A walk through the charming Montmartre

Small street with souvenir shops in Montmartre, Paris.

Who hasn’t seen Montmartre, hasn’t seen Paris. This is one of the few places in the city that has retained the charm of the past. The curved narrow streets running up Montmartre still remind of the times when prominent people like Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Zola and Modigliani used to wander around them.

Montmartre is a place of picturesque green corners and lovely small houses decorated with flowers, cosy cafés and restaurants, rows of souvenir shops and cute boutiques, and of course the famous staircases, some wide and crowded others secluded and narrow. Perhaps it is even the most romantic quarter of the city of love, a place just perfect for walks with your soulmate.

In this article we will tell you a little history of Montmartre, cover the must-see sights, and share some interesting facts about this wonderful corner of the French capital. On y va!

The slopes of Montmartre are a favourite spot for getting a panorama view over Paris.
The slopes of Montmartre are a favourite spot for getting a panorama view over Paris.

The early days of Montmartre

People started settling in Montmartre in the Neolithic period, which began about 12,000 years ago. Its hill on the banks of the Seine River was the tallest point in the area, more than 5 km wide, and extraordinary rich with gypsum. Gypsum is a white crystal-like mineral which turned out useful in construction. During the time of the Roman Empire, this mined stone made Montmartre a prosperous place, where temples arose and people could afford to build houses.

Where does the name Montmartre come from?

There are two main versions of the origin of the hill’s name, and both of them are associated with the ancient Roman settlement on the place. The first version, not so charming and mystical, attribute its name to former temples, which were built on the hill to honor the Roman gods Mercury and Mars. The records from the 8th and 9th century that refer to Mons Martis (Latin for "Mount of Mars") and Mons Mercuri ("Mount of Mercury") were found during archaeological excavations in the area.

The second version is much more intriguing. According to it, the name Montmartre comes from the Latin Mons Martyrium (“Mount of Martyrs”), and would refer to executed Christians. Ancient legends say that Bishop Denis and his two preachers were beheaded on top of the hill, for spreading Christianity in the Roman settlement of Lutetia – this settlement was the predecessor of present-day Paris. After this execution, the headless bishop miraculously picked up his head and walked away.

At the place where the bishop finally died, people settled the village of Saint-Denis – nowadays a suburb north of Paris, best known for its magnificent Gothic church, which served as the final resting place of the French Kings from the 10th till the 18th century. Bishop Saint-Denis became revered as the patron saint of Paris, and an image of him holding his head can even be seen above the entrance of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Van Gogh lived with his brother in one of the houses on Lepic Street. It was there that he made his painting “View of Paris from Vincent’s Room in the Rue Lepic”.

Did you know?

The must-sees of Montmartre

The area of Montmartre has become famous for its frivolous temper. Once it belonged to the outskirts of Paris, with cheap apartments and affordable fun. The best artists settled here and glorified the sights of Montmartre in their paintings and works. Here in every little street, you can find a remarkable building, a beautiful house, churches or cute cafés. As it is impossible to list everything, we will start off by introducing the most popular places.

Sacré-Cœur Cathedral

The history of this magnificent basilica is associated with tragic events. The Sacré-Cœur has been erected in memory of those killed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, during which France was defeated. The construction of the cathedral took 40 years and was hampered by the fact that the hill on which it stands was hollow at the time, due to many years of gypsum excavation. The Sacré-Cœur Cathedral was eventually finished by 1916, primarily thanks to donations.

The shining snow-white Sacré-Cœur Cathedral rises from the summit of Montmartre.
The shining snow-white Sacré-Cœur Cathedral rises from the summit of Montmartre.

According to the plan of the architect, the cathedral was to be made of a unique white stone, which would not get dirty and neither darken. Thanks to this, the Sacré-Cœur can be seen clearly from almost anywhere in Paris, shining at the summit of Montmartre, at an altitude of 130 meters.

The architecture of the Sacré-Cœur combines all the splendour of Byzantine cathedrals and all the severity of the French Gothic style. Thanks to this mixture of styles, it is very different from other churches in Paris. Crowned with five majestic snow-white domes and a square bell tower, the basilica makes an indelible impression on anyone visiting Paris.

The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is open to visitors every day, free of charge. Don't forget to go up the dome for an even more spectacular view.

Montmartre Cemetery

If you are tired of the bustle of the city, you can consider a walk in one of the most famous cemeteries in Paris, Montmartre Cemetery. This peaceful place occupies 11 hectares of land, with about 700 trees of 38 species. Like the other famous cemetery in Paris, the Père Lachaise, Montmartre Cemetery is the final resting place of famous artists and writers, composers, singers and dancers. Here you can visit the graves of Stendhal, Zola, Berlioz, Vaslav Nijinsky, Ampère and of course the famous French singer Dalida. This gorgeous lady had lived in Montmartre for many years, before ending her life tragically there.

The tomb of Dalida at Montmartre Cemetery is always decorated with fresh flowers.
The tomb of Dalida at Montmartre Cemetery is always decorated with fresh flowers.

