Montmartre — likely originally from the Latin Mons Martis for the "Mount of Mars" after the Roman God of War, but later reinterpreted as the "Mount of Martyrs" — refers to both the hill and the surrounding neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement of Paris.
Although a settlement in the area goes back to Roman times, Montmartre was established as its own commune in 1789 and formally swallowed by Paris in 1859. Around the same time that it officially became part of Paris, Montmartre had become a bohemian neighborhood for artists and other intellectuals drawn to the area for its low rents, beautiful views, and environment that supported the arts. The cabarets and bawdy nightlife in the Pigalle neighborhood next door — named after the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle — likely were of interest, as well. Many creatives from that time period lived in the neighborhood — Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, and many more. In turn, the works from these artists — often paintings that reflected the neighborhoods themselves — made Montmartre and Pigalle well-known around the world. In more recent times, the film Amélie — also set in the area — made it even more famous.
As far as tourists are concerned, the specific point of interest that attracts the most attention in Montmartre is the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica. Built between 1875 and 1919 in a Romano-Byzantine style, the Sacré-Cœur is a beautiful church, but so often it definitely is overloaded with commonly disrespectful tourists that it can feel less like a place of worship and more like an amusement park. By mid-morning it is swarming with crowds, but it opens at 6 AM, so it is quite possible to avoid the melée by arriving early. Entry to the church is free. However, there is a modest charge — and shorter opening hours — to climb the 300 steps to the top of the Dome.
In Pigalle, the notable tourist attraction is the Moulin Rouge (Red Windmill) cabaret, the most popular home of the modern can-can dance. Pigalle has been a dodgy neighborhood for a long time — US soldiers on the prowl in WWII referred to it as "Pig Alley" — and travelgasm.com would strongly suggest that you limit your exploration of the area to the primary streets (Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy).
If you choose to attend a show at the Moulin Rouge, tickets commonly are sold out months in advance and pre-booking is essential. Although a late show is cheaper, we would recommend that you book tickets in advance to attend the dinner show at 7 PM and avoid the neighborhood altogether late at night.
Pigalle's main walking street — Boulevard de Clichy — is a curious juxtaposition because the majority is a lovely tree-lined people street — formally the Promenade Jacques Canetti — with a single lane for cars on each side but flanked by dubious strip clubs, peep shows, sex shops, saunas, and bars. The city has made an effort to clean up the area in recent years, and some journalists even have complained that South of Pigalle (SoPi), between Pigalle and Montmartre, has gone Bourgeois Bohemian (BoBo). However, much of the area still has a long way to go to be properly BoBo.
In particular, the Paris police warn that cabarets and bars in Pigalle are notorious for luring clueless male tourists inside with the tease of female companionship and then presenting a bill for as much as hundreds of Euros for the conversation or drinks. It is not unheard of for tourists to be beaten or drugged during this process. In a city where there is a decent wine bar on every metaphorical corner, there is no reason for a visitor unfamiliar with the area to take chances with a bar in Pigalle. Also be aware that the neighborhood gets worse if you head toward Barbès-Rochechouart metro station. Instead of getting a drink in Pigalle, give Le Marais or Rue Mouffetard a spin.
To eat in Montmartre, we enjoyed lunch at the Hope Cafe, La Tiborna, and Jeanne B at one time or another, and you might as well. If you want something a bit more posh, Chamarre Montmartre, L'Arcane, and Sens Uniques are each in the area and are well-regarded. As a general rule of thumb, you're probably more likely to be happy with the food if you eat closer to Rue Caulaincourt than Rue Lepic or immediately around Sacré-Cœur.
We've mapped out two routes for Montmartre. One takes you directly to the Sacré-Cœur and the nearby "artists square" of Place du Tertre that generally are mostly of interest to tourists in the area. The second walk is not only our favorite in the neighborhood but perhaps our favorite in Paris within neighborhoods that tourists routinely visit. Our favorite walk skips Sacré-Cœur altogether — as well as most of the tourist crowds — and goes to the Lamarck/Caulaincourt Metro Station to a portion of the tree-lined neighborhood that still feels more like a place in Paris that would be lovely to live in rather than just treat as a photo op. It winds its way down the hill on Rue Caulaincourt and becomes more tourist-laden on Rue Lepic as it approaches Pigalle for a convenient departure. We've also stitched these two walks together in a logical way so you can do both together if you would like.
How to Get Here: Take line 12 to Abbesses Metro Station. Turn left after exiting the station onto Rue Yvonne le Tac and walk to Square Louise Michel to either walk up the stairs or take the Gare Basse Funicular to Sacré-Cœur and Place du Tertre. To go to Lamarck/Caulaincourt Metro Station, just take line 12 one more stop after Abbesses. Both of these stations are very deep underground and you definitely will want to take the elevator rather than the stairs. Don't worry, the elevators are huge — about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in Hong Kong — so the wait isn't as bad as it looks. The closest Metro Station to Moulin Rouge is Blanche, but it is on line 2, which is unlikely to be convenient to your next destination, so instead we would recommend walking on Boulevard de Clichy to depart at Pigalle Station on line 12.
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