Sacré-Coeur Basilica, Place du Tertre, Au Lapin Agile, Moulin de La Galette, Bateau-Lavoir, Moulin Rouge.
Thanks mainly to its dominant situation on top of a hill visible from almost everywhere in Paris, but also to its rich history, Montmartre is one of the most popular tourist attractions (6 million visitors can’t be wrong) and thus another natural setting for an interesting Paris stroll. One of the best ways to approach a visit of this famous area is to take the Metro (e.g. from Etoile in the direction of Nation via Barbès Rochechouart) to the Anvers station, which brings you out on the Boulevard de Rochechouart. The Abbesses station might look nearer on the map, but there are just as many steps to exit this station as there are in front of the Basilica, so unless you're determined to see one of the last Hector Guimard Art Nouveau station entrances, Anvers is preferable. Of course if your feet are killing you already, you can always take the ‘Little train of Montmartre’ instead: this miniature train leaves from the Place Blanche (beside the Moulin Rouge) and offers either an interesting means of getting to the top of the hill or a guided tour of the whole of Montmartre in just 40 minutes.
From metro Anvers you can walk up the rue Sevestre to the Place Saint-Pierre and already start admiring the view of the vast open green dominated by the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. You have a choice between walking up the central steps or taking the funicular; it depends how fit you are, but also bear in mind how much hilly walking remains after you reach the top. From the top of the hill you get a splendid panoramic view over the rooftops of the whole of Paris up to 50 km in good weather. As you take in the view you may want to reflect on the origin of the name Montmartre; it was on this hill that Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Lutetia, was beheaded in 273 AD (legend has it that this took place around the current rue Yvonne Le Tac). The Latin name ‘mons martyrium’ replaced the pagan ‘mons martis’, and the Latin name then transformed into the French Mont Martyr or Montmartre. In fact the hill was considered a holy place from Roman times until the Abbey of Montmartre was burned during the Revolution in the 18th century.
The decision to build the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur was taken after the humiliating defeat in the war with Prussia and the bloody battles of the Communard uprising (some of the fiercest fighting in that civil struggle were witnessed around the Place Blanche and Pigalle by the Women’s Battalion). The Basilica, on the Greek Cross plan, is only of architectural interest through its Byzantine influences inspired by the 12th century Saint Front in Périgueux (the restoration of which Paul Abadie, the architect of the Sacré Coeur, had been responsible), itself influenced by Saint Mark's in Venice (1042-1085) which was copied from the Church of the Apostles founded by Constantine in Constantinople in the early 4th century (now destroyed). Its style was completely anachronistic at the time it was designed and built (1875 to 1919/1923), whereas the nearby Saint-Jean-l’Evangeliste church (rue des Abbesses) was the first major building ever to use reinforced concrete when it was built (1897-1905). But, despite its tiered wedding-cake appearance, the Basilica's sheer size and magnificent white dust-resistant limestone from Chateau-Landon dominate the Montmartre hill superbly (the gypsum quarry of Montmartre is responsible for the name 'blanche' and probably also for the name of the Parisii or 'quarisi' and the name Lutetia or Lucotetia, meaning town of bleachers in Greek, so the choice of a pure white-stone building has more than a decorative function). In addition to its being a gleaming landmark, the Basilica has the distinction of owning a very large bell (nearly 19 metric tons, and one that can be heard from 40 km away), known as ‘Françoise-Marguerite’ or the ‘Savoyarde’. It was made by a bell-foundry in Annecy and offered as a gift from Savoy, ceded to France by Cavour in 1860. In addition, the mosaic in the apse, entitled Christ in Majesty, is one of the largest in the world. If you wish to visit the gallery of the dome (for a panoramic view of Paris) or the crypt, take the steps leading down the western side of the basilica.
All around the basilica, and indeed on most of the hill of Montmartre, you can discover picturesque steps and characteristic cobblestone streets that give so many photo opportunities (a good example being rue Utrillo at the south-east end of the basilica). It’s also worth lingering around the church of St. Pierre, although it is dwarfed right beside the Sacré Cœur, since this is all that remains of the Benedictine Abbey of Montmartre, consecrated in 1147 and closed during the Revolution (at which time the hill was temporarily renamed ‘Mont-Marat’). It was a place of pilgrimage for such illustrious personalities as Thomas Becket, King Charles VI, Joan of Arc, and Ignatius Loyola. This being the highest point in the region, it was also the site of a Chappe ‘optical’ telegraph tower from 1794 to 1844. The nave of this church can be accessed from the Place du Tertre, so you should go round the rue du Cardinal Guibert, rue du Chevalier and rue du Mont Cenis. This church also gives concerts from time to time.
