The Basilica Of Saint-Denis is listed as a French National Monument. Most importantly it is the burial site for most of the French monarchs.
Why Should I Visit The Basilica Of Saint-Denis?
The Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral is a sacred spot in France. The long-time legend of Saint-Denis, the first Bishop of Paris who was beheaded by Roman priests, ends right here.
Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral became the place for French monarchs to be buried beginning in the 6th century. Today it holds the remains of 42 kings (all the French monarchs except for 3) and 32 queens. Sixty-three princes and princesses are also buried here.
Saint-Denis Basilica Cathedral is known as the first Gothic cathedral with its completion in 1144. It is a fine example of early Gothic architecture.
Where Is The Basilica Of Saint-Denis Located?
The suburb of Saint-Denis is just north of Paris. As a tourist, there are not a lot of reasons to go to Saint-Denis, except to visit the Basilica Of Saint-Denis. Even the buildings surrounding the cathedral are angular and ugly. Not being a popular tourist destination makes a trip to the Basilica Of Saint-Denis quite special. It really is an off-the-beaten-track place to visit, it’s truly a hidden gem.
Pro Travel Tip: There are several cafés in the square in front of the cathedral to stop by for a coffee.
How Do I Get To The Basilica Of Saint-Denis From Paris?
- Métro, line 13, Basilique de Saint-Denis (the cathedral is a 2- minute walk from the exit)
- RER Line D, Saint-Denis
How Long Should I Plan On Visiting The Basilica Of Saint-Denis?
Once you arrive at the Saint-Denis Cathedral, plan on spending a minimum of an hour.
Practical Information For Visiting the Basilique de St-Denis
1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis, France
Open every day except January 1, May 1, and December 25
April 1 to September 30: Monday to Saturday 10 am to 6:15 pm; Sunday noon to 6:15 pm
October 1 to March 31: Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5:15 pm; Sunday noon to 5:15 pm
Entry into the Basilique de St-Denis is free. Entry to see the crypt and tombs of the French monarchy are as follows: Adults 9.50€, audio guide 3.00€ (it comes in 5 languages)
Pro Travel Tip: All of the information signs in the crypt and alongside the French monarchy are in French. Purchase the audio guide in English, or the English guidebook, and definitely the information pamphlet entitled Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral. These will all enhance your visit.
4 Reasons To Visit Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral
1. Learn About The Legend Of Saint-Denis
The legend goes like this:
Saint-Denis, the first Bishop of Paris (known as Lutetia at the time) was being quite successful in converting the French to Catholicism. The year was 250 and the Roman priests were having none of that. The solution? Behead Saint-Denis.
Apparently, Saint-Denis walked up rue des Martyrs (you may never shop on this fun market street again without thinking of Saint-Denis) carrying his head in his hands.
Saint-Denis managed to make it to the top of the hill in Montmartre where he stopped and washed his head. Thus, the headless statue and fountain in Square Suzanne Buisson. From here, Saint-Denis continued his journey north, finally stopping at what is now the Basilica Of Saint-Denis.
The Basilica Of Saint-Denis stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery. It is believed that Saint-Denis was buried here.
Saint-Denis is one of the three patron saints of Paris.
Where To See Saint-Denis In Paris:
Pro Travel Tip: You’re looking for a headless saint carrying his head. Once you start looking for Saint-Denis, he appears quite frequently, especially on church façades.
- Notre Dame Cathedral: on the main western façade
- The Panthéon: The Martyrdom of St. Denis by Léon Bonnat, painting
- Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois: on the main façade
- Square Suzanne Buisson: statue
- The Cluny Museum, Paris: statue
2. Basilica of Saint-Denis: Birthplace Of Gothic Architecture
Before the building of the Gothic cathedral, this sacred spot was home to a powerful benedictine abbey, the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis. The powerful abbey church, which had been completed in 775, was highly important. French kings were educated and buried there. During this period, the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis was designated as a “basilica” as it was a major pilgrimage site.
Around 1140, Abbot Suger (1081-1151), the Abbott of Saint-Denis, decided that the church needed upgrading. He started with the chevet, the area of the church behind the nave and the transept. His idea was to bring in plenty of light through stained glass windows. And he did just that. Suger also introduced flying buttresses and ribbed vaults.
