Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

Top choice cathedral in The Islands

Image by Matteo Colombo Getty Images

Paris' most visited unticketed site, with upwards of 14 million visitors per year, is a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture. The focus of Catholic Paris for seven centuries, its vast interior accommodates 6000 worshippers.

Highlights include its three spectacular rose windows, treasury and bell towers, which can be climbed. From the North Tower, 422 steps spiral to the top of the western façade, where you’ll find yourself face-to-face with frightening gargoyles and a spectacular view of Paris.

Inside, the central choir, with its carved wooden stalls and statues representing the Passion of the Christ, is noteworthy. The trésor (treasury) in the southeastern transept contains artwork, liturgical objects and first-class relics; the admission fee includes a handy audioguide. Among the treasures stashed here 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.

One of the best views of the cathedral 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. Don't miss the line-up of bells in the garden here: in 2013, to celebrate the 850th anniversary of construction beginning on Notre Dame, the cathedral was kitted out with nine new bells to compliment the original, 13-tonne bell Emmanuel (as tradition demands, cathedral bells are named).