It was an overcast day in Paris during late April – perfect for visiting the largest cemetery in town. The Père Lachaise Cemetery is home to the celebrities of Paris from back in the day along with a few familiar faces – at least the ones who didn’t make it into the Pantheon. Fancy graves that are more like gothic chapels are the main attraction here, along with a strange mix of tranquility and eeriness. If you’re looking for a cool thing to do in Paris, you’ve come to the right place!
When visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery, you get a sense that the bourgeoisie, and even the bohemians of the day – were competing with each other over who’s got the fanciest eternal resting spot. Prepare yourself for a visit like no other in town and drop by to say hello to some of the most influential people of their time (and even of our time). So are you ready to explore the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
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Why should you visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
The Père Lachaise Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Paris but who really cares, right? I bet you don’t tend to visit cemeteries on your holidays. What’s so special about this place is first of all the beauty of the site. Cobblestone lanes criss-cross the grounds in an endless maze and you’ll definitely find yourself getting lost. It’s also a place to escape the madness of Paris. There are thousands of old trees scattered throughout and as you will see in the pictures, mother nature is beginning to win the battle. Silence is only broken by the occasional distant honking car or the cemetery crows (this can be really spooky).
The second reason to visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery is of course, for the residents who call this place home. When you visit the cemetery, you’ll start to connect the dots between the names on the tombstones and the names of the street signs all over Paris. Like many things in Paris, visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery is like stepping back in time and the closest you’ll ever get to some of these immortal figures in French and world history.
What’s amazing to see here is that visitors appear to be in sort of a weird ‘scavenger hunt’ – navigating, getting lost and finally making it with immense satisfaction to the grave of a famous singer, writer, politician and what not. You’ll find yourself joining this act as well!
When to go to the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
The cemetery is open every day until 6 pm. The grounds themselves are very pleasant to stroll around, with plenty of trees and quiet spots. Visiting the cemetery can be a good option if you’re wondering what to do in Paris when the weather is not amazing. It’s ideal to visit both on a sunny day, but also on an overcast day. I’ve also seen a few photos of the cemetery with snow on the ground and it looked really cool – certainly adding an eeriness to an already eerie place.
How to get to the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
There are quite a few Metro stations around the cemetery so getting here is not a problem. The most convenient station will be the Père Lachaise station, which is serviced by both line 3 and 2. From the station, it’s a short walk to the main entrance on Boulevard de Ménilmontant – though there are smaller entrances on all four sides.
How long should you spend at the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
Allow yourself at the very least two full hours to visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery. The grounds are beautiful and with all the famous folks buried here, you’ll find yourself on that weird ‘scavenger hunt’ that I mentioned earlier. If you want to take the time and visit all the famous residents along with sucking in the view of Paris and perhaps having a small break – I would go for something like 3-4 hours.
This place is quite huge and very confusing to navigate. There is a sign-posted map at the entrance of the museum but you really want something to guide you along as you navigate through the twisting and winding cobblestoned lanes. So my advice would be to either download a PDF map to your phone/tablet (there are lots of them out there like this map of the Père Lachaise Cemetery) OR purchase a proper map from one of the shops around the cemetery – those will really come in handy and that’s the best tip I can give you for visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Your visit can also be combined with checking out the old village of Belleville (especially the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont) or the charming La Campagne à Paris, which I’ll cover in this post. This area of Paris does have a few ‘dodgy’ spots but also a few pockets of old charm that might be worth checking out if you have the time and are looking for off the beaten path things to do in Paris.
What to see at the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
The cemetery is officially split into numbered sections but topographically speaking, kind of split into three main parts: the flat lower section close to the main entrance, the ‘hilly’ middle and again a flat section at the top (north side). The latter part contains ‘newer’ graves (Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf, among others) while the former two house old and sometimes crumbling graves, which are the architectural highlights of the cemetery. There is no right or wrong way for visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery so just follow along. What I basically did is mark the graves I wanted to visit and walked in what seemed to be the best way of getting from point A to B, while also covering most of the cemetery grounds.
The Lower Section
This part of the cemetery is quite easy to navigate, with sometimes wide ‘boulevards’. So it’s no surprise to find the man who created the Grand Boulevards of Paris, Baron Haussmann himself in this part of the cemetery. Haussmann’s official title was Prefect of the Seine and he was handpicked by Napoleon III to carry out a massive expansion plan in Paris. As part of this plan, he demolished huge chunks of old Parisian alleys to make way for wide boulevards that would not only let the city ‘breath’, but also connect its parts and enable expansion. Naturally, one of those Grand Boulevards in named after him and you can find a cute museum called the Musée Jacquemart-André on number 158.
