What to do in Paris

Construction of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral

In 1163, the first stone was laid

Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral is the quintessential monument to a bygone age. Straight out of the time of knights, legends and magic, it is a kind of dimensional gateway to the distant past. Distant? Well... not so distant after all.

How long will it take to build?

On October 12, 1160, Maurice de Sully was elected bishop of Paris, and it is to him that we owe the origin of the " Notre-Dame de Paris " project.

Maurice de Sully stained glass window at Notre Dame de Paris

Maurice de Sully stained glass window at Notre Dame de Paris

As soon as he was inaugurated, he spoke of restructuring and building. It was thanks to him that, three years later, the first stone was laid, in the presence of Pope Alexander III. The year was 1163.

Over the next 90 years, four major construction campaigns marked this period, under the direction of four different builders.
Then, from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 14th, work was resumed by Jean de Chelles, Pierre de Montreuil, Pierre de Chelles, Jean Ravy and Jean le Bouteiller.

Almost 300 years after its construction began, Notre-Dame is close to the version we know today. Does this mean that the dimensional door reflects our history from 750 years ago? Well, no, because it was to be redesigned again in the 16th and 19th centuries.

We are witnessing the construction of a building that will have spanned 8 centuries. This is one of the key points that gives Notre-Dame de Paris its magical, timeless appeal.

And I think this is precisely one of the fundamental reasons for its success: 13.5 million pilgrims and visitors a year. The most visited monument in France, and perhaps in Europe. That means an average of over 30,000 people a day, or a new visitor every 3 seconds.

Fantastic figures

  • ◼️ 21 hectares of oak were needed to build the monument's framework
  • ◼️ 1320 lead plates weighing 210,000 kilos provide the roofing for the building
  • ◼️ The vault rises to a height of 33 metres, the towers to 69 metres and the spire to 90 metres.
  • ◼️ The cathedral is 127 metres long
  • ◼️ 113 windows pierce its walls
  • ◼️ It consists of 75 columns and pillars
  • ◼️ Its total surface area is 5,500m², including 4,800m² indoors.

Notre Dame Cathedral is one of Paris's strongest symbols

Like the city itself, it rises along the banks of the Seine, its western facade a " vast symphony of stone " according to Victor Hugo.

Facade of Notre-Dame de Paris seen from the forecourt, with the two towers containing the bell towers.

Facade of Notre-Dame de Paris seen from the forecourt.

Recently refurbished, it stands in all its magnificence. The cathedral's location is rich in history.

It stands on the remains of a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter, a 4th-century church and a 6th-century basilica, in whose foundations were found twelve stones used to build the Roman temple.

By the 12th century, the basilica was in ruins, and the bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, decided to replace it with a superb cathedral to rival Saint-Denis.

In 1163, Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone for what was to become one of the masterpieces of Gothic architecture. The work progressed rapidly, thanks to funds raised by the bishop from the king, the clergy, the nobility and even the poor.

When completed, the cathedral superseded all other religious monuments built in the Île-de-France region.


Fragment of a Descent into Limbo

Fragment of a Descente aux limbes © Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert

Notre Dame's current appearance is largely due to the restoration work carried out in the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Gothic style went out of fashion, and the cathedral suffered the consequences.

Under Louis XIV (1643-1715), the choir was partially destroyed, the 13th-century stained-glass windows were replaced by transparent panes with edges painted blue and gold, and the rood screen and tombs disappeared(a fragment of the rood screen " La Descente aux limbes " is in the Louvre).

During the French Revolution, the cathedral was looted and transformed into a temple of Reason, then of the supreme being. The bells, except for the large drone in the south tower, were melted down to make cannons, and the 28 statues of the kings of Israel and Judah adorning the west facade were mistaken by the revolutionaries for statues of the kings of France and thrown down.

Miraculously, 21 of these heads were found and are now preserved at the Musée de Cluny, with the exception of King David's, which is at the Museum of Art in New York.

By 1804, the cathedral was in such a state of disrepair that, during Napoleon I's coronation, large carpets and tapestries were placed throughout the cathedral to conceal the damage.

As Victor Hugo wrote in Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831: "On the face of this old queen of our cathedrals, next to a wrinkle we always find a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior. Which I would gladly translate as: time is blind, man is stupid." The publication of Victor Hugo's novel encouraged efforts to save the cathedral and raise funds for its restoration. Come and visit our Paris hotels.

From 1845 to 1864, the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc restored the cathedral, distorting its character. The abutments of the nave's flying buttresses were topped with offensive aediculae, the south transept façade was loaded with disastrous new elements, and a 90 m-high spire was erected.

Gargoyles and Chimeras

To see them up close, you have to climb over 300 steps, sharing their vantage point, one of the most beautiful panoramas in Paris. Seemingly posed for centuries, they watch, watch, watch.

The famous Stryge de Notre-Dame.

The famous Stryge de Notre-Dame.

The towers of Notre Dame are inhabited by a fantastical world of legendary, sometimes monstrous creatures... gargoyles and chimeras, the cathedral's famous silent sentinels. All singular, these animal or human figures have a different function.

