This post was most recently updated on March 29th, 2017
Definitely Montmartre — the way we would spend our last day in Paris at the end of two glorious weeks exploring France. It was a gloomy day, and it was threatening rain. But we were motivated to make the most of it, and we still had souvenir shopping to do, so we weren’t about to stay indoors in our cute, but tiny, St. Germain studio apartment!
Our first objective was to see Sacre Coeur, the beautiful nearly all-white Catholic Basilica you see in so many photos. Photos that look like this (on a good day!):
We decided to use GPSmyCity’s Montmartre walking map to find other attractions in this area (18th Arrondissement). Montmartre was also known for being the working location of many famous artists: Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh. By now, you probably know our family is interested in art, so this was a place we really wanted to explore.
Getting to Montmartre from St. Germain
We took the metro to the Lamarck/Caulaincourt station. When we got out of the subway, we had to take over a 100 stairs to get out of the station–be prepared for a workout! I guess that’s because Sacre-Coeur sits atop a high hill, and the subway station is way below it.
Flea Market on Rue de Caulaincourt
What a surprise when we exited the station and were immediately faced with a flea market (Parisian: “brocantes” or “vide-greniers”, meaning “empty the attics”) all along Rue de Caulaincourt and spilling into the side streets too. It seemed to extend for blocks and blocks in either direction. I love a good garage sale, but this was so much better. This was in Paris, and there was such a great variety of items being sold, including a lot of vintage items.
We saw instruments, books, carvings, pins, clothing, toys, furniture, glassware, swords, and so much more! This proved to be worthy of at least an hour of fun searching (and finding, I might add!). I don’t think many tourists know about these sales, as it seemed like most people were locals. Many did not speak English, but we got by just fine with our limited French.
How and what we bought
You really don’t have to communicate too much when buying. Just hold up an item with a questioning look on your face and say,”Combien?” (how much?). We bought French-label children’s clothing, vintage playing cards, a bohemian-style bag we’d been looking for our entire trip, and a vintage map of Paris. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I really wish I could haul a trunk home with me, full of treasures. But alas, I am a carry-on traveler…
Place du Tertre (where all the artists are!)
Pleasant distraction aside, we were back to our original agenda of getting to Sacre-Coeur. We left Rue de Caulaincourt on Place Constantin Pecqueur where we noticed this public school with a commemorative sign near the door. It was a sobering reminder of the silent victims of the Nazis during World War II. The sign honors the innocent Jewish students of this school who were taken during 1942-44 and sent to death camps.
We “hiked” up Rue de l’Abreuvoir, a narrow street with cobble-stoned sidewalks. Very charming. The homes and buildings here look quaint and timeless. At the top of the street we could see the beautiful dome.
But as we neared the top of the hill, we forgot again that we were headed to the Sacre-Coeur. Here there is a plaza (Place du Tertre) where artists of all different styles and skills are set up. They have booths where they are painting and also where they sell their works. You can even get a portrait of yourself.
I kept thinking I would come back here and buy something, but I didn’t because we didn’t walk back this way after our tour of Montmartre. So learn from my mistake…if you see something you really want, get it when you first see it.
The Two Churches
After the plaza of artists, we were quite close to the Church of Saint Peter of Montmartre, which is one of the oldest places of worship in Paris. Saint Denis founded the church and was later martyred atop this hill in 250 AD. In fact, that is how Montmartre got its name. It comes from French words which mean “mountain of the martyr”.
And then we came to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica! I was surprised at the crowds, the food vendors selling nuts, and the flower lady selling souvenirs along the wall of the church. Plus the long lines of people waiting for a roof tour. There was a train that brought people up the hill for a fee. And even a funicular! It didn’t seem very reverent for being the site of a church.
Inside there’s a beautiful mosaic mural of Christ, believed to be one of the largest mosaics in the world. The entire church is actually much more modern than I realized. Construction began in 1898 and was completed in 1914. Compared to Paris’ Notre Dame, which was completed in 1345, it’s rather new on the “block”.
We wandered around the back of the church and found a peaceful little park there (Square Marcel Bleustein Blanchet). It was nice to sit for awhile on a bench and rest our feet where it was quiet and peaceful. This would be a nice place to bring a picnic.
