Once a warren of artists' studios and swinging cafés, much of Montparnasse was leveled in the 1960s to make way for a gritty train station and the Tour Montparnasse, Paris's only—and much maligned—skyscraper. Nevertheless, the neighborhood has maintained its reputation as a hub for its lively cafés and the kind of real-life vibe lost in some of the trendier sections of the city.
Despite its soulless modern architecture, the Tour Montparnasse has an upside—after all, the rooftop terrace provides a prime panoramic view of Paris. It's okay to feel smug during your ascent as you consider how savvy you've been to avoid the long lines at the Tour Eiffel; afterward, congratulate yourself with a fancy cocktail at Le Bar Américain on the 56th floor.
The other star attraction of Montparnasse is underground. The labyrinthine tunnels of the Paris Catacombs contain the bones of centuries' worth of Parisians, moved here when disease, spread by rotting corpses, threatened the city center.
The café society that flourished in the early 20th century—Picasso, Modigliani, Hemingway, Man Ray, and even Trotsky raised a glass here—is still evident along Boulevard du Montparnasse. The Art Deco interior of La Coupole attracts diners seeking piles of golden choucroute.
Along Boulevard Raspail you can see today's art stars at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, or pay your respects to Baudelaire, Alfred Dreyfus, or Simone de Beauvoir in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.