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  • Writer's pictureParisian Niche

In Paris, it is Churches, Cathedrals and Basilicas, Oh My! But, What's the Difference?

In Paris, it seems like churches are much like popular chain coffee shops - one on nearly every corner! But, is all as it seems? There might be more differences than you think. When we visit Paris, we flock through church doors in hopes of seeking not only a prayerful moment, but also to have a fuller and more enriching experience of the culture. After all, houses of worship are the center of every city. Let's test this theory. Next time you are lost in a European city, ask for directions to the most well known church or cathedral. Chances are, you will land smack dab in the middle of town. Remember, towns and cities were then structured around churches - their bells are the heartbeat of the city.

While we all followed the tragic fire of the Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019, there are so many more houses of (Christian, in this case) worship in France.

In Paris alone, there are nearly 200 churches. And while everyone has their favorite, let's get to know the difference between these sacred spaces.

Christian houses of worship can be broken down into several different types.

· Shrines

· Chapels

· Churches

· Basilicas

· Abbeys

· Cathedrals

Wait just a minute, we thought a place of worship was a place of worship?! Don't worry, we'll walk through the differences of each, as there are nuances that set each aside from the other. In fact, let's take it a step further... a basilica may be a shrine. And a cathedral may be a basilica. This sounds like the start of a tough math question right?! Let's break it down...

A chapel is a small space designated for worship. That said, it has no priest, pastor, or even a permanent congregation. It's typically within or attached to a larger house of worship, or even set aside at a hospital, airport, etc.

Within churches, the Lady Chapel is the most common, and does, in fact, have its own altar.


Why is it called a chapel? It is derived from Latin, more specifically from the relic of Saint Martin of Tours. Legend has it that the kindhearted Martin the Merciful (a soldier) cut his own military cloak in half to give the other half to a beggar in need. The half that he kept over his own shoulders is called a "small cape" or capella in Latin. Now, here is where the story gets interesting. The beggar, as legend continues, was Christ in disguise. Martin then experienced a conversion of heart and life, quitting the military and devoting his life as a monk, then abbot, then bishop.

What happened to the cape? The cape was with the Frankish kings, who did keep the relic with them as they fought battles. The tent which house the cape was called a capella and the priests who offered daily masses in that tent were called capellani. Through these Old French words, we arrived at "chapel" and "chaplain."

In Paris, the stand out chapel is Sainte-Chapelle. The first royal chapel built in France, it was constructed to house the relics of the Passion of Christ. The structure was built in Rayonnant Gothic style and boasts 1,113 stained glass windows. It is truly a marvel.

Address: 10, blvd du Palais, 75001

Métro: Cité (Line 4) -open daily 9am - 7pm


You will note that the chapel is always crowded, with visitors basking in the miraculously prismed stained glass.

Looking to visit, but just don't want to deal with the crowds? This space offers you the chance to experience its beauty in a unique way. You can purchase tickets to see concerts, allowing you a wonderful opportunity to see and enjoy the moment.


A church is a Christian house of worship that, while part of a larger diocese, is run by a pastor or priest.

Churches can be large or small in scale, as minimalistic or elaborately decorated as one can imagine. Sometimes it's not even a permanent space, just a place people will designate to meet each week to worship.


In Paris, while there are many churches to behold, one that shines is the Paroisse Saint-Paul Saint Louis. Completed in 1641 and nestled in the heart of the bustling Marais, this gorgeous church welcomes you with the most amazing red doors.

It is built in a blend of both Italian and French architectures, taking its inspiration from the Church of the Gesù in Rome.

Adorned with paintings by Delacroix, Jacques de Létin, Simon Vouet, and Germain Pilon Virgin, make sure to look closely on the right side of the church. There, you will find the words "liberté ou la mort" scrawled, a remnant from a battle we will discuss in a future post, so do subscribe and revisit Parisian Niche.

