Sara Turner takes in heavenly basilicas and ungodly museums in a sweeping tour of old bohemia
1 - Abbesses metro to Place Saint-Pierre
Abbesses metro station is the ideal place to start exploring Montmartre. You may recognise Hector Guimard’s iconic art nouveau design, of which this station is one of the finest examples. On Place des Abbesses, you’ll find a little park with a wall of tiles saying “Je t’aime” in hundreds of different languages, as well as the Saint Jean de Montmartre church – have a look at its intricate geometrical designs.
Wander along the cobbled streets past boutique shops, street-side cafés and shuttered windows to Place Saint-Pierre, but before you start walking up to Sacré-Coeur basilica, stop in the Musée Halle Saint-Pierre art gallery (hallesaintpierre.org). On the corner of Rue Ronsard, the large brick building houses a charming café and two exhibition spaces showcasing temporary collections of outsider and naive art.
2 - Sacre-Coeur
The Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart) sits on top of Montmartre butte, a steep, isolated hill with a flat top. If you don’t want to tackle the steps, of which there are a fair few, you can take the funicular railway up the slope (€1.60 – metro tickets are also valid). Once up there, you can take in the sweeping views of the Paris skyline and look inside the fairy-tale basilica, made from stone the colour of white icing. (It was built with travertine stone, a type of rock that contains the mineral calcite, which means it isn’t discoloured by rain or pollution.)
Construction work on the Romano-Byzantine structure started in 1875 and many of the design features have a strong French theme, such as the two equestrian statues of the national saints, Joan of Arc and King Saint Louis IX. You can also visit the crypt and the dome, the highest point in Paris after the Eiffel Tower, for €5. The basilica itself is free to enter.
3 - Musee de Montmartre
Leaving the basilica, walk along Rue du Cardinal Guibert and zigzag through the cafés, bistros and shops selling tourist knick-knacks to a quiet cobbled back street called Rue Cortot, where you’ll find the Musée de Montmartre. The building was once home to several artists, including Auguste Renoir, Suzanne Valadon (the first female painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, in 1894) and her son Maurice Utrillo, also a well established painter, but it now pays homage to the cultural history of the area. Inside, you’ll find old photographs of how it used to look, pictures of the construction of Sacré-Coeur and original posters from the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir in their heyday.
On the top floor, look out for a photo of a group of revellers outside the Lapin Agile, one of the favourite watering holes of the bohemian artists who made Montmartre famous as a place of dancing and debauchery – a far cry from the mild-mannered tourists wandering the streets today.
4 - Espace Dali
Another artist associated with Montmartre is Salvador Dali, who spent time here in the 1920s. Espace Dali pays homage to the man who claimed to be “one of the biggest clowns” of his time. There are about 300 artworks on display, from sculptures and prints to engravings and furniture, including the Mae West Lips Sofa. Also on show is a film of Dali in Montmartre as he created the first engravings of his Don Quixote series, using two rhinoceros horns and some bread dipped in ink – the fruits of his surreal efforts are displayed alongside.
Original Dali artwork is available to buy in the nearby Galerie Montmartre on Place du Tertre, a large square filled with artists proffering portraits, caricatures and Parisian street scenes. It’s worth having a look at the artists’ easels for a reminder of Montmartre’s historic role in the modern art movement at the turn of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Max Jacob all had studios in the area. Espace Dali, 11 Rue Poulbot; tel +33 142 644 010; daliparis.com. Open 10am-6.30pm; entry €10.
5 - Amelie’s cafe
Weave your way through to Rue Lepic and follow it as it curves down the hill. At the top end, there are plenty of boutique clothing stores, while towards the bottom you’ll find the contemporary art space La Galerie W. At number 15 you’ll also find Café des Deux Moulins, featured in the well-loved, off-beat French film Amelie. While the café where Amelie worked isn’t identical to how it appears in the film, it’s definitely recognisable. Decorated in sugar pink with strip neon lighting, art deco design features and a long bar, it reassuringly hasn’t let fame go to its head – the staff are friendly and serve a decent coffee for €2.
6 - Montmartre cemetery
Backtrack slightly on to Rue Joseph de Maistre and turn down Rue Caulaincourt. Stay on the left-hand side and watch out for a set of steps – these lead to Montmartre Cemetery. As far as city-centre burial grounds go, this place is well tended and fascinating to explore. There are several illustrious names among the headstones, including ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, filmmaker François Truffaut and artist Edgar Degas. Get a map from the entrance to help you find them.
7 - Pigalle
Pigalle is the red-light district neighbouring Montmartre. These streets represent an alternative Paris, a world away from pretty Montmartre. Walk down Avenue Rachel and turn left on to Boulevard de Clichy, past the red windmill of the iconic Moulin Rouge cabaret club, built in 1889, and on to Boulevard de Clichy. The saucy Musée de L’Erotisme at number 72 (musee-erotisme.com) houses a collection of popular, sacred and contemporary erotic art, as well as raunchy curios from around the world, and an exhibition of original photos of infamous French brothels from the late 19th century. Open daily 10am-2am; entry €8. The area also has some quirky shopping options, with street-side stalls selling everything from men’s suits and shoes to jewellery.