I’m not a big fan of organized religion. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the wonderful things we have that were born of centuries of faith and religiosity, and the very human desire to leave some sort of testament. In the case of Notre Dame, there is much to appreciate and admire.
First the practicalities.
Getting to Notre Dame
Notre Dame is on Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of Paris where the very first settlement was built. One of the very cool things about Paris is that it’s such an easy city to get around in, thanks to its very extensive Metro system. The Paris subway can be difficult to navigate (we once changed from one line to another and walked what must have been a few blocks underground), but there’s ample signage and a good Metro map should be able to see you through.
So, depending on how far you’re willing to walk, here are the stops closest to Notre Dame:
- Saint-Michel – Notre-Dame
- Cluny – La Sorbonne
The first two are on Line 4, and the last two are on Line 10. The Line 4 stops will take you right into Île de la Cité. The Line 4 stops will let you out near the Latin Quarter, which is a fun and interesting neighborhood, so I actually recommend that more. Plus, you get to browse through the souvenir shops.
Tip: the area around Notre Dame has the best souvenir shopping of all the touristy areas around Paris. You can get a fridge magnet for 2EUR and a post card for 20 cents--compare that with 5EUR and 50 cents at the famous shopping boulevard, Champs-Élysées.
Finally, the sight of Notre Dame when you approach it from the Petit Pont is really nice. You get a peek of it across the Seine, and you can stop along the bridge to take in the sight before you are confronted with the massive majesty of it.
Notre Dame history and details
Throughout history, Notre Dame has been an attractive and central image. There’s the famous Hunchback of Notre Dame, of course, but virtually any movie or story set in Paris will feature the cathedral even in passing, just to give you an anchor that yes, this is truly Paris.
Notre Dame has stood in this spot for almost a millennium. Its building began in 1163, and it took nearly two hundred years to complete. You can get a lot of really cool information on their own website. Even while it’s a famous tourist stop, the cathedral remains an active place of worship, so take note of that when wanting to visit on Sundays or Catholic holidays.
However, before walking in, take a moment to spot the center of France. I previously wrote about it, and I think it’s a very cool thing to find the spot from which all distances in a country are measured. Before coming to Paris, I hadn’t even thought about how city planners decide such things!
There are many things that may catch your eye while exploring Notre Dame. Just the façade tells so many stories, and looking at the intricate designs and all the details on the statues can be riveting. Then there’s the construction and beauty of it — from the gargoyles, to the flying buttresses, to the stained glass rose windows that, when viewed from the inside, also tell a story.
There is an interesting exhibit inside that discuss the building of the cathedral. There are also beautiful sculptures, and some famous bells (perhaps also made famous by Disney’s Hunchback, but even before that, as the signal of Paris’ liberation during World War II).
Around Notre Dame
I strongly suggest strolling the area around Notre Dame, particularly the southern façade along the Seine. On a beautiful day, you can believe that everything you’ve heard about Paris is true: it’s lovely, and romantic, and even magical.
Admire the cathedral’s architecture from the outside, wave to your fellow tourists sailing down the Seine, and walk across Pont de l’Archevêché for a wonderful view of the cathedral’s southern side from across the river.
Lovers wanting to pledge eternal devotion have festooned Pont de l’Archevêché with locks, tossing the keys into the Seine, much as they used to do on Pont des Arts. It’s quite a sight, and people everywhere are doing the same (we saw similarly “decorated” bridges in Venice and Prague) though I implore you not to join in… while the idea is romantic, it only causes the bridges to become weighed down and unstable, as well as obscuring the natural beauty of the bridges.
After you’ve crossed the bridge and taken your lovely photos, walk along the other bank where you may notice small green carts with drawings, paintings, and old books. These are the bouquinistes of Paris, and browsing through their wares, you may find a treasure if you’re so inclined.
Notre Dame was our first destination in Paris. It was a great introduction to the city. Being in the center of Paris, feeling the city’s history through the cathedral, and seeing it so beautifully set against the Seine… I came to the city with the mindset that it was, very likely, overrated. But like I said, and hope we were able to capture in our photos, the stories are true. There’s beauty, magic, and majesty in Paris.