Looming above Place du Parvis on the Ile de la Cité, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame is the symobolic heart of Paris and, for many, of France itself. Napoléon was crowned here, and kings and queens exchanged marriage vows before is altar. There are a few things worth seeing inside the Gothic cathedral, but the real highlights are the exterior architectural details and the unforgettable view of Paris, framed by stone gargoyles, from the top of the south tower.
Begun in 1163, completed in 1345, badly damaged during the Revolution, and restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, Notre-Dame may not be France's oldest or largest cathedral, but in beauty and architectural harmony it has few peers—as you can see by studying the facade from the square in front. The ornate doors seem like hands joined in prayer, the sculpted kings above them form a noble procession, and the west (front) rose window gleams with what seems like divine light. The most dramatic approach
to Notre-Dame is from the Rive Gauche, crossing at the Pont au Double from Quai de Montebello, at the St-Michel métro or RER stop. This bridge will take you to the large square, Place du Parvis, in front of the cathedral, which serves as kilomètre zéro—the spot from which all distances to and from the city are officially measured. A polished brass circle set in the ground, about 20 yards from the cathedral's main entrance, marks the exact spot.
A separate entrance, to the left of the front facade if you're facing it, leads to the 387 stone steps of the south tower. These wind up to the bell of Notre-Dame—as tolled by the fictional Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo's 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris. The incredible popularity of the book made Parisians finally take notice of the cathedral's state of disrepair and spurred Viollet-le-Duc's renovations. These included the addition of the gargoyles (though technically they are chimeras, as they lack the functioning waterspout of true "gargoyles"), among other things, and resulted in the structure we know today. Looking out from the tower, you can see how Paris—like the trunk of a tree developing new rings—has grown outward from the Ile de la Cité. To the north is Montmartre; to the west is the Arc de Triomphe, at the top of the Champs-Elysées; and to the south are the towers of St-Sulpice and the Panthéon. Lines to climb the tower are shortest on weekday mornings.
Notre-Dame was one of the first Gothic cathedrals in Europe and one of the first buildings to make use of flying buttresses—exterior supports that spread out the weight of the building and roof. At first people thought they looked like scaffolding that the builders forgot to remove. The most tranquil place to appreciate the architecture of Notre-Dame is from the lovely garden behind the cathedral, Square Jean-XXIII. By night, take a boat ride on the Seine for the best view—the lights after dark are magnificent.
The west (front) facade has three main entrances: the Portal of the Virgin on the left; the Portal of the Last Judgment in the center; and the Portal of St. Anne (the oldest of the three) on the right. As you enter the nave, the faith of the early builders permeates the quiet interior: the soft glow of the stained-glass windows contrasts with the triumphant glory of the exterior. The best time to visit is early in the morning, when the cathedral is at its brightest and least crowded. 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 (right) 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 south side of the choir is the Treasury, with a small collection of garments, reliquaries, crucifixes, and objects in silver and gold plate. Behind the choir you can see the Pietà, representing the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ. The biblical scenes on the north and south screens of the choir depict the life of Christ and the apparitions of Christ after the Resurrection. On the north side, the north rose window is one of the cathedral's original stained-glass panels; at the center is an image of Mary holding a young Jesus. If you're lucky, you may hear the tolling of nine recentlyinstalled bronze bells, commissioned in 2013 for the cathedral's 850th birthday celebration. English audioguides are available at the entrance (€5);free guided tours in English are offered on Wednesday and Thursday at 2, and on Saturday at 2:30 (call ahead to confirm).
Down the stairs in front of the cathedral is the Crypte Archéologique, an archaeological museum. It offers a fascinating subterranean view of this busy area from the 1st century, when Paris was a Roman city called Lutetia (note the ruins of houses, baths and even a quay), through medieval times, when the former Rue Neuve-Notre-Dame that passed through here was packed with houses and shops. A renovation in late 2012 cleaned the remains and added 3-D video touch-screen panels that bring the ruins to life.