April 15, 2019, 6:18pm local time: The world watched in shock and sadness as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire and burned through the night. By morning, the symbol of Paris had been heavily damaged. Since the cathedral will not be open for visitors for many years, we thought we’d highlight a few other Notre-Dame cathedrals worthy of attention. Best of all, each one is little more than an hour outside of Paris. Grab a picnic basket – and your camera – for these easy day trips to explore three “alternative” Notre Dames – and a few other places!
Note: Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, France’s external borders are closed to all but essential travel, and the U.S. State Department’s advisory for France is Level 3: Reconsider Travel. The French government hopes to reopen for tourism in June 2021.
Notre-Dame: The Most Visited Monument in Paris
It’s no secret that Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. People come to see the Eiffel Tower, of course; it’s one of the city’s best known landmarks, drawing 8-million visitors each year. There is Musée du Louvre, the world’s largest art museum. If that’s not enough, Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée d’Orsay, and a host of others will satisfy even the most ardent museum geek. Montmartre, Sainte-Chapell, and Sacre Cœur see hundreds of thousands of visitors, pilgrim and secular alike.
But the most popular and, arguably, grandest of them all for at least the past century has been the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the literal and spiritual heart of Paris. Each year, nearly 12-million people from all corners of the world visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site. That makes Our Lady the most-visited monument in France!
It’s easy to see why. The church is recognized as the finest example of French Gothic architecture, with its flying buttresses and whimsical gargoyles. The immense stained glass Rose windows are amazing to behold, especially when splashing a rainbow of color over the dark wood pews inside. The ten bells are unique in the world, as is the pipe organ, with parts dating back to 1403. But she is best known for the towers and 300-foot spire that have become a symbol of Paris and, indeed, of France.
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 16, 2019
Reconstruction of Notre-Dame
The fire at Notre-Dame began as workers were renovating and updating the roof, and luckily many statues and historic artifacts had been removed for the work. The iconic spire, unfortunately, is gone, but the towers stand strong. Though there was immense historic value in the building, most of what was lost in the fire can be replaced. But it is going to take time.
French President Emanuel Macron set the target of five years to complete the restoration. Until then, the Cathedral will remain closed, wrapped in netting and scaffolding. Aside from a photo of the façade, or from a bateau on the Seine, Notre-Dame is off limits.
On one hand, there is only one Notre-Dame.
On the other, there are literally dozens of them.
Alternative Notre Dames
There is plenty to see in Paris, but this is a great opportunity to get out of the city and explore some lesser known but still impressive cathedrals. Each has its own significant history, and spectacular architecture. Thankfully, there will be another chance to see Notre-Dame, when she’s restored to her full glory and beauty. Until then, you can take a day trip to see these “alternative” Notre Dames, and explore their beautiful cities while you’re in France.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims
The beautiful city of Reims is a convenient day trip from Paris, with a cathedral that bears a striking resemblance to Our Lady of Paris. The city is the traditional site for the coronation of French kings, and has also been crowned the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-growing region. Many champagne houses are headquartered in Reims, and several offer tastings and cellar tours. How’s that for a bonus?
It’s no coincidence that Notre-Dame de Reims looks so much like her Paris namesake. Construction on cathedral began in the 13th century, after the previous church burnt to the ground in 1221. She was completed nearly 200 years later in the tradition of Notre-Dame de Paris, which was largely completed around the same time.
The tradition of crowning French kings in Reims began in 816, when Louis the Pious was crowned King of the Franks. When King Henry I was crowned in the previous Cathedral of Reims in 1027, he permanently established the cathedral as the location of coronation for the French monarchy. Since then, only seven kings have been crowned elsewhere.
Much like Notre-Dame de Paris, Reims Cathedral is known for its stained-glass windows and Gothic carved portals. When you go, look for the Smiling Angel, and statues of Joan of Arc too.
You will also want to visit the Gallo-Roman villa Palais du Tau. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where the Kings of France would stay – and party after their coronation at the Cathedral. Admission is free for anyone under 18, and 8€ for everyone else. Check the website for hours.
The Cathedral is free to visit, and is open from 7:30am to 7:30pm (7:13pm on Sundays and holidays). You can visit for Mass on Sundays between 9am and noon. As always, check ahead for hours, closures, and more information.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens
About ninety-minutes north of Paris (by train or car) is the city of Amiens, once home to novelist Jules Verne. In fact, the Maison de Jules Verne museum is one of the city’s biggest attractions, and a highlight of any visit. Afterwards, stroll down Boulevard Jules Verne to the National Circus and Street Arts Center, and Jules Verne Circus School. Check the schedule ahead of time, and remember that performances are in generally in French.
Nearby, on Rue de la Republique, is the Musée de Picardie. Behind the impressive Second Empire façade is one of the largest regional museums in France, with artifacts ranging from pre-history into the 19th Century. (Note: Musée de Picardie is closed for renovations until 2020.) On your way, don’t miss a photo at the beautiful Bibliothèque Louis Aragon.
At the center of Amiens, near the River Somme, stands the towering Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens. This particular Notre-Dame is celebrating its 200th Anniversary in 2020, and is the home of the Bishop of Amiens. That makes this a Cathedral Basilica, and what a church it is! Reaching 42.3 meters in the nave, the interior is the tallest in France. That impressive size has led to many architectural issues over the years, but the Medieval Gothic cathedral is still standing! It is a stark white today but, during renovations, it was determined the façade was originally painted in several colors. The original appearance is replicated in a sound and light show on summer evenings, during the Christmas Faire, and over New Years.
Before heading back to Paris, unwind with a stroll among the city’s canals and the hortillonnages, floating market gardens at the Quartier Saint-Leu, just a block from the cathedral.
