|Notre Dame de Paris|
|Saint Denis Basilica|
If you saw the world news during April of 2019, you might remember the infamous accident that left the world watching and shocked: the burning of the Paris Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Most of us have seen or heard of the hit animation film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (we owe this story to author Victor Hugo, really). Many other mainstream media sources, films, and books have helped to immortalize Notre-Dame before and since then.
We already had an idea of its importance to Paris. However, when it burned in April of 2019, the rest of the world watched and mourned with Paris. The Notre Dame, as well as other Cathedrals in Paris, remind us of the city’s ancient roots.
Many of what we now call “historical sites” and “tourist spots” have endured nearly a millennium of wars, invasions, industrialization, reformation, revolution, fires, and physical decay.
Catholicism has declined significantly in France, but these old churches have transcended the faith. Plus, France still celebrates many holidays it inherited from Roman Catholicism, and some still practice the faith.
Looking at the medieval churches, these “sites” are like a time capsule to Paris’s culture and history. If you’re an art, history, or even music lover, then visiting the cathedrals in Paris will definitely go on your itinerary.
For tourists interested or currently practicing Catholicism, they have permission to “join the masses.” Of course, we mean that you can attend the mass, which is also the Catholic term for church service.
[We added some handy tips at the end for attending the mass if you’re a newcomer to Roman Catholic services.]
If you’re coming to Paris, you can’t miss these grand and majestic icons. Below, we’ve made a list of the top cathedrals in Paris that you shouldn’t miss.
We’ve also mentioned some other notable Paris churches, like Saint Germain and Saint Louis. If you’re staying in the Saint Germain or Marais neighborhoods, you won’t want to miss those spots either.
Saint Denis Basilica, Saint-Denis (Northern Suburb of Paris)
• Address: 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis
• Hours: Monday— Saturday: 10:00am—5:15pm; Sunday: 12:00pm—5:15pm.
• Entrance and Tours: Self-guided tours starting at €9.50; free under 18.
This church isn’t actually within Paris proper, since it actually sits on the northern outskirts.
Don’t let that stop you from visiting, though. It’s definitely worth the trek (or ride), since it houses so much history, architectural beauty, as well as… dead royals!
This church was used for many years as a necropolis for French nobility. Plus, it’s been credited for giving birth to Gothic architecture.
Inside, the church serves as a resting place for French royalty— over 40 kings, over 30 queens, and 10 or so royal servants.
This church’s history dates all the way back to the 3rd century, during the time of Roman rule over modern-day France. It begins with the martyrdom of St. Denis himself.
It’s said that right after St. Denis was beheaded, he grabbed his head off the ground and carried it to the site of this present church, delivering a powerful sermon the whole way.
Since then, thousands of pilgrims have ventured to this site.
Here are some more fun facts about Saint Denis and the Basilica:
• Saint Denis the martyr was actually born in modern-day Italy, and tradition says the early Church sent him to convert Gaul (including modern-day France) to Christianity.
• Tradition also says that Saint Denis was the first bishop of France.
• France has used the basilica as a necropolis since the 7th century during the Merovingian Era.
The Notre Dame of Paris, Île de la Cité
• Address: 6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004
• Hours: Parvis open to public / Interior temporarily closed (due to 2019 fire)
What would this list be without it? The Notre Dame of Paris is arguably the most famous of all churches in France.
Victor Hugo did immortalize it after all, and they later made a ballet and famous animation about this cathedral and its iconic Gothic style. The Notre Dame de Paris is a Gothic church, which is a reference to its date of construction and its characteristic architectural style.
However, there’s more to it than its Gothic style— it turns out that this cathedral has some intense history. Some believe that it was built on the site of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the god Jupiter.
The cathedral itself is almost a thousand years old, having begun construction in 1163.
Since then, it’s been continuously worked on throughout history. Some of its features came much later, as late as the 19th century. Its most famous characteristics are its flying buttresses, gargoyles, glass art, towers, and the Spire.
The gargoyles are probably the most shocking feature. Gargoyles used to symbolize protection and purity since they were meant to guard churchgoers from evil spirits and even dirty water.
