Rising high above Paris’ dazzling panorama, the historic Parisian district of Montmartre is unlike anywhere else in the “City of Light.” And while it doesn’t possess the grand boulevards, vast parks and bourgeois housing of central Paris, it has charm, history, vigor and character. It gives one the feeling of being in a magical, imperfect village – faraway from one of Europe’s largest capital cities. So when in Paris on vacation, what is there to see in Montmartre?
Let’s begin with a bit of background. Montmartre’s origins are ancient. It is believed that it was originally a sacred place for druid priests, who in fact executed Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, on the hill of Montmartre approximately 1700 years ago. It was always considered the outskirts of Paris, and because of its strategic position it was used throughout history as a military base during times of war. The end of the 19th century however is when the unique character of Montmartre really began to take shape.
When Napoleon III decided to modernize central Paris, much of the medieval city was destroyed, and Paris’ poor inhabitants were pushed to the city’s edges. At that time, Montmartre was outside of Paris’ official city limits, and it developed into an area known for its decadent nightlife. Local convents produced wines, and the area attracted socialites, artists, entertainers, musicians and writers. This was the infectiously lively birthplace of Le Chat Noir and of the Moulin Rouge! The world entered the 20th century, and by this time Montmartre was firmly established as the artistic capital of Paris. And the artists kept coming.
This was the Paris of Édith Piaf and Josephine Baker – of Le Corbusier, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh – of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Langston Hughes! While its character today has admittedly moved on, Montmartre still holds remnants of its artistic, bohemian heritage. It hosts some of the best festivals in Paris, and while being rather small in size, it has enough interesting sights for you to dedicate an entire day of your sightseeing in Paris to exploring avant-garde, original, bold and timeless Montmartre.
And to get you started, here are seven sightseeing recommendations to check out on a day in Montmartre:
1. Explore Montmartre’s artistic heritage
This is not just where they worked. It’s where they lived. Montmartre is where the great artists of the day as well as up-and-coming dreamers gathered. They drank in cafes, played music, and danced the night away in cabarets. You cannot disconnect Montmartre with its once thriving artists’ community. They were here during the most exciting, important movements of 20th-century art. Just a few of its better-known residents include Salvador Dalí, Max Jacob, Kees van Dongen, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Raoul Dufy, Maurice Neumont, Amedeo Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Maurice Utrillo (who was actually born in Montmartre).
While exploring the neighborhood’s artistic past, it’s worth paying a visit to the Musée de Montmartre, which is housed in Utrillo’s former residence. (Pierre-Auguste Renoir also lived on the premises). Cubism was born inside the workshops of Le Bateau Lavoir artists’ commune near the place Émile-Goudeau, whose original façade can still be seen today; Picasso lived here for 8 years. It’s also worth paying a visit to the Espace Dalí Montmartre. And while undoubtedly touristy (hey – even the French themselves do it) head to Montmartre’s Place du Tertre where one of the many local artists, some of whom are very talented, will still sketch your portrait.
2. Check out the windmills turned dance halls
Windmills (or les moulins in French) are some of the very first images that spring to mind when one thinks of Montmartre. In the 19th century, when Montmartre truly was a countryside setting people used to escape here for fun, a great view, a glass of wine and a slice of a galette (a type of cake that the local mill owners made). Overtime as Montmartre grew, these mills kept producing the breads and cakes – but added ambience, wine, music and dancing. These dancehalls or cabarets were famed throughout Paris, and the artistic community provided many of the cabarets’ most-frequent, lively patrons (including Picasso, Van Gogh and many others).
When visiting Montmartre today, you can still see two of the surviving, historic windmills, which were both referred to as the Moulin de la Galette. While the Moulin Blute-Fin (located across the street from rue Lepic 88) is located on private land and today cannot be visited, the Moulin Radet can very easily be seen at the corner of rue Lepic and rue Girardon. (A bistro is now located there called – you guessed it, the Moulin de la Galette).
Another famous “moulin” located at the foot of Montmartre in the Pigalle district is The Moulin Rouge, which opened its doors in 1889 to Paris’ glamorous, cancan-loving crowds. Mistinguett, Edith Piaf, Louise Weber (also known as ‘La Goulue’) represent several of the Moulin Rouge’s most-shining stars. Today it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris.
3. See Au Lapin Agile
At the corner of rue Saint Vincent and rue des Saules, you’ll find another Montmartre landmark: Au Lapin Agile. This mid-19th century cabaret resembles a rustic home in a countryside hamlet. This was a favorite hangout for many artists in the Montmartre, and the cabaret setting was portrayed in many of their artworks. (Click here to see Picasso’s painting titled “Lapin Agile” or here to see Maurice Utrillo’s painting titled “Lapin Agile”). Even today, on most evenings you can still attend a traditional French cabaret show at this historic venue.
4. See the vineyards on rue Saint Vincent
While small in size, these vineyards beautifully preserve a Parisian winemaking tradition that was originally introduced by the Romans and later flourished from the 12th century until the 19th century under the patronage of Montmartre’s Benedictine Abbey. Today, it is the only part of Paris that still produces wine, and in the fall Montmartre hosts an autumn wine harvest festival that is truly a treat to attend if you’ll be in Paris in October!
5. Check out a local bakery!
Montmartre is rife with adorable bakeries, cafes and bistros, so factor some time in your Montmartre sightseeing schedule to relax and have a glass of wine or a café – and be sure to try some of the cakes, pies and patisserie goodies of Montmartre.
6. Go inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Although the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur was initially disliked by some of Paris’ 19th-century residents, it is nothing if not impressive. Atop Paris’ highest point, it was constructed out of Travertine marble in a Roman-Byzantine style and took just under 40 years to build (it was completed in 1914). Its interior mosaics are magnificent, and it’s free to visit inside the basilica (although the crypt and towers do have a small fee).
7. Go inside the church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre
Having been consecrated in the mid-12th century, this church is one of Paris’ oldest structures. It is also said to be the site where the Jesuit order was founded in the 16th century. It suffered major damages during the French Revolution and had to be significantly rebuilt in the 19th century. That being said, it is still an incredibly historic place to include on your Paris sightseeing itinerary.
We hope that you have enjoyed reading about Paris’ Montmartre district and that you will now consider giving it a full, leisurely day on your next vacation to Paris! To view all our affordable vacation packages to Paris, France please kindly click here.
Merci et bon voyage!