Tips for Visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris
Of all the beautiful churches, amazing monuments, and vast number of museums spread out across Paris, there is but one site that is truly the heart and soul of this city. It is of course the Notre Dame Cathedral. Visited by over thirteen million people annually this Gothic masterpiece of French architecture has stood on the Île de la Cité along the banks of the River Seine since its cornerstone was laid in 1163. If you are coming to Paris you simply cannot leave until you have stood in the shadow of Notre Dame.
- While construction of Notre Dame was started in 1163 it was not completed until 1345.
- Notre Dame is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Paris.
When visiting the Cathedral of Notre Dame you will be faced with a number of options. You can simply explore the interior of the Church, which is exquisite and easily one of the largest and most beautiful churches in all of France. If you are so inclined you can also climb to the top of the cathedrals infamous towers, which will involve a pretty good physical effort to climb the 387 steps. If you’re a sucker for great views like me then it’s certainly worth the effort.
Out in front of the cathedral is the entrance to the crypt, which allows visitors to explore the historical ruins underneath the church from the earliest settlements in Paris. And located behind the Cathedral on its east and south side are the gardens of Square Jean XXIII and a very picturesque view of the Cathedral from a different perspective. No matter how much time you choose to spend here and what you decide to see I think you will be utterly impressed with Notre Dame.
The three portals are from left to right; Portal of the Virgin, Portal of the Last Judgement, Portal of Saint Anne.
The exterior of Notre Dame is a contrast in views. From the front or west side you see the three large arched portals and the two bell towers that rise some 226 feet above the ground. Just above the portals you will see the Kings Gallery, which is a series of 28 statues of Israeli kings. Above the gallery in the center is the exterior of the west rose window, more on this later.
The view from the front masks the true size and ornate detail of Notre Dame, which stretches 420 feet long. Take a walk along either side of the cathedral to the rear or east side and the view is dramatically different. As you walk around Notre Dame you get the sense that you are being watched from above by the menacing gargoyles. These gothic creatures actually had a function other than to scare away evil spirits. They were and still are used as spouts to drain water from the roofs gutters. The reason they extend out from the building as they do is to help prevent damage from water running down the side of the building and damaging the mortar between the stones.
As you come to the back of the Cathedral and Square Jean XXII you will notice the dramatically different view. From this vantage point you get a great look at the spire that rises to 300 feet and the flying buttresses that help to support the roof and walls of the cathedral. Take a close look at the spire to see the copper statues of the twelve apostles. From here you really get a sense of how grand Notre Dame is.
The gardens of Square Jean XXII are a great place to sit and enjoy the view or have a quick picnic under the many lime and cherry trees. There is also the Fountain of the Virgin, which was sculpted in 1845 in addition to the beautiful flowers and vistas of both the cathedral and the River Seine. Enjoy the view.
The Paris Museum Pass is available for 2, 4, or 6 consecutive days and includes 60 museums and monuments located in Paris. Depending on the length of your stay and your interests it may be worthwhile.
For an even more impressive view we are next going up into the Towers of Notre Dame. While entry into the cathedral is free there is a fee to climb the towers (8.50 euro). The Paris Museum Pass does include the entry to the towers but be advised that it does not include the skip the line feature. So pass or no pass you will have to wait along with everyone else. We arrived early before the towers opened and still had a short wait.
The climb to the top of Notre Dame is advertised as 387 steps. I like to count things and I counted 385 steps, perhaps I missed the first two down at the street level? However many it is be prepared for a lengthy climb up the narrow spiral staircase.
Be wary of pickpockets. Any place that draws large crowds of tourists such as Notre Dame is pickpocket territory.
I was expecting a grand view of Paris from the top of the towers and I was not disappointed. This is perhaps the best view in all of Paris and one can clearly see the Pantheon, the towers of Saint-Sulpice, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and of course Sacre-Coeur to the north. You also get a wonderful view of the Cathedrals Spire, the twelve Apostles, and an up close look at many of the gargoyles and chimera statues. While the gargoyles are designed to funnel water away from the building the chimera are the gothic statues whose purpose is to protect the church from evil spirits. There are some interesting chimera creatures up here and you get close enough to reach out and touch a few of them.
Emmanuel weighs 13 tons and is rung on major holidays and important events. The four bells in the north tower are rung daily to announce church services and the time.
If you plan on climbing the towers my advice would be to get there early as the line forms well before they open. The entrance to the towers is to the left of the cathedral as you are facing it from the front. You actually climb the north tower until you reach the open gallery where you then cross over to the south tower via a narrow walkway. From here you can visit the belfry, which contains “Emmanuel”, the largest of Notre Dame’s ten bells, before yet another staircase takes you to the viewing platform atop the south tower. While some visitors may not fully appreciate the wonderful view from up here I think it’s very much worth the effort and is easily the best view of Paris.
Upon entering Notre Dame you immediately feel the sense that you have entered one of the world’s great cathedrals. Notre Dame is as grandiose and breathtaking as any other cathedral that I have entered. The huge vaulted ceiling keeps visitors eyes gazing upward and the three stained-glass rose windows (north, south and west sides) are clearly the most stunning interior feature. The three rose windows each date back to the 13th century and have survived centuries of revolution and war. Also of particular note are the organs of Notre Dame of which there are three. The largest is the Great Organ, which is the largest in all of France and undoubtedly one of the most famous organs in the world.
The Great Organ has 8,000 pipes and is still played during Sunday services.
Also of interest in the interior is the Treasury of Notre Dame. The purpose of the Treasury is to protect and conserve religious objects that are considered sacred. This includes a number of priceless items including manuscripts, crowns, chalices and crosses, many made of gold and other precious metals. Of particular note here is the coronation robe worn by Napoleon.
Hours and Fees:
- Monday – Friday: 8am to 6:45pm
- Sat and Sun: 8am to 7:15pm
- Free. Audio guides available for 5 euro.
- Monday - Friday: 9:30am to 6pm
- Saturday: 9:30am to 6:30pm
- Sunday: 1:30pm to 6:30pm
- Fee: 3 euro
- April 1st - Sept 30th: 10am to 6:30pm (till 11pm on Friday and Saturday in July & August)
- Oct 1st – March 31st: 10am to 5:30pm
- Fee: 8.50 euro
- Tuesday – Sunday: 10am to 6pm
- Fee: 7 euro
Although we fell short of time and did not get a chance to visit the crypt it will be high on our list for our next visit to Paris. The crypt is located under the square directly in front of Notre Dame and also has a fee of 7 euro. The crypt offers visitors a rare glimpse into the history of Paris and features structures that date from antiquity right up to the 20th century. This is a rather large area and goes down through successive layers all the way back to the first Gallo-Roman settlements on the banks of the River Seine. This area dates back to between 27 BC and 14 AD.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of Notre Dame. As you may have surmised by now you can spend a lot of time just at this one site. We made two visits to Notre Dame and although we saw a lot we did not get to everything. The lesson learned here is to plan your time and try to avoid time waiting in lines. The line to enter Notre Dame does move quickly and with no entry fee there’s not much you can do here but to arrive early. For the Towers it’s the same story, get there early. No matter what you choose to see take your time and don’t rush as this is certainly one of the highlights of any visit to Paris.
Video of Paris from the top of the Towers
© 2014 Bill De Giulio