Tourists flock in their millions to Paris to take in its most famous sites in its most popular areas. But what about venturing off the beaten path? What about the many less well-known neighbourhoods which nonetheless hold beautiful buildings and fascinating pieces of history? Montparnasse is one such area. Famous mostly only for the particularly unattractive Tour Montparnasse, the area is nevertheless very worth visiting, if you know what you’re looking for. Follow our self-guided walking tour below to discover this seriously underrated area.
Start at Tour Montparnasse, next to the Montparnasse-Bienvenüe metro station. This is a circular tour, so you can either ascend Tour Montparnasse at the beginning or the end, but ascend it you must, because although it is not cheap, it offers the best views in Paris, including a great look at the Eiffel Tower. A hint would be to head to the top after dark, when the city is lit up and the Eiffel Tour sparkles with flashing lights every hour, on the hour.
Art lovers should walk north up Avenue de Maine and turn left onto Rue Antoine Boudelle, down which you will find the Musée Bourdelle on your right. The Musée Bourdelle holds an incredible array of sculpture, paintings and fresco sketches, including work by Delacroix and Rodin. A popular work within the museum is a collection of plaster casts of twenty-one studies of Ludwig van Beethoven.
From the Musée Bourdelle, backtrack and continue up Avenue de Maine, cut through Rue d’Alençon on your right and emerge on Boulevard Montparnasse. Home to a host of lively cafes and restaurants, Boulevard Montparnasse has been witness to the frantic scribbling and red wine gulping of many a now-famous writer, including Hemingway and Sartre. Visit famous literary cafe La Coupole at 102 for a feel of the place where Picasso and Edith Piaf might have rubbed shoulders.
A short walk down Boulevard Montparnasse will bring you to the junction of Boulevard Raspail. Here you should have a look out for the Balzac monument, a bronze cast of a work by Rodin which was initially rejected for being “too grotesque” and finally displayed here. While you’re here, check out Le Dôme, another famous literary restaurant which opened in 1898 and is now a high-end, Michelin-starred restaurant.
A short walk south down Boulevard Raspail will reveal Rue Huyghens on your right; head down here to emerge on Boulevard Edgar Quinet, where on Sunday mornings from about 11am you will find an excellent art market, the Marché de la Création. The sellers here are the artists themselves: that’s the rule. Every piece is original and personal.
Next to Boulevard Edgar Quinet is the Cimetière Montparnasse. While not as big as some of the other cemeteries in Paris, the Cimetière Montparnasse is nevertheless an exceptional little place dating back to 1824 and containing the graves of many famous people, including Simone de Beauvoir, Charles Baudelaire and Jean-Paul Sartre. Give yourself time to wander and admire the beautiful graves and tombs.
When you’ve finished meandering around the cemetery, walk around the outside to the opposite side, on Rue Froidevaux. From here head south down Rue Gassendi, which bisects Rue Daguerre one street down. Rue Daguerre hosts a fabulous foodie street market, with cheeses and meats galore. The atmosphere here is vibrant, with vendors calling out in the streets.
Head east down Rue Daguerre towards Place Denfert-Rochereau. Here you’ll find the entrance to Paris’s spectacular catacombs, an underground set of tunnels which house the bones of approximately six million people, which were moved here after the cemetery situation in Paris became overcrowded and unsanitary. The catacombs are well worth touring – the gothic creepiness of it all is fantastic, and the history behind it all is amazing, especially since the catacombs have been open as a tourist attraction since the early 19th century.
Emerging back into the light of the Place Denfert-Rochereau, you’ll see the Barriere d’Enfer (the gate of hell), comprising two pavilions dating back to the 1700s, directly across the street. This was an old toll house, where taxes were collected on goods entering Paris.
From Place Denfert-Rochereau, head west down Boulevard Arago. One block down on your left, you’ll see the La Santé, one of Paris’s largest prisons, inaugurated in 1867. The prison gained notoriety in 2000 when Veronique Vasseur, a doctor for many years in the prison, published a book which revealed the horrifying conditions of the prison, prompting outcry and call for change in the French penal system. Just outside the prison you will also see Paris’s last vespasienne, a public urinal, which is still in regular use.
Turn left down Rue de la Santé and head south until it turns into Avenue Reille, which will lead you directly to Parc Montsouris. This Paris park is a fifteen-hectare expanse complete with a lake, and is a lovely place to relax and wander around, taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is styled as an English garden, and got its name as an evolution of moque souris (mock mice), which the area was known as due to its large rodent population.
From Parc Montsouris head north up Avenue René-Coty and turn left on Rue d’Alesia. Just north of Alesia metro station up Avenue de Général Leclerc is the 19th century church Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge, worth a look for its beautiful bell tower. Afterwards, backtrack to Rue d’Alesia and continue west until you hit Rue Raymond Losserand, and turn right up it. This is a lively little street with plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants, and typical Paris life.
As you come to the top of Rue Raymond Losserand, turn left up Rue Lebouis to come to the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson on your right up Impasse Lebouis. Paris’s fondations are wonderful, and this one is two floors of bright white space filled with changing photography exhibitions – a must-see for photography fans.
Heading back to Rue Raymond Losserand and continuing on your way will bring you to Avenue Maine (and the now familiar sight of the Cimetière Montparnasse), turning left along which will take you straight back to your starting point. Has dusk fallen? Time to head up Tour Montparnasse, then. Enjoy the view, it's much better from the window of your Paris hotel room.