I: Île de la Cité

In early July of 2014, I got to travel to Paris for a week with one of my best friends since middle school. This was a graduation present from her father, who has friends in the city with a spare condo. What more could two 23-year-old women ask for? About a year ago we tried to pick dates in summer, narrowing down our visit week to overlap with the Tour de France or Bastille Day. In the end, we chose Bastille Day, which turned out to be a great choice – more on that in a few posts. For our first day however, we concentrated on a small but bustling piece of Paris, the Île de la Cité.

The Île de la Cité is a small island on the Seine River, right in the middle of Paris. In just a few small blocks we were able to visit Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle, the Conciergerie and a famous lock bridge, known as Pont de l’Archevêché.


Notre Dame

Our first stop was one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, Notre Dame. Construction on Notre Dame began in 1163 and lasted almost 200 years. Today it is known as one of the prime examples of French Gothic architecture.

The entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral.
The entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral.

The line outside was fairly long but moved quickly. The cathedral is open for most of the day and entrance is free. It is a bit off-putting to be touring the cathedral while a mass is going on, but I assume people are aware of the tourism before attending a service there. We got lucky; instead of walking through a mass, we visited during a recital for what seemed to be high school choir groups from around the area. We spent awhile watching the different groups, all amazing, perform their sets. The music was a nice touch to our visit.

A side view looking above the altar toward the South Rose Window.

Most people enter the church and walk around it counter-clockwise. Since we stopped to watch the choirs, we ended up doing more of a “figure-8.” Toward the back there are several displays on the history of the church and occasionally smaller services going on.

Looking toward the back of the cathedral, the largest organ in France (the "great organ") can be seen beneath the stained glass window.
Looking toward the back of the cathedral, the largest organ in France (the “great organ”) can be seen beneath the stained glass window.

Even on a completely overcast day, the cathedral is beautifully lit. The photo above shows the “great organ,” one of three in Notre Dame. It has five keyboards and eight-thousand pipes. The organ is used every Sunday during services, and guest organists from around the world have had a chance to play the famous instrument.

Hundreds if not thousands of these prayer candles flicker around the church. They can be purchased for a small donation.
It's tough to find a detail overlooked in the French cathedrals and chapels.
It’s tough to find a detail overlooked in the French cathedrals and chapels.

For a small fee (I believe 8,50€), guests can climb the 387 steps to the top of the cathedral’s South Tower. We weren’t aware of this beforehand, but it does seem like it would offer a great view of the surrounding city and a good way to work off all of the croissants we ate!

From the back of Notre Dame, looking toward the altar.
From the back of Notre Dame, looking toward the altar.


Palais de Justice (Sainte Chapelle et la Conciergerie)

After touring Notre Dame we continued along the Île de la Cité and made our way to the Palais de Justice, the French royal palace up until the 14th century. Today it houses Parisian law courts, which you can still see in session throughout the week.

A classic Parisan scene along the Seine.
Palais de Justice

The royal palace’s chapel (Sainte Chapelle) and prison (La Conciergerie) can still be visited today. Sainte Chapelle is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Paris, in large part due to its 50-foot stained glass windows. Construction began in the mid-1200s and lasted until the mid-1400s.

A statue of the Virgin Mary on the lower floor of Sainte Chapelle.

Going to Sainte Chapelle after Notre Dame is almost disappointing, because space-wise, it is tiny compared to Notre Dame. I suppose this makes sense, as the chapel was originally only intended for use by the royal family and guests, but it is only slightly bigger than a basketball court (for an American comparison), and seems smaller than that when crowded with upwards of fifty people. Then you look up and remember why it’s so famous.

Fifteen fifty-foot stained glass windows line Sainte Chapelle, each telling a different biblical story.
Fifteen fifty-foot stained glass windows line Sainte Chapelle, each telling a different biblical story.

Part of the chapel was undergoing renovation when we visited in mid-2014, but it was expected to be complete later this year. Regardless of the renovation, we could view the chapel in almost its entire glory.

We paid 12,50€ for tickets that allowed us access to both Sainte Chapelle and La Conciergerie, a prison from the late 14th century up until the early 20th century. Thousands of prisoners were held here during the French revolution. Hundreds of these prisoners, including Marie-Antoinette, were executed here as well.

The guillotine from la Conciergerie, believed to have been used for the execution of Pierre François Lacenaire, a French poet and murderer.
La Conciergerie – Hall of Guards


Pont de l’Archevêché

Love locks have exploded in popularity in the past dozen years, although the idea of them seems to date back to World War I. Couples buy small (or huge) padlocks and inscribe their initials on them before locking them to the bridge framework. The key is thrown off over the bridge to symbolize the couple’s everlasting love, and some superstitions hold that they will return to the same bridge one day. During my first visit to France, I assumed this was just a Parisian tradition (city of Love and all that), but apparently this happens all over Europe and other parts of the world as well.

Kaila examining the locks on Pont de l’Archevêché, with Notre Dame in the background.

There are vendors everywhere selling mini-padlocks for couples who have forgotten theirs, but to save money it’d be best to purchase one beforehand. Plus, that way you can get a different design than most of the others.

Thosands of locks line Pont de l'Archevêché. (Image Credit: Kaila Maguire)
Thousands of locks line Pont de l’Archevêché. (Image Credit: Kaila Maguire)

While romantic in nature, the thousands of locks on these bridges are a great concern for public officials in Paris who worry about the growing weight the bridges are subjected to. Just a month before we visited Paris, another bridge, the Pont des Arts, partially collapsed due to the weight of the locks. In addition to safety issues, the officials must also consider the fact that the old Parisian architecture is being compromised as well. The debate of how to handle this problem is ongoing.

Pont de l’Archevêché with Notre Dame in the background.

After a successful first day, we retired for the night to plan out our next few days. For the duration of our trip, we were plagued with uncertain weather and scattered showers/downpours, which made planning difficult. Some of our days involved doing two things on opposite sides of the city, and making last-minute changes in plan. So although we only had six full days in Paris, I’ve attempted to separate the posts into segments that make geographical sense. After this posting there will be seven more for Paris.

One thought on “I: Île de la Cité

  • Sainte Chapelle’s stained glass windows draw your attention heavenward! Fascinating about the locks and that bridge collapse. The Rose Window must be awesome, too.

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