If it will be your first time in the French capital, you may recognize Paris' Sacré Coeur basilica from movies such as French Kiss (starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline) or French film Amélie.
Although the white exterior of this iconic Paris cathedral may seem spectacular to visitors, it provokes mixed feelings among Parisians (much like the Eiffel Tower). Some even call it "the big meringue" referring to the stiff meringue-like peaked turrets of the basilica that sits perched at the top of the hill in Montmartre.
We agree that the Sacré Coeur does not exude the same charm or elegance of Paris' earlier more classical structures, such as Notre Dame cathedral or Sainte Chapelle. However, it is worth visiting if you are walking through Montmartre, if only to see the beautiful Apse Mosaic over the altar. After all, a million tourists a year can't be wrong!
Sacré Coeur Basilica, Montmartre (CEllen - CC BY-SA 4.0)
A little Sacré Coeur history
Napoleon II I's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in late 1870 marked the end of the Second French Empire and the start of the Third Republic. The Paris Commune was a rebellion against the new government right after Napoleon and the defeat in Prussia. It ruled Paris from March 18th to May 28th, 1871 and was a radical socialist and revolutionary government. It lasted for two months, culminating in "bloody week" and the defeat of the rebels, with about 7,000 to 10,000 executions. Following this period, the Catholic Church ordered the construction of the Sacre Cœur to atone for the "crimes" of the Commune. French architect Paul Abadie designed the basilica and construction began in 1875 and did not finish until 1914.
The defeated opposition of the Paris Commune, which included future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, took revenge by naming the space at the bottom of the monumental staircase 'Square Willette', after the local artist who arrived on inauguration day and exclaimed: "Long live the devil!" In 2004, it was renamed Square Louise-Michel, another key figure of the Communes.
How to get to the Sacre Coeur
The Sacre Coeur is in north-central Paris in the Montmartre district (18th arrondissement). If you're approaching from the bottom of the park, you can take the Metro to Anvers station on line 2 and then walk up two blocks to Place Saint-Pierre avenue. Then you have the option of walking up 270 stairs to the Sacré Coeur Basilica, or you can take the Montmartre-Sacre Coeur funicular train up from Gare Basse Funiculaire. The journey takes about 90 seconds and at the time of writing costs €1.90, the same price as a single ticket on the Paris Metro.
Anthony Atkielski, Wikipedia CC by SA 3.0
Please be careful of pickpockets and scammers in this area. A common trick is to greet tourists warmly and tightly tie a "friendship" bracelet to their wrist, before demanding 10€ for the bracelet. It is best not to talk to or engage in any way with these vendors. We don't recommend buying anything from street vendors, but if you must, be sure to offer much less than they ask for. Keep your valuables close to you (no cell phones in back pockets!). It's best to have cameras on a secure strap around your neck or hidden away in a closed bag.
Sacre Coeur Facts: Architecture and Highlights
- Unlike Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, which was built in a gothic style, the Sacré Coeur reflects a Roman-Byzantine style of architecture. It might be compared to sites such as Venice's San Marco Basilica. The white limestone exterior is a very Parisian feature, as the limestone would have been taken from a nearby quarry.
- On the façade, look out for two prominent equestrian statues of Joan of Arc and King Louis on horseback.
- The stained glass windows in the basilica are not in fact the originals, which were destroyed during the bombings of the Second World War in 1944. The windows were restored after the war.
- Aristide Cavaillé-Coll built the grand organ. He was one of the most distinguished organ builders of the 19th century.
- At 19 tons, the Sacre's Coeur's Bell is one of the heaviest in the world. It dates back to 1895 and was built in Annecy in the French Alps.
- The basilicas's Dome is the highest point in Paris after the Eiffel Tower. A climb to the top will be worth it for the wonderful panoramic views across the heart of Paris.
- The showstopper of the interior of the Sacre Coeur is the huge mosaic of Jesus Christ above the altar. It is among the largest mosaics in the world and was finished in 1922.
Jesus Christ Mosaic in the Sacré Coeur basilica (Pixabay)
Views of the Paris Skyline from the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre
Many visitors are not interested in going inside the basilica and prefer to admire the grand exterior and the panoramic view across Paris from the outside terraces. If you want a more impressive view of Paris from the Sacre Coeur that includes the Eiffel Tower and many other monuments (if you have binoculars with you), you might like to climb the 300 steps to the top of the Dome. They can be accessed via an entrance outside the basilica on the left, and entry fees vary. Between May and September the Dome is open from 8.30 a.m. through 8 p.m. and between October and April it's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Dome may close in the event of bad weather.
Views across Paris from the Sacre Coeur Dome (Guilhem Vellut, Flickr)
Visiting the Sacre Coeur: Opening hours
The Sacre Coeur is open every day of the year, including on bank holidays, from 6.00 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. and entry is free. It is not necessary to make group reservations, but please maintain the silent atmosphere within the church.
Please note that there are no guided tours of the Sacre Coeur, to maintain a sense of peace in this place of worship. The only concert is normally an organ recital at Christmas. There is a free audio guide that you may download and listen to with headphones when you visit. It is possible to visit and climb to the top of the Dome but access and prices both tend to vary.
Sacre Coeur Mass Times
- MONDAY TO FRIDAY: 7 a.m., 11.15 a.m., 3 p.m. (Friday only), 6.30 p.m., 10 p.m.
- SATURDAY: 7 a.m., 11 a.m., (10 p.m. Anticipated Sunday Mass)
- SUNDAY: 7 a.m., 11 a.m., 6 p.m., 10 p.m.
- The 7 a.m. Mass takes place in the Chapel of the Virgin Mary (at the back of the basilica). Other Masses take place in the Choir. Anyone may attend.
- On Sundays and Feast Days, readings and hymns are included in mass sheets, including translations in English, Spanish, German and Italian.
Things to do around the Sacre Coeur
- The Sacre Coeur is in the charming hill-top district of Montmartre, so you may be interested in doing a walking tour of Montmartre before or after visiting the basilica. Here are some of the key places of interest in the vicinity of the Sacre Coeur:
- Find a caricature artist at the Place du Tertre and have your portrait done.
- Visit the Dali Museum and admire some of Salvador Dali's wonderful artwork.
- Enjoy some good old-fashioned French entertainment at the Au Lapin Agile Cabaret
- Pay your respects to the great figures of French history at Montmartre Cemetery, including Edgar Degas, an artist of the Belle Epoque and 20th-century filmmaker Francois Truffaut.
- Savor some French cuisine at the Le Moulin de la Galette, now a restaurant but formerly a functioning windmill featured in a painting by Renoir)
- Book tickets for the most famous cabaret in the world at the Moulin Rouge.
Check our self-guided Paris itineraries to find out more about what our beautiful capital city has in store for you!