Paris: Visiting Notre-Dame de Paris
[UPDATE August 11, 2019: At present both Notre-Dame de Paris and Crypte archéologique de l'île de la Cité are closed due to the fire on April 15, 2019. The area is currently hazardous due to lead from the fire. For more on the situation and some history on the building with lead, check out this article here.]
We had the good fortune to visit Notre-Dame de Paris about a week before the April 15, 2019 fire engulfed its roof. During our week-long trip in Paris, our apartment was basically right across the Seine from the cathedral and just a few
minutes’ walk. We could hear the tolling of the bells that rang out at what appeared to be random intervals, and we walked by the cathedral multiple times a day. We intended to tour it on multiple occasions but only finally made it a priority on our last day in the city. Luckily we were able to have the full experience and toured both the tower and the inside of the cathedral.
accessing Notre-Dame’s tower
The entrance to the tower is not obvious at first and is off to the left side of the cathedral (when viewed from the front). There is an app you can download called Duck the Line that allows you to select an entry time and essentially holds your spot in line so you don’t have to stand there. When your time slot is open, you can simply walk right in.
Because we were staying so close to the cathedral, we requested our entry time while finishing up breakfast at our apartment. The app also provides an alert when your window is closing. Because we had trouble finding the spot to enter, we ending up high tailing it and literally showed the time slot on the app to the gate agent with 30 seconds to spare!
what to expect: Notre-Dame’s tower
After entering the tower from street level, you will ascent the spiral stone staircase with some stops along the way. The first stop is where visitors need to purchase tickets to the tower. Luckily for us, this was included in the Paris Museum Pass, so we could skip the line for tickets and continue up.
If you suffer from dizziness, dislike enclosed spaces, have poor knees, or are not in pretty good shape, you may want to think twice before going up in the tower. The access route is a curved staircase that goes on and on in a circle, almost 400 steps up. There are a few stops along the way on the way up to catch your breath, but some people were definitely struggling. The exit is one continuous flight of 386 steps (per my count) with no stops along the way just step-step-step ad infinitum.
At the top of the tower, you are rewarded for your exertion with an amazing view. You are able to walk along the front of the cathedral and meander back along one of the sides. We were eye-to-eye with the spire that was built in the mid 1800s (read some interesting history of the spire here) and famously collapsed in the fire, and from atop the building we could see the landmarks of Paris spread out before us.
From our vantage point, we could see Montmartre up on a hill to the right, the Eiffel Tower stretched out in front of us, the Montparnasse Tower to the south, and the Seine winding its way through the city. There were workers up on the roof, and I thought what an interesting job that must be to work high atop Notre Dame and be so intimately familiar with its peaks and rooftop. It is believed that it the construction was the source of the fire. We got to go up in the bell tower on the side closer to the Seine and see the inner woodwork surrounding the huge bell and climb up even higher to a platform above the bell itself. While we didn’t see him, you should keep an eye out for Quasimodo.
A highlight atop the cathedral are the various statues and the famous chimera that keeps watch over the city. Often mistakenly called a gargoyle, the difference between the two is this: while both chimera and gargoyles depict mythical beasts, a gargoyle serves as a downspout for water.
What goes up must go down. The continuous circular stairway that felt like it would never end until it finally did dumped us out, blinking, into the light of day. From there, we entered the main front doors of the cathedral.
what to expect: inside Notre-Dame
Having climbed the entire height of the cathedral and walked along its massive rooftop space, I was still surprised to discover how massive it was indoors. The cathedral was jam-packed with people even though there was no line outside, which suggests to me that it can be even more crowded during peak season. There were so many different paintings and areas, endless candles that could be lit in prayer, which is a Catholic tradition. There was a separate section that could be entered for additional pay to see more artifacts of the church, which we did not do. I feel like I wasn’t able to take in as much as I would have liked because it was so very crowded. Looking skyward were lots of wooden beams and wooden sections so that later when the church burned and they talked about the wood construction hidden below the roof, I knew exactly what they were talking about.
To us, the interior of the cathedral was certainly worth seeing but the true highlight was the tower. If you visit Notre-Dame and are physically able, definitely prioritize the tower. If like us you are not a fan of crowds, you may also enjoy nearby Sainte-Chapelle, which has the most epic stained glass windows. You can read more on our blog about that chapel here and see photos that don’t even begin to do justice to the scale of its windows.
Looking for other beautiful places in Paris?
Check out Sainte-Chapelle for an amazing display of stained glass.