Looming above Place du Parvis, this Gothic sanctuary is the symbolic heart of Paris and, for many, of France itself. Napoléon was crowned here, and kings and queens exchanged marriage vows before its altar. Begun in 1163, completed in 1345, badly damaged during the Revolution, and restored in the 19th century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Notre-Dame may not be the country’s oldest or largest cathedral, but in beauty and architectural harmony it has few peers—as you can see by studying the front facade. Its ornate doors seem like hands joined in prayer, the sculpted kings above them form a noble procession, and the west rose window gleams with what seems like divine light. The front facade has three main entrances: the Portal of the Virgin (left); the Portal of the Last Judgment (center); and the Portal of St. Anne (right). As you enter the nave, the faith of the early builders permeates the interior: the soft glow of the windows contrasts with the exterior’s triumphant glory. At the
entrance are the massive 12th-century columns supporting the towers. Look down the nave to the transepts—the arms of the church—where, at the south entrance to the choir, you'll glimpse the haunting 12th-century statue of Notre-Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris, for whom the cathedral is named. On the choir’s south side is the Treasury, with its small collection of religious artifacts. On the north side is the north rose window, one of the cathedral's original stained-glass panels; at the center is an image of Mary holding a young Jesus. Biblical scenes on the choir’s north and south screens depict the life of Christ and apparitions of him after the Resurrection. Behind the choir is the Pietà, representing the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ. The best time to visit is early morning, when the cathedral is brightest and least crowded. Audioguides are available at the entrance (€5); free guided tours run Wednesday and Thursday at 2, and Saturday at 2:30. A separate entrance, to the left of the front facade, provides access to the towers via 387 stone steps. These wind up to the bell tolled by the fictional Quasimodo in Victor Hugo's 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris. The famed gargoyles (technically chimeras since they lack functioning waterspouts) were 19th-century additions. Lines to climb the tower are shortest on weekday mornings. Down the stairs in front of the cathedral is the Crypte Archéologique, an archaeological museum offering a fascinating subterranean view of this area from the 1st century, when Paris was a Roman city called Lutetia, through medieval times. Note that Notre-Dame was one of the first buildings to make use of flying buttresses—exterior supports that spread the weight of the building and roof. People first thought they looked like scaffolding that hadn’t been removed. By day, the most tranquil place to appreciate these and other architectural elements is Square Jean-XXIII, the lovely garden behind the cathedral. By night, Seine boat rides promise stellar views.