Grand brasseries, shady boulevards and offbeat galleries have made Montparnasse a magnet for artists and gourmands since the days of Oscar Wilde and Pablo Picasso. These days, it represents the essence of the Left Bank, and is one of the most laid-back quartiers to explore in Paris.
Paris has plenty of neighbourhoods where you can idle in corner cafés, admire great art and stroll through overgrown cemeteries – but none are quite like Montparnasse. “It’s the traditional Left Bank,” says photographer Becca Gerbino, “an infusion of French culture, art and history. I love shooting here because I am able to capture local and traditional Parisian life.”
You’ll find authentic experiences in spades, perhaps shopping on market streets like rue Daguerre or eating chantilly-smothered crêpes in an institution such as La Crêperie de Josselin. Then there are the cutting-edge installations at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, creepy subterranean experiences at the Catacombes and magnificent city views from the Tour Montparnasse.
Catch an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain
You can never be sure what you might see at Fondation Cartier. Just off Boulevard Raspail, opposite the Cimetière du Montparnasse (Montparnasse Cemetery), this multidisciplinary gallery was founded as a philanthropic project in 1984 by Cartier International. The themes and artists change each year, running the gamut from painting and photography to bespoke multimedia installations. In the past, curators have delved into Patti Smith’s artistic process in Land 250, brought to life the vision of Japanese architect Junya Ishigami in Freeing Architecture, and united artists, botanists and philosophers to tackle issues of deforestation in Trees. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, is a work of art in itself, too. Like many places in Paris, the Fondation Cartier is closed on Mondays but open until 10pm on Tuesdays.
What was once the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital, lying in a no man’s land between Port-Royal and Denfert-Rochereau, is now a creative live-work utopia, thanks to the ambitious vision of Les Grands Voisins. The project is still a work in progress, but 2,000 people – including refugees, artists and craftspeople – are already living and working here. Visitors are welcome to stop by for a coffee (pay it forward and buy one for a neighbour, too), drink at the bar (open evenings from Wednesday to Sunday), or shop in the boutiques and ateliers. The on-site restaurant, L’Oratoire, is a great space to stop for lunch (three courses for €13 (£11.50)), especially in summer, when you can eat at tables in the courtyard.
True market streets are getting rarer in Paris, which makes rue Daguerre all the more worth a visit. Running east to west south of the Cimetière du Montparnasse, it’s the 14th arrondissement at its most local. The street’s eastern end, where it meets avenue du Général Leclerc, is the most interesting: come to stroll or shop along a strip of greengrocers, butchers and boulangeries straight out of a different era. Bag one of the terrasse tables at La Chope Daguerre to watch locals stuff their shopping trolleys as you sip your morning espresso.
The monolithic Tour Montparnasse, just north of the station, might just be the most controversial landmark in Paris. Some say you get the best views of the city from its observation deck only because you can’t see the tower itself. Ignore the naysayers: if you’re looking for 360-degree Parisian panoramas and don’t mind the €20 (£18) fee, hop in Europe’s fastest lift and speed up to the 56th floor. Day or night, you’ll be able to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Les Invalides, the Sacré-Cœur and Notre-Dame – but sunset is particularly magical. Tickets are untimed and valid for 30 days, so even if you’re not sure when you want to visit, it’s worth buying online to skip the queues.
Père Lachaise gets all the press, but it’s not the only cemetery of interest in Paris. To pay your respects to Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, head to the Cimetière du Montparnasse, the second-largest in the city. Go early – perhaps with a morning coffee from nearby Hexagone Café – and you’ll find its neat avenues almost deserted.Pick up a map from the entrance on boulevard Edgard Quinet to help you find your way to the graves of the cemetery’s most famous inhabitants, Serge Gainsbourg among them.
Rosebud’s white-jacket-clad bartenders have been mixing martinis, manhattans and moscow mules at this old-school, wood-panelled bar for more than 50 years, and it still regularly makes lists of the best bars in the world. This isn’t the kind of place where you come to see and be seen, but to put the world to rights over a quiet cocktail or three. Expect a jazz soundtrack and beautifully made classic drinks.Consider eschewing the traditional old fashioned and order a new fashioned (Peychaud’s Bitters, maraschino and bourbon for €14 (£12.40)) instead.
The most-visited, and by far the most macabre, of Montparnasse’s attractions is the Catacombes de Paris, attracting some 550,000 visitors each year. This underground ossuary was opened in the 18th century to hold the bones of the dead that could no longer be buried in Paris’s central cemeteries as the city expanded. The remains of some 2 million Parisians now lie here, 20 metres (66 feet) underground, in a series of galleries and tunnels. Visits take around an hour and a half, during which you’ll descend and ascend 243 steps and be among just 200 people at a time who are allowed into the Catacombes.“The best way to visit the Catacombes is to reserve tickets online to avoid the long queues,” recommends Becca Gerbino. “And after your visit, have a drink at the Café du Rendezvous, a chic and cosy bistro next door.”
Paris doesn’t have a theatreland equivalent to London’s West End or New York’s Broadway, so theatres are scattered throughout the city. La rue de la Gaîté is one of the few spots where they’re clustered together. This street has been a hub of stagecraft since the 1870s: the music hall stars of the belle époque performed here, as well as legends such as Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker.If you’re not sure about seeing a show in French, check out musical comedies like Tutu and Les Franglaises at Théâtre Bobino.
Gare Montparnasse has long linked Paris with Brittany, making it the natural location for Breton restaurateurs to set up shop, and the adjacent rue du Montparnasse is crowded with the highest concentration of crêperies in the capital. La Crêperie de Josselin, with its wooden beams and lace curtains, is by far the most famous – and the most popular.The classic order is galette complète (egg, ham and Gruyère). Just don’t forget to leave room for a crêpe for dessert, too.