Exploring Ile-de-la-Cite – the heart of Medieval Paris

ile-de-la-cite Paris

Paris, the city of love, can take your breathe away at times. Most people spend around 5 days in the city, although 7 days would allow for a better pace in my opinion. I recommend that you spend one of those days exploring Monmartre, one visiting the Louvre and then another one of those days exploring Ile-de-la-Cite, the heart of Medieval Paris.

You might like to take a Paris Guidebook, although you don’t really need one – there are maps everywhere and main attractions are signposted.

How to get to Ile-de-la-Cite and what to see

Take the Metro to ‘Cite’ and walk towards the Island on the Seine, which is easy to spot as you simply look for Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s beauty is hard to miss! Ile-de-la-Cite is one of two islands in the middle of the river Seine.

There are three amazing sites that I recommend that you visit in your day on Ile-de-la-Cite: Notre Dame Cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie (medieval prison). My recommendation is that you head to `ile de la Cite’ early, around 7.30am. We arrived before 8am, and had a wonderful internal and external view of Notre Dame Cathedral, followed by just 5 minutes (if that) waiting time at Sainte-Chapelle.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral (meaning our Lady) is the finest example of French gothic architecture in the world. Construction started in 1163 (it was one of the very first gothic Cathedrals), and was developed over a number of years through the renaissance and naturalist eras also. Notre Dame was officially opened and consecrated as a Cathedral in 1345.

Historically, Notre Dame was famous for by novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo. The Cathedral was severely damaged during the French revolution, but then restored. In 1909, famous innocent martyr Joan of Arc was beatified (sanctified) in Notre Dame Cathedral by Pope Pius X.

Take a good look at the external architecture and try to identify some of the statues of Saints on the facade. The flying buttresses at the rear of the Cathedral were added at a later date to support the original structure. Take a walk around the back to observe those.

Tips for Visiting Notre Dame Cathedral

  • Get there early (before 8am)
  • It’s free to go inside and photographs are allowed, but observe silence and avoid flash photography.
  • If you are feeling up to it, you can climb the towers for just €10, which will give you an excellent view of the gargoyles! Find out more on Sight Seekers Delight.
  • To see Notre Dame in a different light, head there after dark.


Sainte-Chapelle has to be without a doubt the most stunning display of stained glass windows that I have ever seen in my life. The chapel was built by King Louis IX in 1245, to house key Christian relics including a part of the true cross of Jesus and the crown of thorns. It was therefore the historical and religious centre of medieval Paris.

Originally, only the King was allowed in the upper Chapel. The extensive stained glass windows feature 16 stories or books from the Bible from Genesis (creation) through to the apocalypse in the final Rose window, and connects the story of Jesus with how the relics came to rest at Sainte Chapelle. Following their discovery in Jerusalem by St Helena, they were then bought by Louis IX and transported to Paris.

Tips for Visiting Sainte Chapelle

  • Arrive early (before 9am if possible).
  • You will need to go through security first, so be prepared to have bags checked and scanned, and walk through a security gate.
  • The cost is €10 per person, but if you are registered disabled and can show a disabled badge you can get free entrance.
  • No photographs are allowed in the lower chapel. Photography is allowed in the upper chapel, but no tripods are allowed.

The Conciergerie

A few metres to the left of Sainte Chapelle, you will come to the Conciergerie, a medieval royal palace that was also Marie Antoinette’s prison. Originally a gothic palace, the Kings of France abandoned the Conciergerie buildings at the end of the 14th century in favour of the Louvre. It then became a court of law, and part of the palace was converted into prison cells.

Inside the Conciergerie, you will be able to appreciate the beautiful arches of one of the oldest buildings in Paris. When it became a prison, it was one of the worst of its era. In the 1300’s, people barely made it out alive. Today, you will find a reconstruction of the prison cells with realistic recreation of the living spaces of the poor and upper class. A chapel has been built in memory of Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French revolution, in her cell.

Tips for visiting the Conciergerie

  • Again, arrive early and check the opening dates
  • Tickets are €9, but if you intend to see Sainte-Chapelle as well, you can get a combined ticket for €15.

Guided Tours with Viator

I decided to visit ‘Ile-de-la-Cite’ on my own, but if you would like guided tours of Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle, or tickets to ‘skip the queues’, then you might want to consider the following tours with Viator.

Notre Dame and Ile de la CitΓ© Tour with Skip the Line Visit of the Sainte Chapelle Combo Tour

Paris Ile de la Cite Medieval Private Walking Tour: Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and Conciergerie

Skip the Line: Notre Dame Cathedral, Tower and Ile de la Cite Half-Day Walking Tour

Learning French for your Trip to Paris

Remember that not everyone speaks English in France and so it may be a good idea to learn a bit of French before your trip. Two great resources that I recommend are the Duolingo app and also Frenchplanations.

Further Reading

You might also be interested in reading about Paris 4 like a local and Top things to do in Paris.

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