Visiting the Paris Catacombs: Inside the underground tunnels filled with bones from over 6 million dead

Catacombs of Paris. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Catacombs of Paris. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You’ve waited in line for a split-second selfie with the Mona Lisa, climbed the stairs to the top of Sacré-Cœur, strolled down the Champs Élysées, and got your token tourist pic with the Eiffel Tower. But what about a more underground point of interest? Try descending deep into the bowels of the city to visit the Paris Catacombs, where the remains of over six million dead have been laid to rest.

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If you haven’t paid your respects to the dead at one of the creepiest yet most fascinating places in Paris, here’s all the essential info you need for your visit.

(A little bit of) the history

We don’t want to spoil all the fun facts before you go, so here’s the CliffsNotes version.

The Paris Catacombs were a creative solution to a pressing problem in the 18th century, when the city’s grave sites were practically overflowing with generations upon generations of remains and encroaching on the land of the living — which you can bet definitely posed a public health risk.

Photo: Catacombes de Paris
Photo: Catacombes de Paris

That’s when Paris authorities had the brilliant idea to gather up a bunch of people’s remains and put them underground, ossuary style, in the city’s quarries and expand the area. The site’s location at the time was outside of the city. Evacuating all the bones was definitely a project and took a couple of years to complete: 1785 to 1787. The Paris Catacombs ended up adopting its name from its elder Roman neighbor. It’s said that the French resistance used the underground tunnels to evade the Germans in WWII.

The Catacombs have been open to the public since 1809 and stretch for over 200 miles, but only a small section of that is what you get to access as a visitor.

Photo: Catacombes de Paris
Photo: Catacombes de Paris

There are exhibitions coming in and out of the Catacombs; the current one is “Skeleton Story.” Running from January 2017 to December 2019, the exhibit showcases an anthropological study that explores the profile of Parisians livings from the 15th to 17 centuries, i.e., who are the actual people buried down below were.

Photo: Catacombes de Paris
Photo: Catacombes de Paris

In all honesty, we’re just bummed we had no idea about this 2015 Airbnb Halloween contest where you could win a night’s stay in the Catacombs — sounds terrifying yet definitely memorable.

Highlights

  • A number of quotes are engraved in the limestone bricks. Notably, we got to love the one that’s at the beginning: “Arrete, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” or, in English, ”Halt, here is the Empire of Death”.
  • And poems such as these:

“They were what we are,
Dust, toy of the wind;
Fragile like men,
Weak like nothing.”
–Alphonse de Lamartine

Left: A deep poem. Right: Is that a... skull heart? Photos: Coco Travel
Left: A deep poem. Right: Is that a… skull heart? Photos: Coco Travel
  • Plaques, denoting which cemeteries certain groups of skeletons were from.

    Photo: Coco Travel
    Photo: Coco Travel
  • Macabre, geometric, bone arrangements, some featuring only femurs and skulls.
Photo: Catacombes de Paris
Photo: Catacombes de Paris
Photo: Coco Travel
Photo: Coco Travel

Tips

  • Wear comfortable shoes — you’re walking a 1.5 km circuit, which involves going up and down some spiral staircases (131 steps down; 112 steps up) and treading on uneven pavement. This tour is not handicapped friendly and you need to be in decent shape to do it.
  • Wear layers — it’s cool and super humid. Average temp is 14 degrees celsius. Don’t visit right after you get a blowout.
  • Don’t bring a big bag or even backpack unless you’re cool with wearing it in front of your body like a baby carrier. Guides will call you out for wearing your backpack on your back.
  • Use the restroom beforehand. It’s a long walk and there’s no toilet stops — though come to think of it, we might of smelled some urine down there.
  • Splurge on the audioguide if you’re not booking a tour guide; it’s not fun reading in the dark and there’s only limited information on display. It’s much more interesting to get all the stories and historical significance so you’re not just staring at bones the entire time — as fascinating as that is.
  • Plan your visit ahead. The museum limits the amount of visitors inside at any given time. If you don’t mind paying extra, you can skip the line and book a time slot. If would prefer to potentially wait several hours outside in line, do go on a day with crappy weather. Peak season wait is 2-3 hours.
  • Duration is typically 45 minutes to two hours. With the audio guide, we took about 90 minutes.
  • If you’re staying in the city, take the metro, it’s very convenient! The Denfert-Rochereau stop is directly in front of the Catacombs entrance. FYI, you come up at a different place to exit than where you entered.
  • Food and drink are not allowed inside — not that you’d want to eat down there, but just FYI.
  • Prepare some time to reflect afterwards on the meaning of life and your mortality.

FIND IT:

Les Catacombes de Paris
Vistors’ Entrance located at 1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau) 75014 Paris
Full rate without audio guide is EUR14, but reduced rates available for some

 

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