Cathèdral Notre-Dame d’Amiens is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church is open to visit daily, except Tuesdays, but hours are limited. Free guided tours are offered, with times that vary throughout the year. Visit their web page for tour times, seasonal hours, and closures.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
Chartres is another easy day trip from Paris, being just about 90-minutes southwest of the city by train or car. While there is plenty to do in Chartres, you can easily spend a day right around the city’s main attraction, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.
Construction on the church began in 1145, the latest in a series of churches on the site since the fourth century. The Gothic Romanesque cathedral is noted for its architectural features and unique stained glass. Immense flying buttresses allowed the builders to make the windows larger. Soaring towers (105m/349ft and 115m/377ft) are topped with contrasting spires.
Those oversized windows? They’re filled with unique hues of stained glass. The 167 windows date as far back as the 12th century, including the famous Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verriere, or the Blue Virgin. Equally impressive are the three façades, adorned with hundreds of biblical statues. It’s no wonder the UNESCO World Heritage Center was called a masterpiece, and “the high point of French Gothic art.”
Besides the art and architecture, pilgrims also visit Notre-Dame de Chartres for its treasured relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic Mary wore at Christ’s birth.
After touring Notre-Dame, walk over to the former Bishop’s Palace. This collection of buildings from the 15th to 18th centuries is a national historic site housing the free Musée des Beaux Arts. Inside are collections from the Middle Ages through the mid-twentieth century.
If you enjoyed the iconic stained glass windows of Notre-Dame, don’t miss the Centre International du Vitrail (International Stained Glass Center), and the Galerie du Vitrail. Both are on Rue du Cardinale Pie, literally across the street from the cathedral. Fine examples of the art and craft of stained glass are on display, and you can tour the workshops and see the craftsmen at work.
Notre-Dame de Chartres is free and open to visitors from 8:30am to 7:30pm every day of the year. Even later, until 10pm, on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays during July and August. However, guests are asked not to enter the nave and transepts while Mass and other services are in progress.
Bonus: Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais
On the way to Amiens, you’ll pass by the town of Beauvais, home of the gravity-defying Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais. Construction on the church began in 1225, in the thirteenth century race to build ever more grandiose cathedrals. In fact, it’s largely seen as the height of architectural endeavor in Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, even though the church was never finished.
After several collapses and setbacks, construction was halted by the Hundred Years War in 1347. Work finally began again in 1500 and, by 1548, the transept was completed. By 1569, the spire, “so high that those who see it will think that we were crazy,” was completed. The 153-meter spire, the tallest building in the world at the time, came crashing down in 1573.
Since that time, there has been no new construction on the cathedral, though reinforcements have been ongoing. Ironically, the church escaped structural damage in Luftwaffe bombings of Beauvais during World War Two. In 2010, a restoration project began, and work to save the church from further damage continues.
So what about that gravity-defying bit? Today, only the choir and transept are complete. While that is part of the church’s fame, the sheer size is another. The vault choir reaches a world record height of 48.5 meters! Overall, the cathedral stands at 67.2 meters, nearly as tall as Notre-Dame de Paris, at 69 meters.
Oddly, the soaring Gothic and Renaissance cathedral abruptly abuts the remaining sections of the old church, which dates from the tenth century. The (comparatively) small pre-Romanesque Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Basse-Œuvre still stands in the space intended for the Nave of Saint-Pierre. While it’s not a UNESCO-recognized site, the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais was included on the very first list of National Monuments of France in 1840.
As if the architecture weren’t enough, there is another jewel inside the church: a masterpiece astronomical clock. Clockmaker August Vérité built the clock between 1865 and 1868, and modeled it after the famous Strasbourg clock (which resides at yet another Cathédrale Notre-Dame). The restored Beauvais clock has 68 clockwork figurines, and displays the time, tides, and movement of the stars. The church also holds a Medieval chiming clock. Built around 1305, it’s believed to be the oldest working clock in the world.
The cathedral is open daily, with special times to see the Astronomical Clock. Guided tours are €4, and are scheduled every other week. Check the website (in French) for times.
Even More Heavenly Churches
Catholicism has been a major influence on France throughout history, so it’s no surprise that there are a number of fantastic churches throughout the country. Nearly every city, town, and village will have it’s cathedral, a great number of them dedicated to Our Lady (Notre Dame), the Virgin Mary.
If you love Gothic, Romanesque, and even Baroque architecture, as well as European history, French churches will make your soul smile. As you travel through the country, consider visiting these beautiful churches: (Note: some sites are French language.)
- Cathédrale Saint-Ètienne de Bourges
- Completed circa 1230 in Bourges, France; a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992
- Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orlèans
- Dating from 1601, the Cathedral of St. Croix is most notable for its association with Joan of Arc.
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux
- Located in Normandy, Bayeux Cathedral was originally a Norman church. It was later expanded in with Gothic architecture, and today is a stunning example of the Norman-Romanesque tradition. The church was consecrated in 1077 in the presence of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England.
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Clermont-Ferrand
- The Gothic style Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral is remarkable, and perhaps unique in France, for being made entirely of black lava rock.
We’re not suggesting that Notre-Dame de Paris is not worth a visit in her current state. It is still a remarkable building with so much history, and such an important place in the soul and psyche of Paris. But we are suggesting you take the time to visit some other sites around Paris. Being less than two hours outside of the city, these selections are quick and easy day trips that will enhance your French experience.
Of course, this list is far from exhaustive! From the Guernsey shore to the Côte d’Azur, the Aquitaine to the Alps, every city and village has a church, each as beautiful as the last. If you have a favorite, let us know about it in the comments! Tell us about your experiences visiting these other Notre-Dame Cathedrals, and their cities, too. Haven’t been there? Let us know if we’ve convinced you to include an alternative Notre-Dame on your next Paris itinerary.