It was my sister who first introduced me to Vincent Van Gogh. I forget if it was from her art class, or something at school that first lit that spark of interest, but the result became a fascination with this man and his famed stylistic works. It was his story that drew me to Montmartre, although I’m not sure I realized it right away. See, as an art history student, obsessed with the works of great impressionists, the Parisian art scene was something I was familiar with, but had never fully experienced. Montmartre, with its history of outdoor cafes that welcomed the heroes of my studies, was a point of pilgrimage I desperately needed to see.
As Paris’ 18th arrondissement, Montmartre lies at the top of the city’s northern hills. Today, it is a popular tourist destination, haunted by the memories of the city’s most famed artists. It was the first stop on my trip to Paris in 2017. Jetlagged but energized, I emerged from the Pigalle Metro station, passing under the iconic Art Deco sign, and onto the street. The refurbished Moulin Rouge greeted me with its glowing windmill while neighborhood merchants, with their fruit and cheeses on display, opened their doors to greet the day’s customers. It was a fairytale come true, of modern daily life meshing with the history of the stone streets.
What appealed to the artists that called Montmartre home was the outdoor café scene, where they could argue art and literature over a cheap bottle of wine late into the evening. Combine that with the cheap rent, and suddenly this northern arrondissement becomes a hub for struggling artists. At the turn of the 20th century, Montmartre became the center of the bohemian and cabaret club scenes, which today still attracts tourists to the windmill landmarks scattered around the neighborhood. Some famed cabarets are long gone—Rodolphe Salis’ Le Chat Noir may no longer stand, but its famed poster by Theophile Steinlen is seen everywhere, on cups, platters, towels, postcards, whatever a tourist may want to bring home.
You can still see the famous Moulin de la Galette, a café immortalized now by Renoir in his panting Bal du moulin de la Galette. Van Gogh’s apartment during the brief time he lived in Paris is marked with a plaque (although Van Gogh famously hated his time in Paris, the city loves to boast his residency with informational displays scattered around the center of the neighborhood). Restaurants Le Bonne Franquette and Le Consulat, set across the alley from each other, claim their role as regular haunts of artists and writers including Pablo Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet, Ernest Hemingway, and more.
The most picturesque of the café scene in Montmartre though is the little pink La Maison Rose, at the corner of Rue de l’Abreuvoir and Rue des Salues. It’s a perfect stop as you wander the streets of the arrondissement for a snack or cup of coffee.
Montmartre’s biggest lure for tourists is the Sacre Coeur, rising high above the city. From most vantage points in Paris, whether you are climbing the stairs of the Eiffel Tower or walking along the Seine, you can look to the north and see the ovular dome of this church. The easiest way to get to the church from the Abbesses Metro stop is to take the funicular, but for the urban hikers, I recommend walking the steep staircases up the hill, where you are rewarded with a perfect view of Paris’ skyline.
Montmartre can be as extreme or relaxing as you want it to be, but with any trip to Paris, it is a stop you must make. Be sure to take the time to wander along the small side streets, take in the lifestyle of the merchants and the café owners, stop to talk to the artists selling paintings in the Place du Tertre, but most important, take some time to sit at a café and watch the world go by—may it inspire your next creative project.