It’s one of the most visited monuments in Paris (over 30,000 visitors per day!), featured for centuries in books and movies, and known to many as the home of Quasimodo – the Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is one stop we highly recommend and it’s also worth a pass at night.
La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, a ‘jewel of medieval architecture’, was built at the request of Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris. Utilizing stone, glass, and 1,300 oak trees (a virtual forest of about 51 acres), construction began in 1163 and lasted a couple of centuries. In 2013 the Cathedral celebrated its 850th ‘birthday’.
Situated on the Ile de la Cite in the River Seine, Notre Dame stands on the site of at least two previous places of worship; a pagan temple and a Christian basilica dedicated to Saint Stephen (aka Saint-Etienne). Remnants of these and other earlier structures can be seen in the Archaeological Crypt below the cathedral square.
Having suffered through periods of neglect as well as damage inflicted by revolutionaries, it’s said that the tale of the Hunchback written by Victor Hugo in 1831 helped to save the cathedral from destruction. Today, visitors to Paris are able to attend daily services, climb the bell towers, and visit the Treasury, or just stop by to look around.
The phenomenal architectural and artistic features you’ll see on the exterior of Notre Dame include:
The West Façade – the main entrance to the cathedral, constructed in the 13th century and partially restored in the 19th century, easily recognizable by its twin towers, rose window, and beautifully carved masonry.
Dominating the lower third of the façade are three impressive arched portals with stone carvings and heavy wooden doors. At the center is The Portal of the Last Judgment, to the right is The Portal of Saint Anne, and to the left, The Portal of the Virgin.
This last features carvings of various saints, including the patron saints of Paris: St. Genevieve, St. Stephen, and St. Denis (do you see him there, holding his head?).
Chimeras and Gargoyles – perhaps the most photographed architectural elements of the Cathedral, these grotesque, yet somewhat comical, stone creatures can be found on postcards and tourist trinkets throughout the city. While the gargoyles serve a functional purpose as drain spouts, they, along with the purely decorative chimeras, may also serve to ward off evil spirits. If you climb the bell towers, you’ll get a chance to see these little guys up close.
The Spire – the second spire to grace the Cathedral’s rooftop, this one replaced the original 13th century bell tower spire in the 19th century. The rooster at the tip of the needle is said to hold sacred relics from Saints Denis and Genevieve, as well as part of the crown of thorns.
What you’ll see inside of Notre Dame includes: