While at first glance Montmartre can seem neon-lit and overrun with tourists and cheap souvenirs, like anywhere in Paris it’s full of secrets. Get a map and take this district on foot, prepared to explore (wear comfortable shoes - cobblestones and steps abound). Wander through its back streets and soon you'll uncover this neighborhood's current charm, as well as the bohemian vibe that nurtured some of last century’s greatest French artists. Picasso, Monet, van Gogh, Renoir and Dali all left their mark here, as did Hemingway and many, many others. Love the movie “Amélie”? Get a window seat at Café des deux Moulins. Brave the crowds to peruse street artists’ offerings, or jump in on the frenzy of streetside clothing sample sales. Boulevard de Clichy offers a bit more of a risqué experience: famed Moulin Rouge is located here and the surrounding businesses reflect the bawdy and thrilling underworld brought to light by the infamous institution. Later in the day, grab a bottle of wine and take a pilgrimage to Sacré-Coeur Basilica, which sits atop the highest point in Paris, and take in the incredible views of Paris — some say the most incredible views of Paris — as the sun sets and the city lights up.
An officially-designated historic area
Located across from the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, which began construction in 1878, the Church of Saint Peter of Montmartre is Paris’ oldest standing church. Built here in 1134 the pillars date back to the time of the Gaul Druids. Remains from their worship site, as well as from those of the Romans who followed, were used to build the church, and the founder of the Jesuit order is said to have taken his vows here.
Montmartre has also been used for military purposes at various times throughout its history. Its status as the highest place in Paris played a significant role in this. In the Siege of Paris in 1590, Henry IV used it to fire artillery into Paris before he was forced to retreat. In the Battle of Paris in 1814, Russian soldiers used it for similar purposes. The Paris National Guard took control of the hill and its cannon in 1871, running a revolutionary government from here for a couple of months before the French army retook Montmartre and control of the government.
St. Denis, The Headless Saint
In one of the most interesting moments in Montmartre history, when Paris was still very much a Roman city, Saint Denis served as its first bishop. Decapitated by the Romans for converting so many to the Christian faith, legend holds that he then picked his head up and carried it 6 kilometers to the area now known as Saint-Denis where he finally fell dead. Today, you’ll find the headless saint represented all over Paris, including amongst the statues of saints at Notre Dame.
Clos Montmartre - the last of Paris’ wineries
Vineyards, orchards and gardens flourished in this area even before Paris became Paris: the Romans built a temple to Bachhus, the god of wine, here. In the 12th century, a Benedictine abbey was founded here, with a wine press operated by its nuns. While the vineyards, wineries, and even the mills and quarries that eventually found home in what is now Montmartre were destroyed by the conclusion of the French Revolution, the Clos Montmartre was spared. Disease killed the vines in the early 20th century and the ground lay fallow until 1933 when the vineyard was resurrected once again. This “secret vineyard” of Paris covers over just 1500 square meters and yields about as many bottles of wine yearly. Visit in October and you’ll be able to buy one, its label designed by local artists.
The Ecole des Beaux-Arts: Picasso, Renoir, Stein and the next generation of bohemians
Like the Latin Quarter before it, Montmartre became the home and gathering place for many of the world’s most talented artists, philosophers and writers and was known for its pleasure-seeking lifestyle. To that end, it also became known for its cabarets and cafés, including Le Chat Noir and its most famous remnant from that time, Moulin Rouge, founded in 1899.
Many of the artists left Montmartre during World War I. However, it continued to draw in an artistic culture, and the Place du Tertre is still lined with artists displaying and selling their work.
Montmartre in Film
The year 2001 was a significant one for movies set in Montmartre as two of the most popular films set here were released that year: “Amélie” and “Moulin Rouge!”
