The Historic Heart of Paris
Ile de la Cité & Ile St. Louis
Summary of Area
It is thought that Paris began around 250 BC as a primitive Celtic fishing village on Ile de la Cité, a little island in the middle of the Seine. Ile St. Louis, the other island in the Seine, is tree-lined and picturesque these days but was a swampy pastureland prior to development efforts in the 17th century. Today, Ile St. Louis houses one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods of Paris. Enjoy centuries of natural and man-made history as you walk from the Gothic masterpiece of Notre-Dame to King Louis IX’s intimate royal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle.
- Starting Point: Point Zéro (metro: St. Michel; Cité)
- Finishing Point: Palais de Justice (metro: Cité)
- Days to Avoid: None
- Length of Walk: 1 mile 1/2
- Time Needed: 3 hours
1. Point Zéro
Point Zéro (also Kilomètre Zéro) is a circular bronze plaque on the ground about 30 yards from the central doorway of Notre-Dame that marks the geographical center of Paris. It is also the spot from which all highway distances in France are measured. The equestrian statue to the right as you face the church is of Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”), known as the first Holy Roman Emperor. Catholicism was the “politically correct” religion of the French people until the Revolution in 1789.
Visitor Information – Free admission; church open daily; hours vary depending on day of the week: 8:00 am-6:45 pm weekdays, 8:00 am-7:45 pm weekends. Free English tours available. Visit early in the morning when the cathedral is at its brightest and least crowded. Free organ concert on Sunday afternoons. Website: www.notredamedeparis.fr
It took 170 years to create the Gothic masterpiece of Notre-Dame de Paris, with its flying buttresses, rose windows of stained glass, 295-ft spire, two massive towers and host of gargoyles. The colorful windows were designed to tell Bible stories in pictorial form to an illiterate populace.
Kings and emperors were crowned and blessed in Notre-Dame. It was here in December 1804 that Napoleon took the imperial crown out of the hands of Pope Pius VII and laid it on his own head, as depicted by Jacques-Louis David in his painting Coronation of Napoleon, which now hangs in the Louvre.
Notre-Dame is designed in the shape of a Christian cross, with the altar where the crossbeam intersects. The cathedral can hold up to 10,000 people and often does so when hosting classical music concerts. The South Rose Window depicts Christ in the center, surrounded by virgins, saints, and his twelve apostles while the North Rose Window pictures the Virgin encircled by figures from the Old Testament.
- For the warmth of the Gospel to envelop Parisians who have only known the coldness of an impersonal religion.
- That a genuine, transforming encounter with Christ would replace ritual and religiosity.
- That the complete story of Christ would be preached: that the hope of his resurrection might replace the sadness of his death.
- That the spiritual walls of stone and gates of iron that have separated a “religious” people from their Savior since the Middle Ages would be broken down.
Point to Ponder: Sitting in one of the hundreds of wooden chairs in the nave, feel the coldness of the stone and how far away God seems among the gilt and statuary. This is the god of millions of Parisians: a distant, cold and impersonal deity.
Take a Break: The café directly to your right as you exit the cathedral is a wonderful place to sit and reflect on what you’ve just seen. It’s called Aux Tours de Notre-Dame and though pricey – as are all cafés in Paris – you can enjoy a good cup of coffee and a sweet snack that will help you through the rest of your sightseeing. And you’ll need energy, especially if you plan on climbing to the top of the towers. This side street is a great place to buy postcards, too.
Tip: Candles in Churches. In visiting the many churches of Paris, you may be tempted to buy some candles to burn. Before you do, consider that – though they look pretty – Catholics consider candles an integral part of their sacred ritual of praying to saints and to Mary.
3. Towers of Notre-Dame
Visitor Information – Admission: €8 adults, €5 ages 18-26 (must meet certain conditions) and seniors, children under 18 are free. Tower entrance covered by museum pass but no bypass line for pass holders. Open daily 9:30 am-7:30 pm, with seasonal variations. To avoid crowds, arrive before 10:00 am or after 6:00 pm.
To get to the top of the towers of Notre-Dame, you must climb 387 spiral stone steps that get narrower as you get closer to the top. The reward for such painful labor is a breathtaking view of Paris. The towers are 246 feet high and the main bell, called the “Emmanuel” was last rung in 1944 to celebrate the liberation of France.
Gargoyle Fact: As you look out over Paris, notice the eerie stone creatures that are also gazing down on the city and have been doing so for centuries. These gargoyles are meant to represent souls caught between heaven and earth. Their main practical function, however, is as rain spouts.
Take a Break: Square Jean XXIII, behind the cathedral, is a delightful place to eat a picnic lunch, to read, or to watch people.
4. Ile St. Louis
Charming, enchanting, and picturesque, Ile St. Louis is quintessential Paris. Among the attractions of this quaint little island are the 17th century hôtels, cafés, chic restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques that line its main street, St.-Louis-en-l’Ile. The wealthy and the famous have resided here for centuries. The best way to view this tiny island may be to wander through the streets without any specific trajectory.
Lines at Berthillon can stretch around the block
Tip: There’s a post office here that may be a convenient place to buy stamps for your postcards. Ask for stamps for the United States:“Des timbres pour les Etats-Unis, s’il vous plait”. Show them your postcards so they know what the stamps are for. Try your French but they will probably respond to you in English.
Take a Break: Berthillon, an ice cream parlor on Ile St. Louis, is famous for having the best ice cream in Paris. Their selection includes over 70 varieties. Order a single-scoop (“Un cornet seul”) or a double (“Un cornet double”). Note that eating ice cream in-house is usually more expensive than ordering to go. Berthillon, 29-31 rue St-Louis-en-l’Ile, 75004; Open Wed-Sun 10:00 am-8:00 pm; Closed Mon, Tue, and August.