The Cathédrale Notre-Dame makes a grand first impression. From its stunning location on the Ile-de-la-Cité, the cathedral’s towers, spires and flying buttresses seem to magically leap out of the Seine and soar to the sky with ambition. The 70-meter-high cathedral was the tallest building in Paris for centuries. A masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame is one of the greatest monuments of the Middle Ages. Although it appears monumental compared to modern landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the cathedral features a revolutionary medieval design. The innovative Gothic technology of “flying buttresses” (support beams) was used to reinforce the massive structure.
Notre-Dame Cathedral was founded in 1163 by King Louis IX (Saint Louis) and Bishop Maurice de Sully, who wanted to build a church to rival the Basilica of Saint-Denis. It took nearly 200 years and countless architects, carpenters and stonemasons to build Notre Dame Cathedral. The result is a perfection of Gothic design. Visitors marvel at the fabulously detailed facade and are in awe of the massive nave. The serene sanctuary is an inspiring space. Ethereal light filters through beautiful stained glass windows and in the evening the lit votive candles add to the spiritual atmosphere.
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Revolutionary Gothic architecture – flying buttresses
In the 13th century, flying buttresses were a revolutionary new technology of Gothic architecture, an innovative solution to reinforce heavy cathedral walls. The flying buttresses support the structure and prevent it from collapsing, despite its enormous weight. On Notre Dame Cathedral, the flying buttresses can be seen on the east facade (rear) of the building. These arched pillars, 15 meters long, resemble long, spindly spider legs bent at the knee, encircling 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 built 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 are not designed to beautify the building, they have a certain harmonious quality. Take a moment to admire the flying buttresses from the point of view of the Place Jean-XXIII behind the cathedral.
The West Facade – Kings and Christian Icons
The monumental west side of Notre-Dame Cathedral reveals the painstaking work of medieval stonemasons, who produced finely detailed sculptures in the High Gothic style around 1210 to 1230. After admiring the elaborate overall design with its five horizontal sections, take your time to admire 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 cut off during the Revolution and are now on display in the Musée de Cluny .
Visitors are impressed by an entourage of biblical figures in the portals above the doorways. The Portail de Sainte-Anne above the right doorway tells the story of the Virgin’s parents, the Annunciation and the birth of Christ. The Portail du Jugement Dernier above the central doorway illustrates Christ the Judge and Archangel Michael leading the righteous to heaven and the damned to hell. Above the left doorway, the Portail de la Vierge depicts the Assumption of the Virgin and the 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 Geneviève.
The cathedral’s twin towers are open to the public for visits. The entrance (with entrance fee) to the towers is to the left of the front doors of Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame, and then there is a climb of 387 steps. Entrance gives visitors the opportunity to see the two towers and the balcony of gargoyles. The famous Bell Tower that sounded the Quasimodo of Victor Hugo is the north tower. Visitors can see the cathedral’s largest bell, the Emmanuel Bell , close by.
Tourists are ultimately rewarded with the spectacular views from the top, one of the great experiences of visiting Paris. Unlike other famous Paris viewpoints (such as the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Coeur), Notre-Dame’s 70-meter towers offer a close-up view of the city’s historic center. From this location, the panoramic view offers the most famous districts and monuments of Paris: 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 Defense in the distance. From the towers there is also an interesting perspective on the roof of the cathedral, the spire and the gargoyles.
Gargoyles are terrifying sculptures typically found in medieval cathedrals, often designed for use as rainwater spouts. Some of the grotesque figures had no functional purpose at all, and many believe they were created to scare off evil spirits. Several of the gargoyles (called “chimères” in French) on Notre-Dame de Paris served as rainwater. During rainy weather, the monsters act like funnels, their mouths becoming the spouts of mini waterfalls. Other Notre-Dame gargoyles are merely decorative. There’s a melange of numbers, from frightening diabolical characters to a graceful stork and charming winged creatures. To see these amazing characters up close,Galerie des Chimères , the balcony of gargoyles between the Twin Towers. The entrance to the towers is to the left of the front doors of Notre Dame on Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. Seeing it up close is one of the most delightful things to do in Paris.
Stained glass windows
Notre-Dame has a special celestial aura thanks to its beautiful stained glass windows. The colorful windows filter jewel-toned light into the otherwise gloomy space. Many of the windows date back to the 13th century and their intricacy exemplifies the finest medieval craftsmanship. The most magnificent are the three breathtaking rose windows, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Christian art. The West Front Rose Window (made in 1255) represents the story of the Virgin Mary in 80 spectacular Old Testament scenes. The South Transept Rose Window(made in 1260) shows Jesus Christ surrounded by apostles, martyrs and wise virgins, as well as the story of Matthew. The South Rose Window is over 40 feet in diameter and contains 84 panels of beautifully 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 beautiful series of 18 windows illustrates the legend of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. The cathedral also has contemporary stained glass windows created by Malraux in the 1960s.
The Serene Sanctuary
The sheer immensity of the sanctuary, with its overwhelming sense of space, leaves many visitors awestruck. The inspiring high-vaulted nave is 35 meters long and 130 meters long (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 has finely carved wooden stalls and capitals decorated with Romanesque acanthus and leaf ornaments. Inside the nave, 75 massive round pillars give a sense of the grandiose space that can accommodate 9,000 people. Due to its size and importance, Notre-Dame has been the setting for official occasions throughout its long history, including the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor.
