Paris Art Guide: Île de la Cité & Ile Saint Louis

The Île de la Cité is the place where the history of Paris started; this is where the first settlement of the Parisii tribe was built (3rd century B.C.E.), where the Roman Lutetia became an important commercial centre, where the Merovingian kings built their first grand palace (present-day Conciergerie), where the oldest bridge on the Seine stands (the Pont Neuf, ironically translated as “The New Bridge”) and where the most important church of the city, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, welcomes millions of tourists every year. Île de la Cité and the nearby Ile St Louis, are, for all those reasons the places to start your tour when in Paris.  
The Conciergerie
Mostly known as a prison during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror periods (Queen Marie-Antoinette’s cell is preserved and can be visited, today), this imposing building is, in fact, the only remaining part of the majestic Palais de la Cité; the seat of the kings of France from the 10th to the 14th centuries (when the court moved to the nearby Louvre Palace). King Louis the IX (a.k.a. the Saint), arguably the most glorious resident of the palace, enlarged it, beautified it and added the remarkable Sainte Chapelle (see next entry). The impressive Hall of the Guards, with its bold columns and austere arches is a fine specimen of medieval architecture which, nowadays, is often used as an art-exhibitions space.
Admission: See next entry. Metro: Cité (line 4)
The Conciergerie - 4th Arrondissement - Tourism Media © 2016 Expedia, Inc
Sainte Chapelle
An architectural marvel of Paris, Sainte Chapelle is a self-standing chapter of medieval art history! The chapel was built in 1248 by King Louis (the Saint) to house the recently acquired Christ’s Passion Relics (the Crown of Thorns, part of the Holy Cross et al) and scholars believe that it was modeled after the Romanesque Palatine Chapel in Aachen, built by Charlemagne.
The entrance leads you to the lower chapel, a beautifully decorated space with painted stars and fleur de lis symbols in gold, blue and deep red, which was the part where the palace servants and the common people came to attend mass. A narrow spiral staircase leads you to the upper chapel, a 15-meter tall kaleidoscope of stained glass panels of vibrant red, green, blue, purple and golden colours, where the royal family came to pray to Christ’s relics. Take your time to observe each one of the 15 exquisite windows which depict stories from the Bible and even the story of the journey of the relics, from Jerusalem to Paris (There are several portable explanatory signs next to the staircase leading you back down). The wooden sculptures of the Apostles are also magnificent.

Tips for visiting: When you plan to visit Conciergerie and Sainte Chapelle, buy a combined ticket (€13,50, instead of €8,50 for Conciergerie and €10 for Ste Chapelle) visit the, less busy, Conciergerie and then head for Sainte Chapelle skipping the ticket line (although you still have to wait quite a while for security check). Don’t be discouraged; both venues are totally worth it! Admission is free in both with Paris Museum Pass.
Sainte Chapelle, upper chapel interior. Wikimedia Creative Commons.
Archeological Crypt of the Parvis of Notre-Dame
Reaching the Parvis Notre Dame, the square in front of Paris’ Cathedral (parvis means courtyard) you have the chance to start your personal (long) sequence of Notre Dame pictures but, before entering the square, look for the staircase that will lead you to the archaeological excavations and exhibition space of the crypt which includes the remains of the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, ruins from the Imperial Roman Era as well as the Middle Ages and the recent centuries. Excellent explanatory graphics, models and visual aid.
Admission: €8. Free admission (without waiting the line) with Paris Museum Pass.
As if you needed encouragement to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral, this is the sight on every Paris visitors’ top-5, a masterpiece of monumental Gothic architecture and a landmark of great artistic and historical significance, standing on the Île de la Cité for more than 900 years after its cornerstone was laid.

Highlights: The superb sculptures on the three portals of the west façade, the “May” paintings (offered by the goldsmith’s guild almost every year from 1630 to 1707, on the 1st of May - some of them by Charles Le Brun), the fragments of the 14th century altarpiece made of polychromed stone, the Pieta by Nicolas Coustou, behind the altar, the rose windows are only a few of the cathedral’s art treasures!
Note: After visiting Notre-Dame, Sainte Chapelle and the Conciergerie, you have covered three of the most important medieval sites in Paris. If you want to explore the era more you should visit the Cluny Museum of Medieval Art, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and, most importantly, the Saint Denis Basilica, a magnificent 12th century gothic church and the resting place of French royalty!
Notre-Dame - 4th Arrondissement - Tourism Media © 2016 Expedia, Inc
The Notre-Dame Towers
After leaving the cathedral, you turn on your right to find the entrance to the South Tower; if you have the stamina to wait (for quite a long time) and to climb the 387 steps to the towers. You’ll have the chance to enjoy a wonderful view to the city and take dozens of pictures of the gargoyles and chimeras. Find you favorite little monster, name him or her and promise to come back! Admission: €12.
Gargoyle at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. John Cornellier. Wikimedia Creative Commons.
From Île de la Cité to Ile Saint Louis: Jazz on the bridge
Walking on either side of Notre-Dame you will reach the charming Jean XXIII square, when you’ll take several dozens of photos of Notre-Dame’s east side, and right at the tip of the island, the Memorial of the Deportation; a minimalistic underground space commemorating the French people deported to the Nazi concentration camps during WW2, designed by Georges-Henri Pingusson. Crossing the St Louis Bridge, you’ll most definitely encounter several street musicians playing, quite wonderfully, uplifting Django-Reinhardt-style jazz tunes, usually accompanied by dancers or roller-skaters performing nearby. Take some time, sit back (or better, sit down on the pavement), relax and enjoy the moment!
Saint Louis Island

The charming small island is defined by two riverside roads (quais), ideal for endless photo sessions, and a main (though quite narrow) street lined with seductive pastry shops, galleries and clothing stores. You can visit Saint Louis en L'Ile, a 17th century church designed by the Versailles architect, Louis Le Vau, with a richly decorated baroque interior. Don’t leave the island without tasting an ice cream at Berthillion or a cinnamon cookie from Cure Gourmande!
View of the Ile St Louis and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

From St Louis Isle you are free to choose whether you’ll go North (towards MEP, Marais district, Carnavalet Museum, Picasso Museum) or South (St Germain Blvd, Arab World Institute); the choice is yours! Enjoy!


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