Exploring the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris: A Visitor's Guide
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame makes a grand first impression. From its splendid location on the Ile-de-la-Cité, the Cathedral's towers, spire, and flying buttresses seem to magically spring forth from the Seine River and soar ambitiously towards heaven. The 70-meter high cathedral was, for centuries, the tallest building in Paris. A masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, the Notre-Dame is one of the greatest monuments of the Middle Ages. Although it may look archaic when compared with modern landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the cathedral features a revolutionary medieval design. The innovative Gothic technology of "flying buttresses" (support beams) were used to reinforce the massive structure.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral was founded in 1163 by King Louis IX (Saint Louis) and Bishop Maurice de Sully, who wanted to build a church that rivaled the Basilique Saint-Denis. It took almost 200 years and countless architects, carpenters, and stone cutters to construct the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The result is a perfection of Gothic design. Visitors marvel over the fabulously detailed facade and are awestruck by the enormous nave. The serene sanctuary is a soul-inspiring space. Ethereal light filters through magnificent stained-glass windows, and in the evening, the illuminated votive candles add to the spiritual ambience.
Best Views of Notre-Dame Cathedral
One of the best views of this popular tourist attraction is found on the Ile Saint-Louis around the Pont Saint-Louis. This area offers a lovely view of the towers and flying buttresses at the Cathedral's east end (rear). Another fantastic way to approach the back of the Cathedral is from the Quai de la Tournelle reached via Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue des Bernardins in the Latin Quarter. Continue across the Pont de l'Archevêché, where the Place Jean-XXIII is located. This pleasant garden is the perfect spot to enjoy a quiet moment away from the crowds and admire the flying buttresses up close.
The finest view of Notre-Dame's front is from the Petit Pont, a small bridge with a pedestrian sidewalk. Arrive here from Saint-Michel métro station, walk along the Quai Saint-Michel, and cross the Petit Pont bridge to the Rue de la Cité. Another possibility is to arrive from Maubert-Mutualité station, walk down the Quai Montebello via Rue Frédéric Sauton and cross the Pont au Double, an elegant pedestrian bridge that connects to the Rue d'Arcole, which runs into the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, the esplanade in front of the Cathedral's facade. Another fabulous perspective is from the Quai du Marché Neuf along the Seine River.
Revolutionary Gothic Architecture - Flying Buttresses
In the 13th century, flying buttresses were a revolutionary new technology of Gothic architecture, an innovative solution to provide reinforcement for heavy cathedral walls. The flying buttresses support the structure and prevent it from collapsing despite its enormous weight. On the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the flying buttresses are seen on the east facade (rear) of the building. These 15-meter arched pillars resemble long spindly spider legs bent at the knee, surrounding the building like a scaffolding.
The Notre-Dame was one of the first medieval cathedrals built with this special architectural technique. The cathedral was not originally designed with flying buttresses when it was constructed in the 12th century. However, stress fractures in the walls called for an architectural solution in the late 13th century. The architect Jean Ravy designed the flying buttresses to support the building from the outside, without obstructing any of the stained-glass windows. The flying buttresses are an interesting structural feature. Though they were not designed to beautify the building, they have a certain harmonious quality. Take a moment to admire the flying buttresses from the viewpoint of the Place Jean-XXIII behind the cathedral.
The West Facade - Kings and Christian Icons
The monumental west front of Notre-Dame Cathedral reveals the painstaking work of medieval stone cutters, who crafted finely detailed sculptures in the High Gothic style around 1210 to 1230. After admiring the elaborate overall design with its five horizontal sections, take time to appreciate the sculptures. The long row of figures above the doorways is the Gallery of Kings, which includes 28 figures of French Kings, from Childebert I (511-588) to Philippe Auguste (1180-1223). The heads were struck off during the Revolution and are now on display in the Musée de Cluny.
Visitors are awed by an entourage of biblical figures in the portals above the doorways. The Portail de Sainte-Anne above the right-hand doorway depicts the story of the Virgin's parents, the Annunciation, and Nativity of Christ. The Portail du Jugement Dernier above the central doorway illustrates Christ the Judge and Archangel Michael directing the righteous to heaven and the damned to hell. Above the left-hand doorway, the Portail de la Vierge shows the Assumption of the Virgin and Ark of the Covenant. The archivolts feature angels, patriarchs, and prophets. On the side walls are apostles and the figures of Saint Dionysius (Denis), John the Baptist, Saint Stephen, and Saint Genevieve.
The cathedral's twin towers are open to the public for visits. The entrance (with admission fee) to the towers is to the left of the front doorways on the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame, and then there's a climb of 387 steps. Admission allows visitors to see the two towers and the balcony of gargoyles. The famous Bell Tower that Victor Hugo's Quasimodo sounded is the North Tower. Visitors can see the cathedral's largest bell, the Emmanuel Bell, up close.