Address: 99 Rue St. Antoine, 75004

Métro: Saint Paul (Line 1)

Open daily 8am - 8pm

Let's move onto what a basilica is. In fact, a basilica is a church that has been designated by the pope as such, as it carries a special spiritual, historical, or even an architectural significance.

To be labeled a basilica is the highest recognition a church building can receive, and once labeled as such, this distinction can nearly never be removed.

Paris's most well known basilica is the Sacré-Cœur. Located at the city's highest point in Montmartre, she boasts the largest mosaic in France. With many other wonderful treasures and a crypt to visit, it's well worth the climb.

35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, 75018 Métro: Anvers (Line 2) or Abbesses (12)

Open daily 10am - 7pm

Still with me or "praying" to be done? Ba dum bum tsss... Ok, let's continue...


A Shrine, simply stated, is a church that houses a relic or is a location where a holy apparition has occurred.

There is certainly more than one shrine in France, the most famous being Lourdes.

In Paris, this Shrine is called the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. This sacred spot is where it is believed that St. Catherine Laboure received visions and instruction from the Virgin Mary regarding the creation of the Miraculous Medal. While quite small and discreet, this shrine draws faithful pilgrims from all over the world.

Address: 140, rue du Bac, 75007

Métro: Sevres Babylone (Line 12)

Daily Mass and Open Times found here


Wait, doesn't Paris have an abbey too? She sure does.

The difference between an abbey and a church is that an abbey is headed by an abbot or abbess (a cathedral is led by a bishop). We can think of an abbey in terms of a monastery more than just a church, as in reality, an abbey was constructed to perform various functions, rather than just masses and worshipping.


The most well known abbey in Paris is Saint Germain des Prés.

This house of worship has the honor of being the oldest church in Paris - founded in 543. Clearly, a lady of this certain age will be in need of a "little refreshing work," and her monumental (in scope and cost) renovations were just completed in 2021. Even the public was asked to help with these costs and was afforded the chance to not only donate, but to "adopt" a golden star under her sapphire vaults.

A visit to this historically significant quarter is not truly complete without passing through these doors, now enhanced with her renewed beauty.

3, pl. Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006

Métro: Saint-Germain des Prés (Line 4)

Open daily 9am - 8pm

Here we are at last, at cathedrals.

The cathedral is the home base, or mother church, of the diocese. The term stems (again from Latin) from the word cathedra meaning "throne."

While being the main seat of the bishop, the cathedral also holds its own parish community and registered parishioners.

A cathedral may also be a basilica.

In Paris, there is technically but one true cathedral, and you guessed it, Notre Dame de Paris. Our Lady of Paris.

More on that later...

Now, P'Nichers, you may be thinking "why hasn't she spoken in more depth about these glorious churches?" Rest assured my Paris loving peeps, we will take and record various explorations in churches (as well as other varied religious houses of worship - remember, Paris is for everyone). We can't wait to share these sacred journeys with you.

Pssst - what if I told you that P’Niche's favorite Parisian church is not even listed in this post? DUN DUN DUN - you will have to subscribe to revisit Parisian Niche and learn which one is...

Well, P'Nichers, which is your favorite Parisian church, etc.? It's hard to make up your mind for just one, but we'd love to hear your choices in the comments below et à bientôt!


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Bonnie Turbeville
Bonnie Turbeville
Oct 24, 2022

Thank you, P’Nich Leader, for the descriptions. Last year, I walked into a small church in Paris. It was very beautiful, so I’m thinking that there are so many unexplored lovely churches.

Oct 24, 2022
Replying to

My pleasure and I hope you can get out and explore and share your findings of hidden gems!


Aug 13, 2022

Such an enlightening post and I was happy to see that I had visited most mentioned. Still waiting for the perfect timing for a concert.

Oct 24, 2022
Replying to

I am delighted you found it so and will hope you get to enjoy a concert when it works for you, they are wonderful!


Aug 12, 2022

Utterly fascinating! I’m going to have to re-read it several times, at least, before I really remember all of it. Thank you!

Oct 24, 2022
Replying to

I am so pleased you enjoyed, it was my pleasure to share!

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