Second only to the Eiffel Tower as the recognized symbol of France, the Cathédrale Notre Dame is both a tourist destination and a working church. Built between 1163AD and 1345AD the Gothic masterpiece remains today one of the world’s great structures. The enormous interior can seat 6,000 at the base. But, for many, the major attraction is the 387-step climb to the top of the famous towers.

Once reached via that winding, narrow passageway the visitor enters a large area dominated by a huge church bell and spectacular sights. From here it’s easy to imagine the fictional Quasimodo (the Hunchback of Notre Dame) ringing the 13-ton bell and clambering on the gargoyles around the perimeter.

The near-360 degree view of Paris and the close-up views of the many statuary make the climb well worth the effort. Take care coming up, though. There’s no guard rail and traffic runs both ways. Those coming down often cling to the wall, while climbers risk the outer edge on the steps.

Seen from the exterior, the building represents one of the pinnacles of High Gothic architecture. There are gargoyles, yes. But there is also the huge round window centered atop the west entrance, and magnificent high arches flanking the sides. Two more rose windows reside on the north and south faces.

The facade is festooned with the carvings of the many craftsmen who worked on the structure over the centuries. The west front alone contains 28 statues representing religious figures throughout history.

Entering the church is equally an uplifting experience. The high, rib-vaulted ceilings and the many stained-glass windows give the interior an appearance that awes, no matter how well prepared the visitor. Though in many ways typical of the period, the design is nonetheless staggering.

Here it’s easy to picture the slaying of the medieval Bishop or the 1804 self-crowning of Napoleon or the return of General de Gaulle at the end of WWII. The 7,800-pipe organ alone makes a visit worthwhile.

It’s nearly unthinkable now for the cathedral to not exist.

But for a time during the 19th century the fate of the church was very much in doubt. The structure had fallen into disrepair over the centuries and there was serious discussion of tearing it down.

Victor Hugo wrote his famous novel in part in order to call attention to the history and value of the building. His efforts, joined by several other well-known artists of the time, resulted in a renewed interest and the building was restored.

Reinstating the unusual triforium and the small clerestory windows in the east bay of the nave were only two among many efforts in a project begun in 1844 and lasting 23 years.

Notre Dame is easy to find from the Saint-Michel or Chatelet-Les Halles metro (subway) stations.