Montmarte is a large hill in the north of Paris. Montmarte is also one of the most famous neighborhoods in the city. And perhaps the most touristic and crowded one as well. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of tourists, illegal street vendors, artists who want to draw your portrait “for free”, street musicians, pickpockets, selfie-takers and annoyed Parisians asking you to move out of their way.
Souvenir shops are lined up, one after another, selling plastic Eiffel Tower’s (made in China) and poor quality graphic tees – and all those handbags you think are oh, so Parisian, but Parisians wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. Don’t even get me started on the berets…
Large groups of tourists line up to buy crêpes from fast food joints and street vendors, while others go to the nearest brasserie with “service continu” written in capital letters, to reassure you they don’t follow the typical French dining hours. Generally, these restaurants have an overwhelming list of dishes to choose from on their menu, and none of these dishes will be made from scratch. Tourists visit these establishments because they wanna dine like locals. Most likely, they will ask the waiter for suggestions.
Let me guess…
Escargots or soupe à l’oignon for starters, magret de canard or perhaps some moules-frites (which is Belgian, by the way) as a main, and a nice little crème brûlée or a mouelleux au chocolat for dessert? Accompanied by a glass of wine?
Well, as delicious as all those dishes are – because they are – you can do better than going to an overpriced touristic brasserie eating something that might not even be freshly made. More on that later…
So, while you’re eating your half decent Nutella-filled crêpe or your overpriced onion soup, you may find yourself wondering why you’re still pretty much only surrounded by other tourists. Where are the locals? And where are the local shops? Is there really nothing in Montmartre but so-called “tourist traps”?
Of course there is!
Montmarte has so much to offer for everyone, whether it’s tourists looking for an authentic experience, expatriates looking for something familiar or locals looking for something they know, as well as something they don’t know at all. Montmartre has always been a neighborhood for artists and all kinds of creative people, and today it’s also a melting pot of different cultures.
But, you can’t go there and not visit the main tourist attraction, can you?
Sacré-Coeur – or, The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris – is one of the most famous sights in Paris. In my opinion, it’s also one of the most beautiful. I made the mistake of missing out on the Sacre Coeur the first time I went to Paris. Good thing I came back – and stayed!
This Roman Catholic church may look like it’s been around for a very long time, but the construction was actually only finished in 1914!
While you’re there, admiring the Basilica, please watch your belongings. Pickpockets love tourists, and they go where tourists go. Even if that means climbing up the stairs all the way to the top, just to grab your phone, your wallet or whatever else you may have that’s valuable.
Also, beware of the bracelet scam!
There are people who make a living trying to sell tourists “free” friendship or relationship bracelets. Nothing is free in Paris. Tell them “non, merci” and walk away. Don’t stop, or they’ll put the bracelet on you, and finish making it right there on your arm. Sometimes these people can be quite aggressive and threatening as well. You don’t want that!
Salon de thé, Bubble tea or Coffee Shops?
Like I said, Montmartre is a melting pot of different cultures, which also affects the food culture in the city. When I first moved to France from Norway, I missed my coffee-culture more than anything. I hated (and still hate) french espresso and got tricked when ordering café noisette (hazelnut), as I thought it’d be a latte with hazelnut syrup. Turns out it’s just a basic espresso with a tiny bit of milk in it. Yup. Really. What does hazelnut have to do with any of this? I’m as confused as you are.
But the past two years there’s been quite a coffee revolution going on in France – especially in Paris. At first, Starbuck’s started popping up everywhere. Then expatriates, primarily from Anglophone countries, who’ve settled down in France for whatever reason, have taken their coffee-passion and hipster culture to the next level, and thanks to them, Paris now has lots of cool coffee shops to go to, with or without a laptop, camera, book or someone to drink coffee with. As Montmartre is one of the preferred neighborhoods for expats to live in, it’s no surprise that a lot of the coffee shops are located here.
And then there’s bubble tea. Not quite as trendy as coffee these days, but I sure like it and I’m glad this Taiwanese invention has made its way to Paris!
I recommend: Ô bubble
For a more local experience, visit a salon de thé. Although tea, and tea houses are not at all a french invention, the atmosphere in a Parisian salon de thé is a lot more french than in a coffee shop. Also, a lot of those places offer varied brunch/lunch menus and wine, so it’s not only about the tea and pastries.
Montmartre will always be home to artists and creatives
The definition naive art is used to describe any form of visual art that is created by someone who doesn’t have the formal education and training that a professional artist would have. In Montmartre, there’s a museum and changing art exhibitions dedicated to self taught artists and naive art (Halle Saint Pierre). This former indoor market also houses a book store.
If you’re passionate about designing your own clothing, you’ll find any fabric/material of any color and pattern – and all the supplies needed – at one of the many fabric stores in Montmartre. Best part is, it’s not even that expensive!
Now, let’s talk about restaurants, shall we?
As mentioned earlier, there are many bad restaurants in Paris. Especially close to all the tourist attractions. My best advice is to stay as far away as possible from any restaurant with an enormous menu. So they offer seafood, steaks, ten different salads, five different pasta dishes, ten different pizzas, five kinds of burgers, multiple soups, multiple sandwiches, curry, tartar, snails, duck, ten different desserts? Turn around and leave. Nobody can be good at everything, and those guys are generally good at nothing but reheating stuff from the freezer.
Other red flags? Restaurants that are open from morning/noon until late night, without any break between lunch and dinner service are often touristic restaurants, as the french never eat dinner before 7 pm. Another thing, plastic menus with pictures of the food they offer is tacky as hell, for a Parisian restaurant. Don’t expect anything decent to come out of that (although, there could be exceptions).
Small restaurants, especially bistrots, with small menus are generally quite good – based on my own personal experience.
How about a cinema date – in French?
As you may know, I have previously collaborated with Lost in Frenchlation, who create subtitles for french films and arrange screenings every Friday in Montmartre for non-french speakers. If you happen to be in the area on a Friday night and want to see a subtitled french movie at an old traditional movie theater, here’s your chance!
Any other tips?
Well, pick up a fresh croissant in the morning from Le Grenier à Pain, visit the Place du Tertre – the artist’s square, wander around, take photos, enjoy your stay – and grab a glass of wine at the wine bar Caves des Abbesses.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t written anything about cabarets, such as the famous Moulin Rouge, it’s because I will soon write a completely separate guide to the cabarets, bars and sex shops in Pigalle!