Before we left Sacre-Coeur, I realized I never really got to see the impressive view I mentioned at the beginning of this post. If you want that view, you have to approach the church from a different side than we did. But it is very pretty to look up at the church from the bottom of the stairs leading up to it, especially on a day when the sun is out. On an overcast day, the church doesn’t even look very white. It’s really gray. Yes, I was a little disappointed in Sacre-Coeur, but don’t let that ruin it for you!
Espace Dali and other artist hangouts
Close to the Place du Tertre, we found Espace Dali. It’s just a little plaza with a museum that sells Salvador Dali art prints and is also a gallery.
We walked through Place du Calvaire, which is a small courtyard where Maurice Neumont used to live. There is a nice panoramic view of Paris. We then followed Rue de Calvaire right and turned right on Rue Gabrielle, which became Rue Ravignan. This led us to Le Bateau-Lavoir. It used to be a piano factory that was converted to artist studios, used by Maxime Maufra, Kees Van Dongen, Othon Friesz, Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. No longer open to the public, its front window has a historic display you shouldn’t miss.
We backtracked a little on Rue Ravignan and turned left on Rue D’Orchampt, followed it to Rue Lepic, and made an immediate right on Rue Girardon. Here is Le Moulin de la Gallette, a windmill and business built in 1622 and famous for the biscuit cookies (gallettes) it sold. Le Moulin de la Gallette later became a cabaret, and the owner was brutally murdered during the Franco-Prussian War as he tried to defend his property. It was declared a monument in 1939, and was also the subject of a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, called Moulin de la Gallette.
In fact, we saw other indications that Van Gogh had influence in Montmartre. It reminded us of many of the Van Gogh sites we saw when we were visiting Arles.
We went back to Rue Lepic and turned right, till we got to Rue Tholozé. Look at the view of Paris from the top of this hill!
And a final resting place for many Montmartre residents
If you follow Rue Tholozé down to a “T”, turn right on Rue des Abbesses and left on Rue Joseph de Maistre, you’ll get back to Rue de Caulaincourt. Turn left and when you get to the stairs that lead down off of Rue de Caulaincourt, follow the stairs down to get to the entrance of the cemetery. It’s actually in a hollow below the street level and Rue de Caulaincourt goes over the top of the cemetery.
The fascinating thing about the Montmartre cemetery is 1) it’s size–it’s HUGE!, and 2) that it looks like a little city. There are cobblestone roads, street signs, and many of the burial vaults look like miniature houses or churches. It’s a little eccentric and definitely has some creepy vibe, too. Enough that I personally wouldn’t want to visit it at night. It is the final resting place for many of Montmartre’s famous artists, writers, actors, and composers. The short list includes Alexander Dumas, Edgar Degas, Jacques Offenbach, Théophile Gautier, Sacha Guitry, and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Ok, there’s actually a lot more, but these are the names I recognized.
There was one more site on the walking route app we used from GPSmyCity, and that was Moulin Rouge. I have to tell you I just wasn’t interested in seeing this. Oh, sure, I know it’s famous, and it’s a Paris icon. We did pass by it on our way to the Pigalle metro station, so we could get to our next destination…the St. Martin canal district. But that’s another story.
So, here’s a picture of Moulin Rouge:
And here’s a warning…this is NOT a good part of town. It is super seedy, especially as you keep walking down Boulevard de Clichy. I did not like it at all, and it is NOT family friendly. I’d never attend a show at the Moulin Rouge, but I do like the color red and windmills are cool. There. That’s all I have to say about Moulin Rouge.
Montmartre is very walkable as long as you don’t mind the hills. It is very historic, and there are a lot of old buildings and streets and plazas that are super cool to see and to photograph. Views from the top of the hill are spectacular, as you can imagine, especially on a clear day. Sacre-Coeur is a very beautiful church with its imposing dome, recognizable from all over the city. You can see and learn so much about the history of art and famous artists in Montmartre, as well as see modern artists at work.
If you’re only in Paris one day, you shouldn’t come here. There are other attractions to see in Paris first. But if you’re in Paris a few days, this is a great way to spend half a day. The highlight for us ended up being the flea market (vide-greniers). The next Rue de Caulaincourt vide-greniers is scheduled for Saturday, March 25th, 2017.
I’d love to know what you think of Montmartre…is it a place you’d like to explore?
Interested in seeing more of Paris? Try re-tracing our Paris Chocolate Walk!