They’re made out of limestone, and you’ll find dozens of them surrounding the cathedral.
Since the fire of April 2019, the Notre Dame has been temporarily closed. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it from the outside.
Its parvis (or the enclosed square in front of it) is now open to the public.
Since 2006, Parisians have referred to the cathedral’s parvis as Place Jean-Paul II, in respect for the late Saint Pope John Paul II. You’ll also be able to view a sculpture of King Charlemagne (a king from the early middle ages).
A few fun facts about the Notre Dame of Paris:
- Napoleon Bonaparte was actually crowned emperor here.
- Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notredame was written in response to people wanting to demolish the cathedral.
- Its largest bell has a name, Emmanuel. Emmanuel and the other bells in the south tower have been used to celebrate significant events, like kings’ coronations, the ends of wars, and solemn tragedies.
Sainte-Chapelle, Île de la Cité
• Address: 10 Bd du Palais, 75001 Paris, France
• Hours: 9am-5pm.
• Entrance Fees: €9—€11.50; Children under 18 are free.
• Tours: For group tours (typically €9 per person), email and reserve beforehand, email@example.com.
While you may not have heard of it as much as Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle is actually praised as one of the most stunning churches in the world. Like the Notre Dame Cathedral, Sainte Chapelle is a Gothic church; however, it’s actually a royal chapel.
King Louis IX of France began building this chapel in the 13th century, and he intended to use it as a place to store Christ’s passion relics inside. One of the relics was the alleged crown of thorns from Christ’s execution.
Louis wanted the chapel and relics inside to give Paris a prestige similar to Rome’s. The monarch used Sainte Chapelle for royal weddings and coronations for a long time.
However, during the French Revolution, it got sacked. This resulted in some of its most sacred relics getting dispersed.
Luckily for us, its overall structure and its beautiful, stained glass windows survived the Revolution.
We’re now able to enter it and marvel at its stained glass windows, sculptures, and iconography. From the outside, it has an impressive steeple and vertical piers in the front facade.
• L’Église de la Madeleine, Madeleine
• Address: Pl. de la Madeleine, 75008
• Hours: 9:30am—7:00pm
• Tours: Entry is free, but for information on guided tours, contact +33 (0) 1 44 51 69 00.
At first sight, you might mistake this one for a Roman temple. Well, there’s a reason for that.
It’s actually a neoclassical building. The site and building we see now went through several changes due to the French Revolution and counter-revolutions.
It wasn’t until after the fall of Napoleon that Paris got the building we see today. It’s dedicated to Saint Magdalene, and it still has its Neoclassical look to it. It’s certainly a refreshing contrast from the grand, Gothic styles of Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle.
It’s definitely unique among the religious buildings you typically see, and it has Corinthian style columns, sculptures and paintings, as well as neo-Byzantine mosaics.
So, this place definitely deserves to be called grand. You’ll feel small inside and, perhaps, transported to the Greek Byzantine era. Napoleon envisioned this building as a pantheon dedicated to his armies. Again, only after Napoleon’s fall would this become a church again.
Other great features about this site:
- Its organ is considered one of the best in Europe, and the church holds annual classical music concerts inside.
- Inside the church, they keep it dimly lit and with minimal decoration; however, its high altar is a massive, humbling focus in the main room.
- The square outside is a popular destination for shopping. Markets and vendors set up outside the church daily.
Sacre Coeur Basilica, Montmartre
• Address: 35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, 75018
• Hours: 6:00am—10:30pm
• Tours and Entrance: Free entrance for basilica, but small cost to enter the dome and crypt; contact Basilica at +33 01 53 41 89 09.
The site of this basilica goes back, and we mean way back. It has roots in pagan times of France, and it’s survived through the middle ages, reformations, and revolutions.
The church itself was only just officially consecrated into a Roman Catholic basilica in 1919.
In French Catholic tradition, it’s believed that during Roman times, Montramarte was a place of Christian martyrdom. In fact, several pilgrims came to this Montramarte to honor the martyrs during the Middle Ages. The basilica we see now began construction just in 1914 (some just a little over a hundred years old); however, its site is a sacred place to Europe’s heritage of martyrdom, and its architectural style is unique to other churches in Paris.
