Last Updated on 22nd December 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Impressive, historical, and downright beautiful: there’s no shortage of incredible churches in Paris, each with their own unique past, present and future. Though Notre Dame may be closed for some time to come, now seems like a great time to shine a light on those ecclesiastical buildings which are often forgotten in favour of their more famous counterpart. In total, there are close to 200 ecclesiastical buildings in the city! Here’s your guide to the best of Paris churches!
But first, a quick note from the editor: Though we all know the English word ‘heritage,‘ you may not be familiar with its French twin; ‘Patrimoine’. Derived from the Latin word, ‘Patrimonium‘ (of/ from the father), the scope of the word quite literally conveys much more than the simple need to preserve. France has a complex relationship with its past, and the idea of Patrimoine is not just one of preservation, but the retelling of a collective story of a nation…
A brief note on French Church Architecture and Church Fires in Paris
Throughout the ages, Notre Dame has widely been considered to be a ‘miraculous’ church due to the fact that a fire isn’t recorded in its written history. You see, during the Middle Ages, fires in churches, cathedrals, and basilicas were oh-so-common. In Medieval Times, if a cathedral or church had caught fire, worshippers may well have believed that it was a sign from above that a better and bigger cathedral was needed.
The reasons for more church fires during the Middle Ages are threefold; in part because fire safety regulations were not what they are today, in part because when a fire did break out, it could not be controlled in the same way as a fire might be today, and also because fire is quite literally used in many aspects of the church.
From melting the lead to install plumbing to lighting candles throughout the buildings as part of religious ceremonies, the risk is pretty great. Back in the UK, when it comes to theories surrounding the burning of Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th-century, many scholars believe that the fire was a deliberate arson attack by the monks themselves!
The idea of conservation and preservation of the past as opposed to installing new and innovative ideas is a fairly modern concept. For the past two millennia (right up until the mid-20th-century, or thereabouts), it would have been commonplace to consistently update and renovate structures (including churches) to the latest fashion of the day.
For example, whereas in the 17th-century it would have been popular to remove the rood screen (hence why only one church in Paris now has a jube), the arrival of Gothic architecture paved the way for turrets and spires, such as those found within Notre Dame Cathedral. In all likelihood, it’s pretty likely that those who first constructed the churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages wouldn’t even recognise them in their current incarnations.
The best of unusual and unique Churches in Paris
Notre Dame du Travail
Our Lady of Work is located in the 14th arrondissement of the city. And, on account of its rather plain façade, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Notre Dame du Travail is a little run of the mill. Instead, however, this ecclesiastical building is an impressive feat of early 20th-century engineering.
Constructed in 1902 during the time of the Universal Exhibition of Paris on the nearby Champ de Mars, the interior of Notre Dame du Travail is all metal framework, a lattice lacework of iron. Also worth noting is that the church’s main clock was taken as a war trophy by Napoleon III following the Battle of Sebastopol in 1854.
Commissioned by Louis XV in the 18th-century and designed by the same architect who worked on plans for the Arc de Triomphe, Eglise Saint-Philippe-du-Roule can be found in the 8th arrondissement. Highlights of this Parisian church today include a fantastic frescoed ceiling and Neo-Classical architecture that’s reminiscent of Roman temples.
Saint-Etienne du Mont
Lurking in the shadows of the Paris Pantheon, this Latin Quarter church dedicated to Saint Stepehn is one you certainly won’t want to miss. For it’s here, in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, home of the last remaining rood screen in Paris proper, where you’ll soon discover the final resting place of Saint Genevieve.
Saint Genevieve is the Patron Saint of Paris and centuries ago, the adjacent grand structure of the Paris Pantheon was actually constructed to house her relics. As such, enter inside the Pantheon today and you’ll be amazed by stunning frescoes depicting Genevieve’s life, not to mention breathtaking views of the rest of the city and the Foucault Pendulum.
Prior to the French Revolution, it would have been commonplace to take the relics of Saint Genevieve on procession down to Notre Dame Cathedral and back again on a yearly basis. All this changed following the Revolution when the Saint’s relics were burned and the Pantheon was transformed into a secular building. Now, all that remains of Saint Genevieve’s remains can be found inside this forgotten hidden gem of a 15th-century church.
