Sacré-Cœur Basilica or “Sacred Heart” is a Roman Catholic church perched atop Montmartre that offers sweeping views of Paris. While Sacré-Cœur is downright modern as compared to Notre Dame de Paris, this is exactly what we had in mind when recommending an alternate destination for a more ‘spiritual’ experience in our post about Notre Dame being overrated. Here, I’ll discuss my thoughts on Sacré-Cœur, offer some info, and share some tips for making the most of your visit.
As always, we’ll start with background info. Sacré-Cœur didn’t open until after World War I (hence it being “downright modern” relative to Notre Dame). Sacré-Cœur was originally commissioned by the French government in 1873 in what essentially amounted to a morale-building exercise for the French after devastating, war-torn years. Architect Paul Abadie employed elements from Romanesque and Byzantine styles when designing Sacré-Cœur, and the result is a somewhat eclectic style that deviates considerably from familiar works of French architecture.
Derided by intellectuals at the time, history has looked upon Sacré-Cœur more favorably. When I first saw Sacré-Cœur, I did a double take, as I thought it was a distorted photo of the Taj Mahal. The dome reminds me more of Mughal architecture than Gothic styles elsewhere in Paris. I know it’s neither, which is part of the appeal: it’s unique…
We’ve only visited Sacré-Cœur Basilica once, and headed there via the Metro after having lunch. We weren’t entirely sure of what to expect. We knew it was on the outskirts of town, and had heard the Montmartre area described in a number of ways. Perhaps the most interesting and illuminating is in this blog post, which paints a fairly accurate picture of the Montmartre we encountered.
The edgier nature of Montmartre was on full display as we exited the Metro station. Knock-off handbags so poorly-done they probably are better described as “parody handbags,” useless trinkets, novelty t-shirts with monikers that would only (hopefully) be funny to the pre-pubescent set, and a variety of other sexual wares and other…stuff..was all being pitched on the streets.
In between, there were peep shows, kebab stalls, and a smattering of innocuous-looking shops (places I still wouldn’t visit given their location; sorry, but guilt by association, I suppose). This all might paint Montmartre in a pretty bleak light, but really, it’s not that bad. The area feels more diverse and the tone of the culture here is different. Not “bad” different, just different.
The tourists marched like ants down this ‘main drag’ up the hill, which led us to assume there would be no end to the heavy-handed pitches of the purveyors of fine junk, so we darted off-course to a side street after a couple-hundred yards of this. I don’t recall which one, but it’s an ‘all roads lead to Rome’ sort of scenario so long as you’re heading uphill.
Alternatively, you can avoid the steps and the street vendors by taking the mini-train with departs from near the Abbesses Metro. Wanting the full experience (and needing the exercise after eating crepes and other sweets), we opted to walk. It’s a fairly mild incline, so if you’re in reasonable shape we’d recommend doing that.
Our idea was to visit Sacré-Cœur in late afternoon, touring the inside first and then sticking around for the views of sunset over Paris, with views all the way to the Eiffel Tower. I had used my The Photographer’s Ephemeris app to scout this out, and it was a good idea–in theory. What the app didn’t account for was the large trees that would block some of the view. (I’m sure it would’ve been a good sunset spot, but it wasn’t what I had in mind.)
Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the Basilica at Sacré-Coeur, and I did not break this rule; hence the lack of photos to illustrate this post. If you search via Google, you can find photos of the interior. If you never plan on visiting Paris, you should look for them–it’s absolutely stunning. If you do plan on visiting Paris, don’t look. Just take my word that Sacré-Coeur is an absolute must-do, even if you only have one day in Paris. Seeing the Basilica at Sacré-Coeur with fresh eyes is, in my opinion, totally worth it and the experience will leave you speechless.
We sat and simply gazed up at the ceiling for a while because it was so stunning. Even though the Basilica at Sacré-Coeur was also swarming with tourists, it had a completely different vibe than Notre Dame de Paris. The no-photography rule was largely observed and people spoke in hushed voices out of respect.
