In the middle of the river Seine sits two natural islands, the biggest – Îsle de la Cité – is the birthplace of Paris and is bursting wall to wall with reminders of the city’s centuries old heritage.
Towering over the island and the river surrounding it is one of the crowning jewels of the Catholic church and Paris’ roster of historical landmarks, Notre-Dame de Paris.
It looms over a vast stone plaza filled with a perpetual stream of people flooding through its doors, which is unsurprising due to its celebrity status thanks to French author Victor Hugo and of course, Mr Walt Disney.
Don’t be put off by the queue, it owes to a bag check and moves quickly through the doors and also aids to relieving congestion through the inside of the church. Look up as you walk through the doorway to see the ‘eyes of Notre-Dame’ as the stone statues of kings adorning it’s facade are called in the animated film.
Inside, admittedly, it feels like any other cathedral. Full of tiny chapels which splinter off the main church itself and endless rows of pews. However it is worth heading inside for an interior view of the three impressive stained glass windows that bleed with coloured light as the sun pours in. Only one contains the original glass but they are all equally beautiful.
For those unnerved by heights you can climb the 387 steps up the stone towers of the cathedral to Quasimodo heights and experience being amongst the gargoyles and venture inside the bell towers to see up close the church’s biggest bell, Emmanuel (which weighs a whopping 13271kg).
This is free of charge for 16-25 year old EU citizens or €8.50. Be sure to head early and use the machines along the left hand side of the cathedral – they will allocate you a time slot to return and visit the towers. When we visited, all the slots had been allocated by around 2pm.
From its soaring balconies you get a good view of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, as well as getting a good birds eye view of the rest of the Îsle de la Cité. From here you’ll be able to see across the square towards the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie, the latter certainly worth a visit.
If, like me, your knowledge of the French revolution is solely plucked from the lyrics of the musical Les Miserables then a visit to the Conciergerie is an education to say the least.
It’s a macabre area of French history, full of the guillotine and a period known as ‘The Terror’ but one preserved well by Paris within its landmarks. Here you’ll learn about the famous prison that housed Marie Antoinette as the revolution raged on outside her cell before she was finally sentenced to death.
It’s not all gloom and doom in the oldest part of the city as just across from the Conciergerie is the Marchè aux fleurs. Admittedly, the success of your visit here depends on the time of year you visit – as cold February didn’t treat us to many colourful blooms – but on Sunday’s it doubles as a bird market with some rare species to be marvelled at.
A last port of call in this historic part of town, although not technically located on the island, is a trip to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop. Head out of Notre Dame, turn left across the Seine and you can’t miss it.
Comprised of an English language bookshop, antique bookshop and cafe, bookworms everywhere will struggle to not find something they’re desperate to buy in this old shop full of cosy reading nooks.
This 22 hectare plot of land may be small but it’s a good place to start a trip to Paris and how could you not get the lie of the land with a birds eye view like this?