The Tour Saint-Jacques: An Enigmatic Treasure in Central Paris

Can you visit the Tour Saint Jacques in Paris? Learn about the history of the tower.
The Tour Saint-Jacques looms majestically over a busy Parisian boulevard in the city center. Image: Jacques Gaimard

During my early years living in Paris, I passed a nondescript construction site in the city center on a semi-daily basis. Clad with scaffolding and dark plastic sheeting, the site just off the Rue de Rivoli struck me as a bit of an eyesore on one of Paris’ busiest thoroughfares.

Years passed, and I was never curious enough to ask what lay beneath the scaffolding, or why it was taking such a long time to complete what I assumed was the construction of an office building or something akin. In 2008, this theory was proven wrong– scaffolding was removed from the top, and what appeared to be a Gothic-style tower began to emerge, as if greeting the sky.

Then one morning in 2009, I was riding a bus that stopped just across the street from the gated square where the site stood. Stepping off the bus, I looked up to see this— and practically felt my jaw slacken with awe:

One of the most beautiful towers in Paris, the Tour Saint-Jacques dates to the 16th century. Image by Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

There was something revelatory about this– in the literal sense that the site was suddenly revealed in all its stupefying, unexpected beauty. Mostly hidden from view for years, the 16th-century Tour Saint-Jacques was back. And it was glorious.

A Bit of History

An illustration shows the 16th-century Eglise Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie and its flamboyant Tower. Wikimedia Commons/public domain
An illustration shows the medieval Eglise Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie and its flamboyant Tower. Wikimedia Commons/public domain

If you find yourself wondering whether the dramatic tower was once attached to a church, congrats– you clearly know your pre-modern French architecture. Completed in around 1523, the Tour Saint-Jacques is all that remains of a medieval church called Eglise Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, which was unfortunately destroyed in 1797 during the turbulent years of the French Revolution.

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The church, itself constructed from the 12th century, was an important pilgrimage site in Paris for Catholics, and a stop on the famous Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage route which leads south through France into Spain.

The tower was designed in a flamboyant Gothic style, as evidenced by features such as pointed, tapering pinnacles and carved niches decorated with statues, gargoyles and other elements.

Its sumptuous decor is attributed in part to the patronage of wealthy butchers who operated nearby in the enormous Les Halles market, and for whom the church was named.

Incidentally, one of the patrons of the original church is said to be Nicolas Flamel, the reputed alchemist, who operated an almshouse nearby.

After the church was destroyed and pillaged in the Revolution, it was used for a time as a stone quarry. The French state acquired the tower in 1836, declaring it a historic monument in the 1860s.

Second Empire Restoration Efforts

The Saint-Jacques tower circa 1867, with the newly built Rue de Rivoli and Avenue Victoria visible in the shot.
The Saint-Jacques tower circa 1867, with the newly built Rue de Rivoli and Avenue Victoria visible in the shot.

It was only during the Second Empire that major restoration efforts brought the tower back to its original, opulent guise. An architect named Théodore Ballu headed the redesign, creating a 19th-century style square and park around it and setting the tower on a pedestal. Statues, gargoyles, and other Gothic elements were also restored or entirely replaced.

{Related: Take A Self-Guided Tour of Medieval Paris}

This was all happening during a time when Paris was being radically transformed from its medieval layout, with narrow, cobbled streets giving way to grand, wide boulevards.

So the renewal of the late-medieval Tour Saint-Jacques meant, somewhat paradoxically, that it became a key part of the city center in a new, bold, Belle-Epoque Paris that looked radically different from the city of earlier centuries.

The tower was again restored in the first decade of the 2000s after major cracks in the stone– much of it original– were discovered. In 1998, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks in part to its confirmation as a historic stop along the Santiago de Compostela (Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle) pilgrimage route. Relics for the Saint were discovered inside the tower, firming up the connection.

Visiting the Tower & What to See

Admiring the facade from the leafy square is something I highly recommend– and it only takes a few minutes. Better yet, have a picnic of bakery goods or take-out and enjoy lunch on one of the benches on the square, taking in the tower’s details as you eat.

The base of the tower, perched on a pedestal with stairs, features ornately carved arch structures, statues and small gargoyles. A statue of the French mathemetician and physicist Blaise Pascal stands within the arch structure, built to commemorate his experiments on atmospheric pressure. They were either carried out here or nearby, according to conflicting accounts.

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At the northwest corner, admire the biblical sculptures of the Four Evangelists (lion, bull, eagle, and man)– these are replicas rather than the originals, restored during the 19th century. The gargoyles and statues of saints adorning the walls of the tower are also replicas.

There’s also a statue of Saint Jacques le Majeur that stands on a platform. A tiny meteorological station was built here in 1891 by the Observatoire de Montsouris, a still-operating Observatory close to Montparnasse in southern Paris.

Guided Tours & Climbing the Tower

If you wish to climb the tower, you can do so via guided tour only, available exclusively through reservations. Guided tours are held from late June to early November and are currently conducted in French only– but the visit may still be worthwhile even if your language skills are minimal

During the tour, you’ll have to ascend 300 narrow stairs to the top, where you can expect outstanding views over both Paris’ right bank and left. You’ll also get a closer look at some of the ornate statuary and other design details of the tower from your bird’s-eye vantage point.

If you’re claustrophobic or suffer from vertigo, you may wish to avoid, and anyone with heart or lung conditions should certainly abstain.

Getting There & Practical Information

The 16th century Saint-Jacques Tower in Paris /Image by ADGC
Saint-Jacques Tower/ADGC

The Tour Saint-Jacques is located smack in the Paris city center, in the area known as Châtelet and right on the border of the 1st and 4th arrondissements (districts). It’s situated in a pleasant, gated square named after it.

There’s plenty to see and do nearby, so this can be a quick stop in a morning of exploration: you’re minutes away from Parisian sights and attractions including the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Marais neighborhood, Hotel de Ville (City Hall) the Les Halles shopping center, and the Rue Montorgueil market district.

The Seine River and the Ile de la Cité (home to monuments including Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie) are just blocks to the south.

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