Paris is literally an ancient city. People settled down in that exact location about 4500 BC and the city we know as Paris started truly forming around 250 BC, when a tribe called Parisii built settlements on the island of Cité, the island that hosts Notre Dame cathedral today. Paris has seen every era of recorded European history. When the Roman empire fell and Christianity spread to Europe, Paris was already there to take the new cultural and religious order. That´s why you´ll find many truly historical churches that have their root extending to beyond medieval era. Many have been rebuilt, some several times, but still remain in their original places.
To help you get started exploring these historical sites, we picked out 3 churches with rich histories that extend to Paris´ earlier centuries.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the oldest church in Paris. It was originally constructed in the 5th century as a part of Saint-Germain-des-Prés abbey. The abbey has since been largely replaced by other buildings, but the church remains.
The history of this church extends to the 5th century. In 515 AD soon-to-be bishop of Paris, Saint Germain, agreed about building an abbey and church with Childebert, the Merovingian king. The church became the most important church in whole France and burial site of Merovingian kings of the times.
The church was located in the outskirts of medieval Paris. The river seine often flooded into that area, making it impossible to expand the city in that area with the technology available in those times. That´s why the church rested in the middle of fields – the French word for fields being prés. That´s how the church got its name: Saint Germain of the Fields.
Over the years the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés has suffered a lot. In the first centuries the abbey and church were often looted by the Vikings and then burned down. In the 10th century the church was built up again after almost 5 hard centuries and even more buildings were constructed to the abbey´s premises. The church had its renaissance and became one of the largest and most important churches in whole France.
During it´s first thousand years of existence the church had a lot of power and holy sites were respected fortresses of authority. Tables were turned during the French revolution and religious leaders overthrown in the process. Saint-Germain-des-Prés church was not left alone either – it was turned into a warehouse. The church-turned-into-warehouse stored for example gunpowder – which affected the building´s fate. One day the gunpowder that was stored in one of the buildings in the abbey exploded, destroying most of the buildings completely and badly damaging the church.
The church was once again rebuilt in the 19th century, aiming to restore its ancient glory.
The church has since given a name for the whole area – The quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, that hosts for example several of the city´s most legendary cafés.
How to get there: Take subway line 4 to Saint-Germain-des-Prés station. Head around the corner to Rue Bonaparte. The church is just few steps to the north.
Saint Denis Basilica
Basilica of Saint-Denis resides in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis. Even though situated quite far from the heart of Paris and its medieval center, the Saint-Denis basilica is one of the most notable cathedrals of the western world. In France its has been so important as a holy site, that nearly every French king has been buried there.
The story of the Saint-Denis cathedral begun in the year 250 when the Romans executed the first bishop of Paris and the saint of all of France, Saint Denis, at Montmartre. According to the legend the beheaded bishop picked up his head and started to roam towards Paris. It wasn´t long until the bishop fell down dead and was picked up by a Christian widow and buried. In the 6th century the Merovingian king Dagobert the first ordered the construction of a church on top of the Saint Denis´ grave.
Later, in the 11th century, the city of Paris grew larger around the Saint-Denis church and there were a lot less use for the small church. That was when construction of larger cathedral was ordered – and a new, large, gothic basilica was erected and opened in 1281.
Later times didn´t treat the first gothic cathedral too well. During the French revolution the people took out their aggression on the religious leaders and looted many churches, the Saint-Denis included. The old, glamorous interior was largely destroyed and gone for good. Later, during the 1800s attempts to restore the old glory were made, with all but succesfull results. Restoration attempts managed to ruin the church so bad, that the north tower had to be torn down completely – as it remains today.
How to get there: Hop on the subway line 13 and get off at stop called Basilique Saint-Denis or catch the tram line T1 to the same station.
Notre Dame is definitely the most famous cathedral in Paris and one of the top tourist attractions in the whole city. And no wonder, as the cathedral has such a rich history.
Construction started at the island of Cité in 1163 and was finished nearly 2 centuries later, in 1325. Notre Dame was built on top of older holy sites from different eras: a Roman temple and older churches.
Notre Dame is exceptionally large cathedral. The interior is more than 150 meters long and the towers rise to the height of almost 70 meters. Like most of the medieval and even older churches, also the Notre Dame has been gradually expanded during the centuries. For example the famous rose windows were added in the 1200s.
Today Notre Dame is extremely popular tourist attraction. Tourists are allowed on the chatedral floor for free, but charged for a “tour” (without a guide) around the other premises, incuding the towers.
How to get there: Take subway 4 to the Cite station – you´ll end up on the Cité island and have to walk few hundred meters to the other end. Or you can take subway 10 to Maubert-Mutualité and walk just few blocks north to the Cité island and Notre Dame.