Far less popular with tourists than the nearby Latin Quarter and St-Germain-des-Prés districts are, the Montparnasse neighborhood harbors nearly as much Parisian history. During the 1920s and 1930s, the southern area was an artistic and literary hotbed, frequented by some of the 20th century's most celebrated artists, writers, architects and performers. While it's a bit sleepier and subdued today than it was during its jazz-age boom years, this neighborhood still offers some genuine cultural vibrancy, and plenty to see and do. Read on for the top attractions in and around Montparnasse — from old-world Parisian brasseries to museums, top-rate creperies and legendary art studios.
Have a Drink at a Classic Montparnasse Brasserie
The social heart of artistic life in Montparnasse during the 1920s and 1930s, these iconic local restaurants offer a vivid glimpse into lost time — and plenty of insight into the neighborhood's rich history. Try having lunch, dinner, or at the very least a before-dinner drink at one of these legendary Parisian brasseries.
La Coupole (102 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Metro Vavin): Plastered with painted murals from local artists, this brasserie and "bar américain" (American-style bar) is a handsome brasserie still frequented by publishers, writers and local artists. During its heyday, it was a favorite haunt of artists such as Pablo Picasso and André Dérain, writers including Sartre and Camus, and the dancer Josephine Baker. Come enjoy a fresh oyster platter or an afternoon glass of champagne.
La Rotonde (105 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Metro Vavin): Just a couple of doors down from La Coupole is yet another lauded neighborhood brasserie, where the likes of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, the painter Amadeo Modigliani, and the composer George Gershwin frequently gathered to eat and discuss the world. It has a large sidewalk terrace filled with red chairs and late opening hours — it's open until 2 a.m. — making it a favorite spot for a nightcap in the present day.
Le Select (99 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Metro Vavin): Also at the Vavin metro stop, Le Select beckons curious tourists and devoted locals in with its cheerful green and white facade, pleasant terrace and old-world signage. The painter Marc Chagall, the American writer Ernest Hemingway and many other legendary figures were once regulars at this café, which serves French brasserie classics such as steak-frites and whole shellfish platters. The lunch specials are reasonably priced and perfect if you're on a budget.
Take in Fantastic Views
While many people assume that the Eiffel Tower affords the best panoramic views of Paris, Parisians tend to disagree. The 56-floor Montparnasse Tower is arguably an even better place to enjoy breathtaking vantages over the whole city — including, of course, La Tour Eiffel.
Take a ride in the high-tech elevator, which zips you to the top in an incredible 38 seconds and enjoy some of the most dramatic panoramas the city has to offer. There's also a "360" Cafe and a rooftop champagne bar, ideal for a break before you head back to the ground. Visit the official website for practical information on visiting the tower, and to buy tickets online in advance.
Tip: Bring a good camera, and make sure to choose a bright and clear day if at all possible — otherwise it may not quite be worth the ascent.
See Famous Graves at Montparnasse Cemetery
While it's not quite as well-known as Père-Lachaise in northeastern Paris, Montparnasse Cemetery counts plenty of famous (late) denizens, and is also a lovely place for a stroll, particularly on a sunny morning or afternoon.
Opened in 1924, the cemetery is relatively young, and is the second-largest "necropolis" in the French capital after Père-Lachaise.
Lush, green and poetic, the cemetery is home to hundreds of trees, statues from artists such as Constantin Brancusi, and the graves of dozens of celebrated artists, writers and other figures. Come to stake out the resting places of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (buried side by side), Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire and many others.
The best entrance to the cemetery when you're visiting from the Montparnasse-Bienvenue Metro side is Rue Froidevaux. You can also enter from the main entrance at 3, Boulevard Edgar Quinet (Metro: Raspail).
Eat Some of the Best Crepes and Galettes in Paris
Parisians know this well: Montparnasse is home to a micro-quarter of Brittany-centric restaurants that make some of the best crepes and savory buckwheat galettes in the capital. These make an ideal meal for just about anyone: vegetarians, fans of regional cuisine, and even families with young, picky eaters.
