Thinking of visiting the most beautiful chapel in all of Paris on your next trip to France? Check out these quick and easy tips before your trip to Sainte-Chapelle!
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Sainte-Chapelle is, rightfully, on every "must-see" list for a visitor to Paris - and with good reason. It is a positively momentous sight, partially for the pure historical significance that so much of the stained glass has survived as long as it has, in addition to its undeniable beauty.
But, as with so many (all) places in Paris, crowds can be a real struggle, particularly as Sainte-Chapelle, which is a chapel, not a cathedral, is actually surprisingly small. If nothing else, come prepared with your patience and your "pardon, Madame," in addition to a good camera! And, importantly, remember: it's impossible to take a bad picture of this 13th-century chapel.
Commissioned by Louis IX, later to become St. Louis, the chapel was consecrated in 1248, the year the building of Cologne Cathedral was begun (and, which, like many of its contemporaries, which was not finished for hundreds of years, due to starting and stopping). Initially, the Chapel was intended to house religious relics, including the famous crown of thorns, for which the French King paid more than three times as much as the cost of the construction of the entire Chapel complex, and from which much of his stature as a leader of Western Europe was derived in that period. Almost unbelievably, the Chapel's construction took only 7 years. Ultimately, the Chapel's role in royal life slowly expanded over time, though access to the upper chapel was strictly controlled.
During the Revolution, the Chapel faced its most serious threats - only 2/3 of the stained glass currently on display is original, thanks to the thorough sacking it received. It also lost its steeple and the aforementioned relics (some of which were recovered and are on display at nearby Notre Dame). Many, however, were melted down, and/or never seen again.
The Chapel has undergone restorations in the 19th and 20th centuries - including varnishing, and cleaning of the stained glass, which is in remarkable condition. If you have a choice, try to visit on a sunny day to see it at its best.
Purchasing tickets in advance
It is advisable to buy your tickets in advance, either directly from the Chapel's website, as we did, or through a third party, such as Viator here, depending on the rest of your plans. You can combine the ticket with the Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette and many others were held during the Revolution), but if you don't think you'll end up hitting both spots, it might be worth just getting the Chapel ticket. We, for instance, bought the combination ticket, and didn't end up making it to the Conciergerie (though, in all reality, I never feel badly about paying for extra museum tickets!).
The tickets are open-ended, meaning that they are valid for one year from the date of purchase, for the day of your choosing, with certain restrictions. Thus, during our trip, I literally carried them around in my purse until we ended up going, just in case!
It's actually two chapels
The Sainte-Chapelle is actually two chapels - the first you will see is the lower chapel (into which you enter after scanning your tickets, and which houses the gift shop). As you can see from the picture below, the lower chapel features stunning painted ceilings, which are easier to view, as the ceilings are not nearly as high as in the upper chapel, and some stained glass.
The upper chapel is accessed via a staircase (the staircase itself warrants its own section, below) and that stained glass in the upper chapel is what you've come to see!
Even on a non-crowded day, the upper Chapel is crowded. The great thing about these pictures is that they leave out all of the people below, without looking like they were taken from a bizarre upward angle.
After you've visited the interior of the haute chapel, you can catch you breath on a balcony, and see the gorgeous exterior carvings of the Chapel, reminiscent of Chartres Cathedral, detailing all your favorite Bible stories including the below "it was her" telling of Adam and Even (second picture below):
As it is two chapels, there is a...harrowing...staircase separating the two levels. My European readers may not find this interesting, but to Americans, it's a bit shocking (with ample space and the majority of our buildings built in the last 100 years, staircases like this actually don't meet U.S. fire codes, which leads to some historic buildings having upper floors that are inaccessible to tourists).
It's only perhaps one story (33 steps in all), but long enough that you can't see the exit when you enter, and frankly, it's just slightly longer than you want to be in the staircase. There is no alternative entrance. I note this only because we...saw someone have what appeared to be a heart attack (ambulance and all) once he got to the top. Just be mindful when you're planning, especially if you are visiting with guests with mobility or small space issues. We were fortunate enough to not visit during a crowded time; however, I'd image that staircase isn't fun with 50 other tourists in it.
It's a quick trip
You won't need to allocate a huge amount of time to Sainte-Chapelle itself, though this may change depending on the line situation during the time of year that you plan to visit. I have had family tell me they waited over an hour in line, just to get it.
When we visited in October, with our pre-purchased tickets, we did not wait at all (have I mentioned that mid-October is the best time to visit Paris???). We walked in, looked around the lower chapel, walked up the stairs to the upper chapel, and stayed for approximately half an hour total.
Combine with a visit to Notre Dame
Assuming you'll be visiting Notre Dame (which is free), it's absolutely worth it to do both of these phenomenal architectural gems in one trip. You'll be able to see the Notre Dame entrance line when you walk up, so if it's super long and you want to come back later, naturally that's an option as well. Ile de la Cite is an absolute wonder and you'll want plenty of time to walk around (and journey to Ile Saint Louis, named for the Sainte-Chapelle founder).
Where to eat
We combined our trip to Notre Dame, per above, and stopped by the loveliest little restaurant, just blocks away from Notre Dame, but completely quiet and "non-touristy." Au Bougnat, still on Ile de la Cite, was an absolute gem. In general, be careful with walking into random restaurants next to major tourist destinations, as they are often overpriced, crowded, and serve, at best, subpar food. However, Au Bougnant is a save haven in a crowded, touristy area. You could also very, very easily walk here straight from Sainte-Chapelle, if you aren't also doing Notre Dame the same day!
Enjoy your visit! Bon voyage! xx
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