“Amélie”,a romantic comedy that starred Audrey Tautou, was one of the few French-language films to receive significant attention among American movie enthusiasts; it was also nominated for five Academy Awards. The title character’s workplace, the Café des 2 Moulins, is actually a nice bistro to take a break in while exploring Montmartre. Get a window seat if possible.
“Moulin Rouge!” was the fourth movie to have that name; the previous ones came out in 1928, 1934 and 1952. The focus of the film, Moulin Rouge, is a legendary cabaret and destination located on Montmartre’s Boulevard de Clichy.
Other movies that include scenes from Montmartre include “An American in Paris,” “French Cancun” and “Ronin.”
Basilica of the Sacré Coeur: A "National Vow"
Built as a “National Vow” made by France after surviving the Prussian war, the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur was constructed to be visible from anywhere in Paris. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Basilica is a place of worship and religious pilgrimage. Visitors are asked to be as quiet as possible once inside, and cameras and video recorders cannot be used. Outside, visitors can climb to the top and take in spectacular views of Paris from the city's highest point.
Musée de Montmartre
Founded in 1960, this small museum actually packs quite a lot of interesting exhibits into its two buildings, the oldest in Montmartre and former homes of artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Its artworks and manuscripts describe this community’s colorful history in fascinating detail while this lovely museum’s photographs show Montmartre during a time when it was full of windmills, vineyards and quarries.
Surrounding the Musée de Montmartre and just steps from the Place du Tetre are the three gardens dedicated to Auguste Renoir, who lived on-site from 1875-1877. A haven of peace in the city, the gardens also offer beautiful views of Clos Montmartre vineyard and the northern side of Paris.
Le Bateau-Lavoire – historic building that served as a gathering place of many of the world’s most famous artists
Marché Saint-Pierre – popular multi-floor fabric store that sells its offerings at enticing prices (it's official website is in French only)
Parc de la Turlure – beautiful park near the Place du Tertre that is quieter and more peaceful
Élysée Montmartre – one of Paris’ oldest dance theatres, opened in 1807; often overshadowed by Moulin Rouge
Musée de l'érotisme – museum devoted to erotic art and describing the history of sex and its role in various cultures
Saint-Pierre de Montmartre – one of Paris’ oldest surviving parishes, construction began here in the 1100's.
Espace Dalí – gallery and museum featuring an extensive collection of Salvador Dalí’s works
Cimetière de Montmartre – several composers, painters and writers are buried in this beautiful cemetery.
Getting There (and around, and back)
Montmartre isn’t quite central Paris: located in the 18th arrondissement about 3 miles north of the Seine and just mile south of Paris’ northern border and the busy Boulevard Périphérique, it’s still quite easy to get there, as well as from there to other more centrally-located attractions in the city. For example, if you want to travel from the center of Montmartre to the Île de la Cité, take a 10-minute walk to the Barbès – Rochechouart station and catch a Line 4 train for a 10-minute ride into central Paris.
One significant advantage of Montmartre’s location is how close the neighborhood is to the Gare du Nord, Europe’s busiest railway station, which is situated less than a mile east of the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur. Trains arrive here from places as far away as London and Cologne, Germany. Those flying into Charles de Gaulle Airport can also catch the RER B train straight from France’s busiest airport to the Gare du Nord. You can catch an RER train from the Gare du Nord into central Paris as well.
Although several rail stations stride this neighborhood’s borders, only one – Abbesses – is centrally located inside Montmartre. Line 12 serves this station, Paris Métro’s deepest at 118 feet, and passengers can take trains from here to Front Populaire to the northeast and through central Paris to Issy-les-Moulineaux to the southwest. One benefit of taking a train to Abbesses is that you are then planted right into the heart of Montmartre.
Once in Montmartre, consider taking advantage of the 40-minute guided tours that are offered on the Les Petits Trains de Montmartre. Another fun – and sometimes necessary – ride can be had on the funicular that takes passengers up 118 feet to the top of the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur (the alternative is a 300-step climb).
Vacation rentals in Montmartre