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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Visiting 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.
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!