Learn From Our Mistake: Sainte-Chapelle is a Paris Must-Do!

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Sainte-Chapelle is a Gothic chapel in Paris, France, about a block from Notre Dame Cathedral. In this post, we’ll cover tips for visiting, offer our review, share photos, and also where we’d slot Sainte-Chapelle into an itinerary of Paris. First, an admission that we goofed. We had never visited Sainte-Chapelle until our most recent trip to Paris. We had walked past it literally dozens of times, but had never ventured inside.

When looking back, I was puzzled: where did we go wrong?! Being American, my first thought was to blame someone else. As disciples of Rick Steves’ itineraries, he was the first suspect. Sure enough, Sainte-Chapelle is in his 1-day itinerary for Paris. Next, I reviewed old emails from a friend who shared their must-dos before our first trip. Nope, in there, too.

I gave up paging through old guidebooks on our shelves, because each of them had it near the top of the must-do lists. Perhaps it was Samantha Brown’s Paris episode? (Doubtful.) In actuality, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Like a common word you see written hundreds of times but mispronounce when you say aloud, this was–somehow–a gap in our knowledge about Paris despite continual exposure. It took several reader comments on our “Notre Dame is Overrated…” post before we finally added it to our itinerary. Boy, are we ever glad that we did…

With this type of lead-in, it should be fairly obvious that I view Sainte-Chapelle as one of the top points of interest in Paris. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and ranks ahead of Notre Dame for me and maybe even Sacré-Cœur Basilica.

Either way, it’s so convenient to Notre Dame that it makes almost no sense to do one but not the other. This is particularly true if you’re using the Paris Museum Pass, which makes Sainte-Chapelle a “free” add-on.

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Truly, words do not do Sainte-Chapelle justice, and photos only begin to. Just learn from our mistake and go. You will not be sorry that you did. Sainte-Chapelle absolutely gorgeous. It also has a rich history to go along with that beauty, meaning a visit to Sainte-Chapelle is far from a superficial experience.

I’m not going to delve into that history (which you can find elsewhere), beyond sharing that Sainte-Chapelle was commissioned by King Louis IX to house his large collection of ‘Passion Relics’, and was built between 1239 and 1248.

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Sainte-Chapelle is divided into lower and upper parts, with the lower section being used as a parish church. The upper chapel is where the Passion Relics were once held, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns, which are now housed in Notre Dame.

The huge stained glass windows are the defining characteristic of this upper section, and they depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the journey of the Passion Relics to Sainte-Chapelle.

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In terms of tips, my first would be to visit on a sunny day in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun will be at a lower angle and shining directly through the windows.

Yes, the experience is entirely indoors, but all of that stunning stained glass looks best when fully illuminated by bright sunlight. We went on a day with scattered clouds, and it was easy to tell when the sun had popped out from behind a cloud. The whole interior became brighter and more beautiful.

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Upon arrival, you might see only one line, which is basically a big mass of people that stretches around a corner. This is what we encountered upon arrival, as the line stretched far beyond the marker for the Paris Museum Pass.

One of us walked forward around the corner to scout out the actual entrance, and there was a separate, empty for the Paris Museum Pass. The signage for this did not appear until right before the security checkpoint, so it appears that this would be a regular issue. Once we got out of the main line, several others followed, so clearly we were not the only ones confused.

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There’s a secondary benefit to arriving at Sainte-Chapelle early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and that’s a relative lack of crowds as compared to other times of day.

Due to Sainte-Chapelle’s small size, it cannot accommodate crowds very well at all. It’s perpetually crowded due to this, and the lines to enter also can be quite long as a result.

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Because of its size, you’ll also find a lot of resources indicating Sainte-Chapelle can be a quick visit. There’s definitely potential truth to that, but that does not have to be the case. Since we wanted to stay until closing time but had arrived almost an hour and a half before that, we had some time to kill.

We did this by renting and listening to the audio guide, which is very comprehensive. Right down to the meaning of specific pieces of stained glass and history of key figures who played prominently in Sainte-Chapelle, it covers everything.

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While a lot of this is fascinating, it’s also overkill. Fortunately, most of what we felt qualified as overkill was via a branching option that we chose to select since we had a surplus of time. If you do the main audio guide only, I’m guessing it would take around an hour or slightly less.

