In the midst of the historic Ile de le Cité in Paris, tourists can find an impressive gothic church. It features stunning stained glass windows, including a beautiful rose window, and has seen nearly a millennium of royal and religious history. If you’re thinking that this sounds like Paris’s world-famous Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, you’re right. But it also describes Notre-Dame’s nearby (and under-appreciated) neighbor on Ile de le Cité: Sainte Chapelle.
Sainte Chapelle isn’t just hidden in the figurative sense that many Paris tourists don’t know about it. It’s also literally hidden, encased inside the former French royal palace complex that is now the Paris Palais de Justice. (Below, you can just see the spire of Sainte Chapelle sticking up over the long flat roof of the Conciergerie in the middle of the photo.)
The entrance to Sainte Chapelle is not very well marked compared to other Paris landmarks. I actually found it to be mis-marked when approaching the Conciergerie via Pont au Change from the Right Bank. Signs at the street corner just across the bridge direct visitors to Sainte Chapelle to the right, down the river side of the Conciergerie complex. In reality, the entrance is straight ahead about halfway down Boulevard du Palais. I suspect this may be due to the entrance being moved to accommodate increased security measures in response to the recent terror attacks.
Speaking of security measures…remember how I said that this palace complex is now the Paris Palais de Justice? The security here was tighter than any other site I visited in Paris, but was efficient and fast. My small tote bag was x-rayed. I did set off the metal detector by forgetting there was change in the money pouch around my neck. (Fun fact: The facial expression for “stupid tourist” is the same in English and French.) Even with a language barrier, that was quickly cleared up by my opening my coat to show the pouch and pulling out my passport to show what it was. I wouldn’t let the strict security process scare you away from visiting!
Once you are inside security, it is a short walk across a courtyard to the entrance of Sainte Chapelle. (The entrance is around the corner of the building on the left side of the above photo.) Along the way, you may catch sight of a few French attorneys going about their day at the Palais de Justice in their distinctive black robes.
You’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about at Sainte Chapelle as you approach it from the outside. It’s dwarfed in size by its neighbor Notre-Dame, and lacks that cathedral’s most impressive gothic features like flying buttresses. But Sainte Chapelle was built for a very specific purpose, and its most impressive feature – stained glass – needs to be viewed from the inside to be appreciated.
Sainte Chapelle was built between 1242 and 1248 by King Louis IX. The chapel was designed as a Reliquary to house the Christian relics acquired by the King from Constantinople in 1239, primarily the Crown of Thorns. (Since the French Revolution, these relics are now held at Notre-Dame.) Only the royal family and their closest friends attended services in the main chapel on the top level. Staff, in the upstairs/downstairs world of royal life, were relegated to a much less ornate chapel on the lower floor – outside the presence of the relics.
Visitors today enter Sainte Chapelle via the lower chapel built for the royal staff. Most of this chapel is actually occupied today by the Sainte Chapelle gift shop. At the far end of the room, the apse is the most interesting thing in this space by far. To the left of it, there’s a fresco that is the oldest in Paris (which my my sleep-deprived self managed to not get a photo of).
Reaching the real beauty of Sainte Chapelle in the main chapel requires ascending a small stone spiral staircase near the entrance. (Another similar staircase on the other side of the entrance is used for coming back down.) The staircase is tight and winding but the steps are not too steep. As is the case with many historic monuments in Europe, there doesn’t appear to be a handicapped accessible alternative route to reach the upper chapel.
When you step out of the stairs into the royal chapel on the top level, Sainte Chapelle’s full beauty is finally in front of you. The walls on all four side of the upper chapel are lined in stained glass. The stained glass was restored to its original glory in an extensive restoration which was completed less than five years ago. The result of the restoration is nothing short of luminous.
The fifteen stained glass windows contain a total of 1,113 scenes that tell stories. Fourteen of the fifteen windows of the chapel each tell the story of a different book of the Bible. The final window tells the history of the holy relics which Sainte Chapelle was built to house. For those wishing to deep dive on the meaning of the individual windows and scenes, Sainte Chapelle has a smartphone app in six languages. The app, available for iOS and Android, allows visitors to point their phone’s camera at an individual window section to receive a description and close-up view of it.
The beauty of Sainte Chapelle is largely dependent on its stained glass. This makes it one of the few attractions in Paris where the weather outside will affect the quality of your experience inside. I highly recommend visiting on a nice bright sunny day to get the best glowing effect on the glass. It was partly cloudy on the winter day that I visited Sainte Chapelle, with the sun popping in and out of the clouds. It really made a visible difference in the beauty of the chapel when the sun would go behind a cloud. Choose your day – and your time of day – wisely for a visit to Sainte Chapelle for the best experience!
Another detail to look for in the chapel are the twelve statues of the apostles that are positioned around the chapel at the base of the pillars between the windows. Five of these statutes, most notably Saint Peter, are the originals. (Below, you can also see a closer look of the image panels in one of the windows.)
The shrine that housed the holy relics was melted down during the Revolution, but the gallery where it was displayed still survives in the apse of the royal chapel at Sainte Chapelle.
The opposite end of the chapel is dominated by a large set of doors that opened to a balcony long ago. In the days when the complex was a royal palace, this was how the royal entourage would come and go from the chapel. Above the doors is a large rose window that tells the biblical story of the apocalypse.
The small size of the chapel means that Sainte Chapelle can easily be combined in the same touring day with the Conciergerie, Notre-Dame cathedral, or both. I recommend scheduling about an hour for your tour, but the time you need to allocate will be affected by the length of the security line and how much time you want to spend admiring the details of individual windows.
Getting There: Sainte Chapelle is conveniently within walking distance of both the Cité and Châtelet Metro stations.
Tickets: Admission is 10€, or a combined admission with the nearby Conciergerie is available for 15€. The Paris Museum Pass (which I highly recommend) is also accepted for admission.
When To Visit: A sunny day shows the stained glass at its most beautiful, so check the weather before going.
Times: Usually open daily at least 10am to 5pm. Allow a minimum of an hour for visiting Sainte Chapelle, longer if you plan to explore the windows’ details in-depth.
For more information on visiting Sainte Chapelle, visit the museum’s website.