Notre Dame Cathedral Paris is Overrated (Go Anyway.)

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Notre Dame Cathedral Paris is one of the most popular tourist spots in France, regularly drawing hordes of visitors to its location in Paris. And yes, we think it’s a bit overrated. We’ll cover the why of that in this post, along with some tips for experiencing Notre Dame de Paris (even though it’s overrated, it’s still a must-do).

If you have not visited Notre Dame Cathedral Paris, you’ve no doubt heard of it and seen photos and video of it. It’s regular fodder for travelogues and documentaries about France. It is also the titular setting of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, more commonly known to English-speaking audiences as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the legacy of film and theater adaptations Hugo’s work has spawned. An argument could be made that Notre Dame de Paris is a secondary “star” of Hugo’s work, and audiences have been enthralled by a romanticized idea of the cathedral since.

This post is more about establishing reasonable expectations for Notre Dame de Paris than it is about bashing one of the preeminent religious and historical landmarks in all of the world. We have been to Notre Dame Cathedral Paris multiple times–and would return again–so it’s not as if we dislike the place. Rather, we think it’s important to approach it with a sense of realism rather than expecting it to live up to the romanticized depiction of the cathedral that might live in your head.

For me, Notre Dame de Paris is like the Walt Disney World of cathedrals. As I am an unabashed Disney fan, this might come across as an odd comparison, or at least not a knock on Notre Dame. In this instance, the comparison is not exactly praise. Like Walt Disney World, Notre Dame de Paris draws huge crowds and is a decidedly tourist-y destination, all thanks to a reputation that precedes it.

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The critical distinction is that Walt Disney World is a bastion of commercialism, and although you could (and I would) argue it transcends that, there aren’t any pretenses about why it exists.

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Conversely, much of the appeal of Notre Dame de Paris is derived from its historical and spiritual significance, and these are elements that are undermined by the hordes of crowds it attracts.

It’s not just that, but also the way the cathedral chooses to forgo a strictly spiritual experience in favor of capitalizing on its commercialism. To be blunt, there’s a pretty clear difference between the objectives of a cathedral and those of a theme park.

To be fair, this isn’t completely avoidable. Notre Dame Cathedral Paris could strip its interior of any commercial elements and adopt a slate of vigorous rules like those found at other cathedrals in Europe, but its popularity would still diminish certain elements of its spiritualism.

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Moreover–and perhaps most importantly–Notre Dame de Paris has a reputation that precedes it for good reason. While a good many ‘overrated’ travel experiences are the result of diligent marketing or offer points of interest that rest on their laurels or reputations established decades ago that are no longer merited, Notre Dame de Paris is still very much an excellent place to visit.

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It’s just not the end-all, be-all of cathedrals and churches as some might suggest. This is where it’s worth pointing out that something can be overrated, but still really, really good. (Technically, even second-best would be overrated if it’s considered the best.)

Since we’ve now established that it is good and is still worth visiting despite the crowds you’ll encounter in the process, let’s turn to some tips for making the most of your visit…

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These tips really depend upon what you intend to do at Notre Dame de Paris. We’ll start with the higher-demand option…

If you’re interested in panoramic views of Paris and an up-close look at the gargoyles perched at the top of the cathedral, you’ll want to tour the “Towers of Notre Dame.” The fee for this is €10.00 (or included with the Paris Pass/Paris Museum Pass), and only a handful of people are admitted at a time.

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The limited admission is due to the tight climb to the top, which is 387 steps through a narrow spiral staircase. Keep in mind that these stairs were built centuries ago, and are not exactly up to modern building standards. You’d think the least Quasimodo could’ve done was install an elevator.

The quarters are incredibly tight, to the point that some visitors may have issues physically navigating. (If you’re claustrophobic, you likely will not want to do this.) We found this to be physically strenuous to a moderate degree–more so than the 387 steps might suggest.

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Even if you are able and willing to make the climb, you might be discouraged by the long line. I would hazard a guess that the same number of people are admitted to the Towers of Notre Dame in an hour as are admitted to the regular interior in a single minute. As such, the wait time swells for the Towers of Notre Dame to over an hour early in the morning.

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We arrived shortly after Notre Dame de Paris opened on an off-season day in the fall, and we still ended up waiting just over 2 hours. From what I understand, the line forms well before the Towers open, and in the summer this is significantly worse.

If you want to do the Towers of Notre Dame, your best option is going to be to arrive nearly an hour prior to opening time, or waiting until the evening and doing a more expensive guided tour.

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After making the climb part of the way up, paying, and then continuing on the rest of the way, we were rewarded with an up-close look at the world-famous Notre Dame gargoyles, and sweeping views of Paris. The gargoyles were around a foot out of reach, making the experience quite intimate and reasonably immersive.

One thing to note is that, while this experience is entirely open-air, there is netting all around. I mention this because it’s often omitted from photos (like mine!) because it isn’t exactly photogenic. The good news is that there are plenty of openings to insert a camera for net-free photos, so the rest of the world can think you had an unobstructed view of the gargoyles and totally open-air views of Paris.

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The reality isn’t quite as pretty. Still gorgeous, but worth mentioning to avoid the disappointment of seeing the netting up there for the first time when you exit the stairs.

If I were to do it again–and I would like to someday–I’d definitely pay more money to do a guided evening tour. I’d love to capture night photos of the gargoyles and see the City of Lights…well, lit up.

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As far as tips for the interior, my main one would be to go during daylight hours. During the day, the gorgeous stained glass rose windows are backlit, and you can see their full beauty and detail.

After sunset and in the evening, these windows are not nearly as pretty. Since they are one of the main reasons for visiting Notre Dame de Paris, you don’t want to miss them.

