"Our Lady of Paris" is the heart and soul of the city, a monument to Paris' past slung in the cradle of the city's origins.
The cathedral, built between the 12th and 14th centuries on one of the islands in the middle of the Seine River, is a study in gothic and gargoyles, at once solid with squat, square facade towers, and graceful with flying buttresses around the sides.
It's been remodeled, embellished, ransacked, and restored so often that it's a wonder it still has any architectural integrity at all (during the Revolution, it was even stripped of its religion and re-christened the Temple of Reason).
Today you're more likely to run into long entry lines than Quasimodo, but at least while you wait to get in you have time to admire the Bible stories played out in intricate stone relief around the three great portals on the facade.
Much of the facade was (poorly) restored once in the 18th century, and then again (as well as could be done) in the 19th. If you're keen to see some medieval originals, the upper tier of the central portal is ancient, and much of the sculpture on the right-hand portal has also survived from 1165-75.
In the high, airy gothic interior, the choir section has a gorgeously carved and painted stone chancel screen from the 14th century on its outer flanks, and 18th-century wooden choir stalls along the inside.
The main draw, though, are the three enormous rose windows, especially the 69-foot diameter north window, which has retained almost all of its original 13th-century stained glass. Save Notre Dame for a sunny day and the best light effects.
And no visit to Notre Dame is complete without tackling the 387 steps up the North Tower and then across to the South Tower to examine those grotesque, amusing, or sometimes downright frightening gargoyles.
From up here you also get fine views of the city.
The ticket office and entrance for tower tours is around on the north side of the cathedral—to the left as you're looking at the facade—at the base of the north tower.
One last thing you shouldn't forget to do is simply to walk around the thing.
Those famous flying buttresses at the very back, holding up the apse with 50-foot spans of stone strength, are particularly impressive. Cross the Seine to admire the entire effect from the quai on the Left Bank.
At the opposite end of the square from the cathedral, a flight of steps leads down to the Archeological Crypt.
Give Notre Dame at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour,
Plan on at least two hours if you plan to climb the towers.
Get into the Towers of Notre Dame for free (though, alas, due to secutiry screenings you cannot skip the line at this one) with either the Paris Museum Pass (sights) or the Paris Pass (sights + transport + attractions).
As with most major churches in Europe, visitors are asked to dress appropriately for, well, for a church:
There are free guided tours of Notre Dame, in English, Wednesday and Thursday at 2pm, Saturday at 2:30pm.
Tours last about an hour and leave from under the great organ just inside the main doors to the church.
(For free Notre-Dame tours in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Chinese, see www.cathedraledeparis.com)
Tours that pass Notre Dame but do not go in:
Sculptures on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. (Photo by Oliver Bruchez)
The flying buttresses on the apse of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. (Photo by zoetnet)