Bold modernity & artistic history galore
One of the most interesting and vibrant of Paris’ diverse neighborhoods, Montparnasse is also soaked in literary and artistic history. Dominated by the boldly modern Montparnasse Tower– the capital’s only real skyscraper– the area’s bustling boulevards are populated by cafés and brasseries where famous Parisian artists, writers, poets, musicians and performers gathered and exchanged ideas, particularly prior to World War II.
Today, it’s a little sleepier than during its heyday, but still has plenty to offer culturally curious visitors, from art and architecture to theatre, markets, pedestrian streets that reveal their village roots, parks and restaurants. Keep reading to learn what to do on your next visit in the area, and for a bit of history.
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Orientation and Transport
Montparnasse is situated on the left bank of the Seine in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. It is located due south from Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Jardin du Luxembourg, and just southwest from the Latin Quarter. The Denfert-Rochereau area, often considered a separate micro-district, stretches across the southwestern edge of greater Montparnasse.
Main streets: These include Boulevard de Montparnasse, Rue de Montparnasse, Rue de Rennes, Rue de l’Arrivée, Rue de la Gaîté, Boulevard Raspail, Place Denfert-Rochereau and Rue Daguerre.
Getting There: The district can be reached from the Metro stations Montparnasse, Vavin, Edgar Quinet, Gaîté-Josephine Baker or Denfert-Rochereau. It’s also a major national rail hub, with the enormous Gare Montparnasse station shuttling trains to and from regions and major cities including Brittany, Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse.
A Bit of Neighborhood History
As mentioned above, Montparnasse is best-known for being an artistic hotbed in the late 19th and 20th century– but its status as a place where writers, artists and various performers assembled and created their works goes back even further.
While Montparnasse was incorporated into Paris rather early– sometime in the 18th century, by most accounts– its borders have always been curiously ill-defined, as the historian Eric Hazan notes in his brilliant book The Invention of Paris. It was only in the 1830s that it began to be truly urbanized in places, notably along the Rue de Montparnasse and the Rue Notre-Dame des Champs.
But as Hazan notes, much of the quarter retained a rural character for decades thereafter, with muddy, unpaved roads, and fields, windmills and “guingettes “(musical cafés and restaurants) scattered around its raggedy borders.
It might, in this sense, be compared to Montmartre, which shares a considerable legacy as a place of intense creation (and also of rural activity prior to being incorporated into Paris).
The neighborhood, which was once hilly and dubbed “Mount Parnassus” after the mountain in Greek mythology, was transformed considerably in the 18th century when the famous Boulevard de Montparnasse was constructed. Dance halls, cabarets and theatres sprung up in the area from the Revolutionary period.
The district is perhaps most noteworthy for the artistic heavyweights– from painters to novelists, sculptors to performers– it attracted in various waves over the years. During the 19th century, French writer Victor Hugo lived in the area with his wife, Adèle.
In the early 20th century, cheap rents and inexpensive restaurants attracted painters, poets, and other artists to the area, many of whom lived in dilapidated residences such as “La Ruche”.
Italian-born painter Amedeo Modigliani, poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, Marc Chagall, sculptor Constantin Brancusi and Belarusian expressionist painter Chaïm Soutine were among the many noteworthy artists and writers to live at the residence, which remains open and stages a number of exhibitions each year.
During the post World War I period and the “Roaring ’20s”, Montparnasse became even more sought-after by the creative class, with artists from Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Nina Hamnett, Salvador Dalí and Diego Rivera, writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and performers including Josephine Baker gathering in the district to share ideas, dance and (often) heavily drink.
The famed Boulevard Montparnasse cafés clustered around the Vavin metro stop, La Coupole, la Rotonde, Le Dôme, Le Select and La Closerie des Lilas, were popular with these and less well-known artists and writers for their inexpensive fare and grandiose interiors. They remain an important part of the neighborhood’s fabric, though they’ve obviously become rather “touristy” in recent decades.
During this period, Montparnasse was also the site of a large and thriving American community of “expatriates” and artists. One publishing house established in the area by Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse, the Black Sun Press, published novels and other works from soon-to-be-famous authors including Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and many others.
Literary magazines and other small presses also thrived in the area. Photographer Man Ray set up his first studio in the area at 15, Rue Delambre; now-iconic figures such as Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau posed for portraits there.
Meanwhile, the nearby Rue de la Gäité was a thriving center for the performing arts, where Parisian cabarets, music halls, and theatre populaire (working-class theatre) drew crowds late into the evening.
The Bobino hosted a legendary final performance from Jospephine Baker in 1975. Its doors remain open to this day, under the name Bobin’o (20 Rue de la Gäité).
What to See & Do in Montparnasse: Museums & Other Key Attractions
The sprawling district doesn’t have as many “big-ticket” tourist attractions as neighboring Saint-Germain and the Latin Quarter, but you’re guaranteed a culturally enriching experience if you concentrate your time on some of the following sights, from modern art and sculpture museums to quiet places that reveal the neighborhood’s history as an artistic and cultural powerhouse.