Another famous resident of this section is Gioacchino Rossini, a famous Italian composer who wrote 39 operas and died in Paris in 1868.
The Middle Section
Things begin to get confusing once you start to ascend the hills of the cemetery. Narrow lanes lead to unmarked dirt paths and you’re bound to get lost – but that’s OK. It’s over here that you begin to see those famous chapels, some really showing signs of aging.
First up is Fryderyk Chopin, the Polish composer who died in Paris in 1849. His grave is frequently visited by fellow Poles, as you can see.
Really close by is opera composer Vincenzo Bellini who died in 1835 and was buried here on a temporary basis, until his remains were transferred to Italy in the 1870’s. Buried close to Bellini is Vivant Denon, a French artist, writer, diplomat, author, and archaeologist. I am mentioning Denon since one of the Louvre’s wings is named after him, where you will find the likes of the Mona Lisa along with other exquisite paintings and artifacts.
From here, it’s worth climbing to the ‘summit’ where the Chapelle is. You’ll find here a small park with obstructed views of Paris and a few giant mausoleums that I’m very curious to know more about…
We’ll now temporarily descend from the top of the hill and head over to visit one of the most famous residents of Père Lachaise. On the way, we’ll reach a big circular plaza that once again, is a good place to take a break if you passed on one at the top of the hill.
You’ll notice here that traffic is increasing and if you’re lost, just follow the crowds and you’ll eventually make it to Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. The iconic Doors singer died in Paris in 1971 at the age 28! His grave cannot actually be accessed due to countless acts of graffiti and various alcoholic and narcotic ‘gifts’ that were left over the years by diehard fans. To be honest, it’s definitely not the ‘nicest’ grave considering what’s around you but hey – it’s Jim Morrison.
A small tip, most folks pretty much dash back up the hill towards the Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf graves. If you continue wandering around the curving lanes just to the north of Morrison’s grave, you’ll pretty much have them all to yourself!
Meticulous scavenger hunters will also be able to make it to the grave of Molière, the famous French playwright, and actor that’s known for his comedic pieces – a very tricky one to find! Challenge accepted?
The Upper Section
The upper section is a lot more easy to navigate and houses more recent and ordinary (yet wealthy) residents.
The first highlight here is Oscar Wilde, the Irish author, playwright, and poet. Wilde died in Paris in 1900 and was a frequent part of Parisian life during that time.
Next up is none other than Edith Piaf. Her grave is once again, not the most impressive but you must pay respect to the mother of the French ‘chansons’.
From the grave of Edith Piaf, I basically walked to the other side of the cemetery to check out the upper and lower parts of the eastern side, en route to exiting the cemetery. The first stop was at the crematorium, an impressive structure on its own but super eerie with the small chambers that house the ashes of the deceased.
Starting to head back down, I visited Honoré de Balzac – the French novelist and playwright. Next to him is Eugène Delacroix, a French painter who lived in Saint Germain and whose fine works (really amazing stuff) are mostly housed in the Denon section of the Louvre but also in the Musee d’Orsay.
Once again, this area of the cemetery is super cool to explore. Notice how so many alleys converge in this tiny square, before branching out to quiet parts of the cemetery.
As you start to head back down, this part of the Père Lachaise Cemetery is also very quiet as much of crowd is still out looking for the ‘celebs’.
A quick visit to an old village
About a 20-minute walk from the front entrance of the cemetery, you’ll reach La Campagne à Paris (look for Rue Irénée Blanc & Rue Jules Siegfried). These two streets form what used to be an old village. The neighborhood around you is a bit ‘dodgy’ but these two streets are a world away. Check out this tiny little neighborhood and you can hop on the Metro back into central Paris from the nearby Porte de Bagnolet Station.
Visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery was something I always wanted to do in Paris. I can understand why a first-time visitor to Paris will skip this place (or maybe not even be aware of it) but if this is your second or third time in Paris and you’ve already covered the major tourist hotspots – come here for a walk back in time and you won’t regret it. There are few other similar styled cemeteries in Paris (like the Montmartre & Montparnasse cemeteries) but Père Lachaise is the grandest of the all. It is very confusing to get around so I do recommend to get your hands on one of those maps.
So, if you’re looking for an off the beaten path thing to do in Paris or looking for something to do on a cloudy day (aside from shopping), visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery is highly recommended.