During the 1890s, Montmartre was a popular amusement district boasting rowdy cabarets, theaters, circuses, and decadent, gaudy dance halls where bourgeois patrons and prostitutes rubbed shoulders. The area, however, had somewhat humble beginnings. The Montmartre Butte (hill) was initially a rural village, complete with vineyards and windmills. Examples of both still remain today.
Montmartre’s history is also deeply steeped in the arts. This was the place for writers, poets, artists, and Parisian liberals. Masters like Dalí, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Utrillo, among others, not only worked here – they also called Montmartre home.
Every time I am in Paris, I make it a point to walk in Montmartre. Below is a description of my favorite walk. I’ve added facts and tidbits about the places you’ll be seeing during your self-guided walk. While most people approach Montmartre from the south, I’d suggest that for a more pleasant experience, you approach it from the back, so to speak. You won’t be going up the funicular or up the main steps to Sacré-Coeur; but this way, you will avoid the masses and the pushy vendors at the bottom of the hill. And as you stroll down winding cobblestoned streets and through tree-shaded squares, walk past a vineyard and a couple of windmills, or take a moment at an isolated park bench, you’ll be able to absorb the feel of pre-war Paris and village atmosphere that can still be admired at Montmartre.
Take the Metro, Line 12 and get off at Lamarck-Caulaincourt. As you exit the metro station, turn around and look behind you. There are two sets of stairs on either side of the exit. Climb up and you’ll land on Rue Caulaincourt.
Cross the street and you’ll be facing a small gated square, Joël Le Tac. Take a few steps to your right and walk down (south) on Place Constantin Pecqueur, a beautifully tree-shaded street.
Place Constantin Pecqueur will veer to the left, but you’ll be going straight. Go up the stairs that are in front of you.
At the top of the stairs, you’ll be at the corner of Rue de l’Aubrevoir and Rue Girardon and upon a small, tranquil square dedicated to a famous Egyptian-born chanteuse and actress of Italian descent. She was known as Dalida. She is remembered as one of the greatest singers that has ever existed, having lived a tumultuous and tragic life. She lived in Montmartre until her suicide in 1987.
The French government erected a life-sized bronze bust at this small square to commemorate her life. If you stand with your back to Dalida’s bust, walk up Rue de l’Aubrevoir, the street on your left.
After a short walk, slightly uphill, you’ll see Maison Rose, the pink house.
This house was made famous by Utrillo when he painted it in 1912. It is now a small café where you can stop for a beverage or a snack, or to relax and contemplate your surroundings. This place is still off-the-beaten-track when compared to the restaurants you’ll find further uphill.
The Montmartre Museum is just a few steps away; which is worth a visit. It’s one of the most charming museums in Paris and it’s contained within the Bel Air house, which dates back to the 17th Century. This is the oldest building in Montmartre. You can also visit the gardens and walk where famous artists lived and painted, like Auguste Renoir.
To get to the museum from the Maison Rose, just cross Rue de Saules and continue walking uphill on Rue Cortot. The museum will be on your left.
From the museum, retrace your steps back to the corner where the Maison Rose sits. Make a right on Rue de Saules. You’ll see the vineyards of Montmartre on your right.
The vineyard is on a steep slope and entry is only allowed during the Fête des Vendanges, which takes place every year, during the first week-10 days in October. (You can also try to arrange a visit through the Montmartre tourist office, but you’ll need at least 12 members in your group, maybe less, depending on how busy they are). A few hundred bottles of wine are produced each year, which are sold/auctioned off during the festival. From what I understand, the wine is not drinkable; it’s more of a money-raising event benefiting local charities.
With your back to the vineyard, at the corner of Rue Saint-Vincent and Rue de Saules, you will cross the street and come up to the famous Au Lapin Agile – the oldest cabaret/bar in Paris dating back to 1860.
This was the haunt of artists like Utrillo, Modigliani, and Picasso. For 28 € (includes 1 drink), you can hang out for a night, enjoying French folk music and lively sing-alongs. Reservations required. More info here: http://www.au-lapin-agile.com/anglais/infosa.htm
Go back to Rue Saint-Vincent and make a left. You’ll walk across Rue du Mont Cenis. On your right, you’ll see steps that take you to up to Sacré-Coeur. Ignore these steps and continue walking on Rue Saint-Vincent until you reach the end of the street. You’ll have Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet square in front of you, slightly to the right, a lovely park where you can walk under a canopy of vines. (The park runs along Rue de la Bonne).
Walk to the end and go right. You’ll be on Rue Chevalier de la Barre. Follow the street, which winds to your left. You are walking behind the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur.
Sacré-Coeur is and impressive example of Romanesque-Byzantine architecture. The foundation stone was laid in 1875, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. The basilica was consecrated in 1919. It is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You can visit the basilica inside and then hang out on the steps to appreciate the impressive views of the the City of Light. Everyone is here.
If it is a clear day, you may want to climb up 234 spiraling steps up to the basilica’s dome for insane views. You’ll have reached the second-highest viewpoint in Paris after the Eiffel Tower.
Your walk continues… With the basilica behind you, start walking to your right, along rue Rue Azaïs.
You’ll walk to the end of the street, then make a right on Rue du Mont Cenis. Église Saint-Pierre de Montmartre will be on your right.
