Many cathedrals or churches, plus a popular university, bear the name, Notre Dame, but one of the oldest and arguably, the most well-known, is the cathedral in Paris, France. The cathedral is located on the Île de la Cité, one of the two small islands in the middle of the Seine River. Construction began over 850 years ago on the building dedicated to “Our Lady, ” or Mary, the mother of Jesus.
A visit to Paris would not be complete without at least walking through this grand structure, but I recommend allowing three to four hours. There is more to see and do than just a walk-through. In fact, the first time I visited Notre Dame, I was unprepared, I walked through and left disappointed.
Here is how I suggest you plan your visit:
Come early, before 10 in the morning, (or around 5 o’clock in the afternoon) to avoid the long lines to ascend the tower. Standing in the plaza and facing the front of the cathedral, the tower line forms around on the left side of the building. The tower opens at 10, but the line begins to form before that. A Paris Museum Pass covers your admission, but it does not allow you to skip the line.
The visitor area at the top of the tower is narrow, so only a limited number of people are allowed at the top at one time. The walk is done in two sections, with a short break in the middle. If you are a slow climber, you may want to stay near the end of the line so you don’t hold others back.
The view from the top is amazing! Notre Dame is in the center of Paris and the view from the tower covers 360 degrees, so you can see the entire city.
Although the city view is nice, though, I find the roof of the cathedral much more interesting.
Large gargoyles keep away evil spirits while smaller ones act as water spouts guarding the corners and directing nature’s elements down and away.
The twelve apostles surround the spire, three facing each direction. Other architectural elements adorn the roof and enhance the unique character of the cathedral.
West End and Interior
After descending, get in line again – this time to view the inside of the cathedral. The line may seem long, but it moves very quickly. As you wait, look up to see Mary and baby Jesus at the center of the rose window. You will also see the 28 kings of Judah and the beheaded St. Denis (holding his head).
The center arch shows the last judgment, with Christ seated in the middle, the good souls on the left and the bad souls on the right.
As you enter the building and your eyes adjust to the dark interior, look for the English pamphlet for the self-guided tour. (Free guided English tours may be available; ask for information at the entrance).
Highlights inside the church include the organ, built by Clicquot and later expanded by Cavaillé-Coll. Some of the pipes are visible in front of the west-facing rose window. There are two other rose windows – one faces north, and the other south toward the Seine River.
The north-facing window, whose centerpiece is the Madonna and Child, is the only window of the three that still has the original medieval stained glass.
A sculpture of Joan of Arc and a large painting of Thomas Aquinas are near the south-facing rose window. Continuing to the front, the central choir area is flanked by paintings of Christ’s resurrection, while the outer area holds a series of smaller chapels and prayer rooms. The treasury (at a cost of 4€) accessible here, holds objects of religious significance which would be especially meaningful to those who follow the Catholic religion.
As you follow the circuit through the interior of the church, be sure to look up. The nave, which rises the equivalent of ten stories, is surrounded by columns which join together at the ceiling like praying hands.
On a bright day, the light that filters through the stained glass windows is glorious.
Before leaving the area, walk around the outside of the cathedral. (If you missed the west end of the cathedral when you were waiting in line, check it out now). The open park area on the east end of the building is a stark contrast to the crowded interior you just left. (Although there may be a small crowd near the public restrooms here). Enjoy the shade from the trees and the beauty of the rose gardens while relaxing for a few minutes on the park benches.
Take note of the perfect example of the flying buttress architecture. This feature was not in the original plans, but was added when the high walls began to develop cracks from the outward pressure.
Walk across the Pont de l’Archevêché bridge over the Seine River for the most picturesque views of Notre Dame. The last time I was in Paris, this bridge and many others were covered with “lovers’ locks,” but due to the stress of excess weight on the structures, the railings are being replaced by Plexiglas panels. The practice may have been beautiful to some, but it was a distinct form of vandalism.
Walk along the left bank where you will pass the booksellers and the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. If you go a bit further south you can find St. Severin Cathedral, built in a later gothic style than Notre Dame – an interesting contrast with no crowds.
Cross back to the front Notre Dame on the Rue de la Cité. If you have time you can check out the Archaeological Crypt and the Point Zero medallion.
Several metro stops are within easy walking distance to the cathedral. Hotel de Ville, Cité, and Saint-Michel are the closest. Your choice will depend on what part of the city you are coming from. Other popular nearby attractions include Sainte-Chapelle (stained glass), the Pompideau Center (modern art) and the Cluny Museum (art from the Middle Ages).
I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-tour, but it does not compare to seeing it in person. Would you like to visit the cathedral some day?