How to explore Montmartre, Paris

Paris can overwhelm the unprepared visitor. Take this route around one of the city's most iconic areas to discover a world away from the tourist hordes. From hidden city vineyards to exclusive music concerts, these are the best things to do in Montmartre
Sacre Coeur Cathedral
Sacre Coeur Cathedral. Photo: Shutterstock
Romantic relic of a simpler, more vital world or clichéd victim of its own success? Approach Montmartre with a fresh mind and steer clear of the obvious tourist traps, and you will find plenty here to engage and surprise.


Distance: 3.5km (2.25 miles)
Time: A full day

Start: Les Abbesses

End: Place de Clichy
Featured Trip: Luxury Paris; add this Montmartre tour to your Insight Guides trip itinerary
Points to Note: Montmartre’s streets are very steep, so this is not the best route if you prefer easy walks on the at. However, taking the funicular up the hill will take some strain out of the climb – the fare is one métro ticket.

Montmartre has always stood slightly apart from the rest of the city. For much of the 19th century it was mined for gypsum and still retained a country charm with its vineyards, cornfields, flocks of sheep and 40 windmills.

The lofty isolation of the hill and its cheap lodgings attracted artists and writers. Painters and their models frequented place Pigalle, and people flocked to the Moulin Rouge. Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism were conceived in the area’s garrets, bars and dance halls.


Les Abbesses

At the exit of metro Les Abbesses, note the Art Nouveau canopy by Hector Guimard, one of only two (the other is at place Dauphine) in the city to survive. Opposite is another Art Nouveau structure: St-Jean de Montmartre. Built 1897–1904 to designs by Anatole de Baudot, the church is an early example of construction with reinforced cement and brick. Inside are several wall paintings (unfurnished) executed at the end of World War I and depicting the Gospel of St-John.

Now, making a mental note that nearby is Rose Bakery, a good lunch option for later, head east off the square on rue Yvonne Le Tac. At no. 9 is the Chapelle du Martyr, where, according to legend, St Denis, the first Bishop of Paris, picked up his head after being decapitated by the Romans in AD 287. He is then said to have walked off with it to where the basilica of St-Denis now stands 10km (6 miles) to the north. Montmartre means ‘hill of the martyr’.


Place St-Pierre

The road now becomes rue Tardieu and then place St-Pierre. With Montmartre’s white basilica rising above you, walk to the far side of the place, where, on your left, is the Halle St-Pierre. This 19th-century covered market hall designed by Victor Baltard houses the Musée de la Halle St-Pierre (Mon–Fri 11am–6pm, Sat until 7pm, Sun noon–6pm, closed Sat–Sun in Aug), which shows brut and naïve artworks by artists from around the world. It also hosts music concerts and lectures, and has an excellent bookshop and café.

At this point you can either walk up through square Willette, laid out in terraces in 1929, or take the funicular railway to reach the terrace in front of Sacré-Cœur.


Sacré-Cœur

Sacré-Cœur (35 rue Chevalier- de-la-Barre; basilica: daily 6am–10.30pm, dome: May–Sept 8.30am–8pm, Oct–Apr 9am–5pm, crypt was closed at the time of writing for security reasons; entry to basilica free, charge for dome and crypt) was constructed after the suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune, which had been passionately supported by the anarchist Montmartrois. The church was built in appeasement for the bloodshed, and because of this, and its arguably rather mediocre architecture, has never been well-loved by local residents.

Work started on the basilica in 1875 and was not completed until 1914, and it was then not consecrated until 1919. The architect, Paul Abadie, based his design on the Romano-Byzantine cathedral of St-Front in Périgueux and used Château-Landon stone, which secretes calcite when it rains, bleaching the walls a bone-white colour.

The dome, up 237 narrow spiral steps, offers a wonderful view over Paris. There is also a huge bell, the Savoyarde, weighing 18 tonnes. From the stained-glass gallery beneath is a good view of the cavernous interior.


