Paris is home to several iconic landmarks people know and love, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum. Aside from its beautiful architecture, delicious food, and rich history, one unique attraction in the city often goes overlooked: the Paris Catacombs.
This underground tunnel system houses the remains of over six million people. Even though it can be quite spooky for some, it offers a fascinating glimpse of Paris history and a must-see destination to add to your bucket list.
We’ll be digging into (no pun intended) some of the history and facts about the Catacombs, including the things you can find inside and tips to help you on your journey.
The Catacombs of Paris: History and Tips for Visiting
What are the Catacombs of Paris?
The Catacombs of Paris are a 300-kilometer maze of tunnels and chambers found 20 meters underground. It is best known for the millions of bones resting within its galleries and walls.
Today, the catacombs are open to the public and attract over half a million visitors yearly. While only a portion of the catacombs is accessible for touring (a 2 km walking route), it remains a popular tourist attraction with its unique history and spooky atmosphere.
Interesting Facts About the Catacombs of Paris
The Catacombs of Paris are definitely one of the most unique places in the city. Although they may seem eerie, they are actually a fascinating piece of history. Here are some interesting facts about the catacombs:
- The catacombs were originally created in the 18th century as a way to relieve overcrowding in cemeteries. The bones of over 6 million people are stored in the catacombs.
- The entire catacombs are not open to the public—only a small section is open for tours. However, the rules do not stop cataphiles from going into the restricted areas.
- The 2014 movie, As Above, So Below, is the first movie granted permission by the French Government to film within the catacombs.
- In 2017, a group of teenagers got lost in the catacombs before being found and hospitalized three days later.
- Because of how vast the Catacombs are, with some parts being inaccessible (and dangerous), experts say it may never be fully explored.
Where the Bones Come From
The bones of six million people resting in the Catacombs came from the different cemeteries around Paris, with the majority from the defunct Holy Innocents’ Cemetery (over two million remains). Also among the millions of remains are the guillotined victims of the French Revolution.
The Arrangement of Bones
The Catacombs of Paris are a fascinating historical site, and one of the things that makes them so fascinating is how the bones are placed.
The remains are arranged into elaborate sculptures and designs during the 1800s to make the Catacombs a visitable mausoleum, drawing inspiration from the Roman catacombs. Alternating stacks and rows of tibiae and skulls form the walls’ facade, with the rest of the remains piled behind.
Today, these carefully arranged bones are still a fascinating sight for anyone visiting the Catacombs. And while it can be tempting to touch these bones (for some!), it is strictly prohibited in order to help preserve the site.
The Catacombs were opened to the public in 1809, with many prominent figures such as the Austrian emperor Francis I and Napoleon III (along with his son) visiting the place. And it was not until the 1860s that the last bone deposits were made in the Catacombs.
Tours in Catacombs of Paris
Entering the First Section of the Catacombs
The journey into the Catacombs starts at the Place Denfert-Rochereau, a small public square in Montparnasse district, along Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.
The Catacombs are divided into several sections, many of which were originally part of quarries. The first section takes you 131 steps down underground, where you’ll navigate a series of narrow corridors that follow the roads on the surface. You’ll even see signs telling you the street’s name above (although some are outdated). There are also markings that quarrymen back in the day used to navigate around.
Although the bones are still further into the tunnels, these still provide a fascinating and unique glimpse into the history of the quarrymen, the Catacombs, and Paris.
The Port-Mahon Corridor is one of the Paris Catacombs’ most popular areas. It features a replica carving of Port Mahon in Menorca, Spain, made by French quarryman Francois Decure during the late 1700s. What makes this even more interesting is that Decure carved it from memory using simple quarryman tools. You’ll also find Decure’s two other wall sculptures, one of Port Philipe and Quartier de Cazerne.
The Quarryman’s Footpath
As you walk along the corridors of the Catacombs, you’ll come across a sealed-off area with a winding staircase that ends with a well in the middle. This is the Quarryman’s Footpath, used by quarrymen back in the day to get water to mix cement for construction purposes and to clean themselves before returning to the surface.
On the back wall, you’ll see the words ‘Bain de pieds des Carriers’, which translates to ‘quarrymen’s foot bath’ (not path). This comes from the story where new quarrymen were sent down the footpath as a joke, and because the water is crystal-clear, they (or even you!) won’t notice that it is there until they get their feet wet. While going down the staircase is not possible, you’ll still get a glimpse of it from a safe distance.
Into the Ossuary
“Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort”.
These translate to “Stop! This is the empire of Death,” and will be the words greeting you once you reach the entrance to the Ossuary, where the Catacombs are mostly known for.
Once inside, you’ll see the bones of over six million Parisians filling up the walls, with some arranged in elaborate designs. You’ll also come across several popular sights, like the Fountain of the Samaritan and The Barrel Of Passion, which is a supporting pillar surrounded by bones and taking the shape of a huge barrel.
Exiting the Catacombs
After spending an hour or two exploring the dark, dank passageways of the Catacombs, it can be quite a relief to see the light of day again. Visitors can exit the Catacombs by climbing the 112-step spiral staircase at the end of the tour path, which leads you outside Avenue René-Coty. As taking anything from the Catacombs is strictly prohibited, be sure to have your bags ready (if any) for inspection. For souvenirs, there’s a gift shop by the exit with lots of cool stuff.
