10 Things To See in Montparnasse
It is usually the nature of neighborhoods with lower costs of living to slowly become the art districts of a city. This is exactly what occurred throughout the 18th century to form what is now known as Montparnasse.
The village of Montparnasse is loaded in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. It is an eclectic suburb that is filled with much to see and do, including a wide variety of arts and iconic places to dine.
This is largely due to it once being the home of individuals such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. As I said, cheap rent usually brings the artists!
Because of its popularity, Montparnasse is largely touristic around most of the main attractions. Like most districts in Paris, however, there are many hidden gems to be found where you wont have to fight the crowds to enjoy the space.
Montparnasse is no longer the affordable artists getaway it used to be; today it is much more upscale and a big contributor to the booming French economy. Artists now come here to sell work, not to make it.
Nevertheless it is still a fascinating neighborhood to explore by foot as there is so much to see. What follows are my top 10 things to see in Montparnasse should you ever find yourself in the Parisian south with some time to kill. Enjoy!
1. Les Catacombes in Montparnasse
If you’ve not heard of the Catacombes it is probably best I start with this as it is definitely the most worthwhile thing to see in Montparnasse. The Catacombes are the tunnels that run underneath Paris and contain the remains of more than six million human beings.
In 1785 the city of Paris was experiencing issues around hygiene due to their largely overflowing burial sites. They began exhuming the remains and moved them into large tunnels that ran underneath the city instead. In 1810 these tunnels officially became known as the Catacombes.
Let me digress, I was very skeptical myself before visiting this historic vicinity. Terrified, is probably a better word. But I can conclude it is one of the most memorable (and bone chilling — mind the pun) experiences I’ve had in this city and I 10/10 recommend it to anyone passing through Montparnasse.
Admission: €13 (45 minute tour)
2. Cimetière du Montparnasse
Since we’re on the death train let’s continue on the topic and explore another site worth seeing while visiting this neighborhood. The Cimetière du Montparnasse is the second largest in Paris after the very famous Père Lachaise.
I only wandered into this premises because I was told Samuel Beckett had been buried there in 1989. Beckett is my favorite existential writer and I found the thought of meandering graves in search of his quite alluring.
The cemetery is more peaceful than Père Lachaise in my opinion. The trees hang low enough to kiss the tops of the grave stones and the sense of rest within the space is beautiful.
I was pleased to recognize a few other names amongst the lot, including the legend Serge Gainsbourg and iconic photographer Man Ray. I challenge you to go see who else you can find amongst the cemetery residents of Montparnasse.
3. Walk Montparnasse
Like most neighborhoods in Paris, you’ll get the most out of your time if you spend it exploring Montparnasse on foot. The district isn’t overly large and you can cover quite a significant portion if you dedicate a day to the experience.
Get yourself over to Rue de la Gaîté and start here. It is undoubtably the most lively street in Montparnasse and was once home to the lesser known cabarets and bars of the 18th and 19th century.
Follow this road toward Avenue du Maine where you’ll be able to walk yourself fright into the Montparnasse artists colony.
It is a cobblestoned cul-de-sac covered in greenery where in back in 1900 thirty artist studios were built using a variety of materials salvaged from the explosions in Paris. The studios are still in use today — it is quite a sight to behold.
Ending off at the Boulevard du Montparnasse you’ll be able to bask in the art-deco inspired merchant and cafe buildings that still line to streets.
Stop at a cafe called La Coupole for a glass of wine or a bite to eat; the columns inside of the restaurant were designed by French artist Marc Chagall who died shortly before my friend Samuel Beckett, in 1985.
4. Musée Bourdelle in Montparnasse
There is so much art to see in Montparnasse! It feels almost wrong to single out the Musée Bourdelle as the one place to be but the space is so well used and maintained it would be criminal to avoid it while in town.
The museum was opened in 1949 and offers a collection of more than 500 statues made form plaster, bronze and marble. The museum is named after the French sculptor and painter Antoine Bourdelle who made use of the building as his studio throughout his career in Paris.
The building itself is a prime example of 19th century architecture that has been immaculately kept since the artist’s reign.
Admission is only €8 and individuals under eighteen years of age visit the space for free. You don’t need much time for this museum, it is perfect for an afternoon with just an hour or two to spare.
5. Tour Montparnasse
The Tower of Montparnasse is a notable feature in the Parisian skyline from far and wide. The tower itself also offers incredible views of Paris.
Although it is shorter than the Eiffel Tower, its location gives it a broader range over the city and thus is the better viewing platform.