The Place du Tertre is, as the name tertre suggests, the crest of the hill, so it’s downhill from here on. This square has long been a famous meeting place for artists and played its role for many of the high points of art of the 19th and 20th centuries (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, and to some extent Futurism and Surrealism). It is still the present-day heart of Montmartre; it seems to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, so you should try to arrive early to avoid the crush and to get your portrait sketched or cut out of paper, or simply watch the artists at work (weather permitting). It is also a great place to relax in one of the bars or restaurants to drink in the atmosphere dominated, of course, by the bell tower and majestic central dome of the Sacré Cœur.
This square has many historic addresses; for example, on the north side the restaurant ‘La Mère Catherine’ founded in 1793 is said to be where Georges Jacques Danton, the eloquent and moderate favorite of the ‘sans-culottes’, spoke his ‘famous last words’ in 1793: “Let’s drink and eat, for tomorrow we shall die” (he was executed the following year when Robespierre came to power). It is also claimed that when Czar Alexander’s Cossack troops entered Paris at the end of March 1814 (the last battle by the allied powers, that led to Napoleon’s abdication and banishment to Elba, was at Montmartre) and their officers forbade them to drink here, the troops shouted “bistro, bistro” (quickly, quickly) and the term was henceforth adopted for a popular Parisian bar/restaurant (with a tenuous link to the 'fast-food' concept).
There are also many interesting streets to be discovered off this square, with a large number of art galleries. For example, around the south side of the square, or just a short distance down the rue Norvins (11 rue Poulbot) you’ll find the Espace Montmartre where there is a museum dedicated to more than 300 works of Salvador Dali (including etchings and lithographs as well as the largest collection of his sculptures in France). And the picturesque steps on the southeast corner of the square lead down to rue Gabrielle, where Pablo Ruiz-Picasso had his first studio at No. 49. To the northwest of the square is the rue Norvins, the high street or oldest street of the former village (and also the highest street in the city of Paris). This is now a very touristic street but it leads to such historic restaurants as ‘Le Consulat’ (painted by Utrillo) and ‘Auberge de la Bonne Franquette’ (formerly ‘Aux Billards en Bois’).
With peace in the Third Republic came a new flowering of the arts, in large part due to the removal of the oppressive academicism of the Second Empire. The founders of the Impressionist movement all lived or met around Montmartre including Monet, Renoir, Manet, Sisley and Pissarro and from 1866 to 1870 the nucleus of this movement worked out their theories in the nearby café Guerbois beside Manet’s house in rue St. Petersburg (the Batignolles side of the Place de Clichy). The outbreak of war with Prussia in July 1870 split them up, sending some to the army and others to neutral territory which is why some of the early Impressionist works of Monet and Pissarro are of London and its suburbs.
From 1872 onwards there started a ‘fin de siècle’ mood in Montmartre, described as the “civilization of midnight”, (and often associated with Bohemian culture, although this applied more to the Romantics 50 years earlier). This was the heyday of the Impressionists and Fauvists, and the beginning of Cubists, as well as unclassifiable artists like Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh. And even though a lot of the action moved to Montparnasse around the time of World War I, artists in Montmartre played a role in developing ideas on Futurism, and in the Surrealist ideas of ‘super-reality’ until the second World War. If you’re interested in digging into the history of these periods, the Montmartre Museum is just one street back in the rue Cortot (you can take the rue du Mont Cenis from the Place du Tertre). This museum (open every day except Mondays) is interesting for many reasons, since it not only contains unique historical archives and collections, and the cultural center organizes interesting temporary exhibitions there, but it is itself a 17th century country manor that was owned by Claude de la Rose (known as de Rosimond), and later home to Renoir, Suzanne Valadon and her son Utrillo, as well as Raoul Dufy and many others.
The back of this historic building gives onto a large garden beside which is a unique garden-cum-vineyard known as the Clos-Montmartre. To see this you can follow rue Cortot and then rue des Saules. It has 2,000 vine plants that were planted in 1933 as a reminder of the way most of the hill used to be from Roman times until the 18th century. Moreover, it gives a good opportunity every first or second Saturday in October to proudly celebrate the grape harvest (with a march and street party along with celebrities and dignitaries). Every year they produce about 700 bottles of ‘Clos-Montmartre’ wine, that is sold in the Town Hall, the Syndicat d’Initiative on the Place du Tertre, as well as in the Montmartre Museum. As you can imagine, this grape harvest attracts huge crowds, but you can avoid that during the actual harvest by visiting the museum and enjoying a good view of the vineyard as well as taking in one of the temporary exhibitions.
