There’s so much more to the Île de la Cité than its most famous landmark Notre-Dame.
The Île de la Cité is in fact an incredibly special place. As one of two natural islands that sit in the River Seine, it’s home to the oldest settlement in Paris.
Because of this, the Île de la Cité is considered to be the centre (and the heart) of Paris with all distances in Paris measured from the centre of the island.
The remains of the first buildings can still be seen in the archaeological crypt under the square in front of Notre-Dame.
The history of the Île de la Cité is the history of Paris.
The Île de la Cité was first settled by the Parisii tribes in the third century BC, giving their name to the city.
In later centuries the city was rebuilt and expanded by the Romans.
Then in the 6th through 14th centuries the Kings of France lived on the island and a palace was built (the Palais de la Cité) allowing the island to become the centre of political power. Through medieval times the Île de la Cité became home to the church and the law, with the first cathedral built in the 10th century, the predecessor of Notre-Dame.
The revolt of the Parisians in 1358 saw the Monarchs choose to move away from the Île de la Cité and as the palace ceased to be the royal residence, the Parlement gradually occupied it and the residential function of the Palais de la Cité gave way to its legal function transforming the palace into a law court.
The River Seine has shaped and defined the character of the Île de la Cité just as much as its famous landmarks. The forces of geology have much to answer for as bridges and buildings are forced to fit amid its teardrop shape making it far more interesting in appearance than the straight avenues found all over the rest of Paris.
Notre-Dame Cathedral is indisputably the island’s most famous landmark built between 1163 and 1345. It is a gothic masterpiece standing on the site of an old roman temple – 130 metres long featuring flying buttresses, a large transept, a deep choir and two 69 metre high towers.
The spire soars to height of 90 metres; the spectacular flying buttresses at the east end have a span of 15 metres and the medieval rose windows to the south and north are an impressive 13 metres high.
There are 387 steps up the north tower which leads to sights of Notre-Dames infamous gargoyles and fabulous views of Paris.
On entering the cathedral, the grandeur is immediately apparent from the impressive high-vaulted central nave. Just wandering around inside, the word “Wow” forms on the lips while neck ache from looking up sets in. The vivid blue of the stained glass is simply stunning!
Notre-Dame is free to enter, though a charge is applicable to the tower tours. Be aware that long queues exist to access the tower so expect to stand around for a while.
Dedicated to Pope John XIII, these gardens run alongside the river round the southern and eastern sides of Notre-Dame and are an excellent place to enjoy the beautiful architecture of the flying buttresses, rose window and the many garden sculptures.
As only a small fraction of the visitors to the cathedral’s great west front venture round the back, it is a beautiful place to sit in comparative peace and quiet.
Easily the second most famous landmark on the Île de la Cité is the Palais de Justice built in the 18th century to house the French equivalent of the Supreme Court. The earliest seat of government was in the same place, as was the original palace from the Gothic period, (the Palais de la Cité) the remains of which are found in Sainte-Chapelle and La Conciergerie.
The Palais fills the width of the Île de la Cité, the architecture varying as you move around the exterior walls.
The northern flank is dominated by the 4 chateau style towers of La Conciergerie and it’s this part of the building that is my favourite architecture in all of Paris.
It’s very strange finding a gothic chapel inside a seat of government but I’m glad it remains as it is probably the most beautiful church in all of Paris, and it certainly has the most impressive stained glass found anywhere in the world! It’s such a magnificent blue colour – I just wanted to stand and look at it all day!
Sainte-Chapelle was designed by one architect and built in just 5 years. It was built in the 13th century for King Louis IX to house religious relics which included the crown of thorns that he believed to be the original crown worn by Christ on the cross.
The 15 stained glass windows which are separated by the narrowest of columns depict the entire history of Christianity in over 1,000 scenes, from the book of Genesis to the crucifixion of Christ. Just the rose window was added at a later date. Sainte-Chapelle is one place I could visit on every trip to Paris and never get bored.