Off the beaten path in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, I first stumbled upon the off this hidden Parisian gem quite by accident. L’église Saint-Serge de l’Institut is just minutes away from the magical park of Buttes Chaumont and located a short walk up a little-unmarked alleyway (so is near impossible to spy from the main road).
All wooden façade and beautifully frescoed interior, the Parisian place of worship is well worth a look if you’re ever in the area. Nearby, you’ll find the Saint-Serge Institute. Founded in 1925, the institute is the oldest orthodox theology establishment in Western Europe and is a centre for higher education. Head here to see a side of Paris that most could never even imagine seeing…
Sacré Coeur Basilica
Of all the churches in Paris, there’s no denying that the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur is one of the most famous. With its creamy dome and unusual architecture, the Basilica dominates the rest of the surrounding 18th arrondissement and is free to visit.
Constructed at the beginning of the 20th-century, though there’s been a place of worship here at the top of the Butte Montmartre for millennia, the Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart) is open on a daily basis. For one of the best views of Paris, a climb (you have to pay for this) to the top of the Basilica’s dome is an absolute must.
The Armenian Cathedral in Paris
Mere metres away from the hustle and bustle of the Champs Élysées, the Armenian Cathedral in Paris was built at the turn of the 20th-century at the behest of a wealthy Armenian businessman who had made his money in oil and wanted to create a Place of Worship in Paris for the Armenian speaking community.
The businessman spent 450,000 francs on the plot of land where the church now resides and the first stone was laid in 1902 in the presence of Bishop Kévork Utudjia. Of all the churches in Paris, this is one of the lesser known, though it’s still worth checking out if you’re ever in the area.
All ornately carved façades and set back a little from the street, the little-known church of Notre Dame de Consolation can be found in the 8th arrondissement and is well worth a wander past on any venture into the district, especially so considering its history.
On the very same street as the Armenian Cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-Consolation is a Neo-Baroque memorial to a Belle Epoque tragedy. You see, during the late 1800s, a fair was held here called the ‘Bazar de la Charité’ (Charity Bazaar). Founded with the aim of giving proceeds to those less fortunate, a terrible fire broke out during the fair, resulting in the death of dozens of people.
Beautiful and tucked away in the heart of the Latin Quarter on a street that’s overshadowed by the Paris Pantheon, the roots of Église Saint-Éphrem-le-Syriaque dates all the way back to the 14th-century. The church of now was constructed during the 1700s, though there were previously two different chapels on site. Today, regular free classical concerts are held within the church, especially during the winter months around Christmastime.
Close to the every so pretty Jardin du Luxembourg, and located within the chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres area of the city, Saint Sulpice is a crumbling and expansive church. So vast is this Parisian ecclesiastical building that it’s actually one of the largest churches in Paris, second only to Notre Dame.
Though part of the Da Vinci Code was actually set within Saint-Sulpice, controversy meant that the Tom Hanks film was not actually allowed to be filmed within its walls. The history of the church is equally as fascinating and the building you see today dates back to the 17th-century. I’m sure you’ve probably not seen this, but Saint-Sulpice caught fire in March 2019, more details of which can be found here.
By far my favourite of all the churches in Paris, Saint Severin is one of the oldest churches on the Left Bank of the city. Tucked away between several incredibly lively and touristic streets of the Latin Quarter, somewhere between the ever-famous Shakespeare and Company and the Abbey Bookshop, Saint Severin dates back to the 13th-century.
Named for a devout hermit who resided in the city during the 5th and 6th centuries, Séverin’s burial place oratory was soon enough transformed into a small Romanesque chapel. By the 13th-century further space was required and so a Gothic structure was constructed.
Though badly damaged by a fire during the Hundred Years War, the church has gone through many renovations and restorations over the years, including the removal of its rood screen during the 17th-century. When entering the church today, for the maximum wow factor, be sure to enter through the door on Rue Saint-Jacques.
