As a student in the late 70s, I took classes on rue de Rennes. Getting off at the St Placide métro station every morning, I could see the tall black stick looming a hundred yards away. The other tower in the Parisian skyline. The one we love to hate. The eyesore. Looking back, it is indeed puzzling how la Tour Montparnasse managed to satisfy the powers-that-be since it never seemed to fit in with the traditional architecture that Malraux set up to preserve. But de Gaulle wanted it, Pompidou had it built and it was inaugurated in 1973. The skyscraper remains the most decried monument in Paris. In fact, it was even elected “second ugliest building in the world” in 2008 by online readers of VirtualTourist.com.
In spite (or because?) of my close proximity to Montparnasse during my student days, I was never inclined to visit the tower: my interest gravitated toward the local crêperies… I changed my mind just last month: saddled with a sudden hip inflammation that had me hobble to the pharmacy and purchase a cane as soon as I landed, I had to shuffle my plans and select activities that would minimize my walking and climbing les escaliers. Taking a speedy elevator to the top of the Tour sounded like a perfect alternative: I would get a bird’s eye view of the city instead of my usual streetside perspective.
My expectations were quite lower than the tower itself (210 meters.) After spending a couple of hours at the 56th-floor observatory and the 59th-floor terrace, I kept wondering why I waited more than forty years to see that view. Let me tell you: it might just be the best view of Paris. Sure, the Eiffel Tower is about 100-meter taller but it is quite off-center and the crowds are maddening. Notre-Dame towers are perfectly located –it doesn’t get more central than that– but they don’t offer as wide a range and, sadly, it will be years before they reopen. The Arc de Triomphe just doesn’t cut it, although it is a lot of fun to observe the crazy traffic below.
The great thing about a 200-meter elevation is that roofs and walls of the buildings are in plain view: the monuments are easily discernable. If you don’t know Paris, it’s a great introduction to the layout of the city. If you are a habitual visitor, you will love recognizing familiar neighborhoods and following streets with your finger.
Both the observatory and the terrace are set up with maps and virtual reality kiosks to help you identify all landmarks. Except one; more on that later. There is a café, a restaurant, and a boutique on the 56th floor; should you feel in a festive mood, grab a glass of Champagne on the terrace.
Given that Tour Montparnasse is located where the 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements intersect, most landmarks are located to the West, North, and East of the tower. A lot of tourists choose to visit early evening to watch the sunset but I would advise to go around lunchtime: I was there from 11 am to 1 pm and attendance noticeably dropped at noon. Groups simply vanished. At that time of the day, sunlight will hit all the places you are really curious about. If you can, avoid Wednesdays and Saturdays when you are more likely to share the space with groups of school children.
The panorama is breathtaking. With the help of orientation maps, looking from West to East, you can expect to clearly see the following: métro aérien (line 6,) bois de Boulogne, UNESCO, Ecole Militaire, Tour Eiffel, Palais de Chaillot, La Défense skyscrapers, Palais de Tokyo, Palais des Congrès, Arc de Triomphe, les Invalides, musée Rodin, pont Alexandre III, Grand and Petit Palais, Champs-Elysées, place de la Concorde, la Madeleine, Jardins des Tuileries, musée d’Orsay, place Vendôme, Opéra Garnier, Sacré-coeur, le Louvre, Institut de France, St Germain des Prés, St Germain l’Auxerrois, St Eustache, St Sulpice, tour St Jacques, centre Pompidou, Sainte Chapelle, Hôtel de Ville, Notre-Dame, palais and jardins du Luxembourg, Panthéon, tour Jussieu, jardin des Plantes, gare d’Austerlitz, Val de Grâce, Bibliothèque F. Mitterand, Port Royal, Observatoire, cimetière de Montparnasse, parc Montsouris. Oh my!
On a very clear day, you might even spot a plane taking off from Orly airport! Looking down toward the base of the tower, you’ll have a great view of the jardins de l’Atlantique that sit on top of gare Montparnasse and of the train tracks leading to Brittany.
And the “unidentified” building that looks like three gift boxes stacked on top of each other? It’s the new palais de Justice near porte de Clichy: the original location on the Ile de la Cité had become too small. I saw it up close the following day while driving on the boulevard périphérique. This new court building opened in April 2018 and the architect was Renzo Piano who also designed the centre Pompidou. At 160 meters in height, it is now the second tallest building in Paris after Tour Montparnasse. The western façade is sliced by a panoramic elevator that should offer lovely views of Montmartre but the general public can only visit the first four floors. It appears that Tour Montparnasse will remain the “other” tower with a view for a while longer…
If you want to visit Tour Montparnasse, book your ticket online in advance. You need not specify a day or time and your ticket is good for one year. If the weather does not cooperate, it gives you the flexibility to pick a clear day.
Tour Montparnasse is scheduled to get a substantial “facelift” just in time (you guessed it) for the Olympic Games of 2024. See what the architects have in mind.
And here are more photos of the new palais de Justice.
La crêperie: a restaurant that serves crêpes (sweet) and galettes (savory)
L’escalier: staircase; stairs
Le métro aérien: section of the Paris métro that runs above ground
Le boulevard périphérique: the ringroad around Paris proper