Montmartre is the stuff of legends! Many famous artists, writers, actors, and singers, and dancers have lived, loved, and lost there. Most of us have poetic musings not only about Paris, but especially about Montmartre! It’s hard not to, with its narrow winding streets, breathtaking views, and cosy cafés. In this article, we’ll do our best to uncover some of the area’s history, and list some of its unforgettable locations. Join us on our Montmartre walking tour!
In French, Montmartre means ‘mountain of martyrs’. The term’s origins date all the way back to the Ancient Roman occupation of Paris. The Romans favoured executing criminals at the top of Montmartre’s hill. At that time, the early Romans weren’t so fond of the new Christian ‘cult’. In fact, it was forbidden. Consequently, Saint-Denis, back when he was just Denis, was executed in 250 AD for preaching the word of God. However, he didn’t let a little thing like being executed stop him! Legend has it that he picked up his own severed head, then walked 7 km to what is now the town of Saint-Denis. Finally he died of his wounds on the future site of the Saint-Denis Cathedral. You may have noticed statues around the city with a fellow holding his own head? That’s poor Denis, who inadvertently lead the original Montmartre walking tour!
Unfortunately, the Romans weren’t the only ones to invade Montmartre. In 1814, the Russian army seized the city, crushing Napoleon’s army. Accidentally, they left another mark on French culture. Part of the area’s folklore is that the Russians coined the term for ‘bistrot’ due to the frustration of slow restaurant service. (Want to learn more about Paris’ bistrots? Please check out our article.)
Montmartre was its own village for centuries, and it wasn’t a part of Paris proper until 1860. It became an artistic hub, and a nightlife haven. Artists and entertainers lived there because it was cheaper. It makes sense! I wonder what they would think of gentrification…although Montmartre still has a vibrant artistic community, there are still art galleries and studios, the rent is certainly not what it used to be!
The famous cabaret was built in 1889, coinciding with World’s Fair and the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The Belle Epoque must have been an exciting time to be alive! Naturally, Moulin Rouge means ‘red windmill’ in French. This outdoor decor feature paid homage to the many windmills that were once on the hilltop of the area.
The Moulin Rouge is the spiritual home of the ‘can-can’ dance, it was quite shocking at the time! Famed artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created many of the venues original posters, which were avant-garde then and still appreciated today. He was a staple of the neighbourhood, and could be found making merry at the Moulin Rouge as well as many of Montmartre’s other establishments. Even then, it was a popular place to ‘let loose’!
Not all good things last, unfortunately, the Moulin Rouge burnt down in 1915. However, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1921. The Moulin Rouge isn’t just a place for dancing, many famous singers have performed there throughout the years including Charles Aznavour, Bourvil, Charles Trenet, Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and even ‘old blue eyes’ himself, Frank Sinatra!
While the performances and dance styles have changed, the Moulin Rouge cabaret still pays respect to its original dancers and choreographers in their live shows. For example, they include a Belle Epoque themed dance number, complete with costumes inspired from the era. The Moulin Rouge offers various package deals. You can dine during a show, or have champagne table service, there are many options to choose from. It is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience!
Address: 82 Boulevard de Clichy, 75018, PARIS
Ticket Prices: starting at 87 €
To be fair, technically it was Theo van Gogh’s apartment. Vincent was having trouble making ends meet in Belgium, and just kind of turned up at this brother’s place in Paris. He lived with Theo in Montmartre from 1886 to 1888. His timing couldn’t have been better! Montmartre had already become an unofficial artistic centre, painters were developing new styles such as post-impressionism, pointillism, etc. The artists, and their new styles, influenced van Gogh greatly.
He left Montmartre in 1888 to move to the south of France with artist Paul Gauguin. Their 9 weeks as roommates were turbulent, to say the least. The climax of which was the famous ‘ear incident’, but we won’t go into that story here. Van Gogh struggled with mental illness for most of his life, yet he still managed to create. He left such an amazing legacy for us all to enjoy!
There is a plaque on the building in Montmartre where the van Gogh brothers once lived. If you are interested in visiting, look upwards! The current owner of the apartment has left an artificial sunflower outside the window of Vincent’s room.
Address: 54 Rue Lepic, 75018, PARIS
Sacré Cœur (or Sacred Heart) Basilica is one of Paris’ most recognizable buildings. From afar, it looks like an adorable wedding cake set on top of Montmartre’s highest point. However, its history is far from being adorable.
The Prussian army attacked Paris in 1870, which led to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871. Later that year, Montmartre was the site of a civil uprising called the Paris Commune, and many people lost their lives in the conflict. The National Assembly of France voted in favour of the construction of the Basilica in 1873, to “expiate the crimes of the Commune” (expiate = make up for). As a result, many viewed the building as a monument to human rights violations, depending on which side of the civil war they were on.
There were 77 submissions for the design of the building, and Paul Adabie’s unique concept won. You may have noticed that it is unlike any other Catholic church in Paris. Adabie’s design is classified as ‘Romano-Byzantine’.
The construction of the iconic structure began in 1889 and finished in 1914. The timing couldn’t have been more awful, as it was the beginning of World War I. Out of respect for the conflict, and for all of those affected, the official consecration was celebrated at the end of the war, in 1919.
Sacré Cœur boasts one of the best views of Paris! If you are feeling ambitious, you can climb the observation tower onsite. Although, the view from the ground is just as spectacular. Steps away from the famed, ‘Artists’ Square’ (Place du Tertre) you can retrace the steps of many of Montmartre’s famous artists, or support local artists by purchasing their work.
Trekking up Montmartre’s winding streets and steep hill is daunting even for the best of us! We have a few suggestions for those that aren’t into hiking, and especially for people that have mobility concerns!
One of the most charming ways to see the neighbourhood is the Little Train of Montmartre. They offer a 35 minute ride at the very reasonable price of 7,00 € per person.
Free Ride with the Paris Pass!
In addition, the Montmartre funicular has been in operation since 1900! Located at the base of the Sacré Cœur Basilica, the trip lasts a grand total of 1 minute and 30 seconds. For the same price as a metro ticket, it’s a bargain!
Admittedly, we’ve only covered a fraction of the area’s rich cultural history, its former residents, and interesting places to visit in this article. However, if you would like to experience a guided walking tour with an expert, please check out the link below.
Free Montmartre Walking Tour with the Paris Pass!
p.s. Looking for something romantic to do in Montmartre with your cheri? Why not visit the famous ‘Wall of Love‘?