One of the most famous cathedrals on the planet, the Notre Dame is situated on a small island in the middle of the Seine River. The construction of the Notre Dame originally began in the 12th century and through the centuries it’s gone through several additions on its way to becoming the masterpiece it is today. I have to be honest, typically cathedrals don’t do much for me. However, the Notre Dame was certainly an exception. There are some stunning details to the cathedral that upon close examination really allow you to appreciate this marvel. That said, this post is only about visiting the towers of the Notre Dame and not the interior. So if you’re looking for some good info on making your way up to the top of Notre Dame cathedral, you’re in the right spot.
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The towers of Notre Dame offer what is in my opinion, one of the best views and photographic opportunities in the entire city of Paris. After wearing out your legs a bit going up close to 400 stairs, you’re rewarded with panoramic views of the River Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and the marvelous French architecture all around spanning all the way to downtown Paris. Here’s a quick look at what you need to know if you’d like to venture up to the top of the towers.
At €8.50 per adult, I’d say the price admission is somewhat reasonable. Like just about every other destination they offer discounts for certain people, such as students. There’s a sign by the entrance that states that you need exact change for your ticket but don’t worry about that because once you get in, there are cashiers that will offer you your change in the event you don’t tender exact change.
2. The towers have a separate entrance from the cathedral
The towers are managed by the National Monuments Centre and are basically an entirely separate experience from seeing the inside of the cathedral. You’ll enter into a separate line and will not be given access to the interior of the cathedral as part of your visit. Thus, if you’re planning on seeing the inside be sure to allocate enough time to wait through that line as well.
3. The line gets pretty long
The line for the towers begins at the base of the north tower (if you’re facing the front entrance of the cathedral it will be on your left). The line goes down the side of the cathedral towards the back and it can get pretty long. When the line moves it will only move in blocks. So at times it feels like you’re not making any kind of progress. The good news is that there are several cafes across the street where you can by some drinks or something to eat to help with the wait.
My advice is try to arrive at the towers a little before opening. If you wait until later you are pretty much guaranteed to have to wait in a pretty long line. One option you can look into is after hour tours that will allow you to jump the lines after the towers are closed off to the public. I’ve heard many of these tours offer great talks on the history of the towers and can be a great way to go up in the towers without dealing with the crowds.
4. The stairs… aren’t exactly easy
Once you are given access to the entrance you’ll begin your walk up the spiral stairs. But this will only be a taste of what’s to come. You shortly arrive at the gift shop/admissions desk where you will actually buy your ticket. After getting your ticket, there will be a worker at the door where you entered that will give you the green light to proceed ascending the stairs. That’s when the real fun begins.
To get to the top of the Notre Dame you’ll have to work your way up over 380 spiraling steps. I consider myself to be in average health. I’m not going to win any bodybuilding competitions any time soon but I can knock out a few miles without losing my breakfast. I found the walk up to the top to be what I’d call a calve burning experience. There were a few people in front of us who ended up taking breaks on the way up because it was so difficult. The hardest part for me was keeping my claustrophobia at bay and dealing with the dizziness that came from going up the tight spiraling stairs that seemed to get smaller and smaller as you approached the top. If you find yourself getting worn out feel free to take a breather or two and you will be up to the viewing deck in no time.
5. Capture the best photo opportunities with the chimeras
Once your legs are close to giving out you’ll be relieved to see the sunlight lighting up the stairway — you’ve made it! You’ll make your way through a small door opening (pictured above) and out onto the platforms where the chimeras are. This area is covered by a steel cable-fencing for protection as seen below. Yes, the cables detract somewhat from the view, but as far as photos go it’s extremely easy to fit your camera past the cables to get them out of your way. Plus, it’s completely understandable that they’d need some form of protection up there. Some of the walkways get a little tight as you make your way around, so be prepared for some pretty tight spaces.
Being up on that deck was my favorite part of the Notre Dame Towers because I thought taking photos with the gargoyles and chimeras in the foreground and the Eiffel Tower in the background was pretty amazing. They make for very striking photographs and really capture the mystique of the cathedral in very picturesque way.
When we visited, the south tower was closed off (apparently this happens from time to time). The south tower is the tower that is home to the huge “Emmanuel” bell that is over 300 years old and weighs 13 tons! The Emmanuel is hardly ever rung, however. I’m guessing that in an effort to preserve the bell they’ve decided to only ring it a few times a year, such as on special holidays like Christmas and Easter. In the north tower there are four bells that ring daily for the time. Be prepared for the loud clamoring of the bells when you are up there; it can be quite jarring when you’re not expecting it.
After you’ve wandered around the first deck you then have the option to go up to the top or go back down. The staff at the tower strictly regulates the amount of visitors that are at the top. This means that you may be standing in line for some time while you wait for the top of the tower to clear. Once they give you the okay to head up you’ll have to deal with even tighter spiraling stairs to make it up to the top of the towers, so if you were struggling with the first batch of stairs just prepare yourself for a little bit more agony (it’s really not that bad). The view from the top of the towers is pretty much the same view you get from the bottom — you aren’t that much higher. The good thing about the top is that you can wander all around the top of the tower for a full panoramic view of the area, which is pretty cool.
After you’ve circled around the top of the tower, the staff will make you wait for the stairs in the tower and then send you back down. If you didn’t get a chance to check out the gift shop you can stop by it on your way down.Otherwise, you’ll descend all the way to the bottom floor exit. They way back down is much easier on your legs. The only difficult part of it for me was, once again, dealing with the dizziness that comes from heading down spiraling stairs. Once you finally arrive at the bottom a door will automatically slide open for you to exit and just like that you are back outside of the cathedral.
6. Don’t forget to go in the cathedral if you have time
Like I mentioned, you will have to enter into a separate line to go into the cathedral. On Sunday at about noon the line going into the front was pretty substantial, although it appeared to be moving at a pretty steady pace. Unfortunately, we were a little short on time and weren’t able to see the inside but if you have the time then I recommend you hanging around to see the inside.
That’s the skinny on visiting the towers at Notre Dame. I hope that these tips help you better understand what to expect and that you have a great time visiting this beautiful place!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.