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Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

The burial place of French royalty is an easy Métro ride away from central Paris. But the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis isn't just a necropolis--it's also a lovely, light-filled example of early Gothic church architecture.

Recumbent statues in Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

ABOVE: The Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis has more than 70 recumbent statues and tombs, plus an ossuary where the bones of earlier kings, queens, and lesser royals have been stashed away since 1793.

Dog statue in Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral"I can see dead people"--a famous line from The Sixth Sense, a 1999 movie--could be the motto of visitors to the Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral on the northern edge of Paris. Granted, the Basilica's long-decayed occupants are in sarcophagi or ossuaries, but recumbent stone replicas make the 42 kings, 32 queens, 60+ princes and princesses, and several royal dogs appear more real than you might guess.

The church is on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery where Saint Denis was buried after being martyred around 250 AD.

A Benedictine abbey was later founded on the cemetery site, and ever since 500 AD or so, most French kings and queens have been buried in the abbey.

Rose window and interior of Saint-Denis Basilica CathedralIn the 12th Century, Abbot Suger (who served as Regent of France during the Second Crusade) built a new church around the abbey's Basilica. The resulting Saint-Denis Basilica, which was completed in the 13th Century, is widely regarded as the first example of Gothic architecture.

The Basilica was elevated to cathedral status in 1966, more than 800 years after work began on the current façade.

What to see:

Interior of Saint-Denis Basilica CathedralThe Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis has three main attractions:

  • Gothic architecture, and especially the main interior with its lovely stonework (often dappled with colored light from an array of stained-glass windows).

  • Funerary statues--nearly six dozen in all, with some dating to the 13th Century.

  • The Crypt, which includes the graves of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the heart of Louis XVII, an ossuary with bones from monarchs dating back to the Early Middle Ages, and an "Archaeological Crypt" with sarcophagi from as early as the 5th Century.

Hours and admission fees:

Ticket office sign at Saint-Denis Basilica CathedralOpening times may be affected by special occasions, but in general, the hours are:

  • April - September: 10 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6:15 p.m. on Sundays.

  • October - March: 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5:15 p.m. on Sundays.

  • Arrive at least 30 minutes before closing time. (The cathedral recommends a minimum of 1 hour 15 minutes for a visit.)

  • The church is closed to visitors on January 15, May 1, December 25, and during religious services.

Ticket prices vary, with a discount for visitors under 26 years old. EU citizens under 26 get in free.

Audioguides and guided tours (mostly in French, but with occasional English tours) are available.

For up-to-date opening times and prices, check the Practical Information page on the Basilica's official Web site.

 Please note:

  • You can enter the Basilica and look around without buying a ticket, but it's hardly worthwhile to make the trip out to Saint-Denis without enjoying the full experience.

  • For security reasons, suitcases and large backpacks are forbidden. Maximum bag size is 40 x 40 x 20 cm or 15 x 15 x 7 inches.

Getting to Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral:

The easiest way to reach the Basilica from Paris is on Métro Line 13, which runs north-south through Paris with connections to other Métro lines along the way.

Basilique Saint-Denis Metro station sign

Sign in Basilique Saint-Denis Metro stationTrains run frequently, and you need only a standard Métro ticket to reach your destination of Basilique Saint-Denis (an underground station near the northern end of the line).

Leave the station via the "Basilique Saint-Denis" exit and follow the signs to the cathedral.

More photos:

BELOW: As you leave the Métro station, you'll see directional signs. The Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral is only three minutes away on foot.

Sign to Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: The Basilica is at 1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, just beyond the Place du Claquet and the Mairie (a.k.a. Hotel de Ville) or Town Hall. The façade was built from 1135 to 1144 and restored in 2015.

Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: The Basiica's interior represents the first major example of Gothic architecture.

Interior of Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

Columns in St-Denis Basilica Cathedral

Organ in Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

Choir stall in Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: On sunny days, stained-glass windows distribute patches of rainbow light across the Basilica's interior.