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That’s really about it. The line for the main interior of Notre Dame de Paris can get really long, but it moves quickly in our experience. The interior is quite large and people generally filter in and out rather quickly, so turnover is such that you shouldn’t expect to wait in this line more than 30 minutes, except during the height of summer tourist season. (On the other hand, there was no line whatsoever when we visited at night.)

notre-dame-de-paris-cathedral-france-048Visiting first thing in the morning is going to minimize the ‘touristy’ vibe of Notre Dame de Paris. However, you will encounter a large crowd even then, so I wouldn’t necessarily plan my day around Notre Dame de Paris unless you’re doing the Towers. There are other, more popular (high-demand, low-capacity) points of interest in Paris, which makes it difficult to prioritize this.

Overall, Notre Dame de Paris is a stunning landmark, and one of the most iconic religious sites in the entire world. Considered the symbolic heart of Paris, it features brilliant architecture and beautiful design details. It also has quite the historical legacy, and is really a spot that no one visiting Paris should miss (free admission doesn’t hurt!). When viewed simply as a historic, world landmark, it does not disappoint. On a spiritual level, it doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but given the demand to see Notre Dame de Paris–an estimated 13 million visitors per year–that is unavoidable to an extent. You shouldn’t even consider skipping it if you’re visiting Paris.

Your Thoughts

If you’ve visited Notre Dame de Paris, do you agree with our assessment that it’s overrated, or is that heresy? Is Notre Dame Cathedral on your bucket list? Any other thoughts on this popular point of interest in France? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!

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15 replies
  1. Karly
    Karly says:

    Also worth visiting is the gardens behind the cathedral and the small Holocaust Memorial Museum that is right there. There was no line when we were there and it was definitely worth this visit. Also walk to Berthillon and get some ice cream (so good).

    Reply
  2. Susan
    Susan says:

    I agree that Notre Dame is overrated. It’s something to see, and you should see it once in your lifetime if you go to Paris, but I have no need to go back. We didn’t do the towers because I’m afraid of heights and don’t like enclosed places like those stairways, but we did a tour of the treasury. Supposedly there is a thorn from the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head when he was crucified. I say supposedly because it’s in a decorated box and you can see the box, but not what’s in it, so who knows if it’s really there or not. The treasury tour was a waste of money…nothing was in English so I had no idea what anything was and anything that was worth seeing was encased so that you couldn’t actually see anything but the encasing.
    The cathedral is absolutely beautiful and very ornate, but I found it to be over the top as well as being really busy. If you are looking for a religious experience, somewhere to feel close to God, I would recommend St. Germain Des Pres. It’s much simpler and not nearly as busy, but felt so much more what a house of worship should be. I almost got mugged at the Metro station there…I felt someone unzip my bag and they ran when I turned around, but I was carrying my wallet in a bag at my front and the only thing in the backpack they unzipped was my guidebook and some snacks. So if you do go, be careful in the subways…what tipped me off originally was that there was no one going through the style on the right, it was completely empty and yet the 2 people coming down the stairs stayed right behind me, rather than going around me to go through the empty checkpoint. (I’m slow on stairs) Just be aware of anything that seems off.
    I wanted to go to St. Chapelle, but it wasn’t open to the public the day we wanted to go….there was something big going on…there were police literally lining the entire block and the bridge. I’d like to go back and see it someday. And Sacre Ceour is on my list…I’ve been there twice, but the first time, it was covered on the inside with scaffolding because they were cleaning the artwork, so I couldn’t see it. The second time, we happened to go on a night that there was a service, so you could go to the service, but you couldn’t look around. Maybe I’ll get another shot…3rd time’s the charm, right?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yikes about almost getting pickpocketed! I know that’s a common thing in Paris, particularly in the Metro stations where it’s crowded and easy for them to slip away from people.

      Thanks for the recommendation on St. Germain Des Pres. I’ll have to check that out!

      Reply
  3. Sean
    Sean says:

    Paris is such an amazing city! I’ve been twice and can’t wait to get back there…including Notre Dame!

    Great images as always Tom!

    Reply
  4. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Agree! Notre Dame is really famous for being famous and as such is on every tourist’s list of things to do in Paris. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot to offer. The tower climb is great (love the views) Also the little park in the back is a good picnic spot. As Katie and Kevin said St Chapelle is simply breath taking for it’s interior and for incredible stained glass and architecture Chartres is the one to go to. It really has it all and feels relatively untouristed. I am not sure if it is still available there but if Malcolm Miller still does the english language tours — he has an amazing knowledge and understanding of the history, art and architecture of the cathedral.

    on a side note— I am loving all the Travel Caffeine posts! Keep them up!

    Reply
  5. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I’d agree with your sentiments that it is overrated, but still very worth doing. We did the towers in 1998, but not this past summer due to the long lines. My recollection is that Chartre not too far from Paris does not have the fencing at the top. Chartre also has similar (or better) architecture and a tiny fraction of the crowds, which enhances the experience. That said, it’s not in the heart of Paris like Notre Dame which is one reason Notre Dame is so worth visiting.

    As Katie points out, if you are visiting Notre Dame, you should walk the quarter mile and see Sainte-Chapelle also. It has arguably the best stained glass in the world (my best photo: https://flic.kr/p/L7MAPB, google has many more)

    Reply
  6. Katie
    Katie says:

    To me, the highlight of this cathedral was definitely the views from the towers, and if you’re going to see the towers, you should probably see the interior as well. I agree that the crowds take away from the spiritual element here. I remember being really struck by Sainte-Chapelle, the Basilica of St. Denis, and Sacre Coeur in Montmarte as well.

    Reply

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