Famous Montmartre stairs. Photo: Shutterstock


Place du Tertre

Now head west from the church on rue Azais and turn right onto rue St-Eleuthère to arrive at place du Tertre, which regrettably now has more than its fair share of overpriced restaurants and bad would-be artists. Stay briefly on the square, however, for a couple of more worthwhile sights.


St-Pierre-de-Montmartre

On your right is the simple church of St-Pierre-de-Montmartre (daily 9.30am–7pm; free), the second oldest in Paris (after St-Germain-des-Prés), dating from 1133, and all that remains of the old Abbey of Montmartre. A Benedictine nunnery since the 12th century, the abbey was destroyed during the Revolution. The church itself was then abandoned and only reconsecrated in 1908. It is noteworthy too that, according to the earliest biography of St-Ignatius Loyola, it was here that the vows were taken that led to the founding of the Jesuits.

Inside, the walls and columns (Roman in origin) of the nave seem to have bent with age and lean outwards. If you are here on Toussaint (All Saints’ Day – 1 November), visit the small, romantic graveyard behind the church, since this is the only day of the year that it is open.


Dalí Museum

On the opposite side of the square is place du Calvaire, which forms a terrace with a fine view over Paris. At its far end, on the corner of rue Poulbot, is the Espace Dalí (11 rue Poulbot; daily 10am–6pm, July–Aug until 8pm), with more than 300 works by the Surrealist artist.


The original bistro

Following rue Poulbot round, turn right at rue Norvins to reach 6 place du Tertre, home of La Mère Catherine, reputedly Paris’s first bistro. Originally a drinking den for revolutionaries, the old inn apparently served Russian soldiers during the Allied occupation of 1814. As they ordered their drinks – forbidden by the Russian military authorities – they shouted ‘bistro’ meaning ‘quickly’, thereby creating a Parisian institution.

Leaving the crowd of place du Tertre behind, head back to rue Norvins, then off onto rue des Saules where, at no. 22, is legendary cabaret Au Lapin Agile (Tue–Sun 9pm–1am). On wooden benches by scarred tables (though with original paintings by Gill and Léger), you are treated to a glass of cherries in eau de vie and a night of songs and poems in the tradition of Aristide Bruant. Once upon a time Renoir and Verlaine laid tables here, and Picasso paid for a day’s meals with one of his Harlequin paintings: now worth millions of pounds.

Take the second right onto rue Cortot.


Musée de Montmartre

At 12 rue Cortot, in the oldest house on the Butte, is the Musée de Montmartre (daily 10am–6pm), which chronicles the life and times of the artists’ quarter. This manor house was originally the country home of Rosimund, an actor in Molière’s theatre company. Two hundred years later and the house had been divided into studios, with Renoir, Dufy, and Utrillo and his mother, Suzanne Valadon, living and working here. (Valadon’s lover, the composer Erik Satie, lived in various lodgings on rue Cortot in the 1890s.)


The displays

Today, the lower floors are devoted to the history of Montmartre through revolutions and wars, whereas the upper floors evoke the bohemian artistic life of legend. As well as a reconstruction of Utrillo’s favourite café, L’Abreuvoir, there is an artist’s studio and artworks by Utrillo, Dufy and Toulouse-Lautrec. The long-neglected studio-apartment of both Valadon and Utrillo was restored in 2014 and is now open to the public. The gardens, where Renoir used to paint, are a peaceful oasis.


Vineyard

Behind the museum are vineyards that were planted in 1933 in homage to the vines cultivated here since the Middle Ages. In early October, the grape harvest attracts hundreds of volunteers, and processions and parties take place in the neighbouring streets. About 300 litres (634 pints) of wine are sold at auction, with proceeds going to the Montmartre Festival Committee.


