Montmartre is quite magical at night with those little cobblestone streets, chatter and music filling the air from bars and restaurants and an atmosphere of palpable mischief and mystery surrounding you. Discovering a city at night is one of my favorite parts of traveling, part of it being adventure and the other part a willingness to see how the locals live and dream.
We started at Le Chat Noir, a bar in Pigalle, where the presence of poets and philosophers of the past still light up the present. A perfectly brewed café au lait hit the spot more than any glass of absinthe would do for me, and warmed my stomach for the late autumn climb that we had planned. Pigalle is always bustling at night, the bright lights from Le Moulin Rouge and the other cabarets bearing down on you and hustlers trying to pull you into their dingy spaces. As soon as you make the turn into Montmartre and start climbing up that hill the atmosphere changes. Lighter, happier, friendlier.
With our eye on the Sacré-Coeur, all lit up in the clear nighttime sky, we walked through the streets, relying on our internal navigation systems to guide us to the Basilica. You can’t go too wrong if you head upwards, and thanks to a few extra turns down side streets we actually found a cozy little brasserie that we bookmarked in our minds for dinner later. There was something comforting about strolling up towards the beautifully lit edifice on the hill, taking those 270 steps up there one at a time and pausing to rest our legs every few minutes or so.
The steps are not for the faint of heart, but they aren’t overly difficult to navigate either, and even at 9pm they were bustling with people. Parisians, tourists, musicians, scammers, and caricature artists mingling around, all with different intentions and different reasons to be there, a little snapshot of Paris, right there on the hill. I didn’t want to look back at the view until we reached the top, and once we did, a little breathless, I was not disappointed. Just imagine the whole city laid out in front of you, the lights flickering in the dark sky, a twinkling map of the streets, boulevards and buildings at your feet and the entire sky full of stars over your head.
The Eiffel Tower lit up like a beacon in one spot, Notre Dame Cathedral in another; seeing the Champs-Elysées leading to the Arc de Triomphe from above and the Bastille monument pointing towards the sky. The way the noises of the city wafted upwards and mingled with the hushed voices around us created an impression of being caught in a bubble in time, watching over the magic of a city in motion from our spots on the stairs. And the best part of all of this was that that amazing view is there every night, for free. So we walked back down, had dinner in the brasserie and went right back up again, after midnight, to savor that feeling all over again.