Notre-Dame de Paris- History, Architecture and Tips for Visiting

On a small island in the Seine river, you will find the world famous Notre-Dame Cathedral, its towers reaching up to Heaven from the heart of Paris.

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It’s a cathedral I have visited three times now- twice on my last trip to Paris. I still feel like if I went back again I would discover something new, appreciate things that I had maybe overlooked.

Notre-Dame is not just a site of worship- it’s a place with a rich history and significant architectural achievements.  Thousands of years after its construction, people still travel the world over to marvel at its beauty.

History of Notre-Dame de Paris

In 1160, Bishop Maurice de Sully ordered the demolition of Paris’ previous cathedral, St. Stephen’s. Three years later construction of a new cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris began.

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Bishop de Sully devoted his life, and much of his wealth, to the creation of “Our Lady of Paris”. It was a construction that would continue for many years after his death in 1196. Four different architects worked on the cathedral throughout its construction period. It was the fourth architect that oversaw the completion of the west facade and its rose window in 1225. By 1250 the western towers and North Rose Window were completed and the remaining elements were put in place by 1345.

The church was significantly damaged by revolutionaries in 1792, when many large statues and cathedral portals were destroyed. In 1845 an extensive restoration program began, led by architects Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The restoration would take 25 years before it was completed.

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Architecture of Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. It was one of the first buildings in the world to incorporate flying buttresses as a means of supporting exterior walls. Many small statues, all individually crafted, can be seen around the exterior of the building. Some statues were used as column supports and others, such as the famous gargoyles, as water spouts. The three large rosettes are regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of Christianity.

The West Facade

The imposing west facade has been called everything from “a masterpiece of composition and execution, “by Marcel Aubert to ” a pure creation of the spirit” by Le Corbusier. It’s simple yet complex, contrasting yet harmonious.

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The west facade spans 41 metres wide and rises up 63 metres to the top of the towers. The centre displays a large rose, 9.6 metres in diameter, that forms a halo above a statue of the Virgin with Child. On each side of the Virgin stand two angels.

Underneath the balustrade is the Gallery of Kings. This row of 28 statues represents twenty-eight generations of Kings of Judah.

On the lower level, there are four buttresses each with a niche that houses a statue. The north buttress portrays St. Stephen, the south, St. Denis. The two side buttresses portray allegories of the Synagogue and the Church.

In between the buttresses are three large portals, each one different than the next. The right/south portal is called the Portal of St. Anne. The left/north portal is the Portal of the Virgin and is topped by a triangular gable. The central portal, the Portal of the Last Judgement is the tallest and widest of the three.

Portal of the Last Judgement

The Portal of the Last Judgement is rich in symbolism and tells quite the interesting story. Luckily, we had a guide who could explain it all to us.

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To make it easier to understand, I’ll first explain some architectural terms. A “lintel” is ornamented structural item often found over portals, doors and window. A “tympanum” is a semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, bounded by a lintel and arch. And lastly, “archivolts” are ornamental moldings or bands following the underside curve of an arch.

The lower lintel shows the dead being revived from their graves. On the upper lintel, archangel Michael is weighing their souls. The chosen people, who showed love to God and fellow man, are led towards Heaven on the left. The condemned are led by a devil to hell on the right. Above all this you can see the tympanum, with Christ majestically seated on his throne of glory.

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Above Christ, on the archivolts, are figures of the Heavenly Court. Angels, patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, virgins and church doctors are all represented with Hell taking up a small space at the right.

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The Rose Windows

The North Rose Window was built between 1250-1260. It’s diameter is 12.9 meters (as is the South Rose Window). The centre oculus features Mary holding the Christ Child. Surrounding them are images of kings and prophets of the Old Testament.

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The South Rose Window was built in 1260 as a counterpoint to the North Rose Window. It was a gift from the King, St. Louis. It’s 84 panes are divided into four circles and is dedicated to the New Testament.

The Organs

There are three organs in Notre- Dame Cathedral, the most famous being the Great Organ. With 8,000 pipes and five keyboards, it’s the largest organ in France.

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The Spire

Notre-Dame’s original spire, which was also a bell tower, was taken down from 1786-1792. During Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration, he decided to build a second spire which was modelled after the spire built in Orleans in 1852. It’s adorned with copper statues of the 12 Apostles. Viollet-le-Duc actually included himself in the mix, representing himself as St. Thomas.