You can definitely have a satisfying visit to Sainte-Chapelle in 30 minutes, but I really liked our approach as a way to learn more about the chapel before seeing it in its full resplendence as the sun set and the crowds cleared out. If you’re on a tight schedule or it’s your first visit to Paris, spending 1.5 hours at Sainte-Chapelle might not be the best use of your time, though.

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For photography, Sainte-Chapelle can be a bit challenging. Despite all of the stained glass, it can be somewhat dark inside. Tripods are not allowed inside (as is the case virtually everywhere in Paris) so you either need to shoot handheld or come up with a workaround.

My workaround was using the Green Pod Camera Platform. I had no issues with this, and would highly recommend it throughout Europe. By using this, shooting long exposures, and waiting until the very end of the day, I was able to capture clear photos without other visitors in them.

Overall, I cannot recommend Sainte-Chapelle highly enough. The beauty and history are both incredibly captivating, and the whole experience does not require a significant time commitment since you’ll undoubtedly be in the area at some time, anyway. While you can breeze through Sainte-Chapelle in 30 minutes or less, I’d highly recommend slowing down, listening to the audio guide, and simply spending some time to marvel at Sainte-Chapelle’s majestic beauty. It’s now one of our favorite things we’ve ever done in Paris, and hopefully we haven’t lost any credibility with you all by taking so long to finally see it.

Planning your own trip to Paris, France? Check out our posts about Paris for more ideas of what to do in the City of Lights. If you’re venturing beyond Paris, you’ll also want to consult our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with Rick Steves Paris and Rick Steves France guidebooks.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Sainte-Chapelle? How long was the line you encountered here? What did you think of Sainte-Chapelle? How long did you spend inside? Would you recommend Sainte-Chapelle to other tourists visiting Paris, or do you think we’re overhyping it? Any other tips or recommendations you have regarding a visit to Sainte-Chapelle? Any questions? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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12 replies
  1. Brian
    Brian says:

    Couldn’t agree more! We went on a rainy day and were still blown away. I don’t think I could handle a sunny day!

  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    It was worth the wait for your photos – I’m glad you made the trip this time to St. Chapelle!

    Would you be willing to share more of how you shot/edited these? I resorted to HDR inside to get the darker areas exposed without blowing out the windows. But your EXIF indicates a single shot.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      One of the photos is definitely a merge to recover the highlights in the windows, but for the rest, I just increased the fill light and bumped up the shadows, while decreasing the highlights.

      In order for that to work, you’d pretty much need to be using a camera with one of Sony’s modern sensors (so, a Sony or Nikon from the last 3 years). No other camera is capable of that much dynamic range.

  3. Tim
    Tim says:

    Would it be doable to visit Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame in the same morning? Would it be better to visit Sainte Chapelle first since I assume Notre Dame can absorb more of a crowd right off the bat?

    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      We did just that. St. Chapelle was on the way to Notre Dame from our hotel and we stopped there first. That meant a huge line at Notre Dame, but we still got in in ~30 mintues. If you want to do the towers on Notre Dame during a crowded season, you probaly would want to go there first and St. Chapelle later – the towers have low capacity and command quite a line.

      • Tom Bricker
        Tom Bricker says:

        Kevin is exactly right. Even though it’s not the time of day we went, I’d also suggest doing the towers of Notre Dame in the evenings (if they’re open), rather than in the morning.

        • Tim
          Tim says:

          Ah, that’s good thought. With a lot of touring there is a tendency to focus on “rope drop” so to speak in the morning for getting a jump on crowds. We’ll check the hours for our visit. Thanks!

  4. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Another question – why don’t the pictures go to Smugmug any more? They just pop out and offer me the chance to pin themon Pinterest. I’d really love to see these full screen.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Primarily, because I’m not sure how much longer I’ll use Smugmug and I don’t want to have a ton more posts to switch over if I make a jump. As most of my photo licensing is now to commercial clients rather than individuals buying prints, and all of my off-site backups are now via Amazon, I’m seeing less of a reason to pay Smugmug’s fees.

  5. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Another nice way to visit is to attend an evening concert, of which they have many. This is especially wonderful if you go in the early evening when the sun is still coming through the windows. The plusses: you get to sit in the chapel for a long time listening to beautiful music, price is reasonable, little to no line to get in, you can go in a bit early and walk around to see everything. The minuses: The floor is full of chairs set up in rows, so you won’t get quite the same feeling of open space, no audio guide available (I think).

  6. Miriam
    Miriam says:

    The first time I visited Sainte-Chapelle, I discovered Stendhal’s Syndrome is real… Great photos, Tom!

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