The difference, in my mind, is that expectations for guest behavior in Basilica at Sacré-Coeur were clearly set at the door. Guests self-policed behavior and rose to meet the defined character of the experience. We’ve visited a lot of religious sites, and this seems to be a universal truth. If you set the tone as a commercialized location with a gift shop and lax rules on talking, hats, photography, etc., visitors are likely to treat it as a regular point of interest, not a place of worship. If presented as a place of worship first and a point of interest second, visitors will act accordingly.
We could have spent a long time inside, marveling at the beauty of the massive golden mosaic of Christ in the Majesty, which was created in 1922 by Luc-Olivier Merson, This is one of the largest mosaics of its kind, and is absolutely entrancing. Other notable details inside Sacré-Coeur include the portico’s bronze doors decorated with biblical scenes; the rebuilt stained-glass windows (the originals having been destroyed during a World War II bombing); and, La Savoyarde, one of the world’s heaviest bells, weighing about 19 tons.
Once outside, you can pay to climb the exterior spiral staircase of the 271-foot dome for a higher view of Paris (the second-highest after the Eiffel Tower), but we opted to stay at the front steps. (Either are fine for a near-aerial view of downtown Paris.)
The best time to visit Sacré-Coeur is a matter of perspective. If you’re a photographer wanting the best light, that’s when we visited, just before sunset. Unfortunately, this is the worst time to visit from a crowd-perspective. The area was absolutely mobbed with people, and there were a ton of people camped-out on the steps and hill outside, waiting for the sunset view. More street vendors interspersed among the crowds, selling bottles of cheap champagne, beer, and wine.
On the plus side, the crowd was entertained by the most amazing street performer I’ve ever seen, a man named Iya Traore (the first street performer I’ve heard of who has a Wikipedia page!). Seriously, this guy was awesome. Part acrobat, part soccer player, it was pretty amazing to watch him. He was the perfect “pre-show” for the sunset, and everyone was really engaged by his act.
It wasn’t the normal “watch because we’re a captive audience and there’s nothing else to look at” sort of scenario–all eyes were on him and there were collective cheers from the crowd and rounds of applause when he accomplished certain, unbelievable moves. From what I understand, he’s something of an institution at Sacré-Coeur. (Sacré-Coeur: come for the breathtaking Basilica, stay for the street performer!)
If you’re looking for a low-crowd time to visit, the best time is undoubtedly early morning or evening. My guess would be that there’s a mass exodus of people after sunset, and only a fraction of the crowds. I would recommend weighing whether these lower crowds are an acceptable trade-off. For starters, Montmartre is on the outskirts of Paris, meaning going in the morning is quite an early morning trek, followed by another trek back for your second point of interest.
On the other hand, going late at night puts you in a rougher area after dark. We were slightly uncomfortable around Moulin Rouge at night, and this is a bit seedier than that (watch for pickpockets in both locations). I’d probably just stick with the pre-sunset golden hour, and the crowds that entails–as mentioned, the atmosphere inside is incredibly solemn and respectful, so even a higher level of crowds does not negatively impact the experience.
Throughout the post, I think I’ve effectively answered whether or not I recommend Sacré-Cœur Basilica. In case it’s not clear, the answer is an emphatic YES! Paris is a city of unparalleled beauty, and Sacré-Cœur is a high water mark even among staunch competition. Moreover, its setting in Montmartre offers a glimpse into a different side of Paris, and while it’s a bit rougher around the edges, it’s still interesting. The icing on the cake is the panoramic views the hill offers of the city, which are tough to beat. We still have so many things to see and do in Paris, but for now, I’d put this in my top 5.
Planning your own trip to Paris, France? Check out our posts about Paris for more ideas of what to do in the City of Lights. If you’re venturing beyond Paris, you’ll also want to consult our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with Rick Steves Paris and Rick Steves France guidebooks.
If you’ve visited Sacré-Cœur Basilica, what did you think of it? Did you prefer it to Notre Dame (or do you want to cop-out and say you liked both “for different reasons” 😉 )? Any other tips on this popular point of interest in France? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!