rolling lawns, flower gardens and a large pond, all frequented by office workers at lunch on sunny days.
And climbing over the tree-line to the north is La Défense’s singular skyline.
4. Fort Mont-Valérien
On the tallest hill in the western suburbs, Fort Mont-Valérien was erected in 1841 as one of a whole ring of fortifications to defend Paris from an invasion.
Such an event came to pass during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the fort proved to be the strongest in the city, enduring several months of artillery bombardment.
Even darker days were in store, as in the Second World War more than a thousand prisoners (mostly Resistance fighters) were executed at the fort.
And after the war it became the most important monument to French Second World War fighters in the country.
5. Parc de Bagatelle
In the middle of the Bois de Boulogne is one of the four botanical gardens of Paris.
The Parc de Bagatelle is set around an 18th-century château built in just 64 days in 1775 and intended as a whimsical place to stay during hunting excursions in the Bois de Boulogne.
There’s a patchwork of gardens around the property, with an English country garden visited via a winding path, and more formal flowerbeds for irises, roses and water-lilies edged by conical topiaries and pergolas.
Adding an aristocratic air are statues, stone vases, peacocks and a pretty 19th-century Chinese pagoda.
6. Château de Malmaison
Ten minutes is all you need to get to one of the most celebrated châteaux in the Paris area.
The Château de Malmaison was bought by Napoleon and Empress Joséphine as a home, and Joséphine would live there after the couple divorced until her death in 1814. The property is a snapshot of a fascinating period in French history, and at the beginning of the 19th century was even a seat for the French government.
The interior is a National Napoleonic Museum replete with personal items like games, porcelain musical instruments belonging to the couple.
The immense grounds of the Château de Malmaison, consolidated by Joséphine at the start of the 19th century once included this park and Château.
It originally belonged to a neighbour who refused to sell to Joséphine until she was found drowned in her own fountain! And now it’s an elegant location to while away a warm afternoon, in 17-hectares of English gardens navigated by serpentine paths through mature woodland.
Take a peek at the memorial statue of Joséphine by Vital Gabriel Dubray The Château now here was built in the middle of the 19th century in a Louis XV Revival style, and usually hosts a museum about Napoleon’s second exile, closed in 2017 for a refit.
8. Église Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul
Draw a line under your visit to Rueil-Malmaison by calling in at this Renaissance church from the turn of the 17th century.
There’s some rich decoration inside, especially the gilded bronze bas-relief in the choir depicting the Descent of the Cross.
But the main appeal here is the church’s imperial heritage.
The tomb Joséphine de Beauharnais is here, completed just over a decade after her funeral at the church in 1814. But her Hortense is also interred at the church, and honoured by a beautiful mausoleum sculpted by Jean-Auguste Barre.
This was commissioned by her son, Napoleon III who ruled France in 1852-1870.
9. Fondation Louis Vuitton
A new addition to the Paris cultural scene every bit as bold as the Pompidou Centre 40 years ago, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is at the top end of the Bois de Boulogne.
This weird edifice was designed by Frank Gehry, and looks a bit like a futuristic vehicle or mechanical monster.
The museum is mostly for short-term exhibitions of contemporary and modern art, curated by artist, theme and movement.
Some , like Daniel Buren’s coloured panels on the outer canopies in 2016 and 2017, transform the entire space.
And if you’re in awe of the building there’s a permanent exhibition about how Gehry’s project came about.
10. Jardin d’Acclimatation
It was Napoleon III who opened this amusement park in the Bois de Boulogne in 1852. More than 160 years later the park is still a hit with kids, and has an old-world innocence about it.
Just look at the sort of entertainment available here: Pantomime, carousels, miniature train, puppet shows, pony rides and boat trips on an “enchanted river”. There’s also a small zoo with alpacas, goats, sheep, deer and pigs.
Parents will appreciate the imaginative gardens and 19th-century architecture, while in the summer kids can cool off in the park’s fountains.
11. Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
The western suburbs of Paris are strewn with royal properties, and here’s one you can reach in 15 minutes flat on the RER from Nanterre.
It was the home of French Kings Louis VI in the 12th century, and each successive monarch did something new with the place.
Louis IX for instance ordered the Saint-Chapelle, which eagle-eyed sightseers will know looks just like the building of the same name in Île de la Cité and was in fact its precursor, designed by the same architect.
The château now is the National Archaeology Museum, with exhibits dating from prehistory to late-antiquity.
There are items here that changed people’s notions of ancient cultures, like the amazingly naturalistic Venus of Brassempouy, an ivory figurine of a woman carved 25,000 years ago.
12. Grande Terrasse de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
There used to be two châteaux in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the other being the Château Neuf, which was pulled down in the 1770s.
Compelling fragments of the building and its grounds remain, like this astonishing terrace that was fashioned by the legendary landscaper André Le Nôtre in the 17th century.
There’s a 2.4-kilometre walkway is on a promontory above the Seine and is blessed with a breathtaking panorama of western Paris.
In the foreground is the forest of towers at La Défense and behind you can identify other landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Montparnasse.
13. Paris Sights
The Arc de Triomphe is the closest major sight to Nanterre at little more than 10 minutes on the RER. This world-famous monument to the Napoleonic Wars can be your first stop before continuing your Paris odyssey.
We’ll cover the landmarks that no first-time visitor to Paris can afford to miss.
So that’s the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Cœur and the medieval wonders on the Île de la Cité like the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
There’s the Seine, arty Montmartre, Le Marais, the infamous Pigalle and the picturesque Latin Quarter on the left bank.
A little further down is the Jardin du Luxembourg, embellished with beautiful Renaissance decoration like the Medici Fountain from 1620.
14. Paris Art Museums
If you’re in Paris for the culture you’re going to need a lot of time, because the city is overflowing with phenomenal museums.
The obvious starting point is the Louvre, and that alone can take a whole day.
But it’s also just one of many: If you’re in love with Impressionist art you can’t miss the Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie or the Musée Marmottan Monet, which are easily the best museums for this movement in the world.
But for applied art and works from other eras there’s the Musée Rodin, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée Jacquemart-André, the Petit Palais and the Musée National du Moyen Age, all of which are outstanding.
15. Paris Curiosities
And after that there’s that multitude of little experiences and moments that win your heart.
That could be the Coulée Verte, the park on an old elevated railway line or the many graceful covered shopping passages that took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Passage du Grand Cerf, Passage Jouffroy, Passage Vivienne, Passage des Panormas and Galerie Choiseuil are all within a few minutes of each other the 2nd Arrondissement.
And though it might sound ghoulish you can spend time in the company of the city’s dead: Try visiting the graves of the famous at Père Lachaise and Montmartre, or among millions of anonymous bones in the creepy Catacombs.