Marvelously Modern Paris: Exploring Les Halles and Beaubourg

The City's Vibrant Smack-Center

Courtney Traub

This always-busy and vibrant neighborhood, located smack in the center of Paris, enjoys the unusual advantage of being immensely popular with both locals and visitors. With some of the city’s top museums located here, including the Centre Georges Pompidou and its whimsically cheery (or, for some, appallingly ugly) blue, red, and yellow facade, the Beaubourg/Les Halles area is heavily frequented by art lovers and tourists.

But it's also incredibly diverse. With several of the city’s suburban train lines converging at the Les Halles RER station, harboring a giant mall drawing crowds for weekend shopping in the city, you can expect a real mix of urban, suburban, international and upper-class folks all thronging on the area.

This is one of the places where Paris’s working class and 'bohemian bourgeois'– or “bobos”, as they are not so affectionately called in French – collide.The result is a friendly, unpretentious, if at times crowded and overwhelming vibe that's sure to charm those looking to understand how modern-day Paris works.

Neighborhood Orientation

The Beaubourg/Les Halles neighborhood is split evenly between the 1st arrondissement and the 4th arrondissement, both near the center of Paris. The Louvre Museum and adjoining Tuileries gardens are not far away, nestled to the southwest, with the Seine River bifurcating the city just to the south. The hip Marais neighborhood, a traditional Jewish and gay quarter in Paris that is becoming  increasingly dominated by luxury boutiques, posh eateries, and wine bars, sits at the northeast, bordering the "Beaubourg" area.

The charming, cobbled pedestrian Rue Montorgueil district, meanwhile, lies just southwest of Les Halles. 

Main Streets in the Area: Boulevard de Sébastopol runs north-south through the neighborhood, with the major artery, Rue de Rivoli, crossing east-west in the southern end and Rue Rambuteau running east-west to the north.

Getting There

If you’re looking to start your visit of the neighborhood near the Centre Pompidou, take Paris Metro line 11 to Rambuteau. If you’re planning to do some shopping at Les Halles shopping center, take metro line 4, or RER A, B or D to the Chatelet/Les Halles station, then follow exit signs to the "centre commercial" (mall). A word of warning: it's easy to get lost in this massive underground complex! 

Some Neighborhood Facts and History:

  • Les Halles was once the scene of Paris’s sprawling wholesale market, which had been around for hundreds of years, complete with cattle, pigs, chickens and other live animals. It closed in 1971, when the stalls were dismantled and moved to the suburbs of Rungis. Hygiene and public health safety were major reasons behind the move; you can imagine how overwhelming, smelly, and chaotic such a market might have been. 
  • During the late 18th century, a cemetery nearby the old market and the St-Eustache church, known as "Les Innocents", was getting overcrowded, leading to its exhumation. It had been used for around a millenium, and for hygiene reasons, a decision was made to exhume the cemetery and store the remains of millions of defunct Parisians in what are now the Paris Catacombs. (Read related: 10 Strange and Disturbing Facts About Paris)
  • The Centre Georges Pompidou, named after the eponymous former French President, was built after the city decided that the former Les Halles food market site would be the perfect place to create a hub for French art and culture. Opened in 1977, it's been a resounding success: locals and visitors alike throng on the sloping plaza outside, and use every inch of space available inside "Beaubourg", as it's been affectionately dubbed by Parisians. In addition to a museum and several galleries, the center includes a public library, cinemas, an arts bookstore featuring tons of posters, gifts, and postcards, and a "Printemps" home design store. 
  • The Chatelet-Les Halles metro and RER station serve around 750,000 commuters each day, making it one of the largest-- not to mention head-spinningly busiest-- underground stations in the world.

Places of Interest in and Around Beaubourg/Les Halles

Saint Eustache Church: Construction began on this impressive, gothic-style church in 1532, with taking over a decade to complete. It is said to contain the largest pipe organ of any church in France. Gorgeous paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and delicate stained glass windows make a visit here imperative for those interested in Gothic architecture.

Forum des Halles Shopping Complex: Under construction for what seemed like forever, Les Halles’ makeover is finally nearing completion. The underground Forum des Halles mall has remained the same, but now the area above ground is a welcoming expanse of green grass, budding flowers and benches. Lounge here in the sun before descending into the depths of the enormous, maze-like shopping complex. 

This is your one-stop-shop for everything from clothing, shoes and beauty products to electronics, books and food. The Forum des Halles also boasts several cinemas, a public swimming pool and connects to the metro and RER for easy access.

Shopping in the Area

Whether you’re looking for luxury men’s and women’s clothing or home furnishings, BHV is a great way to find everything you need in one place. While dozens of original boutiques exist in the Beaubourg neighborhood, BHV is nice for a rainy day or when you want to get several stops done at once.

Sunday shopping in the Marais: Head a bit northeast from the Centre Pompidou (or north up Rue de Rivoli from BHV, then a bit westward) and you'll hit the many boutiques of the Marais-- a good number of which are open on Sundays. (See more on Sunday shopping in Paris here.)

Eating and Drinking

After spending a few hours gazing at modern art at the Centre Pompidou, you’re sure to be starving. Head up to the top floor of the museum to find this posh restaurant, designed in a futurist, avant-garde style and serving classic French dishes with a modern twist. If you’re here at night, head inside the restaurant to the Pink Bar, to get a taste of original cocktail creations.

Le Bar O

Address: 19 rue Hérold

Tel:+33 (0)1 42 36 04 02

For a stylish night out around Les Halles, head to this hip, futuristic bar designed by French designer Ora Ito. As the lights on the wall slowly change color, choose from any number of Asian-inspired cocktails featuring coriander, ginger and goji berry liquor.

L’Ange 20

8 Rue Geoffroy L'Angevin

Tel: +33 (0)1 40 27 93 67

L’Ange 20 is a charming little spot for refined, home-style French cooking, where each dish is presented with care. The friendly atmosphere will have you coming back again and again. Make sure to reserve ahead of time as the restaurant is on the small side.


Forum des Images

2, rue du Cinéma

+33 (01) 44 76 63 00

Metro: Les Halles

For true cinema lovers, this renowned space within the Les Halles shopping mall is a must. The five screens here offer cumulatively at least four films per day – everything from documentaries and animation to short features and television series. Regular retrospectives and cinema festivals make this place a huge hub for celluloid in the city of light.

Street performers at Centre Pompidou

Place Georges-Pompidou

Metro: Rambuteau

Why head indoors when there’s plenty of free entertainment in the street? On any day of the week, you’ll find magicians, painters, caricature artists and dancers on the square out front from the Centre Pompidou. Tips are appreciated for performing artists, while caricature prices vary by artist.

The Area in Pictures:

Get some inspiration ahead of visiting, and peruse these photo galleries showing scenes from around Beaubourg and Les Halles: