Though the Left Bank, especially the St. Germain-des-Près and Montparnasse, has become renowned for its association with the intellectual and literary elite of Paris in the 20th century, the former village of Montmartre can rightfully claim its own elite, mostly from the world of art but also poetry and writing.
Artists, poets and writers all flocked here for the cheap living quarters and the racy side of Parisian life, for Montmartre has always been home to many of the city’s cabarets and erotica. Today, the seedier side of life can still be found here, mostly around the Blvds Clichy and Rochechouart, site of several of the city’s famous cabarets like the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergères and the Lido.
However, most of Montmartre retains the village-like atmosphere that makes it so charming, and a diverse working- and middle-class population.
The most potent artistic contribution born in Montmartre, the Cubist movement, started in a building called the Bateau Lavoir (a recreation of the building can be seen at the site where the original burned down). The Bateau Lavoir, so named for its resemblance to the laundry boats that traveled up and down the Seine, was once the home for Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, and Modigliani, all of whom lived in this dilapidated building during their “starving” days.
Unfortunately, the current art scene in Montmartre is consigned to the touristy quick-portrait-while-you-wait market that inundates the Place du Tertre.
Nevertheless, the hill of Montmartre is still beautiful walking territory and there are quite a few sights you should not miss:
The Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, built as a memorial to the fallen in the Franco-Prussian War is near the highest point of the Butte Montmartre. The basilica took nearly 40 years to build and is one of most recognizable monuments in the city. The graceful exterior of the basilica was designed on a Byzantine model and that theme serves as inspiration for the best facet of the interior, the enormous Great Mosaic of Christ located in the chancel vault. The view from the top of the basilica is arguably the best in Paris, offering a panoramic view of the entire city to those willing to make the hike up the stairs.
Espace Montmartre Salvador Dali
The Surrealist artist Salvador Dali once lived in Paris so it’s not surprising that this permanent exhibition of his painting and sculpture should find a home in Montmartre. About 350 lesser-known yet familiar works—water color illustrations for books, sculptures of melting watches and transmogrified elephants—are displayed in the dark and cavernous showroom, all with an eerie soundtrack provided by the artist himself.
Arguably the most famous cabaret in Paris (and the world for that matter). Though the can-can didn’t originate here, the Moulin Rouge (effectively, the Red Mill) is synonymous with the dance, immortalized by the posters and drawings of Toulouse-Lautrec. Though most of the original building is gone, the show lives on, albeit with a few tweaks added by modern technology such as a light show.
Place des Abbesses
This postcard pretty square is home to one of the few surviving Art Nouveau Métro entrances designed by Hector Guimard (transplanted here from the Hôtel de Ville).
Le Clos Montmartre
Across from the famous cabaret Le Lapin Agile, you will find the vineyard of Paris. If you desire to drink locally as well as eat locally, and happen to be in Paris in October, this is the place to go! Dating back to when Paris was still Lutèce, the Romans planted grape vines and produced wine in this part of the city. Over the years, however, most of the land was sold.
In the 1930s a group of artists fought against the selling of the last morsel of land and suggested recreating the Montmartre vineyards. During the month of October, the arrondissement hosts the Fêtes des Vendanges (harvest festival) replete with music and traditional costumes. This is the only time the wine is generally available to the public, as it is auctioned off, bottle by bottle, in order to benefit charities. Even outside of the month of October, however, the vineyards make for a lovely and unusual sight.
Details: Montmartre can be easily reached by metro or taxi from the inner arrondissements. You may consider renting an apartment nearby. Avoid the area immediately near the Place du Tertre and the seedier parts of Boulevard Clichy. Private Access Journeys offers luxury apartments in the best parts of Parisian neighborhoods and can arrange walking tours around themes like cubism, impressionism, and Bohemian Paris.