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Practical Guide to Visiting Notre Dame, The Most Famous Cathedral in the World

Last Updated on 20th September 2022 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.

Please note that, due to the devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 2019, the church is closed until further notice. The exterior of the cathedral can still be visited and admired from both up close and afar.

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 view

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Where is Notre Dame Cathedral?

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.

reasons to pick up a camera

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.

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Things to see at Notre Dame

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.

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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!

horses cavalry notre dame paris

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!

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Archaeological Crypt

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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Sunset at Notre Dame

Notre Dame at sunset was everything I had ever imagined it to be. The sky was filled with hues of candy pinks, oranges and purples and the raised banks of the Seine due to the recent flood waters meant that the buildings were fully reflected in the river below.

As with everything in Paris, if you’re going to do something, then you should probably do it the right way! This doesn’t just go for ordering your morning expresso but for visiting Notre Dame at sunset as well.

If you’re going to Notre Dame at sunset rather than sunrise, then you should go behind the cathedral for the best view of the setting sun. The best viewing points are from the bridges Pont de L’Archêveche and Pont de la Tournelle.

reasons to pick up a camera
notre dame at sunset
notre dame at sunset

Notre Dame Fire

Anchor. Origins. Heartbeat. Last night, along with the rest of the world, I watched in horror as much of Notre Dame burned down in flames. For hours and hours, I found myself glued to social media, refreshing newspapers, and vividly watching live news coverage.

Notre Dame Cathedral is characterised by its flying buttresses and Gothic gargoyles. Famous the world over, it can be found in the very heart of Paris on Ile de la Cite, one of two natural islands in the centre of the River Seine.

That something so enduring and so iconic could almost be wiped out in a matter of hours seems unfathomable. Well over eight hundred and fifty six years worth of history is to be found within the walls of Notre Dame, and for a period last night, it seemed as if the future of the entirety of Notre Dame was touch and go.

It was only thanks to the brave work of the firefighters (known as les pompiers in French) that the structure was secured. The building has survived countless wars, revolutions, plagues, the Nazis: you name it, Notre Dame has survived it.

Once more, it looks as if the cathedral will pull through. This morning, I woke up, hoping it was all a bad dream. It was not. And yet, in this time of great sadness, there is still great hope. After all, this is not the only calamity that the great Cathedral of Paris has seen, nor is this the only misfortune to have befallen it.

view from notre dame

On the rebuilding of Notre Dame in the 19th-century

It’s little known, but when Victor Hugo wrote ‘the Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ Notre Dame was crumbling and in great disrepair. So much so, that in the early 1800s, when Victor Hugo was living in Paris, the cathedral was half-falling down.

Groundbreaking of Notre Dame began way back in the 12th-century, with Pope Alexander in attendance. Over time, the Cathedral has seen many changes, and until last night, many people didn’t even realise that the now destroyed wooden spire only dated back to the 19th-century.

Those who began the construction of Notre Dame in the 12th-century (many of whom were volunteers and would never see the completed masterpiece) would likely not even recognise the modern day structure we all know and love today.

Notre Dame

You see, during the time of Louis XIV (i.e. The Sun King of Versailles), the Cathedral underwent many changes, renovations, and some might say, disfigurements. The stained glass windows were largely replaced with clear panes, while the original rood screen (jube in French- the only surviving one in Paris is to be found in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont) was taken away.

Pillars were removed and the church was transformed beyond recognition. Further misfortune was to befall the cathedral during the French Revolution. Statues were torn down, smashed, and carvings were defaced.

The lead was stolen from the rooftops to make bullets and by the time the Cathedral was once more in the hands of the church (in 1802), the Cathedral was in need of funds to ensure that the Cathedral would even still be standing for future generations to enjoy.

Victor Hugo loved the cathedral. Worried about its state, and the lack of public pressure to save Notre Dame, in 1831, Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But what is perhaps most telling about his true intention for the novel, that it might reignite Parisian, French, and worldwide interest in the Cathedral, is that he actually named the book Notre Dame de Paris. 

In it, there are several chapters solely dedicated to the architecture of Notre Dame, telling of in itself. Well, the book and subsequent spin-off tales and myths worked better than Hugo could perhaps ever have imagined.

In 1841, the State commissioned Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus to restore Notre Dame. In the following decades, a new organ was added, the spire replaced, the gargoyles were added, and countless other features of the building that are so synonymous with the modern day Notre Dame.

Albumen silver print from glass negative of the east facade of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris in around 1860

Albumen silver print from a glass negative of the east facade of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris in around 1860 via Wikipedia

Notre Dame Cathedral in the present day and what happens next

Back to the present day: in 2019, prior to the Notre Dame fire that ravaged the main wooden frame of the cathedral, the church was once more undergoing renovations. Years of neglect, pollution, and acidic rain has seen many experts decry the state of the cathedral.

Here’s an interview in French with Jean-Michel Leniaud, president of the scientific council at the National Heritage Institute, about the state of the cathedral and why he believed a fire like this was ‘likely to happen’.

Last night, on the 15th of April 2019, on the second day of Holy Week, one of the most important weeks in the church calendar, a fire took hold. In this age of Social Media, we were almost all aware of it, and almost all immediately.

Straight away, people started sharing memories of the Cathedral, of their time in Paris, of how the church is one of the greatest treasures in the world. People grieve in various ways and it was touching to see people come together through the power of the internet. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for those who work on and with the cathedral to have seen much of their artisanal work destroyed.

Where to find vintage paris: notre dame

Perhaps rather miraculously, the magnificent Rose Window seems to be okay. The Crown of Thorns and the Tunic of St Louis are both reportedly in safe locations, and other artworks have also been saved (though details of which ones are still to be confirmed).

Thanks to the fact that the Cathedral was under renovations, many other works of art (as well as stonework for the Gargoylescape area of the cathedral) have been saved. More details about the artwork saved can be found in this article.

Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, has already vowed that the cathedral will be rebuilt (a reliable source can be found in English here). The details, and how it will be funded, and just how the works will be undertaken, are still unclear.

The fire has only just been extinguished and it honestly feels a little painful every time I see another photo angle of the destruction. Of course, in time, like a magnificent phoenix rising from the ashes, Notre Dame Catheral will be rebuilt and it will be beautiful again.

Until then, we’ll wait…

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Visiting Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France: practical tips, tricks and advice for the best time to visit the most-famous cathedral in the world, as well as what you should see once there!
Visiting Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France: practical tips, tricks and advice for the best time to visit the most-famous cathedral in the world, as well as what you should see once there!

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She currently lives in Paris. Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.

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NOTRE DAME AT SUNSET (A PARIS MUST SEE) | solosophie

Wednesday 6th of July 2016

[…] that moment, the colours of the sky and sheer beauty of the architecture of one of the most beautiful churches in the world merely confirmed to me that moving to Paris has turned me into the fully fledged romantic I was […]

Darina

Thursday 21st of January 2016

Loved to read this post, most of it I didn't know about the Notre Dame. Very interesting read!

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