Thinking of visiting the most beautiful collection of religious history in all of Paris on your next trip to France? Check out these quick and easy tips before your trip to Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame!
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*NOTE: After the devastating fire in Notre Dame in April, 2019, Notre Dame is closed for the foreseeable further. I have left this post as-is, so that you can see pictures of the interior, if you wish. Sainte-Chapelle was not affected and remains open, though it likely is more crowded than it used to be.
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, so be flexible!
History of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
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. This is almost unheard of in church construction, even for a small chapel, during that period. Imagine making all that stained glass in that time - not to mention installing it all!
Ultimately, the Chapel's role in royal life slowly expanded over time, though access to the upper chapel was strictly controlled.
During the French Revolution, the Sainte-Chapelle faced its most serious threats. Only 2/3 of the stained glass currently on display is original, thanks to the thorough sacking it received. Sainte-Chapelle also lost its steeple and the aforementioned relics (some of which were recovered and moved to be put on display at nearby Notre Dame. The crown of thorns was there during the fire in April, 2019, but was rescued by museum staff when the fire broke out). Unfortunately, many of Sainte-Chapelle's relics, however, were melted down, and/or never seen again.
The Sainte-Chapelle 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 for Sainte-Chapelle in advance
I would strongly advise you to buy your tickets for the Sainte-Chapelle 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 Sainte-Chapelle 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 Sainte-Chapelle 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!
Exploring the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Now that we've discussed history and ticket buying, let's get down to the day of the actual visit, and what you should expect to see!
The Sainte-Chapelle is actually two chapels
The Sainte-Chapelle is actually two chapels - the first you will see is the lower chapel. This is where =you enter after scanning your tickets, and it houses the gift shop.
As you can see from the picture below, the lower chapel features stunning painted ceilings, which are easier to view than the ceilings in the upper chapel, as the ceilings are not nearly as high as in the upper chapel, and this area contains some stained glass, though not the full show.
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!
Sainte-Chapelle Stained Glass
Even on a non-crowded day, the upper Chapel in Sainte-Chapelle is crowded. We visited in mid to late October, when Paris was not very crowded, and Sainte-Chapelle was still teeming with people.
One of the great things about taking pictures in Sainte-Chapelle 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 upper ("haute") chapel in Sainte-Chapelle, 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):
Navigating the Sainte-Chapelle Staircase
As the Sainte-Chapelle actually contains two, distinct chapels, stacked directly on top of each other, 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. This is its own issue, perhaps for a separate post on touring in the U.S.
The Sainte-Chapelle's staircase is only perhaps one story (33 steps in all), but it is 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.
You may be wondering...do I have to do this? Yes. 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 an wildly crowded time; however, I'd image that staircase isn't fun with 50 other tourists in it.
How long should I plan to spend in the Sainte-Chapelle?
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.
Exploring Notre Dame de Paris
**I have revised this section after the historic fire at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. Please enjoy these stunning photos of the great Cathedral. I have removed visiting information, as the Cathedral will be closed for the foreseeable future as they take stock of the damage.
Where to eat after visiting Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame
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.
Enjoy your visit! Bon voyage! xx
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