This landmark is a great place to take children while visiting Montparnasse. They’ll love the ride up in the lift as they watch the world below get smaller smaller smaller…
It is also a lot of fun to challenge your children to point out other Parisian landmarks in the city skyline from atop the tower. The Eiffel Tower is easy to find and the Arc de Triomphe is a short hop from it.
Spotting the glass pyramid of the Louvre is more of a challenge as is Notre Dame cathedral — how many points of interest can you spot?
Admission: €17 for adults / €10.50 for children
6. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Montparnasse
The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé is a cultural centre devoted to cinema that is aptly hidden inside of an old cinema building dating back to 1869. The building is the architectural masterpiece by renowned artist Renzo Piano.
The foundation was only set up in 1990 with the hope of preserving as much of the earliest cinematic works and making them publicly available. Most of these are the early silent black and white films and the foundation holds screenings where anyone can come to view them accompanied by a live pianist inside of the theatre.
It is only €6.50 to view a screening within the cinema. The experience of it all is transformative and awe inspiring. Seeing some of the earliest cinematic works to come out of neighborhoods just like Montparnasse is quite the privileged.
These are not the kinds of films you’ll ever be able to stream from anywhere your computer picks up WiFi. They are preserved, original works of art that were it not for foundations like the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé would otherwise not be seen again.
The price of admission is your contribution toward keeping these pieces of history alive.
7. Café Oz Rooftop in Montparnasse
For something a little lighter in Montparnasse there is the ever so popular Cafe Oz Rooftop located right where the neighborhood meets the Seine. Being on the roof of the Cité de la Mode et du Design the cafe offers wonderful views of the nearby monuments in adjacent districts.
This is a hip and modern place to stop by for a beer or cocktail. The cafe has attempted to create an Australian inspired beach vibe on the terrace. When you pull your eyes from the panoramic view of Paris, it is almost believable that you’re now on the Gold Coast instead of in the French capital.
My favorite thing about Cafe Oz is that it turns into a dance venue as the night begins to fall. The music varies depending on what night you attend.
They also make a Thai Salad that is worth a visit alone. Entrance is always free so when you’re in the mood for views of the city and river head over to this rooftop in Montparnasse.
8. The Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Montparnasse
In the spirit of art and preservation that is so iconic to Montparnasse I bring you yet another foundation; The Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain.
Before getting into the function of the vicinity, it is something you’ll likely want to see solely due to it being so, so very green! The lush vegetation that covers the walls and signs is the first thing that passer by’s notice about the space.
The foundation is essentially a museum, space of preservation and educational centre for all things art and literature. Each year the foundation hosts Les Soirées Nomades where they attempt to uncover new artists and artistic movements in Paris.
Most free guided walking tours will give you the full history of the foundations just like this. Their involvement in community development is incredibly admirable and if you are in a position to support the cause then you absolutely should.
Admission: €10.50 / €7 for students
9. La Tropicale in Montparnasse
La Tropicale is the baby of a world traveling Cambodian ice cream chef known as Thai-Thanh. What makes this parlor worth seeing while in Montparnasse are the flavor combinations of the product not seen anywhere else in the world.
The store is located just off of the Place d’Italie, a communal space in Montparnasse that is perfect to sit and enjoy an ice cream while watching the water features within the square.
Are you brave enough to gorge on flavors like yuzu and pepper? Or would you prefer a safer choice such as mandarin spice or elderflower? For the really… really… brave, La Tropicale offers a show stopping ice cream made from lemon and absinthe. Yes, you read correctly; absinthe flavored ice cream. When in Paris!
10. Paris Observatory
The dome of the Pairs Observatory is another noticeable feature in the Parisian skyline. The structure can be found on avenue de l’Observatoire just a short walk from The Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain that I mentioned earlier.
It is technically the oldest observatory in the world as it was founded under Louis XIV back in 1667. The dome is now home to the famous Arago Telescope and is open for public viewing any day of the week.
This is the best thing to see in Montparnasse if you are even vaguely interested in astrology or meteorology. The centre attached to the viewing dome is also largely involved in much global cartography work which is fascinating to try wrap your head around.
Take the guided tour and delve far back in time where this technology was but a faction of what it is today. You’ll leave with a refreshed view of both Montparnasse and the night sky under which it exists.
Due to the better known neighborhoods of Paris such as Montmartre and Bastille, Montparnasse is one that too often goes unnoticed. When you take some time to dive into the richness of the history of the space it becomes so necessary to pay the district a visit at least once during your time in the city.
Use this list of 10 things to see in Montparnasse as a guide to exploring one of Paris’ hidden charms — you can thank me later.