Be sure to check out 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 address themes from Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Originally there were 76 paintings in this series. The cathedral now owns 13 of these paintings; the rest are in the Louvre and other museums in France. Another masterpiece is the 14th century Notre Dame de Paris statue of the Virgin and Child.
Treasury of Reliquaries
The Treasury is located in the Sacristy of the Cathedral, 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, illustrating 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 contains the Holy Crown of Thorns, which has been an object of devotion for over 1,600 years since it was removed from the Basilica of Zion in Jerusalem. The Shrine to the Crown of Thornsis venerated on the first Friday of the month at Notre-Dame Cathedral, every Friday during Lent and on Good Friday. Also on display in the Treasury are valuable medieval manuscripts, crosses, chalices and coronation vestments of Napoleon. The treasury is open daily from Monday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
Crypte Archeologique (Archaeological Museum)
Located below the cathedral, the crypt now houses an archaeological museum. The underground museum is a real archaeological excavation site, where the foundations of Roman-era structures were found. During Roman times, the city was known as Lutetium. Presenting ancient ruins, archaeological finds, maps, drawings and historical information, the museum tells the story of the city from ancient times to the medieval era. To access the museum (there is an entrance fee), take the stairs opposite the cathedral facade.
Address: Address: 7 parvis Notre-Dame, Place Jean-Paul II, Paris (metro and RER: Cité ou Saint-Michel)
Official site: https://www.crypte.paris.fr/en/homepage
Mass and concerts
Attending a mass at Notre Dame Cathedral is an inspiring spiritual experience for many visitors. Tourists get an authentic feel for the mystical atmosphere of Notre-Dame. During mass, the beautiful music and countless flickering prayer candles transform the sanctuary into an ethereal space. Mass is celebrated Monday through Saturday at 8:00 AM, 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:15 PM (6:30 PM on Saturdays). Another chance to connect with Notre Dame’s faith community is by attending vespers , which are held daily at 5:45 p.m. Sunday Mass is held at 8:30 AM, 9:30 AM, 10:00 AM (Gregorian Mass), 11:30 AM, 12:45 PM, and 6:30 PM.
Notre-Dame also regularly hosts organ recitals and other sacred music as well as classical music concerts such as Gregorian Chants and Mozart’s Requiem. The cathedral’s acclaimed Cavaillé-Coll organ is one of the largest and most powerful in France, with 8,500 pipes, and offers a truly sensational sound quality. For a schedule of concerts, check the event calendar of the Notre-Dame website. Another interesting way to discover Notre-Dame is to enjoy the cathedral audiovisual show . Every Saturday and Sunday at 9:15 pm, the cathedral offers a breathtaking show of images projected on a tulle screen, accompanied by music. Entrance is free.
Best view of Notre-Dame Cathedral
One of the best views of this popular tourist attraction can be found on the Ile Saint-Louis around the Pont Saint-Louis . This area offers a beautiful view of the towers and flying buttresses on the east side of the cathedral (rear). Another fantastic way to approach the rear 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 place to enjoy a quiet moment away from the crowds and admire the flying buttresses up close.
The most beautiful view of the front of Notre-Dame is from the Petit Pont , a small bridge with a pedestrian sidewalk. Arrive here from Saint-Michel metro station, walk along Quai Saint-Michel and cross the Petit Pont bridge to Rue de la Cité. Another option is to arrive from Maubert-Mutualité station, walk down Quai Montebello via Rue Frédéric Sauton and cross the Pont au Double , an elegant pedestrian bridge that connects to Rue d’Arcole, which ends at Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, the esplanade in front of the facade of the cathedral. Another fantastic perspective for photos is from the Quai du Marché Neufalong the river Seine. If you want to see Notre-Dame from the Seine, you can take a boat trip with Batobus or a lunch or dinner cruise with Bateaux-Mouches from Pont de l’Alma at the Eiffel Tower.
Where to stay near the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
We recommend these charming hotels near the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral:
- Hotel Dupond-Smith: 5-star luxury, intimate boutique hotel, stylish design, Le Marais, home from home.
- Hotel Monge: 4-star boutique hotel, L’occitane toiletries, fresh tea and coffee, comfy beds, steam room.
- Hotel Malte Astotel: mid-priced, 17th-century building, stylish and eclectic decor, caring staff, excellent breakfast.
- Hotel de Roubaix: budget hotel, great location, quirky style, clean and compact rooms.
Tips and tours: Getting the most out of your visit to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
- Tours of Notre Dame Cathedral : Choose a morning or evening tour and get priority access to the bell towers for a view of a gargoyle of Paris on a Skip the Line: Notre Dame Cathedral, Tower and Ile de la Cite Half-Day Walking Tour, with an expert guide who brings the cathedral and historic district to life.
- For your comfort: Wear comfortable shoes if you plan to go to the top of the bell tower. There are 387 stairs and no elevator.
- Dine with a view of Notre-Dame: Take time for a leisurely meal in one of the péniches restaurant boats moored on the banks of the River Seine.
- Getting to Notre-Dame: Take the metro 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 the Notre-Dame-Quai de Montebello stop. The Batobus drops passengers off at Quai de Montebello, about 100 meters from the cathedral.
- Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, 6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II, Paris