Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in FFor many romantics, Paris is a mythical city where stories are made, and certainly Notre Dame is part of this timeless beauty. But despite its devastating 2019 fire, Notre Dame has survived to remain an enchanting Parisian monument that travelers still dream of visiting.
But before you begin your trip to the cathedral, here’s a few pointers on how to make the most of your experience.
Where to find Notre Dame (and her extended family)
Situated on Paris’s picturesque island, Île de la Cité, Notre Dame sits quite literally in the heart of Paris. Yes, that is where Notre Dame de Paris resides, but don’t be surprised if you hear tales of other Notre Dames far outside the city limits — in Bordeaux, Rennes, and even tiny villages.
These are not imposters of the Parisian cathedral. Notre Dame de Paris, literally translated, is “Our Lady of Paris.” Notre Dame, therefore, is the name given to the central church in many French cities and towns. So while a visit to Notre Dame de Paris will check the grandest Notre Dame off your bucket list, keep in mind that there’s a whole country’s worth of Notre Dames still waiting to be discovered.
Notre Dame’s transformative history
While any francophile has probably heard about — and possibly shed a tear over — the fire that nearly razed the cathedral in 2019, few are aware that Notre Dame already has a history of reconstruction literally built into its foundation.
When the cathedral’s plot of land was first considered for construction in the mid-12th century, it had already been home to a Roman temple, and later two basilicas that had themselves eroded with time. So when Pope Alexander III ordered the laying of the cathedral’s foundation only years later, the cathedral became the fourth chapter in a long line of religious gems to be erected on that spot.
As the cathedral expanded with increasingly intricate ornamentation over the years, it became one of the architectural darlings of Paris. The stunning cathedral of Notre Dame is still a masterpiece of Gothic architecture today. The bulk of the work on the church was completed from the 13th century to the 15th century.
The history of this monument seeps out at every turn. Damaged during the French Revolution, the cathedral was restored in the 19th century by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. But they kept the damaged statues at the front doors, known as portals, as a reminder of the devastating effects of the French Revolution.
In recent years, its many visitors come to admire its stained glass and rose windows, the towers, the steeple, and the gargoyles. They could discover the Notre Dame treasury and have a go at climbing the towers to enjoy a panorama of Paris, including one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower.
The stained glass windows of Notre Dame, particularly the three rose windows, were long considered among the best features of the cathedral. (By the way, if you love stained glass, you should visit Sainte-Chapelle, another Parisian church famous for its windows.)
The fire of Notre Dame
On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame nearly disappeared from Paris in a cloud of smoke. When a fire caught in the cathedral’s attic during routine renovations, it burned for over 15 hours. Among the most damaged parts of the Notre Dame were its roof, of which only a fraction remains, and its spire, which collapsed in the fire.
#NotreDame: ‘The roof has entirely collapsed, there are flames coming out the back of the cathedral as if it was a torch’@charli, Journalist at France 24, at the scene of the fire. pic.twitter.com/2B0IrMiDcL— FRANCE 24 English (@France24_en) April 15, 2019
But in spite of the blaze, which could have crumbled the structures walls had it further damaged the structurally crucial vaulted ceilings, the majority of the cathedral was saved by firefighters. Most of the cathedral’s relics, including its organs, bells, and treasured paintings, survived the blaze as well with minimal smoke damage.
Today, the cathedral rises alongside renovative scaffolding, and restoration plans have been announced to return to spire and (in the face of some backlash) renovate the interior.
How to visit Notre Dame today
Because Notre Dame is still under renovations from the fire, no interior visits are possible at this time. But guests can still visit the cathedral square, which looks onto both the crypt and the cathedral’s entrance.
To get the most complete Notre Dame experience, take a guided walking tour around the cathedral as you learn about this monument and admire its grandeur from all sides.
You can also go inside the archeological crypt — or the “Crypte archéologique de l’île de la Cité,” located right in front of Notre Dame. This underground crypt shows you layers of the city’s history in fascinating ruins, a poignant contrast to the cathedral being rebuilt above ground.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the art on the protective barriers surrounding the cathedral!
An adorable highlight of the cathedral’s work-in-progress state is the collection of drawings made by local children who have re-imagined what an ideal Notre Dame could contain. The construction site now displays a variety of creative Notre-Dame-themed artwork on the fence surrounding the structure.
Treat yourself to a chuckle by checking out some of the more whimsical reimaginings. My personal favorite includes a waterpark that some clever kid suggests be installed inside Notre Dame’s new interior.
Things to do near Notre Dame
After a visit to Notre Dame, don’t forget to make the most of its historical neighborhood. Just across the river you’ll find an Instagrammable anglophone bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, named for the original Shakespeare & Company lending library headed by the likes of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
The cathedral is also ideally placed for those who love museums. Just down the river, you can visit the l’Orangerie, my favorite Paris museum. Walk 20 minutes down the river and you’ll find yourself at my second favorite art museum in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay.
Even closer, head to the Jardin du Luxembourg, just 15 minutes away. Our Latin Quarter Selfie Tour (where you will take the most incredible, envy-inducing photos) meets here and starts right after our Notre Dame tour. Visiting the garden and the rest of the scenic Latin Quarter is the perfect follow-up to your Notre Dame experience.
Visiting Notre Dame since the fire
Voilà! Now you have all the background and inside tips you need to visit Notre Dame as she stands, however scarred, today.
As you’ll be peeping through the fence surrounding the cathedral, you might not be able to discern what shocked me the most when I first visited Notre Dame — the exterior of the Notre Dame has no steps. If you’ve ever watched “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on loop, you’ll have the same question I did: if there are no steps, then where did Quasimodo’s mother die? It is an existential question that will continue to haunt me.
That aside, if seeing Notre Dame when you visit Paris is your dream, you should know that it’s still possible, even after the infamous fire — it just won’t be quite the same as before. You can no longer attend a service to hear the organ during Mass or watch the light filtering through the rose windows from inside. But if you want to discover the history, architecture, and magic of Notre Dame or hear firsthand accounts of the night it caught fire or learn more about what makes this Paris landmark so unique, then our Notre Dame tour is for you.
Don’t forget to explore the rest of the bounty of Parisian monuments after you’ve seen Notre Dame. In addition to main attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, the City of Love has a veritable smorgasbord of cultural treasures, including some amazing Parisian architecture. Might I suggest going off the beaten tourist path (a bit) by discovering the lovely Marais neighborhood?
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