This church is not as famous as Sacré-Coeur, although it is older (one of the oldest in Paris). This was the original site of a Roman temple dedicated to Mars – Mons Martis (Latin), from which Montmartre took its name. The columns of Roman origin can still be appreciated today.
According to legend, in the third century, Bishop Denis of Paris was beheaded here. It is said that he picked up his head and carried it several miles to the north, where the suburb of Saint-Denis stands today.
Across from the church is the entrance to the famous and very picturesque, Place du Tertre. As touristy as this place is, I love it. There’s opportunity to observe the artists, their paintings, and the people.
Despite being a tourist mecca, this square is still an enjoyable sight with a lively atmosphere. Grab a seat at one of the outside tables of the various restaurants, and watch the haggling between local vendors and tourists while you drink a beer. It’s fun.
Once you’ve had your fill of Place du Tertre, walk around the square. Essentially, you’ll end up diagonally opposite from where you entered the square (by Église Saint-Pierre de Montmartre). You’ll walk a couple of steps and you’ll come to some stairs going down to Rue Gabrielle. Rather than taking these stairs, go right. You’ll land at Rue Polbiot, and on your right you’ll see Espace Montmartre (the Dalí Museum).
There are more than 300 pieces by the eccentric artist, Salvador Dalí on display. Since I’ve already been to the amazing museum in St. Petersburg, I took a pass, but it is highly recommended by lovers of surrealist art.
To see the much-photographed sculpture of a “man walking through a wall,” walk a few steps as Rue Polbiot veers to the right. Walk to the end of the street. You’ll be facing the famous restaurant, “Le Consulat.” Go left and as you reach the corner, go right. This is a nice street, with some trees along the way. You’ll go downhill until you see Place Marcel Aymé – a narrow courtyard in front of some residential buildings.
If you haven’t heard of Le Passe-Muraille or The Walker-Through-Walls (I hadn’t) – this is a sculpture by artist Jean Marais, who built the sculpture right into the wall depicting author Marcel Aymé’s short story of a man who discovered he could walk through walls. Rumor has it that if you touch the sculpture’s left hand, the magical powers of the man will be transferred to you. Evident from the discoloration of the left hand, many people have hoped to receive some sort of magical power 😉
With your back to the sculpture, head for the picturesque Moulin de la Galette, one of the two windmills left standing from the 14 or so that originally occupied Montmartre. Actually, ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’ refers to both mills – Le Moulin Blute-Fin and Le Moulin Radet, where there is a restaurant. Galette is the name for a type of bread or cake, which was made with the flour ground by the mills and sold with a glass of wine.
In the late 19th century, Le Moulin Blute-Fin was renamed to Le Moulin de la Galette and turned into a dance hall, very popular with Renoir, Van Gogh, Lautrec and Picasso, all of whom painted the windmill and dance hall atmosphere. Probably one of my all-time favorite paintings by Renoir, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, conveys the joyful ambiance of this popular dance garden.
Pablo Picasso also immortalized Le Moulin de la Galette by painting the lusty decadence and gaudy glamour of the famous dance hall in 1900. It is fascinating to know this was Picasso’s first Parisian painting after he moved to Paris for the first time in his life. Hard to believe he painted this when he was only 19.
There is a small restaurant below Moulin Radet; I would have liked to stop here to eat, but I did not have the opportunity. The outdoor seating in the little patio covered with vines looks very inviting. The food is contemporary French cuisine and the restaurant is open every day from noon to 5 pm.
With your back to the windmill, look ahead to your right and you’ll see the very narrow Rue d’Orchampt. The walls have some street art, but also random graffiti.
Walk down to the end, where you’ll be forced to turn left. Continue walking down Rue d’Orchampt until you come upon Place Emile Goudreau, a charming courtyard where you can sit for a bit before my suggested self-guided walk will come to an end.
As you sit here, imagine Montmartre from its rural beginnings to the era where artists lived, worked, and partied without restrain. This area, where the Le Bateau Lavoir (laundry barge) building is located saw the birth of cubism. Artists like Picasso, Juan Gris, and Modigliani had studios here. These are closed to the public, but you may see some information through the storefront’s glass window with explanations of the artists who lived and worked here.
Head to the end of the courtyard and go down the steps. At the street level, walk left. You’ll be on Rue des Trois Freres. Walk a few steps and look to the right. You’ll see lots of stairs going down. This is Passages des Abbesses – a passage with residential buildings flanking each side and an arch at its exit that dates back to 1840.
Walk through the courtyard and you’ll see yet another lovely gated park filled with trees and benches – and the famous Le Mur des Je T’aimes, the ‘I Love you Wall.’
The I Love You Wall, a work of art conceived by Frédéric Baron and Claire Kito, were they created 612 squares of enameled lava and arranged them into a wall. The phrase ‘I love you‘ is featured 311 times in 250 languages. It’s a striking and unusual piece of art and you can sit and watch as all sorts of people go up to the wall and strike a pose. ❤️
And this is the end of my self-guided walk! From here, you can hop onto the metro in style, by entering the Abbesses metro station with a striking Art Noveau (or Modern Style, 1890-1910) canopy designed by Hector Guimard. There are two more remaining Art Nouveau entrances in Paris – one is Porte Dauphine and the other is at Place Sainte-Opportune (one of Châtelet exits).
Hope this post inspires you to explore Montmartre on your next Paris visit – and if you’ve been there already, maybe it brought you some good memories!