Perched on Paris’s highest hill, towards the northern edge of the city, Montmartre was famously the home and playground of artists such as Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. Topped by the pale Sacré-Coeur church, the crown of the Butte Montmartre, around place du Tertre, is a scrum, overrun with tourists these days, but the steep streets around Abbesses métro preserve an attractively festive, village-like atmosphere – and seem to become more gentrified and more fashionable every year. Even Pigalle, the brassy sprawl at the southern foot of the Butte, is turning trendy, with fashionable shops and boutique hotels springing up around rue des Martyrs. The Goutte d’Or, to the east, remains vibrantly multi-ethnic. Out at the northern city limits, the mammoth St-Ouen market hawks everything from extravagant antiques to the cheapest flea-market hand-me-downs.
Crowning the Butte Montmartre is the Sacré-Coeur with its iconic ice-cream-scoop dome. Construction of this French–Byzantine confection was started in the 1870s on the initiative of the Catholic Church to atone for the “crimes” of the Commune. Square Willette, the space at the foot of the monumental staircase, is named after the local artist who turned out on inauguration day to shout “Long live the devil!”. Today the staircase acts as impromptu seating for visitors enjoying the views over Paris, munching on picnics and watching the street entertainers; the crowds only increase as night falls. You can also get stunning views from the top of the dome, which takes you almost as high as the Eiffel Tower.
West of the Butte lies the Montmartre cemetery. It’s a melancholy place, tucked down below street level in the hollow of an old quarry, its steep tomb-dotted hills creating a sombre ravine of the dead. The graves of Nijinsky, Zola, Stendhal, Berlioz, Degas, Feydeau, Offenbach and Truffaut, among others, are marked on a free map available at the entrance.
Puces de St-Ouen claims to be the largest flea market in the world, though nowadays it’s predominantly a proper – and expensive – antiques market (mainly furniture, but including old café-bar counters, traffic lights, jukeboxes and the like), with many quirky treasures to be found. Of the twelve or so individual markets, you could concentrate on Marché Dauphine, good for movie posters, chanson and jazz records, comics and books, and Marché Vernaison for curios and bric-a-brac.