Paris’s largest airport, Charles de Gaulle, is an architectural wonder, but falls short when it comes to efficiency.

Credit: Charles de Gaulle Airport

Paradoxically, Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG), the world’s seventh-busiest airport, is best experienced if you’re not going anywhere in a hurry. After my Continental flight from Newark arrived at Terminal 1, I had hours to kill before my connection to Copenhagen. I rode the moving walkway through the terminal’s iconic white connector-tubes, marveling at how a device designed to be futuristic—the airport opened in 1974—can now be so redolent of the past. I wound up trapped in a crowded transfer lounge, awaiting a shuttle bus that took forever to arrive, surrounded by travelers frantic about the increasing probability that they were going to miss their flights. Eventually the bus came and deposited me at Terminal 2B, in a forgotten corner of the airport where people were outnumbered by sparrows.

I shared a sorry excuse for a tartine from a dreary café with the birds (who had gotten in through a temporary wall made of chain-link fencing) and tried to figure out why the only gates in sight were for airlines from places like Montenegro and Azerbaijan. There was no one to ask. I left the secure area and located the check-in desk for my airline. When I went back through security, boarding pass in hand, I walked into an adjacent but completely separate section of 2B, where a crowded café, La Terrasse de Paris, was clearly serving better tartines. Mysteriously, I could find no connection between this 2B and that 2B; there was no indication on the monitors or signage in one part of 2B that the other part existed, and vice versa. (Maybe 2B will be less perplexing after a scheduled overhaul in the next few years.)

“There’s a need for passengers to understand where they’re going, a legibility to the actual design, and a linear flow, so... you have a very good sense of what happens next and where you go.” Those are the basics of good airport design, as explained to me by Regine Weston, the Toronto-based head of aviation planning for the global engineering firm Arup.

CDG is notable for obeying none of those rules. It’s not simply nonlinear, but anti-linear to the point where no one—least of all passengers—ever knows quite what to expect. In part this is because, unlike most of the world’s major airports, it reflects the vision of a single individual, former chief architect of the Aéroports de Paris, Paul Andreu. Now 73, he began work on Terminal 1 at 29. It is very much a young man’s idea of things to come. The main 11-story building is round, constructed from that rugged poured concrete that architects so loved back then, with a doughnut hole at the center. The gates are in seven satellite buildings that were intended to make it easier for the planes to taxi in and out (but today dictates the need for seven security checkpoints). Meanwhile, Terminal 2 is a collection of six adjacent modules, A through F (plus the far-flung G), that are reached after a long, circuitous bus ride to the southeast. Built at intervals since the 1980’s, they hang together in a way that still falls short of linear. Rather, they form a collage.

Flying back from Copenhagen a few days later, I returned to 2B. This time I was searching for the airport’s Sheraton, which, on maps, appeared to be hovering at an imprecise location between 2D, 2E, and 2F. I set out in what I hoped was the right direction, not expecting much help from CDG’s notoriously confusing signage (the signs are overloaded with information and often impenetrable, like a calculus equation).

After I located the Sheraton and checked in, I took a ride on the cdgval, the new (2007) subway shuttle. It’s the one truly linear thing at this airport—although the train map orders the terminals 1, 3, and 2. At Terminal 1, I did a loop around the departure level and admired the aesthetic: minimalist, with the naked concrete structure doubling as sculpture. There was no obvious place to eat dinner, so I returned to Terminal 2 and walked the length of Terminal 2E, which debuted in 2003. It is genuinely impressive, a stadium-scaled room with a ceiling of curved wood and glass extending, apparently unsupported, for more than 1,000 feet. At one time the lack of support was not entirely an illusion: a 100-foot-long chunk of ceiling collapsed in 2004, killing four people. The terminal reopened four years later with a stronger structure.

As might be expected from a French airport, CDG poses a philosophical question: Can one man’s highly idiosyncratic architectural vision work well for some 60 million passengers a year? The answer: not really. Still, if you’re in a position to relax a little and pretend you’re at, say, a museum, CDG can yield surprising pleasures. My happiest experience came after check-in at Terminal 1 for my Newark-bound flight, when I finally made it to the hole at the center of the doughnut. I rode up the series of glass-enclosed escalators that crisscross the void. For a moment, I experienced the 21st century exactly as a young visionary in the early 1970’s had thought it would be.

Overall: B-
At best: spectacular, thanks to a surplus of architectural ambition. At worst: a nightmare, for pretty much the same reason. Avoid tight connections.

Efficiency: D
Forget efficiency. Today’s security demands applied to yesterday’s nonlinear design makes going from point A to point B an adventure.

Check-In: B
Actually, relatively speedy on my most recent visit—but I wasn’t checking bags this time.

Beauty Factor: C
Terminal 2E
: gorgeous, an endless expanse of unbroken space. T1: great if you like 1970’s brutalism. T3: an ugly, steel-framed industrial shed.

Lodging: A
The Sheraton in T2 has contemporary rooms and noiseproof windows. There’s also a budget Ibis hotel near T3.

Signage: C
Officials say 82 percent of passengers understand the redesigned signs, compared with 74 percent for the original signs. Seems overly optimistic.

Shopping: B-
The airport is decentralized, so shopping comes in small clusters. T2E has the most boutiques (Hermès, Cartier, Ladurée).

Dining: B
The two branches of La Terrasse de Paris are good for tartines, salads, and wine. The one at T1, level 11, has Philippe Starck furniture, a sweeping view of the tarmac, and a full Continental menu. The Sheraton’s Les Saisons serves a decent lemon bass.

External Transit: A
Paris is 25 minutes away on the direct RER trains, and there are good connections to the rest of Europe at the airport rail station.

Internal Transit: B
The new CDVGAL shuttle train linking the terminals is excellent. Beware the poky bus system that runs between secure gate areas.

For more on best restaurant in CDG, check out T+L's Guide to Charles de Gualle Airport Food.

Charles de Gaulle International Airport (XDT)

Charles de Gaulle International Airport (XDT) is Europe’s No. 2 airport (after London’s Heathrow) in the number of passengers this aeronautic hub accommodates each year. Also known as Roissy for its northwestern location outside Paris, Charles de Gaulle Airport has three vast terminals. Unfortunately, XDT is not well-known for its design, cleanliness, nor hospitality. There’s also a dearth of dining options inside the airport, so smart travelers bring food along for the ride and the long waits. The Roissypôle business complex is situated here and includes Air France headquarters and the Hilton Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.