One of two small islands in the middle of the Seine in Paris, the Ile de la Cité is the oldest part of the French capital. Settled in the 3rd century BC by the Celts, Paris’s historic centre is home to Point Zero, the point from which all distances in France are measured.
But it’s more widely known as the home of some of France’s most important and historic monuments, including the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the church of Saint-Chapelle and the Palais de Justice (below).
Despite having been to Paris numerous times and even visiting the archaeological crypt beside Notre-Dame on my last trip, I hadn’t spent much time on the Ile de la Cité, so I was keen to take a look around when I was in Paris in June.
The western part of the Ile de la Cité is home to an enormous block of buildings that once formed the Palais de la Cité, the main royal residence of the early medieval French kings. Today the various buildings are better known as the Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice and Sainte-Chapelle.
In the 14th century, part of the palace was turned into a prison and it was dubbed the Conciergerie (above). Over the centuries, this enormous jail has accommodated several famous political prisoners, including Marie-Antoinette, Henri IV’s assassin François Ravaillac, and Charlotte Cordray, notorious for having stabbed and killed the revolutionary leader Marat in his bath.
At the height of the Revolution, some 4,000 prisoners were locked up in the Conciergerie and it remained a high-profile prison until 1914, when it became a museum.
The first thing you see on entering the Conciergerie is the Salle des Gens d’Armes (above), a huge Gothic hall with a stunning vaulted ceiling, built in 1302. It’s one of the largest medieval halls in Europe and it’s a magnificent space. Leading off from it is an empty kitchen, as well as the Salle des Gardes, which features information panels about the Conciergerie’s history.
There’s a natural path around the museum and after the Salle des Gardes, I made my way to a series of rooms focusing on the Revolution, which weren’t particularly interesting, followed by re-creations of how the prison’s offices might have looked at that time. One recreated the office where the prisoners were registered, another showed the office where the prisoners had their hair cut before they were executed.
I continued upstairs, where I came to a room that highlighted the names of the 4,000 people who were imprisoned in the Conciergerie as part of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There was also a series of rooms that explored the theme of justice during the Revolution.
This part of the museum was much more interesting and recounted the histories of some of the main players, including Maximilien Robespierre and the public prosecutor, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville.
Back downstairs, I found myself in the chapel, which was used to house prisoners during the Revolution. Leading off from the chapel is the expiatory chapel of Marie-Antoinette, founded by Louis XVIII in 1815 to mark the site of his sister-in-law’s cell (above).
The chapel is a richly decorated space and there are a number of objects, which purportedly belonged to Marie-Antoinette, on display. The last stop on the tour was the women’s courtyard, a small nondescript area that didn’t add anything to the museum.
My visit to the Conciergerie was interesting enough, but I wasn’t blown away by it. The architecture, especially the Salle des Gens d’Armes, was superb, but I didn’t feel the curators made the best use of the space and the experience was patchy, with some parts better than others.
The exhibits concentrated too much on the Revolution and not enough on the Conciergerie. I would have liked to have learned more about the prison – its entire history not just the Revolutionary parts, its famous prisoners and what life was like as a prisoner or a worker there.
From the Conciergerie, I made my way across the Ile de la Cité to the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while I waited for the huge queue at Sainte-Chapelle to go down. Like many others, I watched in horror last April as Notre-Dame de Paris, the city’s most celebrated cathedral went up in flames, leaving it a shell of its former self.
I wasn’t sure how close I’d be able to get to Notre-Dame and was surprised at how small the cordon around it was, with just a ring of beige metal fencing to keep curious visitors at bay. The medieval cathedral, immortalised by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, looked much the same as ever, minus its roof and spire, and it was heartening to see it standing defiantly in the sunshine.
By the time I made my way back towards Sainte-Chapelle, the enormous queue had disappeared and I was able to walk straight in. The unique Sainte-Chapelle was built in the 1240s by Louis IX (later known to history as Saint Louis) to house a number of religious relics, including the Crown of Thorns.
Featuring two chapels, one on top of the other, this High Gothic church has to be the most beautiful and ethereal ecclesiastical building in the world. It’s ridiculously pretty, which means it’s heaving with people searching for that perfect Instagram shot.
The lower chapel was designed to be used by servants and lower-ranking courtiers, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at it (above). It’s decorated with a dark blue ceiling with a gold fleur-de-lys pattern, red walls, and dark blue and red columns embellished with a gold pattern. At the far end of the chapel, there’s a white marble statue of Louis IX. It’s an arresting sight and quite unlike any church I’ve ever seen.
Despite the splendours of the lower chapel, I’d yet to see the best part of Sainte-Chapelle – the showstopping upper chapel (above and below), which was used by the royal family and the most important courtiers.
With its 15 stained glass panels and dark blue ceiling with gold fleur-de-lys pattern, it’s a magical sight. I’d seen lots of photos of Sainte-Chapelle before my visit so I was prepared to be awed, but I was amazed by just how spectacular it was in person. Photos don’t do it justice.
The only downside to the chapel was that it was packed with people, many of whom were taking selfies or posing for photos, which made it difficult to move around and appreciate its beauty. It was so uncomfortable, I didn’t stay for long – I just moved from one end of the chapel to the other and back again as quickly as possible.
I enjoyed my whistlestop tour of the Ile de la Cité, even if my experiences were mixed. I’d long been keen to see Sainte-Chapelle and I wasn’t disappointed. Even though it was incredibly busy, it’s a dazzling building and well-worth seeing, especially if you’re interested in ecclesiastical architecture or stained glass windows.
If you’re planning to visit the Conciergerie and Saint-Chapelle, head to the Conciergerie first and buy a combined ticket for the two sites. The Conciergie doesn’t see anywhere near as many visitors as Saint-Chapelle, which means you can go through security and buy your ticket in minutes. I did this when I went and was so glad I did, as not only did I save money, but I was able to bypass the enormous queue to buy tickets for Saint-Chapelle, which was at least a half hour’s wait.
Conciergerie, Boulevard du Palais, 75001
Open daily, 9.30am to 6pm
€9 adults, €7 concessions
Sainte-Chapelle, Boulevard du Palais, 75001
Open daily, 9am to 5pm (October to March), 9am to 7pm (April to September)
€10 adults, €8 concessions
Combined Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle tickets
€15 adults, €12.50 concessions