Secrets Of The Notre Dame Towers – Paris From Above

The very first secret of the Notre Dame Towers is… it's worth the climb to the top. The historic cathedral, found smack dab in the most historic part of Paris, has those two famous bell towers that, happily, are accessible to the public.

Let's find out more about this Paris landmark destination that inspired Victor Hugo to pen his famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame featuring Quasimodo, the bell-ringer with a heart of gold.

A Gargoyle's View on Paris

Notre Dame Towers Gargoyle, photo by Mark Craft

The celebrated twin bell towers of Notre Dame Cathedral have been watching over Paris for over 850 years. To get to the top you must climb a narrow winding stone staircase. So, the second secret is it's best to skip the climb if you're claustrophobic or if your knees or hips bother you.

But if you're in reasonable shape, the 387 steps will reward you with a gargoyle's view of the oldest areas of Paris. The glories of the city lay beneath you and the stellar views make for one of the greatest Paris photo opportunities. You see Paris on a human scale and get a feeling for what the medieval city was like. In fact, for hundreds of years the towers provided the best panoramic view of the City of Light — and it still is extraordinary today.

What's With Those Gargoyles?

Gargoyles, photo by Mark Craft

The gargoyles that adorn Notre Dame have a very practical purpose. While some are just for decoration, in the main they are placed to provide proper roof drainage. The gargoyles with their big mouths are located at the ends of the gutters to drain water away from the sides to prevent water damage to the stone walls and foundation. Most of the original gargoyles were destroyed during the French Revolution (along with other statuary on the cathedral) but were replaced during a 19th-century restoration.

Secrets & Fun Facts About the Notre Dame Towers

Notre Dame Towers, photo by Mark Craft

The entrance to the towers is found outside the Notre Dame Cathedral, on the northwest side of the building. (Left, as you face the front.) Visitors are allowed inside in small groups, and once you get to the top it's evident why — space is very limited. The top of the tower is standing-room only and there's only one narrow staircase, which serves two-way traffic.

Another secret is that lineups can be long the number of visitors at any one time are limited. (We'll tell you about a way to skip the line in a minute.) You pay a small fee at the door. This is one Paris landmark that doesn't require a tour guide.

  • The Notre Dame towers at sixty-nine meters were the tallest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889.
  • The towers were completed between 1240 and 1250. The north tower is slightly larger.
  • Midway up the top you can stop at the Gothic hall with the rose window to see paintings and sculptures from the cathedral's history.
  • There are ten bells and the are all housed in the south tower. (To the right as you face the front of the cathedral.)

Final tip — don't attempt the climb if you have bad knees, are claustrophobic, or severely out of shape.

How to Skip the Lines at the Notre Dame Towers

Notre Dame, photo by Mark Craft

If you know us, you'll know that we hate waiting in long line-ups and that we're always looking for ways to skip the lines. Luckily, we've found a secret way to do just that at the Notre Dame towers. It's all part of a half-day walking tour of the Paris islands. You'll learn about the history of this part of central Paris as well as insider stories about Notre Dame. The reward is the breathtaking view from the towers.

What Do You See from the Towers?

View from the towers, photo by Mark Craft

You see the heart of Paris, where every building and every street is steeped in history. Below you is the Seine River, the forecourt (parvis) of the cathedral, the historic buildings of île de la Cité. Close by you can spot the Pantheon, the mismatched towers of Église Saint-Sulpice, the dome of Val de Grace. In the distance is the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre & Sacre-Coeur, and the modern buildings of La Défense. The story of Paris is being told all around you.

Notre Dame Cathedral Towers Resources

  • Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame
  • île de la Cité, 4th Arrondissement
  • Metro – Cité

A Capsule History of Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Interior, photo by Mark Craft

The year is 1163 and construction on Notre Dame cathedral has begun. These first builders will not live to see the finished cathedral, nor will their children. It will take almost 200 years to complete.

During the French Revolution the cathedral is severely damaged by the angry mobs. Restoration of the cathedral doesn't start until 1845, half a century later, with French architect Eugene Viollet-le Duc (1814-1879) supervising the huge undertaking.

The towers are home to the cathedral's largest bell, Emmanuel, the tenor bell, that weighs in at thirteen tons. In fact, there are ten bells in the Notre Dame towers — Emmanuel, the oldest and the biggest, rings on the hour. On August 24, 1944, Emmanuel's bell can be heard to announce the liberation of Paris.

The 850-year-old Gothic wonder is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Under a 1905 law, Notre-Dame Cathedral is owned by the French State and managed by the Catholic Church.

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