This neighborhood is perhaps more famous for what (and who) is underground than above. That said, many of their famous haunts can still be enjoyed!
Practically any artist you can name from the early 20th century lived, worked, and drank . . . a lot . . . in Montparnasse, nicknamed after Mont Parnassus, home of Apollo, the god of poetry, music and beauty. The 14th was bohemian central then and this neighborhood is all about those artists (Hemingway, Picasso, Chagall, Léger), their gathering places and even their graves. Because the living conditions were woeful at best, cafés were both the offices and meeting places of the talent. Le Dôme, La Closerie des Lilas, and La Coupole were three of the most popular (the owners would occasionally take drawings or paintings to cover the tab), and they are still in business today. Americans came in droves during the années folles (the crazy years, i.e. the 1920s) taking advantage of the weak franc and raising the ex-pat population from 6,000 in 1921 to 30,000 in 1924.
All that came to a screeching halt during World War II, and never recovered. Still, spotting names in the Montparnasse cemetery such as Frédéric Bartholdi (creator of the Statue of Liberty), Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brassaï, Samuel Beckett and Man Ray will remind you of what once was.
More—if less famous—dead can be viewed by climbing down into the nearby catacombs. When the old cemetery from Les Halles was closed in 1786, the remains were put (in very orderly stacks) here. The entrance is across from the Denfert-Rochereau metro station.
Today, the Tour Montparnasse (a 56-story blah office tower) is the neighborhood’s most outstanding landmark.
Christopher Measom combines his love of history, art, and travel to create books like “Paris, Wish You Were Here!” and “The Little Big Book of Ireland.” He spends most of his time in New York (an artsy historic place) working on all kinds of books for Night & Day Design.