August 2014: The wind whipped through our hair as we emerged onto the first level of Notre Dame Cathedral, stinging our eyes and soothing our overworked bodies. The climb to the Chimera Gallery, the walkway connecting the two towers of the cathedral, had left us hot, sweaty and gasping for air. And as we stepped out onto the walkway, hair flying everywhere and partially obscuring our view over the city of Paris, it was all worth it.
I was suddenly grateful for the lazy girl ponytail I’d adopted that morning in my rush to get out the door, which now saved my face from a serious hair whipping. The views of the city, of the River Seine, and of course the gargoyles whose immovable faces have become synonymous with Notre Dame de Paris, were divine; well worth the climb and the 8 Euro entrance fee. I shivered in my lightweight dress and cardigan and pulled my summer scarf more tightly around my neck, trying to combat the persistent wind. Even in the middle of August, it was chilly, and I shivered as I raised my camera and took silly shots of my siblings and the stunning cityscape below.
That crazy wind, however, had nothing on the cathedral bells, which induced more than goosebumps as they rang out in the mid-morning chill, stopping passersby in their tracks and summoning a moment of appreciation for one of Paris’s best-known monuments. It’s a moment I’ve shared over and over again, always trying to put into words the sudden, almost painful realization that this is where I was meant to be.
And that was just the beginning…
Suffice it to say, Notre Dame will always have a special place in my heart. That initial visit to the towers in 2014 sparked something in me. The so-called travel bug, which I’d kept locked away in a forbidden, impossible corner of my brain, stepped out and took its first breath; filled its lungs with the possibility of that final morning in Paris. I returned home to the States the very next day, and began blogging just a few months later.
Twenty months, one California getaway, three trips to Washington, a surprise weekend in Utah, a girl’s trip to Victoria, B.C., and a pilgrimage to Chaumont later, I finally returned to Paris, accompanied this time by my boyfriend Dan. We’d booked a cute little apartment just minutes from Notre Dame, and I couldn’t wait to share its beauty with Dan, a first time visitor to the City of Lights. Given our proximity to the beautiful old cathedral, we wound up passing or visiting Notre Dame in some way or other every single day of our Parisian getaway.
We paid it a visit on our first night in Paris, stopping to admire the architectural details and overwhelming scale of the building’s exterior…
And it was only natural that we returned the next day to walk through its massive wooden doors and into the heart of the cathedral, like so many visitors before us.
Despite all the people milling around the nave, or central part of the cathedral, there was an overall sense of reverance as we began our tour of the place that I’d dreamed of visiting ever since I was much younger. People spoke in hushed tones or kept quiet as they contemplated the stained glass windows, the beautifully carved arches and columns, and the art decorating each of the cathedral’s sumptuous chapels.
I was immediately charmed by the glowing chandeliers and moody stained glass windows lining the nave. I had not been inside the cathedral since I was very young, too young to remember how it felt to be inside one of the most iconic places in the world. I was glad to see that it was an even more beautiful sanctuary than the one I’d grown up admiring in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is considered a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, and was one of the first buildings to be constructed in the new style. The Gothic style moved buildings away from damp, rudimentary stone buildings and elevated them into something soaring and beautiful. Towers became higher, and the walls thinner, supported by exterior flying buttresses, while the vaulted ceilings and pointed arches helped to support the structure’s weight from within. The improved weight distribution also supported openings for larger windows, such as the stained glass beauties seen throughout Notre Dame de Paris.
Moreover, the French Gothic style sought to create airy, bright and pleasant spaces, a far cry from the Medieval churches of old. Decorative features were built right into the walls, such as the sculptures on the face of the cathedral and the menacing gargoyles lining the outer walls. For the first time ever, buildings were designed to be truly beautiful.
But you don’t need to know anything about architecture to appreciate the beauty of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Dan and I marveled at the endless arches, the beautifully carved columns, the dazzling stained glass windows, and the soft glow of the chandeliers.
We admired the individual chapels lining the walls, read up on the centuries-long construction process, and gazed up at the famous Rose Windows on either side of the transept.
We giggled at some of the art…
…and had some serious moments as well.
As pretty as the cathedral interior is, however, it has nothing on the towers. A small fee (and a whole lot of effort) is required to climb all 387 narrow, sloping steps to the very top of the towers, but I can assure you, it is well worth it.
For those who are a little nervous about making the climb, here’s what to expect. The climb is split into three sections, with plenty of time to breath between levels. If you are truly worried that the climb will be too much, try to enter the staircase last. This will give you extra time to stop and catch your breath before forging on.
The photo above shows how the climb is broken up. The first level features a nice indoor gift shop and ticketing area. This, I learned a little too late, is where Dan and I could have bought our Paris Museum Passes on day one. Regular tickets, postcards, books and more can also be purchased here. When everyone is ready to go, the climb continues.
Up, up, up, up, up the stairs we go (name that movie)..until we come to the Chimera Gallery. This is the permanent residence of the famous gargoyles of Notre Dame, formally known as chimera. Some are animals, some are fantastical hybrids of two or more beasts, and some are just grim specters, forever keeping watch over the city below. Or, as my brother Jared put it, wishing they could turn their heads just an inch or so to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.
The Gallery is also provides the first breathtaking look at Paris from above. Take your time on this level. Take in the sweeping views…
…and don’t forget to step inside the bell tower! The tower was closed when I visited with my family two years ago, so seeing it for the first time with Dan was a real treat. And since the entrance is somewhat small and hidden away on the side of the South Tower, we almost had the bell tower to ourselves.
Finally, a third spiral staircase led us up to the very top of the South Tower.
The views here were absolutely incredible, stretching on for miles in every direction. We tried to spot some of our favorite monuments from on high, and gushed over the beauty of the city. If gargoyles, history, and really old churches just don’t appeal to you, I guarantee that the views will.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Before long, we were ushered back down the staircase to make room for the next group of visitors. Coming down the South Tower, be prepared to descend all the stairs in one go. The descent is not broken up across three levels, but the pressure to keep moving is practically non-existent, since people tend to leave whenever they are ready to do so. Since Dan and I were one of the last groups to exit, we had plenty of time to stop and peer out the windows on our way down. I might have had jelly legs by the time we returned to solid ground, but I didn’t really mind. Much like the soreness that can follow a good hike, my jelly legs were a hard-earned reminder of all that we had just seen and experienced.
- Entry fees
- Cathedral interior: free
- Towers: 10 Euros
- Crypt: 5 Euros
- All of the above are included in the Paris Museum Pass, which grants access to over 50 of the top sights in the city. Dan and I bought 4-day passes and we cannot recommend them enough. Check the pass out here to see if it is right for you.
- Always check the official attraction website for any closures or limited operating hours which could affect your visit.
- Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris is located at:
6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004 Paris, France