Notre-Dame: An insider's guide

Sightsee like a local around Paris's world famous Gothic cathedral...

Time Out
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Paris's twin-towered lady, Notre-Dame, took 200-years to build, between 1163 and 1334. The west front remains a high point of Gothic art for the balanced proportions of its twin towers and rose window, and the Treasury contains ornate bishops' copes and reliquaries of Jesus's Crown of Thorns (which long sat in Sainte-Chapelle, see below).

Needless to say, Notre-Dame throngs with tourists all year round, but you don't need to cling to the crowds to find the best places to eat and drink nearby - or indeed visit other decent attractions. Follow this guide to find out where the locals go; and click here for more information on Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Around Notre-Dame...

Attraction: La Crypte Archéologique

Unbeknown to most visitors, immediate respite from Notre-Dame's queues can be found in the forecourt in front of the cathedral, where the underground Crtpte Archéologique reveals the city's past in layers of vestiges. You'll find bits of Roman quaysides, ramparts and hypocausts, medieval cellars, shops and pavements, the foundations of the Eglise Ste-Geneviève-des-Ardens (the church where Geneviève's remains were stored during the Norman invasions), an 18th-century foundling hospital and a 19th-century sewer, all excavated since the 1960s. It's not always easy to work out exactly which wall, column or staircase is which - but you do get a vivid sense of the layers of history piled one atop another during 16 centuries.

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The Islands

Attraction: Sainte-Chapelle

You certainly won't avoid tourists at the Sainte-Chapelle or the Conciergerie (below; dual tickets can be bought for both), but it's worth grinning and bearing it for access to such breathtaking architectural teasures. Devout King Louis IX (St Louis, 1226-70) had a hobby of accumulating holy relics. In the 1240s, he bought what was advertised as the Crown of Thorns, and ordered Pierre de Montreuil to design a shrine. The result was Sainte-Chapelle - a veritable medieval show of light. With 15m (49ft) windows, the upper level appears to consist almost entirely of stained glass. The windows depict hundreds of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, culminating with the Apocalypse in the rose window.

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The Islands

Attraction: La Conciergerie

The Conciergerie looks every inch the forbidding medieval fortress. However, much of the façade was added in the 1850s, long after Marie-Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre had been imprisoned here. The 13th-century Bonbec tower, built during the reign of St Louis, the 14th-century twin towers, César and Argent, and the Tour de l'Horloge all survive from the Capetian palace.The visit takes you through the Salle des Gardes, the medieval kitchens with their four huge chimneys, and the Salle des Gens d'Armes, an impressive vaulted Gothic hall built between 1301 and 1315 for Philippe 'le Bel'. After the royals moved to the Louvre, the fortress became a prison under the watch of the Concierge.The wealthy had private cells with their own furniture, which they paid for; others crowded on beds of straw. A list of Revolutionary prisoners, including a hairdresser, shows that not all victims were nobles. In Marie-Antoinette's cell, the Chapelle des Girondins, are her crucifix, some portraits and a guillotine blade.

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The Islands

Museum: Musée National du Moyen Age - Thermes de Cluny

Crowd avoidance lies a ten-minute walk from Notre-Dame in the national museum of medieval art, best known for the beautiful, allegorical Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle.  There is also a worthy programme of medieval concerts in which troubadours reflect the museum's collection and occasional 45- minute heures musicales in a similar style. The building itself, commonly known as Cluny, is also a rare example of 15th-century secular Gothic architecture, with its foliate Gothic doorways, hexagonal staircase jutting out of the façade and vaulted chapel. It was built from 1485 to 1498 - on top of a Gallo-Roman baths complex. The baths, built in characteristic Roman bands of stone and brick masonry, are the finest Roman remains in Paris. The vaulted frigidarium (cold bath), tepidarium (warm bath), caldarium (hot bath) and part of the hypocaust heating system are all still visible. A themed garden fronts the whole complex. Recent acquisitions include the illuminated manuscript L'Ascension du Christ from the Abbey of Cluny, dating back to the 12th century, and the 16th-century triptych Assomption de la Vierge by Adrien Isenbrant of Bruges.

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Latin Quarter and south Paris

Bar: Le Teddy's Bar

A ten-minute walk from Notre-Dame and you're in rue Mouffetard district, which seethes with Sorbonne students, college kids and tourists who pounce on anything beer-shaped after or between classes. Among the many bars strewn around here, we particularly like Teddy’s for its choice of beers and cocktails, its interminable happy hours (from 3.30pm til 8pm) and for its welcoming, low-key atmosphere. It’s good to curl up in the sofas and have one’s back tickled by the leopard-skin-covered walls while sipping the beer of the month, be it a cold Bavaroise or a Trappist Belgian variety.  While you’re doing that, the student regulars will be seeking out the pub cat, René, who’s possessed of his own Facebook page, René Miaou, with 230 friends. René used to hang out at the bar next door, the Descartes, but he moved to Teddy’s and we know why – it’s hard to beat as a venue for being caressed and pampered by pretty girls. You could always try and give him a run for his money.

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5th arrondissement

Pub: Moose Bar & Grill

For those bored of overpriced cafés and unfriendly waiters, the Moose is a great alternative. This Canadian sports bar serves a vast selection of beers and even some organic Australian wines. A friendly atmosphere and delicious burgers make the Moose a great place to kick off the evening. And if you fancy freeing your inner French-Canadian, order a 'poutine', Quebec's national dish of fries dowsed in gravy, melted cheese and smoked meat. Now loosen your belt!

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6th arrondissement

Restaurant: Ribouldingue

This bistro facing St-Julien-le-Pauvre church is the creation of Nadège Varigny, who spent ten years working with Yves Camdeborde before opening a restaurant inspired by the food of her childhood in Grenoble. It's usually full of people, including critics and chefs, who love simple, honest bistro fare, such as daube de boeuf or seared tuna on a bed of melting aubergine. And if you have an appetite for offal, go for the gently sautéed brains with new potatoes or veal kidneys with a perfectly prepared potato gratin. For dessert, try the fresh ewe's cheese with bitter honey.

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Latin Quarter and south Paris

Shop: The Abbey Bookshop

Celebrating 20 years in business, the tiny Abbey Bookshop is the domain of Canadian renaissance man Brian Spence, who organises weekend hikes as well as dressing up in doublet and hose for a spot of 17th-century dancing.The tiny, narrow shop stocks old and new works, a specialised Canadian section, and highbrow subjects down the rickety staircase. Several thousand more books are in storage, and he can normally order titles for collection within two days.

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Latin Quarter and south Paris

BHV (Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville)

A five-minute walk from Notre-Dame and you're in homeware heaven: BHV even has a Bricolage Café with internet access. Upper floors also have a good range of men's outdoor wear, upmarket bed linen, toys, books, household appliances, women's clothes - and a large space devoted to every type of storage utility.

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The Marais

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