Visiting Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral, France: 10 Things You Should Know Before You Go

Notre Dame de Reims is one of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. With flying buttresses a-plenty and an enigmatic smiling angel, it is a must-see if you are in town touring the champagne houses of Reims.

To make the most of visiting this architectural masterpiece, here are ten essential Reims Cathedral facts you should know before you go.

stone statue of a smiling angel at notre dame de reims cathedral

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Reims Cathedral Facts to Know Before Your Visit

1. Notre Dame de Reims has a long history

There has been a church on this site since around 400 AD. A memorial slab in the cathedral’s nave remembers the martyrdom of Saint Nicaise, its founding bishop, who was decapitated by the Vandals.

memorial plaque in floor of reims cathedral

Around the year 500, Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptised in the cathedral by Saint Remi (a second slab in the nave commemorates this event). Clovis successfully established political and religious unity following the fall of the Roman Empire.

memorial plaque in floor of reims cathedral

This early Christian church was replaced by a cathedral in the 9th Century, which was rebuilt around 1150. What we see today is the result of work in the 13th Century.

2. French kings were crowned at Reims Cathedral

Clovis was the first but not the last king to be crowned in Reims Cathedral.

With the exception of Louis VI, Henri IV, Louis XVIII and Louis-Philippe, all of the Kings of France were crowned in Reims Cathedral. The most famous event was the coronation of Charles VII on 17 July 1429, with Joan of Arc at his side. 

3. Its architecture set the mould for cathedrals to follow

Few cathedrals have been as architecturally influential as Reims Cathedral.

Not only is this a supreme example of High Gothic architecture, but it also incorporated several new architectural techniques. The most notable of these is bar tracery, where bars or ribs are used as a decorative feature in windows and other openings.

rose window of reims cathedral
Bar tracery in Reims Cathedral Rose window

4. Notre Dame de Reims is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In recognition of its outstanding architecture, including its harmonious use of sculptural decoration, Reims Cathedral was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1991.

Other UNESCO-listed sites in Reims are the former Abbey of Saint-Rémi, the Palace of Tau and the champagne crayères.

exterior of magnificent gothic cathedral in reims france
detail of reims cathedral statues on facade

5. Reims Cathedral has more than 2,300 statues across its facade

The wall of statues across the cathedral’s façade is extraordinary in both their number and detail.

Mary takes pride of place at the centre of the portal (shrouded in scaffolding in 2022) whilst key scenes from the life of Christ dominate the side gates and rose windows.

To the right of the central portal are scenes from the life of Mary, culminating in her coronation. Apostles and prophets march around the door. The left-hand portal depicts the Passion of Christ.

ornate sculptures above doorway of reims cathedral france

Take a look also at the north portal. Its sculptures show traces of the vivid colour that once covered these statues.

6. Many of Reims Cathedral’s statues have lost their heads

The French Revolution wasn’t kind to many of the sculptures on the lower levels of Reims Cathedral. In a chilling warm-up act for later events at the guillotine, they were beheaded by revolutionaries.

7. The Smiling Angel sculpture is a symbol of the city of Reims

Notre Dame de Reims is the only cathedral to display sculptures of angels with open wings. The most famous of these is the Smiling Angel on the portal to the left of the central façade.

This is one of two angels with similar postures who are flanking a martyr. They were carved between 1236 and 1245.

stone statue of an angel
Angel Gabriel
stone statue of a smiling angel
Smiling Angel

Half of this duo is the Angel Gabriel. But it is the second angel, L’Ange au Sourire, with the more enigmatic smile, that is more famous.

In 1914, the Smiling Angel was decapitated following the bombing of Reims Cathedral by German forces. The angel’s restoration became a symbol and renewal, and of the city of Reims itself.

You cannot help but smile back.

8. Reims Catherdral’s rose windows are magnificent

Rose windows are a key feature of Gothic cathedrals, allowing light to flood in and depicting biblical scenes.

Created in the 13th Century, the great rose window is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady of the Assumption, the patron saint of Reims Cathedral. Below it, the 20th Century little rose window depicts the litanies of the Blessed Virgin.

rose window and nave at reims cathedral france
Rose window and little rose window

But the most famous window in Reims Cathedral is in the south transept. Created in 1954, the so-called Champagne Window depicts the lives and work of those toiling in the city’s vineyards.

stained glass windows in notre dame de reims
Reims Cathedral Champagne Window

9. The cathedral is also home to modern art

Following the extensive fire damage during WWI, a restoration programme began, which was partly funded by the Rockefellers.

Using techniques developed in the 13th century, Mark Chagall created three windows for the axial chapel. The themes include the death and resurrection of Christ, the life of Abraham and the lives of the kings of France.

reims cathedral chagall windows 1
Mark Chagall’s windows, Notre Dame de Reims

More recently, the German artist Imi Knoebel created a total of nine stained glass windows to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the cathedral and to symbolise Franco-German reconciliation.

10. Reims Cathedral is immense

Inside, the cathedral’s magnificent nave measures 377 feet in length feet. Outside it is 489-foot-long and its twin towers soar to a height of 266 feet.  

In the league table of cathedrals, this makes it longer than Seville Cathedral and St John Lateran in Rome, but shorter than St Peter’s Basilica or the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool.

nave and rose window of gothic cathedral
carved oak pulpit in cathedral of reims france

Visiting Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral

The address of Reims Cathedral is Place du Cardinal Luçon, 51100 Reims, France, a 15-minute walk from the train station. The Cathedral is open daily from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm (except during services).

When I visited in August 2022, admission was free. To make the most of your visit, buy a guidebook at the Cathedral’s shop. Floor plans are also available for less than a euro.

You can book a guided tour here but this is available in French only.

sculpture of eagle with outstretched wings in reims cathedral

Where to Stay in Reims

Mid-range – Best Western Premier Hotel de la Paix

I stayed at this 4-star hotel in the heart of the city. Recommended for its comfortable rooms, extensive breakfast buffet and indoor swimming pool and sun terrace.

>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK RATES & BOOK

Here are a few other places to stay that may suit other budgets and tastes

Splurge – Domaine les Crayères

This gorgeous property is the perfect excuse to blow the holiday budget. It is in the heart of Champagne house territory, just 350 meters from Pommery.

>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK RATES & BOOK

Budget – Le Sacré, Au pied de la cathédrale

This centrally-located apartment has two bedrooms and is equipped with a washing machine.

>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK RATES & BOOK

>>> None of these takes your fancy? Take a look at other accommodation options in Reims.