Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

This is the heart of Paris – so much so that distances from Paris to every part of metropolitan France are measured from place du Parvis Notre Dame , the square in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris. A bronze star across the street from the cathedral’s main entrance marks the exact location of point zéro des routes de France .

Notre Dame, the most visited unticketed site in Paris, with upwards of 14 million people crossing its threshold a year, is not just a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture; it was also the focus of Catholic Paris for seven centuries.

Built on a site occupied by earlier churches and, a millennium before that, a Gallo-Roman temple, it was begun in 1163 according to the design of Bishop Maurice de Sully and largely completed by the early 14th century. The cathedral was badly damaged during the Revolution; architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc carried out extensive renovations between 1845 and 1864. The cathedral is on a very grand scale; the interior alone is 130m long, 48m wide and 35m high and can accommodate more than 6000 worshippers.

Notre Dame is known for its sublime balance, though if you look closely you’ll see all sorts of minor asymmetrical elements introduced to avoid monotony, in accordance with standard Gothic practice. These include the slightly different shapes of each of the three main portals . One of the best views of Notre Dame is from square Jean XXIII, the little park behind the cathedral, where you can better appreciate the forest of ornate flying buttresses that encircle the chancel and support its walls and roof.

Inside, exceptional features include three spectacular rose windows – the most renowned of which is the 10m-wide one over the western façade above the 7800-pipe organ – and the window on the northern side of the transept, which has remained virtually unchanged since the 13th century. The central choir, with its carved wooden stalls and statues representing the Passion of the Christ, is also noteworthy. There are free 1½-hour guided tours of the cathedral in English.

The trésor in the southeastern transept contains artwork, liturgical objects and first-class relics. Among these is the Ste-Couronne , the ‘Holy Crown’, which is purportedly the wreath of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he was crucified, brought here in the mid-13th century. It’s exhibited between 3pm and 4pm on the first Friday of each month, 3pm to 4pm every Friday during Lent, and 10am to 5pm on Good Friday.

The entrance to the Tours de Notre Dame is from the North Tower . Climb the 422 spiralling steps to the top of the western façade , where you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the cathedral’s most frightening gargoyles, the 13-tonne bell Emmanuel (all of the cathedral’s bells are named) in the South Tower and, last but not least, a spectacular view of Paris from the Galerie des Chimères (Dreams Gallery).