Everyone knows about the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It may well be the most famous church in the world, and it is a must-see on most Paris itineraries. It’s every bit as hauntingly beautiful inside as you would expect. Here’s what you need to know for visiting Notre Dame.
*Note: As a result of the devastating fire at Notre Dame in April 2019, the cathedral is closed indefinitely. I hope to see this world-renowned treasure restored and welcoming worshipers and visitors as soon as possible.
Exploring the cathedral was everything I expected. The iconic architecture is instantly recognizable. My mom pointed out that the carvings on the front were used to teach Bible stories during the period when Christianity was banned. The intricacy there is incredible, and it’s amazing to think about how old everything there is.
Attack of the Birds
Before we went inside Notre Dame, we met a flock of pigeons that were being fed by a guy with a bag of dried corn. They were terrifying and also hilarious. I made the mistake of getting too close to take pictures and the guy threw a handful of corn towards me, which caused the flock of birds to swirl around me in a thunderous fury of flapping wings. My mom and sister thought it was hilarious, so they ran over to join in too.
We spent about five minutes laughing hysterically (and occasionally screaming) as pigeons swarmed around us. At one point, there were birds on my shoulders and hair. The man with the corn put a handful of it in my mom’s jacket hood and she ended up doubled over with a small flock of birds on her back. It felt a little gross and I felt a strong urge to hit the showers afterward, but I’m glad we ventured over into what’s probably kind of a tourist trap. The pictures we took were hilarious and we were still laughing about that afternoon for the rest of the trip. We were lucky that none of us got pooped on, which was my biggest fear. After the three of us escaped from the flock, I made one last foray into the fray to give the guy a couple Euros before we headed into the church.
Inside the Church
As previously established, I’m a huge lover of Disney. As such, part of my trip preparation was to watch their version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with its criminally underrated soundtrack. The song Esmerelda sings when she takes sanctuary inside the church, “God Help the Outcasts,” was running through my head the whole time I was exploring. I’m reasonably sure that I avoided actually singing it out loud while I was there, but I can’t make any promises.
The thing that I found most surprising was that the iconic rose window seen from the front of the church isn’t very visible from the interior. The massive organ blocks the view from inside, but the rose windows on the sides are just as pretty and easy to see and photograph.
The gothic architecture gives the whole building an imposing and ominous feel. It’s very quiet inside and the whole atmosphere is solemn. There are a few displays toward the altar end of the church that describe its history, which I found very interesting.
The Climb to the Top of Notre Dame
Once we finished exploring inside, we were ready to head up the towers. While admission to the church itself is free, there is a charge to climb to the top. Our museum passes (read more about those here) included the extra fee, so we figured we might as well do it.
The entrance was a little tricky to find because it wasn’t well marked. As you face the front of the church, it will be on the left side of the building, around the corner. There wasn’t any queue designated, so we lined up behind some other visitors and a few minutes later, someone came out to check our passes and let us in. there was a short climb up to a sort of waiting room with a little gift shop and we were left to wander. Eventually the group that had gathered there was allowed to begin climbing.
Our first stop was at the level between the towers. I was a little disappointed that the whole thing was encased in mesh, which kind of hindered the view. Previous visitors had punched holes in it in some spots so you could still take pictures unobstructed. I actually liked this part better than the top level though because you could see the famous gargoyles up close. Like this guy. (Yes, more Disney movie references were made.)
This is also where you would normally be able to view the iconic bells of Notre Dame, but the belfry was closed for refurbishment when we visited. This was kind of a bummer, but I plan on making it back to Paris again someday, so I’ll hopefully get another chance to see them.
After a short wait (the stairs to the very top are one-way), we got to do some more climbing. From the top of Notre Dame, we could see even further into the distance. The walkway at the top goes around the square-ish perimeter of the tower, so we could see the back of the church from there, with its iconic flying buttresses. After enjoying the view from all sides for a few minutes, we made our way back down.
In case you’re wondering, “God Help the Outcasts” was stuck in my head for the next three days. Other than that, it was a fantastic visit. If you’re looking for more to do in the Latin Quarter area near Notre Dame, Chronicles of a World Traveller has some suggestions in his detailed Paris post.
Read more about Paris here:
- 3-Day Paris Power Itinerary
- Should You Buy A Paris Museum Pass?
- An Evening on the Seine
- Disneyland Paris
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