Sacré-Cœur can be an overwhelming proposition if you need to avoid stairs (knee, feet, or other concerns) due to the sheer number of stairs you might see when you make a try for the summit.
The good news is that many of those stairs can be avoided or reduced as long as you plan ahead, although if you are using a wheelchair, you may find you need extra assistance.
During the majority of my own trip in Paris, buses were the best way to avoid stairs in general since you can walk straight onto the bus. Many U.S. buses require two or three very large steps to get on the buses, but in Paris the buses are designed for easy on and off for those that have mobility issues (or for baby carriages, etc.) However, the trip from our hotel to Sacré-Cœur included awkward transfers on the bus so we went with a direct route on the metro that left us off at the Abbesses station.
After getting off of the Abbesses train, I looked around for the fabled elevators that are in some of the stations. Sure enough, there is one! But there didn’t appear to be a button to call the elevator. Thankfully several women were waiting for the elevator and called us back when we started to leave. My French isn’t good enough to know for sure, but I suspect the elevator just goes up and down over and over again. Your mileage may vary significantly.
Où est l’ascenseur? = Where is the elevator?
As we started to ascend the elevator, it became apparent that this station was not the typical 40 steps kind of station. It felt like we went up and up and up. At the top we were let out on the street level with no more steps! We set off on the streets in search of the Funiculaire – Gare Basse which is the base of the Funicular that will save all those stairs Montmartre is famous for.
For those that haven’t heard of a funicular, don’t be too surprised, since the first time I saw a funicular was just a few years ago on an episode of “Amazing Race” on TV. They are basically two cable cars that are connected via cable to each other and move in opposition to each other (one car goes up while the other goes down). This is a bit different from the cable cars of San Francisco that are independent (and far more complicated). I paid particular attention that my Paris transit pass included passage on the only funicular in Paris. For those that might be interested in finding others around the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_funicular_railways.
Here comes the tricky part of avoiding a few more stairs. Once the funicular lets you off, you are faced with going up even more stairs or going to the left or
right along a street (see the photo showing this). If you are looking for the easiest route up, go left (toward the west) and follow the street around and up to the west side of the Basilica. At this point you will see the security line and the main steps of the church. (We went during a pretty light time so the security line formed right in front of the church, however during the busier seasons it may go other ways.)
If you are in need of the public toilets, from the funicular go to the right and follow the street around the base of Sacré-Cœur to the manned pay toilets on the east side of Sacré-Cœur (the inside of the Basilica does not have public toilets). However, once you finish with the toilets you will have a choice of walking all the way back around the base to the other side of the Basilica (a fair distance) or going up a set of stairs. The main steps of the Basilica are the “standard” way to get into Sacré-Cœur, but I can assure you that there is an entrance for wheelchairs (I witnessed it being used) but it looked like you would probably have to work with the staff. I would recommend calling in advance if it’s a necessity.
The vantage point from the main plaza gives you a great view of Paris from on high. If you really want to go for broke, there are stairs up to the dome on the outside (300 steps and no there is no elevator). If you check the Sacré-Cœur web site: http://www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com/english/ you can get hours, a free audio guide and especially information for mass and vespers times. Photos are highly discouraged inside since it is continuously in use as a place of prayer. Please don’t be “that” tourist (security will ask you to stop).
We accidentally arrived just in time for the mass to begin and took time out to experience the music from the service and the contemplative atmosphere. Witnessing
the Basilica in actual use instead of just as a tourist site was something no photo could provide. (And my atheist travel companion even enjoyed it.) My only regret is that we missed the few times each week that include the Grand Organ.
Several people had to be reminded to speak quieter. While seated for the mass, it was expected that you stay quiet. I did not witness anyone being asked to cover themselves, however, out of respect, any places of worship are not the place to wear your barely legal outfits or your shortest shorts.