Last Updated on 22nd August 2018 by Sophie Nadeau
No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to the world-famous site that is Notre Dame and, indeed, it’s one of the best touristic attractions the city has to offer. Here’s a practical guide to visiting Notre Dame.
By far the most famous church in Paris, if not the world, the words ‘Notre Dame’ come from the French meaning ‘our lady’. The first cathedral on site led to the construction of stone cathedrals throughout Europe, aiding in the church becoming the number one disseminator of knowledge and power throughout medieval Europe.
Notre Dame location & the best time to visit
Notre Dame can be found right in the heart of historic Paris, on an island in the middle of the Seine known as Île de la Cité. This is the oldest part of Paris and archaeological evidence suggests human habitation on the isle for millennia. Today the isle still maintains a medieval vibe, and this Old Paris walking tour will show you the best hidden gems of Île de la Cité.
Between the 4th to the 14th centuries, the island was the hub of business and trading life in Paris. And now, the Île is home to the likes of Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, a Flower market and the Palais de Justice. Oh, and there’s even more if you remember to count the countless cafés and places to purchase crepes!
Most of the exterior of Notre Dame was originally painted (including all of the gargoyles). I can’t even begin to imagine how different the skyline of Paris would look if this were still the case. The cathedrals is free to visit and open every day of the year.
The cathedral’s tower can be visited for a small fee and offers breathtakingly beautiful views over Paris. Best visited at sunset (so as to make the most of the evening light), if you’re visiting the cathedral in the spring, then I highly recommend a visit to the adjacent gardens of Square Jean XXIII in order to see the best cherry blossoms in Paris.
Why is Notre Dame Cathedral so famous?
While nearly every European city has a massive stone cathedral, you may well be wondering what exactly it is that makes Notre Dame Cathedral Paris so famous. Well, for starters, the ecclesiastical building is the setting for the 19th-century novel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Victor Hugo’s famous novel has been key in making the cathedral the most famous in Paris. When facing the altar, on the left-hand side at the back of the church there is a trap doorway in the ceiling that leads all the way up to the bell tower- this was key to Hugo’s inspiration.
Today, Notre Dame is also home to the crown of thorns, the most famous Christian relic in the world. Back in the day, it cost France more to purchase the relic than it cost to build Sainte- Chapelle (which was originally built to house the crown).
On the first Friday of every month, the relic is available to be seen/ kissed. It is otherwise normally available to view at the back of the cathedral under a red film cover Another highlight of the building includes a world-famous bell. Known as the ‘Emmanuel Bell’ and is only rung on special dates such as Easter Sunday and Christmas Day. It is by far the largest of the Cathedral’s bells and weighs approximately 10 tonnes.
The architecture of Notre Dame
The iconic façade to the front of the Notre Dame Plateau is not all the Cathedral is architecturally famous for. Instead, the exterior is filled with gargoyles and chimeras. Often confused with one another, gargoyles have spouts to let out running water from the roof whereas chimeras are just the statues.
All of these mythical statues on Notre Dame were individually carved and so each has their own unique personality and look! The flying buttresses are some of the first examples of their kind in the World. Although not included in the original design, the project ended up being so large that they were required to stabilise the ever-increasing strain on the thinning walls.
Much of the Gothic features you can see today were implemented during major renovation work undertaken by gothic revivalist Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th-century. For those unfamiliar with Viollet-le-Duc’s work, it’s worth noting that he also renovated parts of Carcassonne in the Languedoc in the South of France, as well as Mont Saint Michel in Normandy to the North of France.
Interior of Notre Dame
Although it always looks like there is a long queue to enter the cathedral, it actually only takes around a quarter of an hour to actually get in and so it is well worth the wait. The constant flow of people in and out of th ecclesiastical building means that the queue looks much worse than it actually is.
Once inside the church, there’s various stained glass windows to enjoy, as well as the church treasury for a small fee. The organ dates all the back to the 18th Century. Although organs were present as early as the 13th century, the sheer size of the Church meant that acoustics were never quite perfect.
As soon as you step in the world famous building, the sheer enormity of the place confronts you. At 130 metres long, it’s not surprising that this is the case… But it really does feel like a tardis inside!
Visiting the Notre Dame Viewing Tower
Recently, I wrote about the best panoramic views over Paris. Oh, how wrong I was to not include the view from the top of what may well be the most famous cathedral in the world. There are two levels to the viewing towers; while we had about twenty minutes on the first level, we only had about five on the second, upper level.
Both levels offer panoramic 360-degree views over the city. I have to say that I preferred the upper level as the lower level is covered by 10cm squared netting (making photo taking that much more difficult)! As with most Parisian monuments I have visited (including the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower), I made sure to go up at sunset as the best lighting has got to be the golden hour!
At the back of the square behind the entrance lies the entrance to the archaeological crypt. While entrance to the main part of the cathedral itself is free, there is a small entrance charge to visit the archaeological museum/ crypt.
Established in 1965, the underground museum covers thousands of years worth of Parisian history; highlights include the Romans in Paris and the foundations of Notre Dame Cathedral. For those looking to learn more about the history of Notre Dame, and indeed Paris, a visit to the crypt is a must!
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