10 Good Reasons To Visit Historic Montmartre Cemetery

More a secret garden than burial ground, the Montmartre cemetery is a surprisingly popular destination for history lovers since it's the final resting place of famous French and expat artists, scientists, authors, dancers, poets, captains of industry and executioners. Often compared to (and confused with) Le Père-Lachaise cemetery — both are praised for their romantic layouts and rambling landscape.

By the 18th century, overcrowding in Paris cemeteries was a serious problem and contributed to unsanitary living conditions. Starting in 1780s, burials within the city limits were banned and new cemeteries were built outside the boundaries of Paris — Père Lachaise in the east, Passy in the west, Montparnasse in the south, and to the north, Montmartre. Let's wander amongst the legends of France in one of the hidden treasures of Paris, the Montmartre Cemetery.

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1. Serenity

Dalida Grave Site

Find a peaceful repose in the hustle of the city. Lying at the foot of Montmartre, called the butte, the secluded cemetery has a park-like feel and is filled with meandering pathways, fountains, trees, hills, stairs and romantic statues.

2. Secrecy

Montmartre Cemetery is a secret hideaway. Officially known as the Cimitière du Nord, it's the third largest in Paris, after Père Lachaise and Montparnasse. The cemetery is built below street level, in the hollow of the abandoned gypsum quarry near Rue Caulaincourt (close to Place de Clichy). There's only one secret entrance, found on Avenue Rachel.

3. The Revolution

Ever wonder where they put the bodies of royals executed during the Revolution? Since the Montmartre Cemetery developed from old limestone quarries it turned out to be a convenient location for a mass grave site during that upheaval. During the Reign of Terror (1793 – 94) 40,000 lost their heads at the guillotine or were otherwise murdered. They had to be put someplace.

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4. A Bridge Crosses It

Rue Caulaincourt

A metal bridge runs over it. The Montmartre Cemetery opened on January 1, 1825 and was initially called the Cemetery of the Large Quarries, due to its location. Since it's in a former quarry, and some of it is below street level, the road that was later built through it, Rue Caulaincourt, crosses a 19th-century metal lattice bridge looking down on the cemetery.

5. Qui Est Qui

Montmartre Cemetery contains a veritable who's who of French historical figures. Here are just a few of the famous residents —

  • Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), impressionist painter and sculptor.
  • François Truffaut (1932 – 1984), French New Wave filmmaker and director of Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451.
  • Alexandre Dumas (1824 – 1895), novelist of The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask.

6. The French (Pantheon) Connection

The cemetery has connections with the Pantheon. Emile Zola's beautiful Art Nouveau tomb is here, but his body rests at the Pantheon. The man with the pendulum, Léon Foucault (1819 – 1868) is buried here in Montmartre, and it was at the Pantheon that he conducted his famous pendulum experiment, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth.

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7. The Can-Can & Ballet

La Goulue

Visit the woman who invented the French cancan. Visit La Goulue AKA Louise Weber (1866 – 1929). The lively Moulin Rouge muse of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was immortalized in his many posters and paintings. Another dancer buried here is Vaslav Nijinsky (1890 – 1950) the world's best loved Ukrainian ballet dancer.

8. The Napoleon Connection

Know all that famous French food that we all adore? Marie-Antoine Carême (1784 – 1833), the godfather of classical cuisine, is buried here. He is considered the founder of haute cuisine and even cooked for Napoleon. Carême died at the young age of 48, due to the years he spent inhaling toxic fumes from charcoal in the era when professional kitchens lacked proper ventilation.

9. The de Camondo Family

It's one of Paris' saddest stories. Moïse de Camondo (1860 – 1935), French Jewish banker and art collector, and his son Nissim de Camondo (1892 – 1917), a World War I pilot, are both buried here. They would never know that their entire remaining family was to perish at the hands of the Vichy France and the Nazi hoodlums in 1943. Visit the Nissim de Camondo museum up by Parc Monceau for the whole story.

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10. A Simple Twist of Fate

Louis XVI

Remember all those guillotine executions during the Reign of Terror? In a weird twist of fate their executioner is also buried in the Montmartre Cemetery.

Charles Henri Sanson (1739 – 1806) was the Royal Executioner of France who beheaded Louis XVI in 1793 and as many as 3,000 people during his forty-year tenure. It was a family business, he was the fourth of a six-generation dynasty of executioners. His eldest son apprenticed with him for twenty years and was sworn into office in 1778. It was his son who executed Marie Antoinette. Sanson Senior's hobbies included dissecting the bodies he executed.

Montmartre Cemetery Resources

  • The only entrance is found down a flight of stairs from Rue Caulaincourt.
  • Entrance is free.
  • Borrow one of the plastic-covered maps showing where to find one hundred notable grave sites.
  • Open daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM (may change with the season).
  • 20 Avenue Rachel
  • 18th Arrondissement, Montmartre
  • Metro: Blanche or Place de Clichy

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