Tourists are ultimately rewarded by the spectacular views from the top, one of the great experiences of a visit to Paris. Unlike other famous Paris viewpoints (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur), the 70-meter-high towers of Notre-Dame offer a close-up view of the historic center of the city. From this location, the panoramic outlook includes Paris' most famous neighborhoods and monuments: the Ile de la Cité, the Hôtel de Ville, the Louvre, the Sorbonne, the Panthéon, and the Ile Saint-Louis. The view even extends to the modern part of Paris with the skyscrapers of La Défense in the distance. From the towers, there is also an interesting perspective of the cathedral's roof, spire, and the gargoyles.
Gargoyles are fearsome sculptures typically found on medieval cathedrals, often designed for use as rain water spouts. Some of the grotesque figures had no functional purpose at all, and many believe that they were created to scare off evil spirits. Several of the gargoyles (called "chimères" in French) on Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral served as rain water drains. During rainy weather, the monsters act like funnels, their mouths become the spouts of mini-waterfalls. Other Notre-Dame gargoyles are merely decorative. There is a melange of figures, from frightening devilish characters to a graceful stork and charming winged creatures. To see these amazing personages up close, go up the Cathedral Towers (entrance fee) and wander around the Galerie des Chimères, the balcony of gargoyles between the twin towers. The entrance to the towers is to the left of Notre-Dame's front doorways on the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame.
The Serene Sanctuary
The sheer immensity of the sanctuary, with its overwhelming sense of spaciousness, leaves many visitors awestruck. The inspiring high-vaulted nave reaches 35 meters and is 130 meters in length (longer than a football field). Typical of Gothic architecture, the nave has five aisles with chapels along the sides and a choir behind the transept. The choir features ornately carved wooden stalls and capitals decorated with Romanesque acanthus and leaf ornamentation. In the nave, 75 massive round pillars give a sense of the grandiose space that offers seating for 9,000 people. Because of its size and importance, the Notre-Dame has been the setting of official occasions, including Napoleon's coronation as Emperor.
Be sure to take a look at the Les Grand Mays series of paintings by Charles le Brun, Sebastien Bourdon, Jacques Blanchard, and other artists. Displayed in the chapels around the nave, these 17th-century paintings were created to honor the Virgin Mary and feature themes from Saint Luke's Acts of the Apostles. Originally, there were 76 painting in this series. The cathedral now possesses 13 of these paintings; the rest are at the Louvre and other museums in France. Another masterpiece is the 14th-century Notre-Dame de Paris statue of the Virgin and Child.
Notre-Dame has a special celestial aura thanks to its magnificent stained-glass windows. The colorful windows filter jewel-toned light into the otherwise somber space. Many of the windows date to the 13th century and their intricacy exemplifies the finest medieval craftsmanship. The most glorious are the three stunning Rose Windows, considered among the greatest masterpieces of Christian art. The West Front Rose Window (created in 1255) represents the story of the Virgin Mary in 80 spectacular Old Testament scenes. The South Transept Rose Window (created in 1260) depicts Jesus Christ surrounded by apostles, martyrs, and wise virgins as well as the story of Saint Matthew. More than 12 meters in diameter, the South Rose Window includes 84 panes of exquisitely detailed and beautifully rendered scenes.
Also take time to admire the neo-Gothic Cloister Windows on the south side of the choir. Created in the 19th century, this gorgeous series of 18 windows illustrates the Legend of Saint Genevieve, who was the patron saint of Paris. The cathedral also features contemporary stained-glass windows created by Malraux in the 1960s.
Treasury of Reliquaries
The Treasury is located in the cathedral's Sacristy, with an entrance (admission fee) in the choir on the right. There are many precious relics, including one of Christ's nails and a fragment of the True Cross. Many of the liturgical objects are made of gold and exemplify exquisite craftsmanship. The most precious item in the Treasury is the gilded bronze and gemstone reliquary designed by Viollet-le-Duc in 1862. This shrine holds the Holy Crown of Thorns, which has been an object of devotion for more than 1,600 years since it was removed from the Basilica of Zion in Jerusalem. The Shrine for the Crown of Thorns is venerated at Notre-Dame Cathedral the first Friday of the month, every Friday during Lent, and on Good Friday. Also on display in the Treasury are valuable medieval manuscripts, crosses, chalices, and Napoleon's coronation robes. The treasury is open daily Monday-Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Mass & Concerts
Attending a mass at the Notre-Dame Cathedral is an inspiring spiritual experience for many visitors. Tourists will get an authentic feel for the mystical ambience of Notre-Dame. During mass, the beautiful music and myriad flickering prayer candles transform the sanctuary into an ethereal space. Mass is held Monday through Saturday at 8am, 9am, 12 noon, and 6:15pm (6:30pm on Saturday). Another chance to connect with Notre-Dame's community of faith is by attending Vespers, which are held daily at 5:45pm. Sunday mass is held at 8:30am, 9:30am, 10am (Gregorian mass), 11:30am, 12:45pm, and 6:30pm.
