Experience the city’s history through its most stunning buildings.
While modern-day Paris is a very secular city, religion—particularly Christianity—once played an essential role in French society. Today you’ll still find a stunning variety of churches here, from grand Gothic cathedrals to gorgeous neoclassical chapels. Many of Paris’s oldest buildings are religious institutions, so if you’re interested in the history of the city, its churches are a great place to start.
Come here for the magnificent medieval stained glass, all 1,113 panes depicting stories from both the New and Old Testaments. An example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture, La Sainte-Chapelle was built between 1242 and 1248 to accommodate the Passion relics, including Jesus Christ’s Crown of Thorns, that were purchased by King Louis IX in 1239. In addition to the stained glass, paintings and carvings of Christian symbolism abound with sculptures of the 12 apostles and sculptural reliefs of angels holding royal crowns. Admission is €10, or €15 if you buy a joint ticket to visit the neighboring Conciergerie, a revolutionary tribunal and prison where Marie-Antoinette was held. This church is so historically meaningful, there’s even a free app called Sainte-Chapelle Window that zooms in on the fifteen 50-foot tall windows to explain their stories.
Église de la Madeleine
Built between 1754 and 1842 and surrounded by 52 Corinthian columns standing 65 feet tall, Église de la Madeleine was intended to be a temple of glory to honor Napoléon’s Great Army. In 1806, Napoléon brought architect Pierre-Alexandre Vignon onboard, who drew inspiration from the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens to create the La Madeleine we know today. After Napoléon’s fall, King Louis XVIII ordered the neoclassical building to serve as a functioning church; the reliefs on the bronze doors represent the Ten Commandments. Inside are even more Corinthian columns, a neo-Byzantine mosaic, sculptures, and paintings. Located north of Place de la Concorde, this is a high-society favorite for weddings and funerals, and free classical concerts are held here throughout the year.
Some 10 million tourists trek up to Montmartre every year (either via the 222 stairs or by funicular) to visit the Sacred Heart of Paris. But how many know that its construction marked the end of France’s domination of continental Europe, resulting in the creation of a unified Germany? After France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1873, the National Assembly authorized the construction of “an imposing Christian church visible from all over Paris” to forgive the people for their sins. Unlike other churches in Paris, the basilica features Romanesque-Byzantine architecture, similar to San Marco in Venice, and was built with self-cleaning stone from the Château-Landon quarries. When it rains, the calcite has a bleaching effect that gives the exterior its chalky white appearance. At 425 feet above sea level, the 270-foot bell tower (at 19 tons, it’s one of the heaviest in the world) and dome are the second-highest viewpoint in Paris. This is France’s second most visited church, with one of the largest mosaics in the world; you have to pay to climb up the 300 steps to the dome.
Saint-Denis Basilica and Royal Necropolis, Kings Burial Place
From 987 to 1789, the kings and queens of France knew where they’d end up: a distinguished burial at Saint-Denis Basilica. What the 43 kings, 32 queens, and 10 servants to the monarchy didn’t anticipate was that their graves would eventually be desecrated during the French Revolution and their royal remains tossed into common graves and covered with quicklime. The name Saint-Denis dates back to the third century when the patron saint of France (Saint-Denis) was buried at a martyrium on this site, next to a church that would later become the Saint-Denis Basilica. The birthplace of Gothic art, the Basilica 5 km (3 miles) north of Paris now boasts the first cross-ribbed vault ever built in France. It also features the largest collection of 12th- through 16th-century funerary sculptures and 70 recumbent statues and monumental tombs from the Renaissance. Napoléon reopened the basilica in 1806, and in 1966 it was consecrated as a cathedral. Admission is €9 well spent.
