It is on this island, Ile de la Cité (City Island), that the tribes of Parisii settled ; the town then became Lutetia before taking the name Paris in the 5th century (see "History of Paris"). From the 6th century onward, Clovis, the first king of the Franks, made this his place of residence ; his son would later build the first cathedral of Paris. The island remained the seat of royal power until the Capetian dynasty.
Vert Galant square
The little Vert Galant Square is located at the western tip of the island. A small green space with a few trees, it makes for a charming viewpoint of the Seine and its banks, bridges and monuments. The imposing equestrian statue of Henri IV reminds visitors that it was he who first took the initiative to develop the western tip of the Ile de la Cité into a residential area.
Metro station : Pont Neuf
There are only two buildings that remain of the district created by Henri IV in 1607, both located towards the Pont Neuf. Other original buildings were demolished or enhanced from the 18th century onward. The site is now home to numerous art galleries and cafés, and has retained its peaceful calm of long ago.
2 Boulevard du Palais, Ile de la Cité, 75001 Paris
- tel : 01 53 40 60 80
Metro station : Cité
Full price/ reduced price : €8.50/ €6.50. Free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18 years old).
Combination pass for the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle : full price/ reduced price : €15/ €12
Open daily : 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Classified as a National Monument.
Residence of the kings of France and symbol of royal power
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Saint Louis and his grandson Philip IV contributed to the building of a prestigious palace that became the symbol of the monarchy’s power. At the end of the 14th century, Charles V left the royal residence of the city. He chose to live in a better-protected place: at the Hôtel Saint-Pol (now defunct). A concierge, important figure of the court with powers of justice, administered the operations of the palace and the prison. The Conciergerie was a prison until the 19th century: Ravaillac (Henri IV’s assassin), the bandit Cartouche, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and many others spent their last days inside its walls.
Daily life at the prison
The Conciergerie was known as the toughest prison of its time. During the Terror (1793), the cells held several hundred prisoners, housed in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Once a prisoner’s death sentence verdict was decided, he or she was allowed a final banquet meal.
The medieval halls
The lower parts, the only sections remaining today, were reserved for the royal guard and the many people in the service of the king (about 2,000 people).
The Weaponry Hall, built under Philip IV, is a unique European example of civil Gothic architecture. Four fireplaces warmed the vast refectory.
The pavilion kitchens (14th century), of which only the ground floor remains, were used to serve meals to the palace staff. Located near the Seine, the goods arrived by river.
The guard room served as an antechamber to the king's apartments located upstairs. The Revolutionary Tribunal, which ordered dozens of daily executions, sat there from 1793 to its dissolution in 1795.
The prisoners’ corridor allowed inmates to move about "freely". A series of dungeons shows the different categories of prisoners.
The Girondins’ Chapel. In memory of the 21 Girondin representatives who feasted there before their execution on October 30, 1793.
The Memorial Chapel of Marie Antoinette was appointed in 1815 on the site of the cell where the queen awaited her execution.
The women's court, surrounded by two floors of dungeons prisoners, still has the fountain where they washed their clothes, stone tables where they took meals and "the corner of the twelve." It was here that the prisoners, in groups of 12, awaited the wagon that would take them to the scaffold.
6 - 8 Boulevard du Palais, Ile de la Cité, 75001 Paris
- tel : 01 53 40 60 80
Metro station: Cité
Full price/ reduced price: €10/ €8. Free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free non-EU citizens under 18 years old)
Combined pass for the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle : full price/ reduced price : €15/ €12.
March through October : 9 :30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. / 2:15 p.m. to 6 p.m. ; On Wednesday until 9:30 p.m. from mid-May to mid-September.
November through February : 9 :30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. / 2:15 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Classified as a National Monument.
Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) and the Conciergerie are precious testimonies of what the palace of the kings of France was like from the 10th to the 14th century. Sainte-Chapelle, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, was commissioned by Saint Louis (Louis IX) in order to preserve the relics of the Passion of Christ. The building was extensively restored in the mid-19th century.
Superimposed sanctuaries (1242-1248)
The lower chapel is dedicated to the Virgin, and carved decoration of the porch and the inside décor are from the 19th century. On the side walls, the sculptural medallions represent the 12 apostles with idealized faces. The scene of the Annunciation at the bottom left is the oldest mural in Paris. The golden lilies on a blue background and the starry sky vault are perfectly executed. The lower chapel was the palace staff’s place of worship.
The decoration of the upper chapel is simply sumptuous. Sculptures and glass combine to glorify Christ's Passion. Its 15 windows (most of which are original) diffuse light in shades of red and blue, almost heavenly. They show, in 1,113 scenes, the history of humanity, from Genesis to the resurrection of Jesus. This is the most extraordinary collection of stained glass from the 13th century. They read from left to right and top to bottom. Connected to the palace, access to the upper chapel was reserved for the king, his family and the college of canons.
The story of the Holy Relics
The 22 Holy Relics of the Passion of Christ had belonged to the emperors of Constantinople since the 4th century until Louis IX bought them to increase the prestige of France. Paris then became, in the eyes of medieval Europe, a "New Jerusalem", and by the same token, the second capital of Christendom. Among them, the most famous relics are the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross carried by Christ. They were acquired in 1239 for a sum far exceeding the cost of the construction of the building.