It is also believed that Auguste de Montferrand, the architect of the famous St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, is buried here. De Montferrand himself wanted to find peace under the dome of his masterpiece in Russia, but Emperor Alexander II could not allow this because the architect was not of the Orthodox faith. During his funeral service in St. Petersburg, the mourning procession made three circles around the St. Isaac's, after which the body of De Montferrand was repatriated to France.

Visiting the peaceful Montmartre Cemetery is possible every day, between 9h and 17:30h.

Moulin Rouge

With the discovery of the gypsum quarries, another familiar sight emerged in Montmartre, the windmill. Windmills supported Montmartre's rapid development, by catering for the production of flour and the processing of grapes. By the end of the 19th century, the world-famous cabaret Moulin Rouge started operating from such a mill.

The gorgeous interior of the Moulin Rouge will bring you back to the Belle Époque.
The gorgeous interior of the Moulin Rouge will bring you back to the Belle Époque.

Its opening in 1889 coincided with the International Exhibition held in Paris. Back then, the performances at Moulin Rouge were considered vulgar, not to say that this cabaret was located close to the red light district. It was the creativity of Toulouse-Lautrec that played a huge role in popularizing this place. The painter was a regular at the Moulin Rouge, where he made sketches of dancers and designed posters for the shows. His creations made people curious to see the wondrous beauties from his drawings with their own eyes. Over time, the place became so famous that the proximity of women of easy virtue did not bother anyone anymore. And so it is today, with hundreds of people eager to come here to watch the colorful and vibrant revue Féerie, featuring 80 dancers and thousands of costumes, luxuriously embroidered with rhinestones and feathers.

If you instead prefer to see one of Montmartre's classical mills, have a look at Le Moulin de la Galette at Rue Lepic 83 – get directions. It is the only preserved wooden mill of Montmartre, immortalized in paintings of Renoir and Van Gogh. Today the mill serves as a restaurant.

Place du Tertre

Place du Tertre is always lively thanks to the dozens of artists working on the square.
Place du Tertre is always lively thanks to the dozens of artists working on the square.

What Montmartre really used to look like can be seen in many works of famous artists. Views of the hill can be seen in the paintings of Picasso, Edgar Degas, Gustave Moreau and many others. Camille Pissarro was so impressed with the surroundings of where he lived that he painted as many as 13 works entitled "Montmartre Boulevard in Paris", where he conveyed the atmosphere of city bustle at different times of the day, weather and lighting.

A beautiful view opens up on the crossroads of Rue Lepic and Rue Tholozé, especially stunning around sunset.

Picture spot

Montmartre is no longer some cheap district on the outskirts of the city, as it once was. Although living here became much more expensive, artists continue the glorious tradition of always being in the area, but in a different way. Today many of them occupy the entire space of Place du Tertre, known as the artistic heart of Montmartre. It can be overly crowded there, also with tourists, but do not think that the guys here are some kind of charlatans! All the artists here must have a special concession, a document that guarantees the authenticity of their works and that must be renewed every year.

Romantic Montmartre at its best

The streets of Montmartre are just made for relaxed romantic walks with your soulmate. Its nooks may surprise you with pleasant squares and nice places like the Wall of Love.

They say that if you touch the Wall of Love on Valentine's Day and make a wish, it will come true.
They say that if you touch the Wall of Love on Valentine's Day and make a wish, it will come true.

The designer of this wall was inspired by a little notebook he kept while travelling for ten years. In his notebook he had collected three words, in 250 different languages: I love you. These magical words can be seen today in the form of street art on this wall in Montmartre.

Every year, on Valentine's Day, the Wall of Love becomes a place of pilgrimage for lovers. On this day, snow-white doves are released into the sky as a symbol of peace and happiness, declarations of love are heard and wishes are made. It is believed that on this day the Wall’s love magic is stronger than ever. Well, isn’t this the perfect place to confess your love for the first time, or maybe decide on a more serious step?

The charming cafés with terraces around Montmartre are perfect for a romantic dinner.
The charming cafés with terraces around Montmartre are perfect for a romantic dinner.

The sweetest cafés, located at nearly every step, certainly add to the romance. It is easy to imagine that Picasso once had breakfast in such a café, that Gérard de Nerval used to work on his poems there, or that Toulouse-Lautrec had visited the place to produce one of his finest sketches. The cafés of Montmartre have been further romanticized by the many movies shot here. Best known is probably Café des Deux Moulins (translated from French as “Two Mills”), from the movie Amélie.

There are a lot of similar cute brasseries, as the French call them, all across the city of Paris. It is easy to find the most renowned cafés of Paris by checking out one of our recent stories Bohemian Paris.

What else to visit in Paris?

The city of love is a truly ideal place for romantic walks, for visiting museums and drinking fine French wine. Choosing your place may seem difficult at times, with so many options. This will certainly get a lot easier with our guide and map, which show you only the very best of Paris in terms of landmarks, museums, shopping areas, markets or green spaces. Vive la France!

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