Whether you're hankering for a savory galette filled with cheese and egg, a sweet dessert crepe smothered with salted butter caramel and a dollop of vanilla ice cream, or a meal featuring warm goat's cheese, honey, walnuts and salad greens, the best neighborhood creperies offer delicious and reasonably priced fare. Also make sure to try a good "bolet" (earthenware cup) of cider from Brittany.
Two of our favorite spots for delicious crepes and galettes in the area are Crêperie Josselin (67 rue du Montparnasse), coveted by locals for its simple yet addictive fare, and Ti Jos (30 rue Delambre), a lively Breton-style pub where hearty, generous galettes and generous dessert crepes are made all the more charming by live music.
Another local creperie that gets top marks from tourists and locals alike is Le Petit Plougastel (47 rue Montparnasse), which has gained attention in recent years thanks to its appearance in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" reboot.
If you're interested in sculpture or are simply looking for a nice place to stroll in the area, head to the Musée Bourdelle, one of the loveliest of Paris' small museums. The best part? Entrance to the permanent collection here is free for all.
Showcasing the sculptures, drawings, photographs, studio and apartments of French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, this museum is a true gem. The outdoor garden area is graced with more works from the under-appreciated artist, who was close friends with fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.
For a touch of the macabre (no matter the season), head hundreds of feet underground to the Paris Catacombs. Here, the remains of some six million people — primarily skulls and femurs — are meticulously stacked and "curated" in centuries-old subterranean quarries.
Composed of human remains that were transferred from the Cimetière des Innocents (close to the current-day Les Halles shopping center) during the late 18th century, the Catacombs stretch underground for over one mile. Well, the part open to visitors, that is. The larger network of underground tunnels is much larger.
While it's not an experience all visitors will enjoy, many others will find the spectacle both morbid and fascinating. Many don't find the Catacombs especially scary or creepy: it's more of an archaeological experience, truth be told. What strikes many as impressive is how artfully the bones and skulls are arranged, interspersed with plaques that muse poetically on the fragile nature of life.
Do take note that the visit requires a descent down a long spiral staircase and visitors with limited mobility or heart problems will not be able to visit this attraction.
Wander Down an Old Theatre-Lined Street
One of the nicest streets in the Montparnasse district is Rue de la Gaité, the center of a theatrical district that's as lively and authentic as they come. It's an area that has been associated with traditional cabarets and small theater productions since at least the 18th century.
Lined with charming cafés, restaurants, and performance venues mostly dating to the early 20th century, Gaité is as joyous a place as its name suggests.
Have a coffee or an apéritif (before-dinner drink) at bustling cafés and brasseries such as Tournesol, a brightly-decorated, modern café with a pleasant sidewalk terrace, and the Backstage, a restaurant and cocktail bar perfect for a bite before heading to a show nearby.
Interested in modern art? If so, head to the Fondation Cartier for a good exhibit or two. Housed in a dramatic, floor-to-ceiling-glass building with lush green gardens and climbing plants, this is one of the finest modern contemporary art museums in Paris, albeit smaller and a bit more avant-garde than most of them.
The museum's constantly refreshed galleries host exhibits on contemporary painting, photography, video, performance art, architecture and even pop music. Exhibits here have explored topics and mediums as diverse as art built around trees, geometric forms from South America, the artwork of William Eggleston and Patti Smith and the history of rock and roll.
The gardens are themselves an elaborate work of art created by Lothar Baumgarten (whose name means "tree garden" in German, coincidentally enough). Going against the grain of your typical, carefully groomed French formal garden, Baumgarten's is a surprisingly wild-feeling place, designed to evolve over time.
This studio-museum is dedicated to Ossip Zadkine, a Russian-born sculptor and artist who transplanted to Paris during the 1920s and thrived at the center of a community that included Modigliani, Picasso, Chaim Soutine and many other prominent 20th-century artists living in Montparnasse.
Like the nearby Musée Bourdelle, entry to the permanent collection at this small neighborhood museum is free. Also like the Bourdelle's, the studio here offers fascinating insight into the life, work and times of the artist, whose rich body of work includes drawings and photographs in addition to sculptures.