For more information : the canopy recounting the history of the relics of the Passion (in the upper chapel) illustrates the story of their discovery by Saint Helena in Jerusalem until their arrival in France. The relics of the Sainte-Chapelle are now kept in the Treasury of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Famous worldwide, the Notre Dame Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic art. Its architectural cohesion leaves no trace that it was built, enlarged and restored for nearly eight centuries from the 12th to the 19th century, when the last major restoration was undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc. You could almost trace the history of Paris through the cathedral. It was present for some of French history’s greatest events, from Saint Louis’ crown of thorns in 1239 to Napoleon's coronation in 1804 to the celebration of the Liberation in 1944.
Cathédrale Notre Dame
Place Jean-Paul-II, Ile de la Cité, 75004 Paris
Website - 01 42 34 56 10.
Metro station: Cité
Open daily : 8 a.m. to 6 :45 p.m.
Audio guides (fee) and guided tours (free) available. Organized tours are based on its architecture, stained glass, sculptures, history, and its ever-present prestige.
History of the Cathedral
The construction of the cathedral was led by Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris in the 12th century, a project designed to build his capital a cathedral worthy of its place on the site of a Merovingian cathedral. The monumental construction site required the involvement of many actors: the church, the elders and the people of Paris. All participated in this great adventure based on their resources (some with money, others with labor). During the construction, all guilds (cutters, sculptors, carpenters, masons, glassmakers) worked tirelessly under the management of experienced architects, and with the help of the population who provided manual labor. Begun in 1163, the work would be initially completed over a century later.
Though it is full of artistic treasures, visitors today focus in particular on two rosettes (or roses), 13 meters in diameter. The implementation of the framework required nearly 21 acres of oak trees.
Beyond the artistic beauty it exudes, it was indeed a considerable technical challenge. How would it be possible to hold roof that heavy on walls as high and open with windows and rosettes? The architects rose to this challenge by innovating; instead of basing the structure on the walls, they supported it on pillars. The cross-ribbed vaults inside and buttresses outside allowed for the distribution of the mass on all the pillars. The result is clear: the roof rises 33 meters high, the towers 69 to meters and the spire to 90 meters! Its unusual proportions make it the largest religious building in Europe. It served as an example for many other cathedrals, including the cathedrals of Amiens and Reims (listed as World Heritage sites), both built in the 13th century.
In the 13th century, architectural styles changed with the emergence of High Gothic, multiplying openings to promote the entry of light into the building.
As for many other monuments, the events of the Revolution damaged the statuary. In the mid-19th century Viollet-le-Duc recreated the carved decorations from old documents, or based them on works achieved in the cathedrals of northern France, contemporaries of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Today it remains the seat of the Archbishop of Paris.
The towers of the Notre Dame
Rue du cloître Notre-Dame , 75004 Paris
- tel : 01 53 40 60 80
Full price/ reduced price : €10/ €8. Free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18 years old)
April through September : 10 a.m. to 6 :30 p.m. ; July and August : open until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings
October through March : 10 a.m. to 5 :30 p.m.
Classified as a National Monument. For information, the tour includes 422 steps, and has no elevator. The visit can be adapted for those with disabilities.
The upper room of the north tower : the keystone rises to a height of 14 meters. At the back of the room, hidden in a turret, is a remarkable spiral staircase.
Chimeras gallery owes its name to the statues that adorn the balustrade. The most famous of these chimeras, the stryge (half-woman, half-bird, to the right of the entrance) seems to contemplate the transformation of her capital. The richly carved decoration is visible from the gallery.
The Exterior of the Cathedral
The outside court, installed by Haussmann, is the symbolic heart of Paris. All French road distances are measured from this point.
The Façade of the Cathedral
The front of the cathedral is simply dazzling: its size, continuity and sculptures represent an exceptional masterpiece. The three portals are entirely decorated with statues recounting the Bible and the lives of Saints: 28 statues representing the kings of Judah and Israel, the ancestors of Christ. Above these characters, on either side of the facade, are statues of Adam and Eve. In the center, there is a statue of the Virgin and Child flanked by two angels. On the left, the Portal of the Virgin presents images of the Coronation of the Virgin. In the center, the portal of the Last Judgement is Christ judging the dead. The Sainte-Anne portal on the right shows Madonna and Child.
The Portal of the Virgin (to the left)
Depicted are the prophets who announced the Virgin’s glorious destiny and kings from which they descend. Above, the Virgin Mary is shown in her last sleep, presided over by Christ and the apostles. Even further above, an angel crowns Mary while Christ, seated on the same throne as his mother, hands her a scepter: Mary becomes Queen of Heaven. Saint Denis can be seen carrying his head in his hands ; evangelizer of the Gauls and the first bishop of Paris, he was beheaded around 250 AD. In front of him, the patron and protector of Paris, Sainte Genevieve, holds a candle that a little devil tries to extinguish.