Dappled light in St-Denis Basilica Cathedral, Paris

Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, Paris

Stained-glass windows in St-Denis Basilica Cathedral

Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral stained glass

BELOW: The Basilica has two rose windows. This is one of them:

Rose window in Basilique Cathedrale Saint-Denis

BELOW: The Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis has dozens of recumbent statues, such as these funerary sculptures of Charles V (1338-1380 AD) and Jeanne de Bourbon (1338-1377).

Recumbent statues in Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

BELOW: Every body should have a dog (or even two).

Dog statues in Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

BELOW: There comes a point where "recumbent" becomes redundant.

Visitors with recumbent statues in Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

Recumbent statues of French royalty - Saint-Denis

BELOW: Although it's a national monument, the Basilica is far quieter than you might expect. Relatively few individual tourists or tour groups find their way to Saint-Denis, although Cheryl Imboden made the trek (and many of the photos on this page) .

Cheryl Imboden at Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral, Paris

BELOW: During our visit, an artist was painting a scene from the Basilica's interior.

Saint-Denis church

Artist painting in Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: "Encryption" used to have a different meaning than it does today. In the second photo, Durant Imboden follows the arrow to the tombs downstairs.

Sign for crypt at Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

Durant Imboden on stairs leading to crypt in Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: The Crypt of Saint-Denis is brighter and less creepy than most. The Bourbon Chapel (shown here) has large stained-glass windows and an attractive tile floor.

Bourbon Chapel, Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

Tiled floor of Bourbon Chapel, Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: Not far away from the chapel, the surprisingly modest Bourbon Grave holds the bones of--among others--Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, whose remains were moved from the Madeleine Cemetery of Paris in 1815.

The instigator of the move was Louis XVIII,, the last king to be buried in the Basilica (in 1824, when he was also the last king of France to die while on the throne).

Bourbon tomb in crypt of Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: In addition to graves, tombs, and the Bourbon Chapel, the Crypt has an area for exhibitions (in the background of this photo, behind the columns and vaults).

Crypt of Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: One of the Basilica's more intriguing features is the Archaeological Crypt, which--according to the official description--shows the remains of earlier structures.

The Archaeological Crypt also features enough empty sarcophagi to fill a bathtub showroom.

Saint Denis, the Basilica's namesake martyr, was once buried here.

Archaeological Crypt at Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: On the way out of the Crypt, you'll pass the Royal Ossuary, which contains bones that were taken from the royal tombs after the French Revolution. Louis XVIII (mentioned above), who was restored to the throne in 1814, had the bones recovered and brought back to the Basilica.

Wall plaques identify the Royal Ossuary's occupants, beginning with Dagobert I, who died in 639 AD.

Royal Ossuary in the Crypt of Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: Back upstairs, a sign directs paying visitors to a separate reception or exhibition area with toilets.

Sign for reception and public toilets in Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral

BELOW: In the exhibition area, you can see a model of the Basilica and surrounding neighborhoods as they looked 800 years ago.

You may notice from the model that Saint-Denis once had a spire. The 85-meter or 297-foot structure was dismantled in the mid-19th Century after being damaged by tornadoes, and its carefully-marked and numbered stones were stored alongside the Basilica.

If the current restoration project stays on track, a rebuilt spire will be in place by the early 2030s.

Model of medieval Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral and town

Next page: Saint-Denis (Paris suburb)

In this article:
Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral
Saint-Denis (Paris suburb)

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About the author:

Durant Imboden photo.Durant Imboden is a professional travel writer, book author, and editor who focuses on European cities and transportation.

After 4-1/2 years of covering European travel topics for About.com, Durant and Cheryl Imboden co-founded Europe for Visitors (including Paris for Visitors) in 2001. The site has earned "Best of the Web" honors from Forbes and The Washington Post.

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