Gargoyles on the top of Notre Dame in Paris

Paris with kids: Ascending Notre Dame

What is better than April in Paris? I’ll tell you: April in Paris with kids. Although our most recent trip there was eight months ago, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it. And since April is a month that gets us all thinking of the City of Light, throughout the month of April I’ll be sharing stories, tips, and even some ideal itineraries for families interested in visiting Paris or just daydreaming about it.

I will never forget the first time I saw Notre Dame Cathedral. Drunk with fatigue and joy (and the one glass of red wine I’d had with dinner) I was nineteen and on my own in Europe for the first time. It was late August, and I’d arrived on a red-eye flight from Newark that morning with a cohort of my fellow students. After a bewildering day of locating my lodgings near the Porte d’Orleans, I’d managed to find my way over to the Rue Mouffetard where one of my friends would be living for the year. We had eaten a forgettable meal in one of the dive restaurants that line that street and were wandering in a golden twilight that to me was like something out of a fairy tale.

Just as it started to get dark, we emerged from the warren of Left Bank streets next to the Seine, and there it was, the façade illuminated and shimmering. It was as if every dream I’d had of coming to Paris since I was 12 years old had coalesced into one perfect moment. I remember thinking, with the hubris of the very young, “I will never be any happier than I am right now.”

Luckily for me that prediction did not prove to be true, but my affection for Notre Dame endured and it was rare during the ten months that followed for more than few days to go by without my strolling across the plaza in front of the church or wandering through the dusty light and spiced smell of the interior or admiring from the quays of the Seine the gargoyles and saints that adorn its higher reaches. But strangely enough, I never climbed cathedral’s towers. Perhaps it was my perpetual student poverty or my desire not to seem like a tourist or my confident belief that my adult life would contain innumerable visits to or perhaps residence in Paris; whatever the reason, I only ever saw the church from the ground.

So it was with great anticipation that I brought my husband Matt and our two boys to ascend Notre Dame in the summer of 2012. Despite good intentions of arriving early and avoiding the line, we showed up an hour before the towers opened to discover it stretching, as it often does in the summer, along the considerable length of the north side of the building. So while Matt waited, chatting in his Midwestern way with the people both behind and in front of him, the boys and I retired to the delightful rose-filled park behind the church where as they had four years earlier, the two of them romped and played with other American children, the offspring of tourists who fill Paris during the summer months.

There's a playground behind Notre Dame that's shady and fun

Please click on photos for full-size versions

When it was finally our turn to enter, we climbed just shy of 400 narrow stone steps, whose surface had been polished by the innumerable pilgrims who preceded us. Now that my boys are older and have longer legs (they were seven and ten on this visit) I’ve learned that anything old with a lot of steps is not only a fun opportunity for triumphant counting, it’s a chance to hear their voices giggle and echo as if through the ages.

I’ve been up high in Paris before – two or three times in the Eiffel Tower – and was prepared to enjoy the view as I always do. But it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be the added pleasure of intimacy with this building that I love so dearly.

Not only did I get to see the city from the gargoyles’ perspectives; I got to see the city framed by their mischievous presence.

A view of Montmartre framed by a gargoyle

The Eiffel Tower looks even better with a gargoyle in the foregroundSeeing Paris from a gargoyle's eye view - I'm a little jealous!The boys had to choose their favorites. Teddy liked this one with the grapes.

Teddy loved the gargoyle with the grapes at the top of Notre Dame in Paris

And then, of course, there was the fascinating roof decorated with long-forgotten bishops and heraldic angels.

The roof of Notre Dame in Paris is a fascinating place

Angels and bishops atop Notre Dame in Paris

But perhaps my favorite thing was the opportunity for a close view of the graceful spire lined with green saints.

A view of the Seine with Notre Dame's spire in the foreground

I love these green saints lining Notre Dame's spire in ParisInside and under the beams of the South tower we had a visit with one of the imposing bells, its clapper impossibly large. Much to my chagrin, Matt convinced Teddy to stand in front of it and say “Sanctuary!” in as deep and loud a voice as he could muster.

This bell is named Emmanuel and it was made in the 17th century

This may be the platonic place to play “I-Spy” – between the monuments of Paris, the bateaux-mouches passing on the river, the people queued up to get into the church, and all of the ornament and decoration on the building no child will be bored. And if they are, tell them once they’ve counted all the gargoyles you’ll descend.

We all enjoyed climbing Notre Dame in Paris

When we did so, we strolled back around to the garden where an orchestra from a British girl’s school, all dressed in long black dresses, sat on a dais and played Vivaldi as if for our express enjoyment while we ate our picnic lunch.

Travel-with-kids tips

  • The Centre des Monument Nationaux manages tower visits; according to their website the south belfry (where the Emmanuel bell is located) is closed for work through August 2013. However, you can still climb up and see the gargoyles and the view. Check the website for opening and closing times, as well as admission costs (children under 18 are free).
  • I’d plan a half a day for this excursion, particularly if you want to enter the church – which I don’t necessarily recommend doing during the busy season because it’s so crowded in there that it’s hard for young children to really see anything, and you’ll have to shuffle along with the crowd without having time to stop and look.
  • It’s hard to avoid the line in the summer or during any high tourist season (say around Easter). Come prepared with bottles of water and an umbrella to shade you from the sun if it is warm. If you’ve got more than one adult in your party, have one person stand in line while the other entertains the kids around the back and south side of the building where there are playgrounds and boats to watch on the river. Or take the kids across the street and let them pick out post cards from the souvenir shops.
  • The plaza in front of the church has a plaque in the ground representing “Point Zero” – this is considered to be the center of France and the place from which all distances are measured. It is also at the center of ancient Paris. Children enjoy hunting for and standing on it.
  • If you need a snack once you’ve finished your visit, Berthillon, my favorite purveyor of ice cream in all of Paris if not the world, is a short stroll away on the Ile Saint Louis. You’ll likely stand in line there as well during the summer but it’s worth the wait.

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Please see Paris in its proper order if you’re interested in a chronological list of posts from my family’s July 2008 trip to Paris, or visit my Paris page, which lists all of my stories and tips about my favorite city. If you enjoyed the photos in this post, please “like” The Mother of All Trips on Facebook where you can view even more.

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Reader Responses

3 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Oh my goodness this sounds wonderful! What a great experience for you all! Would love to visit Paris someday.

  2. Love the photos…and the tips for going with kids. Hoping my girls can do all the steps next year – age 4 and 6.

  3. The best souvenir we bought from our 3 weeks in France was a gargoyle at the gift shop – it’s gone for show and tell at school and is a fun reminder. Love that your husband chats up strangers, my husband accuses me of the same thing – I’ll always be a cheesehead at heart.

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