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This remarkably harmonious ensemble of carved portals, huge towers, and flying buttresses has survived close to a millennium’s worth of French history and served as a setting for some of the country’s most solemn moments. Napoléon crowned himself Emperor here, Napoléon III was married here, and the funerals of some of France’s greatest generals (Foch, Joffre, Leclerc) were held here. In August 1944, the liberation of Paris from the Nazis was commemorated in the cathedral, as was the death of General de Gaulle in 1970.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1163 and lasted more than 200 years. The building was relatively untouched up until the end of the 17th century, when monarchs started meddling with its windows and architecture. By the time the Revolutionaries decided to convert it into a “Temple of Reason,” the cathedral was already in sorry condition—and the pillaging that ensued didn’t help. The interior was ravaged, statues were smashed, and the cathedral became a shadow of its former glorious self.

We can thank the famous “Hunchback” himself for saving Notre-Dame. Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” drew attention to the state of disrepair, and other artists and writers began to call for the restoration of the edifice. In 1844 Louis-Phillipe hired Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc to restore the cathedral, which they finished in 1864.

Begin your visit at Point Zéro, just in front of the building on the parvis (the esplanade). This is the official center of Paris and the point from which all distances relative to other French cities are calculated. Before you are three enormous carved portals depicting (from left to right) the Coronation of the Virgin, the Last Judgment, and scenes from the lives of the Virgin and St. Anne. Above is the Gallery of the Kings of Judah and Israel—thought to be portraits of the kings of France, the original statues were chopped out of the facade during the Revolution; some of the heads were eventually found in the 1970s and now are in the Musée National du Moyen Age/Thermes de Cluny.

Upon entering the cathedral, you’ll be immediately struck by two things: the throngs of tourists clogging the aisles, and, when you look up, the heavenly dimensions of the pillars holding up the ceiling. Soaring upward, these delicate archways give the impression that the entire edifice is about to take off into the sky. Up there in the upper atmosphere are three remarkable stained-glass rose windows. The north window retains almost all of its 13th-century stained glass; the other two have been heavily restored. An impressive treasury is filled with relics of various saints including the elaborate cases for the Crown of Thorns, brought back from Constantinople by Saint Louis in the 13th century. The crown itself is not on display; however, it can be viewed, along with a nail and some pieces of the Holy Cross, on the first Friday of the month (3pm), every Friday during Lent (3pm) and Good Friday (10am–5pm). For a detailed look at the cathedral, take advantage of the free guided tours in English (Wed–Thurs 2pm, Sat 2:30pm) or rent an audioguide for 5€.

When you leave, be sure to take a stroll around the outside of the cathedral to admire the other portals and the famous flying buttresses. Outside, you’ll see the long line of people waiting to climb the 255 steps to the rooftop balcony at the base of the cathedral’s towers. Those who wait it out and make the climb (in a narrow winding staircase—not for small children or anyone with mobility concerns) are rewarded with a panorama that not only encompasses the Ile de la Cité, the Eiffel Tower, and Sacré-Coeur, but is also framed by a collection of photogenic gargoyles. One of the most famous is the Stryga, a horned and winged beasty holding his head in his hands, pensively sticking his tongue out at the city below. Another 147 steps up a narrow stairway lead to the summit of the south tower, from which you get an endless view of Paris. Come in the morning before the crowds get thick, and avoid weekends (www.monuments-nationaux.fr; [tel] 01-53-40-60-80; 9€ adults, 6€ under 26, free under 18; Apr–June and Sept 10am–6pm; July–Aug Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–11pm; Oct–Mar 10am–4:30pm). For all other cathedral info, see below.