It’s domes resemble something from the East, and its white color is said to be purposefully reminiscent of the Eucharist’s purity.
This church has several interactive and engaging events with the public. They have night worship services, trails outside, and so impressive art inside.
Here are some more fun facts about Sacre Coeur Basilica.
- The top is one of the highest points of the capital (second only to the Eiffel Tower), where you can get a panoramic view of the city.
- It’s the second most-visited attraction in Paris.
- People believe it was built to atone for something, whether revolutionaries, war, or homicide of a pope.
- You can stay overnight in a basilica accommodation, in exchange for an hour of prayer.
Église Saint Sulpice, Latin Quarter
• Location: 2 Rue Palatine, 75006
• Hours: 8:00am—8:00pm
Saint Sulpice church is actually the second largest in Paris, and the French often refer to it as the Cathedral of the River Gauche. It’s located right in between the Louvre Museum and Luxembourg Palace, which makes for a convenient site-seeing day.
Inside, you’ll encounter a sundial from the 18th century that was used to inform the church when to ring the bells.
You’ll also encounter less people than you would have at Notre Dame. You can also admire the unique architectural blends happening inside, since it was built over a period of 130 years. Most describe the inside as a blend between Baroque and Neoclassical. In fact, it’s such a time capsule of the times and people that influenced it.
You’ll want to check out its cardinal fountain, as well as its nave.
Its organs, too, haven’t changed since their original installation in the 19th century. The church holds several music events open to the public, in addition to its impressive service music.
This church works to stay relevant to the public, meaning they hold cultural events throughout the year.
For example, in November of 2022, they’re holding an organ composition contest.
For music lovers, they have a web page dedicated to their organs. This page will tell you when you can hear the organs breathe into life.
If you want to catch a concert, make sure to visit the Theatre in Paris— Saint Sulpice web page. This site posts upcoming concerts and provides a platform for ticket purchasing.
Here’s a few more fun facts about Saint Sulpice:
- This is the church where Victor Hugo got married (1822).
- A small part of The Da Vinci Code was filmed inside this church.
- During the French Revolution, revolutionaries used it for deist reasons (to worship “The Supreme Being”).
Other Churches to Visit
Tips and FAQ
What do all these terms (cathedral, chapel, basilica) mean?
- Cathedral: A cathedral refers to a church headed by a bishop (bishops are higher in rank than priests, as they usually oversee a dioceses network).
- Basilicas: First, there are major and minor basilicas. Major basilicas are in Rome, and they are where the Pope (the central head of the Roman Catholic Church) operates in person. You can find minor basilicas outside of Rome (including in Paris), since they are just given a special status by the Pope. Notre Dame Cathedral, for example, was given basilica minor status in 1805.
- A chapel is traditionally a church-like place without a permanent priest or congregation. It’s traditionally smaller, and you can think of it as a space that stays available to use it for a church service. Some sites that began originally as chapels have gone on to be more like official churches but retained the term “chapel” in their names.
Do I need a ticket to enter?
This can depend on the establishment. Most churches don’t hold a cost for the main mass, but some will charge for tours and viewing of certain areas.
It doesn’t hurt to bring some local currency (Euros), just in case. You may also want to donate to the church, purchase something from the gift shop, or donate in exchange for a prayer candle.
How do I find church music concerts?
If you’re wanting to catch a church music concert, make sure to visit the Paris Discovery Guide’s concert page.
Here, you’ll find all the upcoming music events in Paris, including those in churches. You can purchase tickets easily on this platform.
When is the best time to enter a cathedral or church?
You’ll need to check their hours. They typically have service hours up or written outside the establishment.
What am I allowed to do (and not allowed to do) within a cathedral or church?
It’s important to remember that a church is not a museum. You should dress and act respectfully and refrain from taking photos and speaking out loud the way you would in a museum.
However, many churches offer visiting hours (hours during which no main services take place), as well as independent and guided tours.
As far as taking communion during mass, the general Roman Catholic rule for non-Roman Catholics— respectfully refrain. The general communion etiquette for non-Catholics is to cross your forearms over your chest and receive a blessing from the priest.