The Portal of the Last Judgment (in the center)
Jesus is depicted as the one who welcomes us to Heaven, while Mary and Saint John pray. At the bottom is the Resurrection, while in the middle we see the weighing of souls: elected officials are taken to Heaven by angels, others are taken to hell by demons. Christ is surrounded by the twelve apostles.
The Saint Anne Portal
This portal is dedicated to Mary's mother. Holding the baby Jesus, Mary is surrounded by angels bearing censers, a bishop (perhaps Sully) and a king (perhaps Louis VII). The sculptures narrate episodes from the life of Mary: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi. The grandparents of Jesus, Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, can also be seen.
Saint Etienne Portal
Located on the south side of the cathedral, the carvings on this portal tell the story of the saint's life. At the top, Jesus blesses Saint Etienne and welcomes him to Heaven. The medallions on the sides narrate scenes of student life in Paris in the Middle Ages.
The Cloister Portal
The sculptures of this portal depict episodes from the life of Mary: the birth of Jesus and the manger, the offering to the temple of Jerusalem, the persecution of children by King Herod and his flight, and Joseph’s escape to Egypt to protect their son.
Gargoyles and Chimera
Implemented at the end of the gutters to drain rainwater from the roof, the gargoyles of Notre Dame are very famous (see box "The Story of a Novel"). The chimeras, also numerous, are simply decorative. They are particularly numerous on the front of the cathedral, as if they are watching the passers-by and admiring Paris. These creatures, drawn with great imagination by Viollet-le-Duc, are fantastic birds, hybrid animals or monsters perched on the towers.
In the South Tower is the great bell, cast more than 300 years ago, and baptized Emmanuel by Louis XIV. The bell weighs 13 tons. From the top of this tower, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the Seine, its banks and bridges. In the north tower, four smaller bells provide hourly chimes and announce services in the cathedral.
The Interior of the Cathedral
The Wall of the Chancel
The Wall of the Chancel is decorated with carvings depicting the life of Christ: the north side recounts his childhood, and the south side shows his resurrection. The missing stages of this work were destroyed.
The Notre Dame Cathedral has three monumental rosettes. Made in the 13th century, they represent a masterpiece of technical and artistic work. The two largest are each 13 meters in diameter. It is said that to see its completion, the king Saint Louis delayed his departure a few months for the second crusade (in 1270) should he not return. They represent the flowers of Heaven. Two rosettes show the Virgin and Child, the third smaller one, Christ in Majesty. Colorful medallions surround the rosettes with a variety of characters and scenes (Prophets, Saints, Angels, Kings, field laborers, etc.).
The organ in place today dates back to the 18th century. Restored in 1868 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll under the authority of Viollet Le Duc, it finds a symphonic fullness with 86 sounding registers, 5 manuals and pedals. It underwent a complete restoration in 1992 and is now considered the largest in the country.
Full price / reduced price: €4 / €2
Open Monday to Friday: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. ; Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ; Sunday: 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
See box "The Story of the Holy Relics" of the Sainte-Chapelle.
The Story of a Novel
The famous novel by Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, published in 1831, tells a historic story rendered gripping by the imagination of the novelist. The novel reconstructs medieval life around the cathedral in the 15th century. An important part of the action takes place in the towers, and a prominent place is given to the bells and their famous bell ringer, Quasimodo. Defender of French heritage, Victor Hugo actively participated in the important campaign that led to the restoration of Notre Dame in 1845.
The Archeological Crypt
Website - tel: 01 55 42 50 10.
Full price / reduced price: €8 / €6. Free for those under 18 years old
Open daily except on Mondays and holidays: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The entrance is located next to the Police Station. The archaeological crypt under the court of Notre Dame has many remains found during archaeological excavations in 1965, especially the remains of buildings that have occurred on the site from the ancient times to the 19th century.
In The Surrounding Area
Place du Panthéon, 75005 Paris
Metro : Luxembourg or Cardinal Lemoine
- tel : 01 44 32 18 00
Full price / reduced price: €8.50 / €6.50. Free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18 years old).
April through September: 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ;
October through March: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Colonnade is open from April to October.
A certified ‘‘Tourism and Handicap’’ location. Classified as a National Monument. Guided tours available
"To great men, a grateful homeland" is the motto inscribed on the pediment of this monumental building, which combines Greek and Gothic architectural styles. This imposing civic temple built under Louis XV was originally a basilica dedicated to Saint Genevieve, but just as it was being completed, the Revolution gave it a different destiny. Transformed in 1791 into a mausoleum and finally consecrated as the National Pantheon in 1885 at the funeral of Victor Hugo (named after the square on which it is located), it also houses the tombs of Pierre and Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, Jean Jaurès, André Malraux, Jean Moulin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. In the crypt, an exhibition presents the life and work of those buried there.
Long ago in the vicinity of the university, founded in the 12th century, teachers and students alike spoke Latin. And the name stuck. Mainly a student neighborhood (the University of the Sorbonne, the College de France, prestigious schools and Sainte-Geneviève library are all located here), its history has been strongly marked by the events of May 1968 and the student revolt. Today it is a pleasant area for walking.