The gargoyles, on the other hand, play a practical role in evacuating the rain - quite a symbol. Water was a force of evil. The demonic force of water that invades, breaks and drowns. It was therefore necessary to keep them as far away from the cathedral as possible, hence the idea of arms to draw the water away from the walls and prevent it from destroying the buildings. This symbolism is also found in the chimeras, which are purely decorative. They represent the struggle between light and darkness, between good and evil, between triumph and death. This character of opposition is the expression of sin and evil. Gargoyles and chimeras, the same interpretation of the fight against the onslaught of evil. Restored gargoyles already existed in the Middle Ages.

Notre-Dame's gargoyles are famous. They were placed at the end of the gutters to evacuate rainwater from the roof, and only mark the limit of the water drainage channels. As they protrude into the void, the sometimes impressive masses of water from downpours are washed away from the cathedral walls, preventing damage. Who would have thought that these gargoyles were nothing more than a utilitarian and decorative element designed to take the Dame de Paris through the ages? Well, mission accomplished, dear Gargoyles!

Gargoyle for water drainage

The chimeras, on the other hand, fantastical, diabolical and often grotesque statues, are purely decorative. They can be found at the top of the building, at the top of the façade, at the balustrade that crowns the upper gallery linking the two towers and extending on all four sides, the Galerie des chimères. All the corners of this balustrade serve as supports or perches for demons, monsters and fantastical birds. These elements did not exist in the Middle Ages and were added in the 19th century. These little touches added over time have contributed to the timeless look of Paris's grandest dame.

Chimeras Notre Dame de Paris

The chimeras, meanwhile, are a pure product of 19th-century restoration. Signature architect: Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Although he drew his inspiration from the Middle Ages, it can be said that these works are the product of his own creativity, which shows that he was no mere restorer. The most famous of his chimeras is the Stryge, a fabulous monster that never tires of examining the capital.

Chimères Notre Dame: La Stryge

From the outset, they impressed the collective imagination. The Republic immediately embraced them, and they are an integral part of Notre-Dame de Paris, even though they were not present in medieval times.

The sculptures

The sculptures on the choir enclosure, by Jean Ravy, were a source of inspiration for ivory carvers, miniaturists and painters. On either side of the high altar, a Pietà and a statue of Louis XIII by Coustou, as well as one of Louis XIV by Antoine Coysevox, have been preserved.

14th-century Virgin and Child known as "Notre Dame de Paris".

14th-century Virgin and Child known as "Notre Dame de Paris" © Godong

The beautiful 14th-century Madonna, known as Notre-Dame de Paris, rests on the southeast pillar of the transept. The cathedral's treasury includes the Crown of Thorns, a Sacred Nail and a fragment of the True Cross.

These relics are only displayed once a year during Holy Week. Other relics include St. Louis' tunic, a fragment of his jawbone and a rib.

The early 18th-century organ on the west wall was restored in 1868 and again in 1992. With 6,000 pipes, 110 registers and 5 davits, it is the largest organ in France. The view of the spire, flying buttresses and town from the top of the south tower is truly remarkable.

The archaeological crypt

Before you leave, don't forget to visit the crypt to get a good idea of the Gallo-Roman fortifications beneath the forecourt. To the left are the ruins of the rooms that used a heating system called a hypocaust.

Île de la Cité archaeological crypt Île de la Cité archaeological crypt

Notre-Dame de Paris fire in 2019

Fire at Notre Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris fire. Front page of Le Parisien newspaper, April 16, 2019.

Sad news on April 15 and 16, 2019. For almost 15 hours, a fire of rare proportions destroyed the entire spire, transept and nave roofs.

Fortunately, the large-scale mobilization of firefighters saved the overall structure of the Parisian building from the flames.

This was the biggest disaster to hit the cathedral since it was built.

France is in shock. The eyes of the world are riveted on the capital. French President Emmanuel Macron declares that an identical reconstruction of the spire will take place within the next 5 years.

Conclusion in the words of a Parisian

Notre Dame de Paris... How can we conclude in just a few lines when talking about one of the most outstanding works in the history of mankind? Where to begin? I think these few words addressed to him will do the trick, and pay him the tribute he deserves.

You're majestic, the greatest of the greatest. The ladies of high society had better watch out, because you won't sink.


For almost a thousand years, you've been keeping an eye on Paris, making sure the city continues to reflect your magic, your aestheticism and your splendor. It's done, my Lady. Paris honors and admires you, begging for your grace.


For me, you embody our religion, our art, our know-how, our history, our greatness and our future. I am a Parisian and I thank you. I will go to sleep tonight knowing that you will always continue to watch over me.

Photode Notre Dame Cathedral

We're talking about it too!

Leave a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid e-mail address.
You must accept the conditions to continue

Our selection of hotels in Paris
Our selection of charming hotels in Paris
Au Lapin Agile, cabaret in Montmartre
Au Lapin Agile, a cabaret in the heart of Montmartre