Below the main chapel, the lower chapel was where servants and commoners worshipped, leaving the main chapel for the king and royal family.
The spire rises 75 metres into the air and was erected in 1853 after the previous 4 spires burned down.
Entry is charged at €10 or you can buy a combined ticket with La Conciergerie for €13. I recommend doing this as both places are worth visiting offering up numerous surprises. Be aware that Sainte-Chapelle is closed for an hour at lunchtime.
Part of the Palais de Justice, La Conciergerie is a former prison.
When the King moved off the island in the 14th century, he entrusted the palace to the care of the Concierge (the keeper of the King’s Mansion.) The palace remained the seat of royal administration and law and the concierge was endowed with the legal powers to run it. The palace always had an area designated for detention purposes but during the 14th century the neighbouring prison of Châtelet became so overcrowded that prisoners were moved to the palace cells. The palace prison came into its own as it was found to be extremely convenient to detain the accused on the spot and drag further confessions out of them using onsite instruments of torture. The concierge was considered chief gaoler and lent his name to the prison: La Conciergerie. By the 15th century it was one of the largest prisons in Paris. It also had some very famous prisoners including Henri IV’s assassin Ravaillac.
During the revolution, La Conciergerie housed over 4,000 prisoners including Marie Antoinette whose tiny cell where she stayed prior to her execution can be visited on the Conciergerie tour. Ironically, revolutionary judge Robespierre was also held here before being sent to the guillotine.
After the revolution when the Conciergerie was no longer Crown property, it underwent much rebuilding and renovation to better fit the new legal requirements. Then to honour its place in French history it was classified a historic monument in 1862 and opened to the public in 1914.
Easily, the biggest surprise of the rooms in the Conciergerie that are on show to the public is the Salle des Gens d’armes (Hall of the Men-at-Arms) which you enter into first. On an awesome scale, the beautiful vaulted hall is divided into 4 aisles which are then divided into 9 sections. Its function was a dining room for the king’s household and could fit 2,000 people in.
The cost of visiting the Conciergerie is €8 or as a combined ticket with Sainte-Chapelle for €13
Make sure you see the 14th century clock on the north eastern corner of the Palais de Justice. It’s the city’s oldest clock and is still working.
Also, along the edge of the river from the clock corner are flower stalls – an extension of the year round flower market: “Marche aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II”, which adds a touch of colour and scent to an area dominated by administrative buildings. It is one of the last remaining flower markets in Paris offering a wide range of specialist varieties.
This building holds an enviable position on the northern side of Notre-Dame’s forecourt – the Place du Parvis. It is the city’s oldest hospital and for the last 50 years has been home to the research, testing, treatment and prevention of Diabetes and other endocrine diseases. It’s also recently become a major centre for Ophthalmology.
The Île de la Cité has always been linked to each bank by 2 bridges which were originally made from wood and later from stone. The Pont Neuf (the New Bridge) still remains, having been inaugurated in 1607 by Henri IV and is now the oldest bridge in Paris.
The bridge has 12 arches and spans 275 metres. It was the first stone bridge to be built without houses, thus establishing a new relationship between the Cité and the river. There is a statue of Henri IV in the centre section and has a ‘Love Lock’ railing overlooking the Square du Vert-Galant.
Place Dauphine to the east of Pont Neuf is a small public square laid out in 1607 by Henri IV and named after the Dauphin – the future Louis XIII. It is a quiet haven hidden away from the tourists and perfect for employees from the adjoining Palais de Justice to relax in at lunch and break times. I myself missed it and realised I just caught the edge of it on the photo below.
This garden at the western tip of the Île de la Cité is a magical spot with the most unique view of the River Seine. By sitting on the stone embankment at the very tip with water flowing down either side, you are positioned right in the centre of the river and you feel almost as if you’re sailing away. It also has fabulous views of the Louvre and the Right Bank of the Seine.
What’s your favourite part of the Île de la Cité? Do you have a favourite building or structure?