Notre Dame Cathedral Towers
Please note: This article was written before the devastating fire of April 19, 2019, which will disrupt visits to the bell towers for a long time. We've left the article in place to give you an idea about what to expect when the cathedral is back in business in the mid-2020s or beyond.
If you'd like to visit a cathedral in the meantime, we recommend the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis (the world's oldest Gothic cathedral, and the burial place of French monarchs), which you can reach easily on Paris Métro Line 13.
The north and south towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame stand 69 meters or 226 feet high, not counting the lancets that project from their rooflines. If you're "fine fettle" (to borrow a phrase from the cathedral's Web site of several years ago), you can walk up a spiral staircase to a gallery that offers close-up encounters with the gargoyles that played supporting roles in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. From there, you can explore the cathedral's belfry and climb another 147 steps to the top of the south tower.
The total climb is 387 steps, and there aren't a lot of places to rest along the way, so we recommend climbing the towers only if you're in reasonably good shape. We also suggest wearing comfortable walking shoes, since high heels are likely to be a hazard on the fan-shaped steps.
Climbing the Towers
Your ascent begins at a doorway in the north tower, to the left and around the corner from Notre Dame's main entrance. After you've bought your ticket, you'll trudge up an enclosed stone staircase. (The staircase is narrow and the steps are fan-shaped, so skip the climb if you're claustrophobic or wearing high heels.)
About halfway up the 387 steps, you'll reach the gift and book shop, which occupies a high-ceilinged stone chamber inside the tower. Take a look at the plaque near the steps leading up to Esmeralda's Cell, which includes an excerpt from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Soon, a guard will open the door to the upper staircase, and you can resume your climb to the open gallery of the north tower, where a narrow walkway leads across to the south tower. (Don't worry about falling over the balustrade: A protective wire structure keeps tourists and wannabe jumpers from flattening the visitors below.)
You'll probably want to take snaphots of the chimera (ornamental statues of imaginary creatures) and gargoyles (statues that function as drainspouts) before visiting the belfry, where a wooden staircase offers a good view of the 13-ton Emmanuel bell in the south tower.
After leaving the belfry, you can squeeze your way up a two-way corkscrew staircase to the viewing platform on top of the south tower. You'll exit through the south tower, on the opposite side of the cathedral from the towers' visitor entrance.
April 1 to September 30: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (to 11 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in July and August.)
October 1 to March 31: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Closed: January 1, May 1, December 25.
Ticket prices are reasonable; see the cathedral's Web site (link below) for current rates. Children under 18 are free. Admission is free with the Paris Museum Pass, but you'll still have to wait in line with ticket buyers.
Notre Dame is on the Ile de la Cité, the oldest and most central part of Paris. The closest Métro stop is Cité, on Line 4, and the closest RER stop is St-Michel (Lines B and C). Other Métro stations and bus stops are nearby; consult your Paris map for details.
Notre Dame de Paris
ABOVE: A goatlike chimera, or ornamental figure, overlooks the city. (The chimera were added during the cathedral's renovation in the 19th Century.)
ABOVE: Two more figures--one resembling a bird, the other a man--are shown with the towers' stonework behind.
Views from Notre Dame
ABOVE: This photo of the square in front of the cathedral was taken from the chimera gallery, near the entrance to the belfry. Lines on the pavement show where the city's walls once stood.
At the far end of the plaza is the entrance to the Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame, a museum with building foundations, streets, and other underground remnants of Paris from the Roman era through the 19th Century.
ABOVE: A sightseeing boat passes the Ile de la Cité.
ABOVE: The Dome Church of the Invalides (gold-domed church on left) and the Eiffel Tower loom above the rooftops of Paris.
ABOVE: To the northwest, the basilica of Sacré Coeur faces Notre Dame from its hilltop site in Montmartre.
Inset photo copyright © Michael Langhals.
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