The churches of Paris

Many cities in the western world are famous for their churches. Not only towns like Chartres, Reims or Rouen have well known cathedrals of their own but also in Paris and the Ile de France you find many interesting churches.

My intention is not to present a journey across Paris. I just want to mention where you can find the churches and something about their surroundings and history.


Notre Dame (Cathedral)

To get it started, I first tell about the best-known church of Paris. Its history started in the year 1163, the year they laid the foundations. During a period of about 150 years, a masterpiece of gothic style was erected on the place of heathen places of worship and early Christian buildings. A profound description of the wealthy interior design and the façades would fill up a single page itself.

Times passing by, Notre Dame saw lots of historical events, gatherings and ceremonies. Henry of Navarre here made his promise come true and turned catholic. A short while later, he ascended the French throne as Henry IV. During the French Revolution, the church was transformed into a temple - the statues of the kings above the portal lost their heads. In the year 1804, Napoleon Buonaparte crowned himself emperor of France. I have to emphasize that Notre Dame has never been one thing: The church of the French kings. They've been crowned in Reims and buried in St. Denis.

During the 19th century, the architect Viollet-le-Duc, inspired by Victor Hugo's famous novel "The hunchback of Notre Dame" has executed extensive renovation works - the kings' statues were given new heads. And also at the end of the 20th century, Notre Dame has been renovated. In 1999, I could admire a shining white façade - not as in 1991 when I visited Paris for the first time. Pictures from these two years are being compared here.

The interior is said to be quite clear light for a gothic building, but I think this depends on the personal point of view. In my opinion, it is dark inside, even if the sun is shining outside, in the opposite to Chartres cathedral. Worth to be mentioned is the foreplace of Notre Dame, the Place du Parvis. It originates from Haussmann's big renovation action in the middle of the 19th century. Some thirty metres in front of the church, you should look down to discover the Point Zéro from where all distances in France to Paris are measured.

façade of Notre Dame in 1991
façade of Notre Dame 01/01/2000
choir at sunset
statue of French kings above the portal
general view
Point Zéro

St. Sulpice

The next one is my favourite church in Paris. Thus I think it is necessary to mention here that the length of a description does not represent my personal appreciation. The text has to do justice to a church's history and importance.

St. Sulpice is not as crowded by tourists as Notre Dame and is situated on a calm place next to the Palais du Luxembourg (see impressionists). Regarding its dimension it is the second church of Paris. It was built from the middle of the 17th century until the end of the 18th century. Created in a classicistic style with light rational façades, St. Sulpice is less decorated than Notre Dame. Its interior is bright and spacious. The walls are decorated with paintings whose most famous have been made by Eugène Delacroix. The organ is one of France's best. Sadly I didn't have the opportunity to listen to it while visiting the church.


St. Germain des Prés

This is one of the oldest churches in Paris. It was built where a monastery existed in the first millennium and it also was part of a monastery until the French Revolution. From the streets, the visitor sees a simple church. The tower seems to be sturdy because of its low height. Over the decades, the church became too small for its parish and that is why they started erecting St. Sulpice...

As I arrived during a mass, it was impossible for me to visit the interior of the church. I stood in the entrance and could not even take part as the mass was held in Spanish.

St. Sulpice
Place St. Sulpice
St. Germain des Prés

Ste. Trinité

Accidentally, I visited Ste. Trinité the day after I tried to visit St. Germain des Prés. I say "accidentally" because I almost disturbed a mass, too. Thus I can only judge this church by its exterior. From that perspective, Ste. Trinité is the most beautiful church in Paris. As I've already said: I don't know its interior.

Ste. Trinité has been erected in the middle of the 19th century, a different age as you could suppose from its look. The ecclecticistic style quotes many elements from preceded eras. The church is situated on the border of a small place on a little hill. If you don't like to go upstairs, just call a taxi to be carried to the portal.

Ste. Trinité
Ste. Trinité
Place d'Estienne d'Orves
(forecourt of Ste. Trinité)

Ste. Marie Madeleine

Now, we have arrived at a church that is hardly recognizable as a church. After laying the foundations in the 1760s, the story of the construction was a changing one. The Revolution didn't need churches anymore and so Napoleon changed plans when the works were still in progress. He needed a temple of honour for the French army. They continued working in Greek style with high columns - as if they had transported it directly from Athens to Paris.