Citadel De Mahon
The Citadel is located in the Catacombs of Paris, which is a network of tunnels and chambers that was once used as a burial ground. The Catacombs were built in the 18th century to help alleviate overcrowding in cemeteries, and they now contain the remains of over six million people. The Citadel is a small chamber that was used as a holding cell for prisoners during the French Revolution. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of Marie Antoinette, who was held there before she was executed. Today, the Catacombs are a popular tourist destination, and the Citadel is one of the most popular attractions. Visitors can explore the tunnels and chambers, and see the final resting place of Marie Antoinette.
The Lower Catacombs
While on the tour, you’ll come across a crossroads with an area overlooking a steep ramp that connects the upper and lower levels of the Catacombs. The ramp was made around the time they created the ossuary, featuring solid stone columns at the entrance which support the quarry ceiling.
The Barrel Of Passion
The Barrel of Passion is one of the most fascinating sights inside the Catacombs. It consists of a pillar (which supports the ceiling) surrounded by hundreds of skulls and ankle bones, taking the shape of a huge barrel.
A night concert was once held here on April 2, 1897, attracting hundreds of people to hear ‘Funeral March’ by Chopin and the ‘Danse Macabre’ by Camille Saint-Saens.
Unlike its name, the Fountain of the Samaritan is a small, round well surrounded by walls of bones that came from the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery. Quarrymen used the water from the well to make the mortar for the hagues.
In 1813, a politician/man of science in the name of Hericart de Thury put four goldfish into the basin of the well to see how they would live far below ground as part of an experiment. Although the fish survived, they became sterile and blind.
Purchase Paris Catacombs Tickets Ahead of Time
If you’re planning a trip to Paris, the Catacombs are a must-see. While it’s possible to purchase tickets on the day of your visit, it’s often much easier (and less crowded) to buy them in advance. There are a few different ways to do this.
One option is to purchase your tickets online through the Catacombs ticketing website. You’ll need to create an account and provide some basic information, but once you’re all set up, buying tickets is quick and easy. Audiobooks are also available for a fee.
Another option is to book a guided tour with a skip-the-line entry to the Catacombs. This is generally the most expensive option, but it can be a good choice if you’re short on time or prefer not to navigate the Catacombs on your own.
Whichever option you choose, don’t wait until the last minute to buy your tickets – the Catacombs are one of Paris’s most popular attractions, and they often sell out well in advance. We had to wait in line for 3 hours to get in!
Get your tickets/tours here:
- Skip-the-Line Paris Catacombs Special Access Tour
- Paris: Catacombs Skip-the-Ticket-Line Ticket and Audio Guide
Know Your Limits
The Catacombs of Paris are an essential stop for any history buff or horror fan visiting the city. While the catacombs can be a fascinating and spine-tingling place to explore, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to make the most of your visit.
First, be sure to wear comfortable shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking. Second, bring along a flashlight as the tunnels can be quite dark. Finally, don’t forget to purchase tickets in advance as they often sell out quickly. By following these simple tips, you’re sure to have a spooktacular time exploring the Catacombs of Paris.
On a side note, most (if not all) of the tunnels around the Catacombs are narrow, so this may pose a challenge for claustrophobics.
You Can Look, But Don’t Touch
When you visit the catacombs in Paris, you’ll see signs in French and English that say “Ne touchez pas les ossements” or “Do not touch the bones.” It might seem like a simple request, but there’s a good reason why touching the bones is discouraged.
The catacombs are home to the remains of millions of people, and many of the bones are fragile. If too many people touch the bones, they could start to deteriorate. In addition, the Catacombs are a historical site, and it’s important to preserve them for future generations. So when you’re visiting the Catacombs, be sure to respect the bones and keep your hands to yourself.
You’re Only Allowed to Visit Certain Parts
With the Catacombs stretching over 300 kilometers below the ground, one might be tempted to explore its many winding tunnels and see what things they could find. However, it is also as easy to get lost (or even worse), not to mention some parts are deemed structurally unstable. Because of this, only a 2 km part is open to the public. However, it does not take away how thrilling and exciting exploring the Catacombs can be.
You’re Welcome to Take Pictures
With plenty of fascinating things to see inside the Catacombs, it’s impossible not to take pictures to remember the experience. Although taking photos is okay, using bulky equipment such as camera tripods in the already narrow space is prohibited, as it can get in the way of other visitors.
Expect Your Bag to Get Searched
While the catacombs in Paris are definitely worth a visit, it’s important to be aware of the security measures in place before you go. All bags are subject to search before and after entry, and large backpacks or suitcases are not allowed. Visitors are also required to walk through a metal detector. However, the security measures are quick and efficient, and they help to ensure that everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience. So don’t forget to pack your camera, but leave the big bag at home.
Be Mindful of Your Clothing Choices
When visiting the catacombs in Paris, it’s important to dress appropriately. The temperature in the catacombs is a constant 14 degrees Celsius, so it’s important to wear clothes that will keep you warm. It’s also important to wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking. And finally, avoid wearing clothes that are loose or flowing, as they could easily get caught on something. With these tips in mind, you’ll be sure to have a comfortable and enjoyable visit to the catacombs.
As you can see, the Paris Catacombs is a popular destination that offers a unique and spooky experience for visitors, from its rich history to its maze-like tunnels to the intricate design of its millions of bones. It just shows that there are as many fascinating sights to see below as there are above. Of course, be sure to follow the rules and guidelines while inside for a safe and memorable tour, and remember to respect the dead.
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