La Tour Montparnasse
Built in 1973 (and maligned by most Parisians ever since as an eyesore), La Tour Montparnasse is the only true skyscraper within the city limits, rising 210 metres high and comprising 59 floors, plus six more situated underground.
Unless you’re a big fan of 1970s corporate architecture, the real attraction isn’t the looming tower itself, but its panoramic viewpoints on the 56th and 59th floors.
Take one of the tower’s 25 elevators (you heard me correctly!) to zip upwards at heart-fluttering speeds to the 56th-floor panoramic viewing deck. Unfortunately for visitors with limited mobility, you can only take stairs from here to the top floor and its second deck.
From the heights of the tower you can take in huge swathes of the capital, including the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Coeur, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Seine River, Latin Quarter and more.
One of the loveliest places in the area to stroll and ponder life’s fleeting beauty is Montparnasse Cemetery, one of the city’s largest and most-visited. Famous denizens who now call the leafy, flower-lined cemetery their permanent place of rest include Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (who share adjoining graves), the playwright Samuel Beckett (whose last home was just south of the cemetery), French writer Guy de Maupaussant and American critic and essayist Susan Sontag.
Especially in the spring and summer, the cemetery is a surprisingly joyful place for an after-lunch amble– and it can be amusing to try to find the graves of various heroes hidden somewhere in the tree-lined lanes.
The Paris Catacombs
Heading down to the Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop, the entrance to the Paris Catacombs is just outside the metro exit. This fascinating underground kingdom of human skulls, femurs and other bones– counting in the millions– was built starting in the 18th centuries, when overflowing cemeteries in central Paris were exhumed for hygienic reasons; the remains were neatly stacked in miles of underground limestone quarries.
The effect is fascinating and chilling. Visiting the Catacombs is less horrific than you might imagine– the trip through the narrow, low-ceilinged passageways stretch for about a mile and are only genuinely scary (in my opinion, at least)if you’re claustrophobic.
But the encounter with millions of anonymous, deceased Parisians is certainly a memorable one, not least because the remains are in many places accompanied by poems and notable quotations about death and mortality.
Buy skip-the-line tickets and audioguide for the Catacombs here (via Tiqets.com). You can also book a combined ticket that gives you access to both the Catacombs and Montparnasse Tower (via Tiqets).
Museums of Note in the Area
There are several interesting museums in Montparnasse, chief of which is the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (pictured above). With its striking glass facade from architect Jean Nouvel, the Fondation is one of the best places in the city to see exhibitions on contemporary art, genres and artists. It also boasts a lush garden with enormous trees and a green wall.
At the western end of Montparnasse, the Musée Bourdelle is a small, charming museum and studio dedicated to the work of French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. It’s also entirely free– one of several city-run museums in the capital that charge nothing for entry.
Last but not least, the Musée Zadkine is another small (and free) museum dedicated to a prominent 20th-century sculptor, the Russian-born cubist master Ossip Zadkine. It was here that Zadkine and his wife lived and worked for over 40 years, and the “studio-museum” offers a fascinating glimpse into the artist’s life and work.
It’s situated at the northeastern border of Montparnasse (technically in the 6th arrondissement), but the recently-renovated museum is well worth a visit, especially if you’re interested in modern sculpture.
Academie de la Grande Chaumière
One of the more interesting places in Montparnasse that carries on the legacy of the area’s vibrant artistic history is the Academie de la Grande Chaumière, comprising an academy and studio spaces in service of aspiring and contemporary artists.
Nestled on an unassuming side street adjacent to Boulevard de Montparnasse (and right next to a branch of the famed Sennelier Frères art supply stores, the Academie was opened in 1870 by a Swiss patron of the arts named Martha Stettler.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artists including Amedeo Modigliani, the aforementioned Ossip Zadkine, and Tamara de Lempicka occupied studios and/or taught here.
Today, the existence of the historic Academie is under constant threat, but the neighborhood is fighting to preserve the precious space. It can only be visited upon appointment or by those who have booked classes or studio time here; see more in my full guide.
Shopping, Wandering & Entertainment in Montparnasse
There’s no shortage of places to wander, shop and entertain oneself in halfway-cozy, halfway urban and bustling Montparnasse. Here are just a few ideas for the flâneur or flâneuse (cool urban stroller) in you…
Boulevard de Montparnasse
Boulevard de Montparnasse is the place to stroll and linger for legendary cafés, brasseries, cinemas and traditional shops. The Boulevard houses several of the neighborhood’s most iconic cafés (see more on some of them below under “Eating and Drinking”), including Le Select (#99 Boulevard de Montparnasse), La Coupole (#102, just across the street), La Rotonde (#105) Le Dôme (#108), and La Closerie des Lilas further up towards the edge of the Latin Quarter, at #171).