Notre-Dame also hosts regular organ recitals and other holy music and classical music concerts such as Gregorian chants and Mozart's Requiem. The cathedral's renowned Cavaillé-Coll organ is one of the largest and most powerful in France, with 8,500 pipes, offering truly sensational sound quality. For a schedule of concerts, consult the Notre-Dame website's calendar of events. Another interesting way to discover Notre-Dame is by enjoying the cathedral's audiovisual show. Every Saturday and Sunday at 9:15pm, the cathedral offers a breathtaking show of images projected onto a screen of tulle, accompanied by music. Entrance is free.
Crypte Archéologique (Archaeological Museum)
Located underneath the cathedral, the crypt now houses an archaeological museum. The below-ground museum is an actual archaeological excavation site, where the foundations of Roman-era structures were found. During Roman times, the city was known as Lutetium. By presenting ancient ruins, archaeological findings, maps, drawings, and historical information, the museum tells the story of the city from antiquity through the medieval era. To access the museum (there is an entrance fee), take the stairs opposite the cathedral's facade.
Address: Address: 7 parvis Notre-Dame, Place Jean-Paul II, Paris (Métro et RER : Cité ou Saint-Michel)
Nearby Neighborhoods to Explore
The Notre-Dame is situated in between two fascinating Parisian neighborhoods. The Quartier Latin is the atmospheric university quarter where students learned Latin during the Middle Ages. The neighborhood's collegiate atmosphere is seen in the many bookshops and student hangouts. Stroll along the waterfront and shop for posters and paperback novels at the Bouquinistes (used book stands). Be sure to stop at the Place Saint-Michel and toss a coin into the Archangel's fountain for good measure. Then wander the impossibly narrow cobblestone streets to soak up the medieval ambience. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés, but most offer substandard tourist fare. For a truly romantic experience, dine at one of the péniches, restaurant boats docked on the Seine River with outdoor terraces offering splendid views of Notre-Dame.
The Ile-Saint-Louis has an elegant and charming atmosphere. It's a delight to explore this picturesque area, which is full of inviting boutiques, quaint restaurants, and little crêperies. The most famous ice cream shop in Paris, the Maison Berthillon, is at 31 Rue Saint-Louis. Also worth visiting is the Eglise Saint-Louis en l'Île, a lovely Baroque church dedicated to Saint Louis that contains a relic of the crown of thorns.
Tips & Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Cathédrale Notre-Dame
- Avoid the Crowds: During high season (summer and holidays), there may be a line to enter the cathedral. Arrive early in the morning or in the evening during summer. Check the cathedral's website for current opening hours. Attend an evening performance to enjoy a more relaxing experience in the cathedral without the teeming masses of tourists.
- Timing: Plan to spend one to two hours exploring the cathedral. Allow for more time to climb the Cathedral Towers and see the Galerie des Chimères balcony of gargoyles.
- Wear Comfortable Shoes if you plan to go to the top of the bell tower. There are 387 well-worn steps to climb and no elevator.
- Attend a Mass: Monday-Saturday at 8am, 9am, 12noon and 6:15pm (6:30pm on Saturday) Sunday 8:30am, 9:30am, 10am (Gregorian mass), 11:30am, 12:45pm and 6:30pm
- Enjoy a Concert: Evening musical performances (tickets are required) include organ recitals, holy music, and classical music. Tickets are available at the cathedral reception desk, daily 9:30am to 6pm and on concert evenings at 8pm. Check the website for the Notre-Dame's calendar of events.
- Audiovisual Show: This fabulous free show is presented every Saturday and Sunday at 9:15pm.
- Grab a Gourmet Meal Nearby: For an enjoyable meal before or after visiting Notre-Dame, explore the Ile Saint-Louis, an area with many quaint restaurants.
- Dine with a View of Notre-Dame: Take time for a leisurely meal at one of the péniches restaurant boats docked on the banks of the Seine River.
- See Notre-Dame from the Seine: To truly admire Notre-Dame's beauty from all angles, take a Batobus boat ride down the Seine River. Another option is a Bateaux-Mouches lunch or dinner cruise departing from Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower.
Getting to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame
- By Métro: Cité, Saint-Michel, Hôtel de Ville, Maubert-Mutualité, Cluny-La Sorbonne, or Châtelet station
- By RER: Saint-Michel - Notre-Dame station
- By Bus: Take Bus 21 to the Cité-Palais de Justice or Saint-Michel-Saint-Germain stop; or take Bus 24 to Petit Pont, Saint-Michel, or Notre-Dame-Quai de Montebello stop.
- By Boat: Enjoy a Batobus ride on the Seine River; the Batobus drops passengers off at the Quai de Montebello. Then walk about 100 meters to the cathedral.
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, 6 Parvis Notre-Dame - Place Jean-Paul II, Paris