On the opposite corner of rue des Saules and rue St. Vincent is the oldest cabaret in Montmartre, ‘Au Lapin Agile’. The ‘Cabaret des Assassins’, as it was originally named, had been a favorite gathering place for artists, singers and writers since the 1860’s, with its acacia-shaded terrace. However, it took on new life since a certain André Gill (pronounced Jill) painted the new sign around 1900 to represent the owner’s speciality, pan-fried rabbit (lapin sauté à la casserole), in the form of a rabbit jumping from a saucepan. With inimitable humor and play on words, the ‘lapin à Gill’ became known as the ‘Lapin Agile’ and this was adopted as the official name. In 1903 the cabaret was bought by Aristide Bruant who gave the management to Frédéric (Frédé) Gérard, and it soon became a favorite of artists like Renoir, Picasso, Utrillo and Van Gogh etc. Picasso immortalized the cheerful atmosphere here in his 1905 painting ‘Au Lapin Agile’, which remained nailed to the wall in the cabaret until 1911.
You can then go back a short way up the rue des Saules and turn right down the rue de l’Abreuvoir until you reach the square dedicated to Dalida. In the allée des Brouillards just off this square at number 8 you’ll find the house where the Renoir family lived from 1890 to 1897. This is where film-maker Jean was born and where his father, Auguste, made many beautiful family paintings.
If you then follow the rue Girardon to the corner of rue Lepic, you reach the windmill known as the ‘Moulin Radet’ that many tourists take for the ‘Moulin de La Galette’. The more famous windmill is just one hundred yards down rue Lepic, but less visible and not open to the public. This was used for its panoramic view and from the 1870’s its popular dance hall was where Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne and many other artists danced the nights away in what was still a rural corner of the city. Several artists were inspired by this landmark, among whom Renoir, who painted it in 1876, and ten years later Vincent Van Gogh, who painted it just after he arrived and had assimilated the work of the Impressionists (in fact number 54 in this street also became home to Van Gogh when he moved in with brother Theo, and until he moved to Arles in 1888). In 1889 Toulouse-Lautrec made a painting of it, and Picasso immortalized it too in 1900 on his first trip to Paris (very much under the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec), while he was living in the rue Gabrielle.
Going back a short way up rue Lepic you can take rue d’Orchampt down to meet rue de Ravignan and the square Emile Goudeau. At number 13 you’ll find the ‘Bateau-Lavoir’ (mostly destroyed by fire in 1970 and rebuilt in 1978). This was a building of run-down artists’ studios even when Gauguin lived here around 1892, but it took on a new life with the arrival of Pablo Picasso in 1904, who moved in alongside Juan Gris, and then Van Dongen, Brancusi, Modigliani, Max Jacob etc. This was the place where Picasso felt at home, moving from his somber ‘blue’ period to his ‘pink’ period and then creating the first Cubist work, the famous ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (originally dubbed ‘Le Bordel d’Avignon’ after an ill-reputed street in Barcelona). From then until the outbreak of the First World War, this was the focal point of intense creative activity in painting, being frequented by a growing number of artists and intellectuals, including painters like Douanier Rousseau, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Derain, Dufy, Utrillo, and Metzinger, as well as writers like Apollinaire and Cocteau, and art collectors/dealers like Gertrude Stein, Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.
You can follow rue Ravignan down the hill till you reach the square and rue des Abbesses. Just off this square is the rue André-Antoine where, at number 11 you’ll find the Espace Toulouse-Lautrec (just beside the Saint-Jean-l’Evangeliste church mentioned earlier). If you follow this road down to Boulevard de Clichy, you can then walk to the Place Blanche. Here (at number 82) you’ll find the Moulin Rouge, perhaps the best known of the windmills in Montmartre if not in the world immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster in 1891 with La Goulue, and just recently with a film of the same name. Since its opening in October 1889 it became the home of the ‘cancan’ and the ‘chahut’ and it is still a cabaret and a magnet for tourists in search of the carefree ‘joie de vivre’ so well portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec and so characteristic of the turn of the previous century. There are a few other lesser-known cabarets in this same area, such as ‘Théâtre des 2 Anes’ at number 100 on the same boulevard, and at 25 rue Fontaine is ‘La Nouvelle Eve’ dating from 1897.
If you’re just looking, continue eastward along the Boulevard de Clichy to the Place Pigalle. This whole area is dedicated to sex shops and erotic shows, so watch out for street touts. Just about the most innocuous address on this street is the Museum of Erotica at number 72.
A little further along the boulevard you’ll meet the rue des Martyrs, and if you’re interested in seeing the Divan Japonais cabaret that inspired another of Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous posters (this time with Jane Avril), it’s at number 75 (although the name has changed to ‘Divan du Monde’ and the atmosphere is more international than before). Within a few paces along this same street you can also find the ‘drag-queen’ cabarets, ‘Madame Arthur’ and ‘Chez Michou’.