As detailed above in the neighborhood history section, these cafés have been the stuff of literary and artistic legend for over a century. Make sure to take some time to at least sip a coffee or nurse a drink at one of them– people-watching out on the terrace not de rigueur, but recommended.
The wide Boulevard, which stretches all the way from Metro Montparnasse-Bienvenue to Vavin and the Port-Royal RER station to the southeast, is also home to cinemas including the beloved indie moviehouses Les 7 Parnassiens (#98) and Le Bretagne (#73).
Finally, you’ll find global stores and French fashion boutiques such as Lacoste, C&A and more at the Montparnasse Rive Gauche Shopping Mall (10 Rue du Départ, at the angle of Boulevard Montparnasse).
Rue de la Gaité
The lively Rue de la Gaité (Metro: Gaite-Josephine Baker) is a narrow street and micro-district that’s long been the site of popular theatres and dance halls in the area, as well as restaurants and cafes.
Venues such as the Théâtre Montparnasse (31 rue de la Gaité) and Théâtre de la Gaité-Montparnasse (#26) have been operating for decades here, and the old-world vibe is still appreciable. Take a stroll down Rue de la Gaité to browse its shops, loaf in its cafés and take in a spirit that feels close to timeless.
Finally, pop into Bobin’o (#20), a historic musical theatre where countless legendary performers have taken to the stage– from Edith Piaf to Jacques Brel and Amy Winehouse.
Just off the bustling Place Denfert Rochereau, crowned by its handsome lion statue from famed sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, Rue Daguerre suddenly plunges you into a village-like atmosphere. Its sidewalk cafe terraces, artisan shops, and neighborhood shopkeepers who’ve been in the area for decades reveal a different side of “greater Montparnasse”: one that’s a bit more intimate and quiet.
Browse the shops and stalls from the permanent market vendors, and have lunch or a coffee at one of the many cafés that line the street, which was recently reserved for pedestrians.
While the area has gentrified significantly in recent years, it’s the heart of a traditional working-class and immigrant community that was venerated by filmmaker (and former resident) Agnès Varda in the documentaries “Daguerréotypes” and “The Beaches of Agnès” (both highly recommended).
Where to Eat & Drink in Montparnasse
The area is teeming with restaurants, cafes, brasseries and casual dining options, so you’ll have no lack of choice if you want to duck in spontaneously for lunch or dinner, or book in advance (recommended for some of the more popular places). I’ve made just a few suggestions for good places to eat in Montparnasse below, but you can find many more at sites like The Fork and Time Out.
Classic Montparnasse Brasseries
For traditional French brasserie dishes such as gigantic fresh shellfish platters, steak-frites, roasted duck, sole meunière, escargots, chocolate mousse and other typical fare, head to the aforementioned classic brasseries clustered mostly on Boulevard de Montparnasse– each with their own particular histories and charm.
At La Coupole (see my full review), sit in the period dining room with its distinctive painted pillars, perhaps sitting at one of the tables where luminaries such as Josephine Baker and Albert Camus once gathered, dined and discussed. Or head across the street to Le Select, enjoying a casual lunch outside on the iconic terrace with its green and gold signage. The fixed-price menu is quite reasonable at this brasserie frequented by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, and Hemingway. Whisky fans can choose from a selection of 50 different varieties.
See above for more details on the area’s beloved and history-drenched brasseries– all of which are worth dining at for their legacies, even if the food is rarely extraordinary.
Bréton-style Crepes and Galettes
As I note in my complete guide to the best creperies in Paris, many of the places to beeline to in the capital for Bréton-style savory galettes (pancakes) and sweet crepes are in Montparnasse. Perhaps owing in part to the fact that trains regularly depart for and arrive from Brittany at the rail station here, many good creperies have cropped up in the area.
Two of my favorites are Creperie Ti Jos (see my full review) and Creperie Plougastel (47 Rue de Montparnasse), both of which offer inexpensive but delicious fare, including a good selection of Brittany ciders– as well as some truly tempting dessert crepes.
For a special occasion like an anniversary dinner or birthday, gourmets should aim to book a table at Montée, a creative table helmed by Japanese chef Takayuki Nameura. The menu blends Japanese and French culinary traditions to superb effect, and you should consider the lunch and dinner tasting menus for the full experience. Prices are (at the time this went to press) quite reasonable for a Parisian restaurant of this caliber, too.
Interestingly, one of the other superb fine-dining tables in the Montparnasse area (this time closer to Denfert-Rochereau) is also headed by a talented and innovative Japanese chef, Michihiro Kigawa. At his eponymous restaurant, fresh, locally sourced market ingredients are put to beautiful use in dishes that re-imagine classic French gastronomy for more contemporary palates.
The fixed-price lunch menu offers excellent value and includes two starters, a main course and a dessert. The five-course lunch tasting menu is also very reasonably priced, and the six-course Chef’s dinner tasting menu is one to try if you’re hoping to sample the full range of Kigawa’s talents.
You can see more on the seasonal menus, dishes and info on booking a table here, at the official website.