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The Gargoyles

My favourite part of Notre-Dame is the gargoyles. You can get an up close view of the famous gargoyles, which were designed as water spouts, by climbing 387 steps to the top of the cathedral. The climb up the spiral staircases is worth it not only for the gargoyles, but for the sweeping panoramic view of the city.

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Interesting Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

  • The great bell Emmanuel was the only bell spared from being melted down during the French Revolution.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804.
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by Victor Hugo was published in January, 1831.
  • Notre-Dame is the most visited monument in Paris with about 13 million visitors every year, beating out the Eiffel Tower.

travelyesplease.com | Notre-Dame de Paris: History, Architecture and Tips for Visiting

Tips for Visiting Notre-Dame de Paris

  • Notre-Dame is on the eastern half of Ile de la Cite in the fourth arrondissement.
  • Metro: Line 4: Cite or Saint-Michel station, Lines 1 and 11: Hotel de Ville station, Line 10-:La Sorbonne or Maubert station, Lines 7, 11 and 14: Chatelet station. 
  • RER: Line B and C: Saint-Michel Notre-Dame.
  • The cathedral is open daily from 8:00 am- 6:45 pm (7:15 pm on Saturdays and Sundays). Admission is free.
  • It’s best to visit early in the morning to avoid the lines (and crowds).
  • Access to the towers is at the foot of the North tower (rue du Cloître).
  • The towers are open 10:00 am- 6:30 pm from April to September and until 5:30 pm from October to March. In July and August on Fridays and Saturdays they are open until 11:00 pm. Last admission is 45 minutes before closing.
  • Admission to the towers is 8.50 euro for adults and free for minors under 18.
  • When we got to the tower at 9:30 am (in September) there already were 30 people in line. Not long after that the line was huge, so make sure you get there early!
  • For a great view of the buttresses, take the short bridge behind the cathedral across to Ile St-Louis.

* All prices and hours were correct at the time of publishing but can change without notice.

Accommodations in Paris

For your convenience, here is a list of hotels located near Notre-Dame Cathedral.  Please consider booking your Paris accommodations through the included link. It costs nothing extra and helps support this website. Thank you!

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By Rhonda Krause
Marsha - November 7, 2013 - 3:51 pm

Fantastic! These are great pictures and good tips. I love Notre Dame, and especially those gargoyles. Creepy yet beautiful! :)

Rhonda Krause - November 7, 2013 - 5:12 pm

Thanks, Marsha! The gargoyles were the highlight for me too!

Bertrand. - November 20, 2013 - 6:03 am

If you are walking in Notre Dame Cathedral area you cannot avoid visiting the College des Bernardins, the last medieval restauration. It is a superb cistercian Collège located 20 rue de Poissy.

Jennifer - December 9, 2013 - 3:49 am

Beautiful photos of a beautiful Cathedral! Thanks for all the details – now I want to visit a third time as well!

Rhonda Krause - December 9, 2013 - 6:41 am

Thanks, Jennifer!

Dennis Kopp - March 1, 2014 - 11:27 am

Rhonda, those are wonderful photos of a beautiful building. When I visited Paris I missed going inside of Notre-Dame Cathedral and now that I am looking at your images, I really regret it. I can’t believe it is beating even the Eiffel Tower, but I will certainly make sure to fully explore the interior, next time when in Paris… :)

Rhonda Krause - March 1, 2014 - 11:58 am

Thanks Dennis! On my first trip to Paris 15 years ago, I was on a school trip and we just did a quick lap around the inside of the Cathedral. It was so fast, I barely remember it. So on this visit to Paris, spending some more time inside was high on my list of things to do. Visiting Paris can be tricky- there’s so many great things to see it’s hard to pick and choose what to fit in!

Michelle Rae - July 7, 2014 - 8:48 pm

Great post with wonderful photos. I was fortunate to visit Paris and see Notre Dame for myself a couple of years ago. I agree with your tip on getting there early. We were there right when it opened and got right in and it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Milena Yordanova - October 28, 2014 - 7:54 am

Amazing photos of this stunning cathedral! I have visited the cathedral twice, but I still haven’t climbed the tower. Next time I will do it. :)

Rhonda Krause - October 28, 2014 - 9:04 pm

Thanks, Milena! Yes you should go up the tower next time- the views of the city are great, plus it’s fun to see the gargoyles up close!

Ciara - December 21, 2016 - 2:43 am

Thanks, this is gonna help me with my english coursework. I am going to be writing about Notre-Dame:)

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