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Visiting the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris: Attractions, Tips & Tours

Written by Lisa Alexander
Nov 17, 2020

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame makes a grand first impression. From its splendid location on the Île-de-la-Cité, the cathedral's towers and flying buttresses seem to magically spring forth from the Seine River and soar ambitiously towards heaven. At nearly 70 meters high, the 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.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (Photo taken prior to the April 2019 fire)

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 stonecutters 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.

Note: A large fire in April of 2019 caused considerable damage to the cathedral: The medieval roof and the 19th-century spire collapsed. The extent of the damage to the interior is still being assessed. At this time, the interior is closed to the public.

A project to contain the damage and stabilize the structure is underway. The city plans to rebuild the cathedral and restore it to its previous state, including an exact replica of the 96-meter-high spire created by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1860. Work is ongoing.

See also: Where to Stay near the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Revolutionary Gothic Architecture - Flying Buttresses

Notre-Dame's Flying Buttresses (Photo taken prior to the April 2019 fire)

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 scaffolding.

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. Although they are a purely functional structural feature and were not designed to beautify the building, they have a certain harmonious quality.

The best spot to admire the flying buttresses is from the viewpoint of the Square Jean XXIII behind the cathedral.

The West Facade - Kings and Christian Icons

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. The elaborate facade provides visual lessons in history and biblical stories.

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.

Cathedral Towers

Cathedral Towers

The cathedral's twin towers appear to have been spared damage from the 2019 fire. Presiding over the Seine River and Île de la Cité, the 69-meter-high towers are among the most iconic sights in Paris.

The famous Bell Tower that Victor Hugo's Quasimodo sounded is the North Tower. The South Tower houses the cathedral's largest bell, the Emmanuel Bell that weighs over 13 tons.

Gargoyles

Gargoyles

Gargoyles are fearsome sculptures typically found on medieval cathedrals, often designed for use as rainwater spouts. Some believe that the grotesque figures were created to scare off evil spirits.

Several of the gargoyles (called "chimères" in French) on Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral served as rainwater 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 on the Galerie des Chimères (balcony of gargoyles between the twin towers), from frightening devilish characters to a graceful stork and charming winged creatures.

Stained-Glass Windows

Stained-Glass Windows | MJM Photographie / photo modified

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.

On the south side of the choir are the neo-Gothic Cloister Windows. 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.

The Serene Sanctuary

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, throughout its long history Notre-Dame has been the setting of official occasions, including Napoleon's coronation as Emperor.

Fortunately, an important series of 13 paintings, known as "Les Mays de Notre-Dame," survived the 2019 fire. The series includes masterpieces by Charles Le Brun, Sébastien Bourdon, Jacques Blanchard, and other 17th-century artists. Displayed in the chapels around the nave, these paintings were created to honor the Virgin Mary, and feature themes from Saint Luke's Acts of the Apostles.

Treasury of Reliquaries

Treasury of Reliquaries | LenDog64 / photo modified

The Treasury is located in the cathedral's Sacristy 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.

Also on display in the Treasury are valuable medieval manuscripts, crosses, chalices, and Napoleon's coronation robes.

Crypte Archéologique (Archaeological Museum)

Crypte Archéologique (Archaeological Museum) | Jean-Pierre Dalbra / photo modified

Located underneath the cathedral, the crypt now houses an archaeological excavation site (and museum), where the foundations of Roman-era structures were found. During Roman times, the city was known as Lutetium.

The museum displays ancient ruins, archaeological findings, maps, drawings, and historical information, which tell 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: Parvis Notre-Dame, 7 Place Jean-Paul II, Paris (Métro et RER : Cité ou Saint-Michel)

Official site: http://www.crypte.paris.fr/en/homepage

Excavations under Parvis - Map
Excavations under Parvis Map

Best Views of Notre-Dame Cathedral

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral

One of the best views of Notre-Dame Cathedral is from the Pont Saint-Louis on the Île Saint-Louis. This vantage point provides a good perspective of the flying buttresses at the cathedral's east end (rear).

The east end of the cathedral is also visible from the Pont de la Tournelle (bridge) or the Quai de la Tournelle. Tourists can take this approach via Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

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 in the Latin Quarter, 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.

Also easy to reach from the Latin Quarter, the Quai du Marché Neuf offers a scenic stroll along the Seine River leading up to the cathedral. While in this area, be sure to visit the Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most dazzling of Paris' churches.

To see Notre-Dame from the Seine, take a Batobus boat ride or a Bateaux-Mouches lunch or dinner cruise departing from Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower. Consider an evening cruise, as the Notre-Dame looks especially romantic when it's illuminated at night.

Where to Stay near the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

We recommend these charming hotels in Le Marais, the Latin Quarter, and Tuileries neighborhoods. All are within easy walking distance of Notre-Dame Cathedral.

  • Hôtel Dupond-Smith: a luxurious 5-star boutique hotel in Le Marais district; the intimate ambience feels like a home-away-from-home.
  • Hôtel Monge: stylish 4-star boutique hotel in a lively area of the Latin Quarter near Rue Mouffetard restaurants and the Jardin des Plantes.
  • Hotel Malte - Astotel: 4-star hotel in a renovated 17th-century building near the Louvre Museum; sleek Art Deco-inspired interiors.
  • Hôtel de Roubaix: budget hotel in a great location near the Centre Pompidou; guest rooms feature colorful artistic decor.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

  • Tours of Notre Dame Cathedral: Learn the fascinating history of the cathedral on the Notre-Dame and Ile de la Cité Tour. An expert guide will share insights into how medieval masons built the Gothic structure and will take you on a walking tour through the quaint pedestrian streets of the Ile de la Cité and the Latin Quarter.
  • 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) or splurge on a gastronomic meal at the renowned Tour d'Argent restaurant on the Quai de la Tournelle (the dining room overlooks the Île Saint-Louis, Seine River, and Notre-Dame Cathedral).
  • Getting to Notre-Dame: Take the Métro to Cité, Saint-Michel, Hôtel de Ville, Maubert-Mutualité, Cluny-La Sorbonne, or Châtelet station. The RER stops at Saint-Michel - Notre-Dame station. 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. The Batobus drops passengers off at the Quai de Montebello, about 100 meters from the cathedral.

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