Suger’s ideas for improving the Basilica Of Saint-Denis are the earliest example of Gothic architecture and served as a model for future Gothic cathedrals in France.
Stand before the façade of the Basilica Of Saint-Denis and you may agree that it is not as ornate or breathtaking as for example, the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral, or the Gothic cathedrals at Rouen or Reims. First of all, the Basilica Of Saint-Denis is missing its North Tower and spire. Struck by lightning in 1837 and a subsequent storm a few years after, the North Tower was dismantled in 1847. The tower and spire are finally to be reconstructed well over a hundred years since they disappeared.
Do note the detailed sculptures on the façade.
Stepping inside the Saint Denis Basilica, one instantly notices the columns stretching to the heavens and the stained glass windows. The large rose window, mostly in blue, is particularly beautiful.
The Basilique de St-Denis was given cathedral status in 1966.
Pro Travel Tip: Renovations and excavations are ongoing in front of the Basilica Of Saint-Denis. From inside the Basilique de St-Denis, there is a window looking over the works. The day I was there, a skeleton was being uncovered and moved.
3. The Basilica Of Saint-Denis: Dive Into A Turbulent History
During the French Revolution, the tombs of the French Monarchy at the Basilique de St-Denis were desecrated. They were opened and the bodies and bones were scattered. After the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the bones that could be identified were returned to their proper tombs. Many of the bones, unidentifiable, were placed in Royal Ossuary in the crypt of the Basilica Of Saint-Denis. An engraved marble wall lists the royal names of those in the ossuary. Note that carefully carved into the wall are the year of death and the age of each monarch.
4. Visit The Final Resting Place Of The French Monarchs
French history can be pretty confusing. Standing amidst the tombs of the French monarchy is one way to get a history lesson quickly. The Basilique de St-Denis holds more than 70 sculpted funerary tombs.
The recumbent effigies of the kings and queens are very telling.
Many hands are in the prayer position, many royals are wearing a shield. Observe the shoes, the dresses, and the haircuts. Some are holding sceptres. Some are wearing crowns.
Note where their feet are resting. On the family dogs which represent loyalty? Or on a lion or two symbolizing power and strength?
Some of the tombs are magnificent as is the case of Francois I and Henri II and Catherine de Médicis. Don’t miss the statues of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Other tombs to note are Clovis I, the first King of France.
And of course, angels are never too far away.
Walk away after a visit to the Basilica Of Saint-Denis knowing you have stood in the royal necropolis of France. You may also leave with a burning desire to know more about France’s history.
I hope you enjoy visiting the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis as much as I did.
Until next time,
More Paris Info…
After exploring the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis, here are some suggestions for other places to visit in Paris:
Get mixed up with the arrondissements of Paris? This guide to the Paris arrondissements will help you plan your best visit to the City of Light!
Planning Your Paris Trip? Be sure to book in advance for the most popular things to do. Book your one-hour Seine cruise, a timed-entry ticket to the Louvre, and a skip-the-line ticket to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. And don’t forget Versailles and Disneyland!
One of Paris’s most-loved areas is Saint-Germain des Prés. Here are my best tips on things to do in Saint-Germain des Prés.
Le Marais is one of the best areas of Paris to flâner. Here are 23 tops things to do in le Marais.
La Butte aux Cailles, tucked away in the 13th arrondissement, is another place in Paris that has retained its village-like charm. My article on La Butte aux Cailles will lead you to discover some of the area and its visually enticing street art.
Canal Saint-Martin is another place full of small restaurants, boutiques and plenty of character. Stroll the bridges of the canal under the chestnut trees and feel like a true Parisian. All the details on this “bobo” district are in this article on Canal Saint-Martin.
Here are all the things to do on Ile Saint-Louis, one of the oldest villages in Paris.
Don’t forget that the 7th arrondissement has lots to see and do once you have seen the Eiffel Tower.
And the 11th arrondissment of Paris? Authentic and full of great restaurants and shopping (like a local).
Other Paris and France Travel Tips:
Travelling to Paris alone? This article on navigating Paris alone is full of tips and tricks for the solo traveller.
This page has all my articles on Paris that will help you plan out your trip, including day trips from Paris. I hope you subscribed to my newsletter to get my free download – An Amazing 2-day Itinerary in Paris.
If you are going further afield in France, make sure to check out my page on France.