One of France’s most brilliant expressions of medieval architecture, this remarkably harmonious ensemble of carved portals, huge towers, and flying buttresses has survived close to a millennium’s worth of French history and served as a setting for some of the country’s most solemn moments. Even the vast fire that consumed its spire and gutted the entire roof in 2019 didn’t bring it down (thanks to 400 firefighters). Access to the cathedral and its surrounding gardens is prohibited at least until 2026, though the forecourt, the Parvis Notre Dame—Place Jean-Paul II, is open. If you’d like to see the exterior in all its former glory, take the virtual reality flight at FlyView, which jetpacks you over the Seine to Notre-Dame (and other monuments) using 360-degree film footage shot by drone several years before the tragedy.
Napoleon crowned himself and Empress Joséphine here, Napoleon III was married here, and some of France’s greatest generals (Foch, Joffre, Leclerc) had their funerals here. In August 1944, the liberation of Paris from the Nazis was commemorated in the cathedral, as was the death of General de Gaulle in 1970.
The story of Notre-Dame begins in 1163, when Bishop Maurice de Sully initiated construction, which lasted over 200 years. (The identity of the architect who envisioned this masterpiece remains a mystery.) The building was relatively untouched up until the end of the 17th century, when monarchs started meddling with its windows and architecture. By the time the Revolutionaries decided to convert it into a “Temple of Reason,” the cathedral was already in sorry condition—and the pillaging that ensued didn’t help. The interior was ravaged, statues were smashed, and the cathedral became a shadow of its former glory.
We can thank the famous “Hunchback” himself for saving Notre-Dame. Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” drew attention to the state of disrepair, and other artists and writers began to call for the restoration of the edifice. In 1844, Louis-Phillipe hired Jean-Baptiste Lassus and architect/archaeologist/writer/painter Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to restore the cathedral, which they finished in 1864. Though many criticized Viollet-le-Duc for what they considered to be overly romantic and inauthentic excesses, he actually took extreme care to remain faithful to the historic Gothic architecture.
Over 1 billion euros were donated to the cathedral in the first week following the fire, so money for repairs shouldn’t—for once—be lacking. For now, however, rest assured that though some treasures were lost, the organ, Quasimodo’s bell (the Bourdon), and relics such as the Crown of Thorns (brought back from Constantinople by Saint Louis in the 13th century) are safe. Many treasures have been housed for protection and/or restoration in the Louvre.