Close to Les Halles, a modern shopping complex that’s near the River Seine in the heart of the city, Eglise Saint-Eustache is easily one of the biggest churches in Paris. Constructed in the 1st arrondissement between 1532 and 1632, this church is easily one of the most underrated in the French capital. A beautiful blend of Gothic architecture, Renaissance architecture, and French Gothic architecture, one top highlight is a Rubens painting, Pilgrims at Emmanus.
Eglise Saint Eglise Saint-Seraphin-de-Sarov
The title of the ‘smallest church in Paris’ indeed has to go to a tiny wooden structure tucked away in a secret courtyard in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, one of the least frequented districts in the City of Light. Eglise Saint-Seraphin-de-Sarov is hard to find but oh-so-worth the search.
Constructed to serve the Russian Orthodox community, there has been a church on site since the 1930s, though the ecclesiastical building you see today was actually erected in the 1970s. Today, the chapel is only open on a few select days of the year, notably during the Journées du Patrimoine. However, it can be admired through the green iron railings during daylight hours throughout the year!
L’église de la Madeleine
If you’re looking for one of the most beautiful churches in Paris, then you need to look no further than that that of Madeleine. Dominating the surrounding area, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you spy the Corinthian columns and grand rooftop.
The ecclesiastical building you see today dates all the way back to the early 1800s, though it was actually the third attempt at building following two ‘false starts’. Designed in the Neo-Classical style to honour ‘the glory of Napoleon’s army’, today you can see the church for free!
Located in the 1st arrondissement of the city, the church of Saint Leu and Saint Gilles dates all the way back to the 13th-century, though wasn’t finally completed until the 18th-century. Since the 19th-century, the Paris ecclesiastical building has housed the relics of the Empress Saint Helena, who was the mother of Constantine.
Nearby, for a true slice of history set against the ever-so-modern architecture of Les Halles shopping centre, be sure to check out La Fontaine des Innocents, which is actually situated atop of a former Parisian cemetery! Otherwise, carry on following the road towards the River Seine and you’ll soon spy the twin Gothic towers of Notre Dame, still standing in all their glory.
Former churches, cloisters, and ecclesiastical buildings in Paris worth visiting
Of course, not all churches in Paris remain in use for their originally built purpose (i.e. for use as a place of worship). Instead, many of the structures were secularised during the French Revolution, which is to say that they’ve since been transformed into other uses. From cultural centres to museums, there are many former churches in Paris that can still be visited today.
All medieval glass, intricate ceilings, and tiled flooring: there is perhaps no better place in the world to enjoy medieval stained glass than in Saint-Chapelle. Originally constructed so as to serve as the place where the Crown of Thorns could be displayed, now the 13th-century, the building has been secularised since the French Revolution.
If you’re looking to visit the magnificent example of medieval architecture for yourself, then be sure to visit in the early morning, when the chapel first opens. If you want to surpass the queues entirely and don’t have time to wait around, then I recommend booking in advance and purchasing a skip-the-line ticket in order to partake in a self-guided tour of the chapel. In total, a visit takes around an hour.
Originally constructed to house the Patroness Saint of Paris, Saint Genevieve, today the Paris Pantheon presides over the Latin Quarter and is easily one of the must-sees of Paris. Although construction of the neo-classical style building started in 1758, the building was not completed until 1790. Now, some of France’s greatest country men and women are interred in the Pantheon, including Voltaire, Marie Curie, and Victor Hugo. Purchase your Paris Pantheon ticket here.
College des Bernardins
Tucked away on a little side street, somewhere between Place du Pantheon and the Seine, you’ll find Collège des Bernardins, a former residence of Cistercian Monks. Eight Centuries of history are packed into a small space which is today used as a cultural centre.
Cloitre des Billettes
There has been a church and cloisters on the site where the Cloitre des Billettes is now to be found since as early as 1294 when the location was the apparent location of a miracle. The pope himself authorized the site as religious grounds and a chapel was in place by the end of 1295.
Situated in Le Marais arrondissement of the city, an area of Paris best-known for its chic boutiques and centuries-old streets, the Billettes Cloisters are the last medieval cloister in Paris. Today, the cloisters are used as a quirky art gallery. Entrance is free and upon arrival, you can expect to see all manner of artwork.