After having finished works, the authorities decided to use the Madeleine as a church in the end. Therefore, we can visit an interior of a typical Christian church. In my opinion it is quite dark inside, almost like in Notre Dame. You should enjoy the perspective from the open stairs. You can look along the rue Royale and over the Place de la Concorde to the parliament. Enjoying if there aren't too many cars in your range of vision.

view from Place de la Concorde to the Madeleine
Ste. Marie Madeleine
view to the parliament

St. Eustache

If you're approaching St. Eustache from the Forum des Halles, at first sight you recognize an unusually designed ecclesiastical building 'cause you can't recognize any tower. But the perspective from the Western front is much different:

Visitor sees a façade with one tower and a half, erected in a different style than the rest of the church. The church was originally conceived and built in gothic style from 1532 to 1637, supplemented with Renaissance elements as contribution to the change of taste during the building period. From the middle of the 18th century on a classicistic façade replaced the old one whose foundations had sunk into ground.

The total height is only visible to those who enter St. Eustache. Because of many windows, the church is flooded by daylight in the opposite to Notre Dame.

This is the church where the poet Molière has been baptized. St. Eustache houses many pieces of art. The latest one is a relief showing the central market moving from the heart of Paris to Rungis in the early 1970s.

view over the Forum des Halles on St. Eustache
St. Eustache
"The halls leave the city"


Both churches here are part of the complex Louis XIV founded as a shelter for the veterans and handicapped of his many wars in the 17th century.

Firstly - and clearly visible - we recognize the Dôme des Invalides with its golden dome. The twin church was conceived with a central altar so that the king and his men could pray in the same place but separated by a window. The king's church is wealthily decorated and served as mausoleum for Napoléon since 1840.

In the centre you see the sarcophagus reaching up. If you go down to the crypt, you can go around the resting place where you are remembered Napoléon's successes. In the four little chapels in the corner, you find the tombs of four generals of France.

The soldiers' church St. Louis is completely opposite to the dome being very rational. The flags of defeated armies that are attached to the walls around dominate its bright interior. Tables remember us of many important officers killed in the French wars.

The army museum which resides in the rooms of the Hôtel des Invalides is worth to be visited as it shows us the history of French military - the entrance fee is included if you pay for the churches.

interior view of the dome
altar with trasparent wall between the dome and
St. Louis
cannons from the army museum's collection

Sacré Cur

The most picturesque church in Paris has been built from 1876 on top of Montmartre Hill. The idea for its foundation was a memorial after the war 1870/1871 France lost against Germany and the rebellion of the Parisian Commune.

A decision by the parliament in 1873 made the church a project of national importance and funds were raised all over France. The construction period carried on for almost forty years and building is founded deeply in the hill so that the former plaster mines of Montmartre don't collapse.

Its architecture is often discussed about but the view from the forecourt over Paris is unique - if you've got clear conditions. Tourists overcrowd alleys around Sacré Cur almost all day long. So just take your time and meet people from all over the world.

Sacré Cur
view in direction of the eastern suburbs
view in detail

St. Denis (basilica)

Situated a few kilometres away from Paris, but linked with the centre by the Metro, you find the basilica of St. Denis. It is the second important church of French kingship beneath the cathedral of Reims, the coronation church.

It is a legend that the holy Dionysius walked to this place after his execution to get buried here. But it is a fact that French kings have been buried here since the 8th century, in the beginning in a monastery church that was replaced by the basilica.

Today's church has been built in the 12th and 13th century. Originally the kings have been buried in the choir. In the course of the French Revolution, the basilica has been immensely destroyed as a symbol for kingship, the remains of the death were moved to the crypt. Viollet-le-Duc executed the complete renovation in the 19th century.

Nowadays the visitor steps into a church divided in two parts. The visit of the ceremony area is free of charge. Near the altar, you can already see the sarcophaguses in the choir that have been reinstalled here during the renovation.

To get access to that area, you have to go to the southern part of the church. You find the cashier between the church and the abbey. From here you can visit the choir as well the crypt, where the Bourbons had already been buried before the revolution.

St. Denis
St. Denis - view in detail
Created on: 04/10/2000
Last update: 13/08/2004