Notre Dame Cathedral
A tragic 2019 fire might have made France’s most visited church off-limits to travelers for the time being, but even just glimpsed from the outside, it’s easy to see why Notre Dame is one of Paris’s most treasured buildings. Located on Ile de la Cité, which divides the left and right banks of the Seine, it was built over two centuries from 1163 to 1345 and has long been one of the world’s finest examples of Gothic architecture. Despite the imposing famed gargoyles meant to protect the building from weather damages (they act as water spouts) and evil forces alike, the cathedral has seen a lot, including rioting Huguenots, French Revolution looters, damage sustained during World War II, and the recent fire that almost took down the entire structure. Luckily the majority of the church’s priceless relics and items survived, including the famed rose windows. But the roof was completely destroyed and the 300-foot spire collapsed, which means construction work to restore the building for visitors will be ongoing. But the iconic towers still stand strong, making a visit to glimpse Notre Dame’s exteriors just as moving as ever.
At 346 feet in length, the dimensionally impressive Saint-Eustache in Les Halles feels more like a cathedral than a church. It also features a range of architectural styles—a Gothic façade with Renaissance and classical interiors—due to being built in 1532 (Louis XIV received communion here) and then restored in 1840. As one of the most visited churches in Paris, Saint-Eustache’s central Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, with its marble Pigalle statue, was inaugurated by Pope Pius VII when he was in town for Napoléon’s coronation. Other important artwork includes Pilgrims at Emmanus, a painting by Rubens; a trip to the attic in 1926 led to the discovery of a tapestry originally from the chapel of Versailles, which now decorates Saint-Eustace’s south transept. Music is a key element of the church’s history. Mozart attended his mother’s funeral at Saint-Eustace and in 1855 Berlioz first conducted Te Deum with some 900 performers. The 8,000-pipe organ is one of the biggest in France, and there are free concerts every Sunday afternoon, as well as ticketed national symphony and choral performances, some of which are part of the Festival d’Automne à Paris and Paris Quartier d’Été.
Behind the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter, you’ll find Saint-Étienne-du-Mont and within it, Paris’s last Renaissance rood screen. The finely carved stone structure spans the entire width of the nave between the north and south walls. In medieval days, the double-stair arch would have been used for readings or for the choir. Built in the 1530s, the church contains a mix of Gothic and Renaissance artwork and houses the remains of Genevieve, a patron saint of Paris. Visiting hours vary; guided tours meet at 3 pm under the organ.
Originally an abbey founded in 543 dating back to the first kings of France, the oldest church in Paris is one of the city’s first examples of Gothic architecture. Église St-Germain-des-Pres has witnessed everything from Viking ransacks to the manslaughter of monks. In 1794, it was turned into a saltpeter refinery, but when 15 tons of gunpowder ignited, the explosion leveled the monastery, leaving behind only the church that stands today. Since 2013, the église has been undergoing an eight-year, €5.7-million renovation, partly funded by American Friends, who launched a program where every $100 donation gets you naming rights to one of the 800 new stars on the vaulted ceiling, which will be illuminated on an interactive platform. You can visit the church on Tuesday, Thursday, and the third Sunday of every month, at 3 pm (it’s closed to tourists in July and August). A free organ recital takes place on the last Sunday of each month at 3:30 pm.
Steps from Église St-Germain-des-Pres, the second-tallest church in Paris is famous for its gnomon, which played a role (although factually inaccurate) in the book and film, The Da Vinci Code. The Eglise Saint-Sulpice was also where writer Victor Hugo got married. Building started on the Baroque church and its two distinctive mismatched towers in 1646, but it would take almost 100 years to complete. Today it features three paintings by Delacroix in the Chapelle des Anges to right of the entrance; the Rococo Chapelle de la Madone is by Florentine architect Giovanni Servandoni. The 6,588-pipe organ can be heard in all its glory at 10:30 am Sunday Mass.
Built at the request of Louis XVIII to expiate his brother, this neoclassical chapel is where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were buried after their 1793 execution (eventually their remains were moved to the Basilica of Saint-Denis). Constructed between 1816 and 1826, the Chapelle Expiatoire is a small historic monument (€6 entry), with not that much to see besides the crypt and a marble sculpture of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but what makes it fascinating is the 2018 discovery that this was the site of the cemetery where 3,000 bodies were thrown after being guillotined at the Place de la Concorde.