Castle of the Mists

On the other side of rue des Saules from rue Cortot is rue de l’Abreuvoir, which becomes the allée des Brouillards. Here, square Suzanne-Buisson occupies the former gardens of the Château des Brouillards, which stands opposite. The house was built in 1772 and takes its name from the windmill that was here before and could only be seen when the fog lifted. Converted out-houses in its grounds were once inhabited by Renoir and the Symbolist poet Gérard de Nerval. Later the château became a dance hall, and then a squat before being restored.


Moulin de la Galette is another must-see stop on your Montmartre tour. Photo: Shutterstock


Renoir’s Windmill

Turn south on rue Girardon, then right onto rue Lepic. On your right is the Moulin de la Galette. Built in 1604, the windmill became a dance hall in the 19th century and was immortalised by Renoir in his 1866 painting of the same name.


Bateau-Lavoir

Now go back to rue Girardon, noting the other windmill here, the Moulin Radet. Head south along the narrow rue d’Orchampt and continue to its end and place Émile-Goudeau. At no. 13, recently built artists’ studios stand in place of the wooden ramshackle building in which Braque and Picasso invented Cubism. Le Bateau-Lavoir, so named because it resembled floating laundry, was where Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), recalling the prostitutes of Barcelona; in rooms alongside, Apollinaire and Max Jacob developed their liberated verse-form. Sadly, the building burnt down in 1970 just as it was about to be renovated.


Studio 28

Turn right onto rue Garreau, which soon becomes rue Durantin, and, at the crossroads with rue Tholozé, turn left.

On your left is the famous cinema, Studio 28, where, in 1930, Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or (The Golden Age) caused a riot on only its second screening due to its overtly sexual content (the film only got past its censors through its being excused as ‘the dream of a mad man’). Members of the fascist League of Patriots threw ink at the screen, attacked members of the audience, and destroyed art work by Dalí, Miró, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and others on display in the lobby. The film was subsequently banned for 50 years.


Rue Lepic

At the end of rue Tholozé, turn right, and soon after join the lower reaches of rue Lepic. No. 54 was home to Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo for two years in the late 1880s. At no. 42 is À la Pomponnette, while at no. 15 is Les Deux Moulins, where Amélie Poulain waited on tables in the eponymous film. At the bottom of rue Lepic, turn right onto boulevard de Clichy.


Pigalle

At the bottom of the Butte is Pigalle, or ‘Pig Alley’, as it was known to American soldiers during World War II. Once known exclusively for being the city’s seedy red-light district, the area is cleaning up its act and is in parts now edgily cool. Some sex shops and seedy nightspots are still in evidence, but many of the old brothels and erotic cabarets are being replaced by trendy clubs (such as the Divan du Monde at 75 rue des Martyrs), chic boutiques and fashionable bars and restaurants.


The Moulin Rouge

Coming down the boulevard de Clichy, almost immediately on your right is the Moulin Rouge (82 boulevard de Clichy), where a troupe of scantily clad ‘Doriss’ dancers delight spectators with their nightly show.

The club’s history is gloriously scandalous. In 1896, the annual Paris Art School Ball was held here and featured the first fully nude striptease, by one of the school’s models. She was arrested and imprisoned, and students went to the barricades in the Latin Quarter, proclaiming ‘the battle for artistic nudity’.

Sparing a thought for the poet Jacques Prévert, who used to live just next door, now continue down the boulevard de Clichy towards place de Clichy, where the Wepler, an old-world brasserie, forms a fitting end to this tour.


The New Athens

In the mid-19th century, the area south of boulevard de Clichy now known as La Nouvelle Athènes (New Athens) attracted writers, artists, composers, actresses and courtesans. For a sniff of this rarefied past, visit the Musée Gustave Moreau (14 rue de La Rochefoucauld; Mon, Wed, Thur 10am–12.45pm, 2–5.15pm, Fri–Sun 10am–5.15pm) with its lovely double-height studio packed with Symbolist paintings, or the Musée de la Vie Romantique at 16 rue Chaptal (Tue–Sun 10am–6pm) with its memorabilia on the novelist George Sand and her circle of friends, including her lover the composer Chopin.


This article was originally published on November 22, 2016


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