Culture + Style

Mount ‘La Butte’ to Get in Touch With Your Inner French Artiste

Climb to the highest point in Paris, Monmartre, to walk in the footsteps of great French painters and experience the cabaret Au Lapin Agile. (Photo: imageBROKER/Alamy)

Montmartre, or la Butte as it’s known affectionately to Parisians, is the highest point in Paris. Van Gogh and Monet came for the low rent and stayed for the dance halls and pretty girls. Though the cheap rooms that harbored Matisse and Dali are histoire and the early masterpieces of those fledgling artists are now in museums, you can’t help but be drawn to Montmartre’s winding cobblestone streets. Village charm prevails as does the bohemian vibe established by painters and philosophers.

Get to the Heart of It

Arrive at Anvers metro station, line 2 and take la rue de Steinkerque to the funiculaire. If there’s a queue and you’re up for the challenge, hike the 237 steps up to Sacré-Coeur de Monmartre. Forget the mini-train unless you have kids or you’re wearing shorts with black socks and a Tilley hat. On Sundays, the shops are open and many streets are closed to traffic making it a good time to visit. If you’re up for it, literally, climb the 300 narrow steps of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica’s dome for the best view of Paris.

New by Paris standards, the Sacré-Coeur Basilica was completed in 1914 and uniquely built in the imposing Romano-Byzantine style. From the terrace at night you can see how Paris earned her name as the City of Light. Be prepared for musicians with varying degrees of talent and teenaged boys attempting to charm Parisian girls under the shadow of the Basilica. Make an afternoon of it, with a glass of wine and a sampling of various French cheeses from Fromagerie Lepic (20 rue Lepic) before the city lights twinkle into view.

Be Wooed at La Place du Tertre

La Place du Tertre is the original square of Montmartre village. Located in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, absorb the charm but be prepared for the hustle. Caricaturists compete with outdoor restaurants and souvenir vendors for space and your wandering eye. Walk the same cobblestone path of legends like Picasso and Utrillo, who were once penniless painters living in the area, sketching for a few francs. Blend in and wear a scarf like a local; knotted or wound, tight or loose around your neck. The important thing here is attitude.

Sip at a Secret Vineyard

Few know that Montmartre has a vineyard covering expensive real estate with an exceptional view to the north. Escape the bustle and find a quiet reprieve in the vineyard behind Sacré Coeur on the corner of Rue des Saules and Rue Saint-Vincent. It’s worth a visit as the vineyard is an historic gem and the only remaining vineyard within city limits. The grapes were originally planted by nuns in the 12th century and protected from development in the 1920s. Today, 27 varieties of grapes are harvested in the fall and celebrated with the five-day Fête des Vendanges.

Play Picasso at Au Lapin Agile

Au Lapin Agile (The Nimble Rabbit) lays claim as the oldest cabaret in Paris and the one frequented by the great modern artists. It’s the setting of Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a brilliant comedy about the conversation that ensues when Picasso bumps into Einstein. In reality, Picasso once painted a self-portrait in the cabaret to pay his tab, which later sold at an auction in 1989 for $41 million. Picture yourself in this tavern if you like a cramped but authentic ambiance with entertainers keeping French cabaret alive. Imbibe a little absinthe and you’ll be singing, too.