Beneath the glamor and grandeur of Paris lies a vast network of underground tunnels known as the Catacombs. Originally quarries, these underground passages were transformed in the late 18th century into a repository for the overflowing cemetery grounds of Paris’s churches and abbeys.
Today, the Catacombs in the largest cemetery underground house the skulls and bones of over six million Parisians, creating an eerie yet intriguing tourist attraction. Exploring the Catacombs provides a glimpse into Paris’s darker history—a chilling reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.
Visitors can navigate over 1.7 miles of tunnels containing skulls and bones arranged in pyramid structures, ornamental swirls, and even replicas of architectural features. Read on as we tell you more about the Catacombs of Paris, how to visit them, and what to expect.
What Are the Paris Catacombs?
The Catacombs of Paris are an underground ossuary in Paris, France, containing the bones of millions of former Parisian residents. Located south of the Latin Quarter, the catacombs have been a historical tourist attraction since the late 1700s.
The history of the catacombs dates back to the late 1700s when overcrowding at Les Innocents cemeteries became a significant health issue. In 1786, King Louis XVI granted permission to relocate bones from Paris cemeteries to unused tunnels beneath the city. These limestone quarry tunnels date back to the Roman era when the stone was excavated to build walls and buildings around Paris.
Workers transferred human remains from the city’s overflowing cemeteries to the catacomb tunnels in the late 1700s. By the 1840s, the bones of an estimated six million Parisians filled the tunnels. Workers arranged and stacked the bones in designs and decorative patterns, transforming the tunnels into an ossuary. Over time, decorations and religious inscriptions were added to some tunnel walls.
Today, around 1.6 miles of the tunnels are open to the public as a Paris museum. Visitors can walk along pathways winding through the halls of stacked thigh bones, skulls, and vertebrae. The maze of tunnels and passages lined with bones has become a historic and macabre symbol of life in Paris.
Planning Your Visit to the Paris Catacombs
The Catacombs of Paris are located under Denfert-Rochereau Square in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. They are open daily from 10 am to 8:30 pm (except Mondays and 1st May).
Admission fees are as follows:
- Total rate: 29€ (audio guide included)
- Reduced rate: 23€ (audio guide included)
- Child rate (5 to 17): 10€ (audio guide not included)
- Children under 5: free admission
- Audio guide: 5€
Tour groups are limited to 20 people, so booking tours in advance is recommended, especially during peak seasons.
Preparing Physically and Mentally
While these Paris Municipal Ossuary themselves are well maintained, there are steps to climb, inclined walkways, and long tunnel passages. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a light jacket as the temperature stays around 13°C (55° F) year-round.
The experience can be intense and overwhelming, especially for those fearing confined spaces. Take breaks as needed and stay near the exit if you feel uncomfortable. Consider using a dim flashlight instead of the museum lighting to ease into the tunnels gradually.
Be prepared for the confronting sight of the skulls and bones lining the walls. Remind yourself these are the remains of people who lived hundreds of years ago and now help teach about history and the fragility of life. Have the contact details of your hotel or guides on hand in case you need to leave early.
What to Expect During Your Tour
You can expect to get a lot of intriguing experiences when you visit Catacombes de Paris. A tour of these historic ossuaries promises a once-in-a-lifetime experience like no other.
The Paris catacombs start as part museum and part cemetery, offering a journey back through time. Your guided tour will begin in the 18th-century ossuary filled with bones and skulls stacked from floor to ceiling in a macabre but meticulous formation. As you descend into the limestone quarries in the Left Bank beneath the city that now form the catacombs, you’ll see bones arranged in decorative patterns that spell out phrases and symbols using skulls and tibiae.
One of the tour’s highlights is the Arc de Triomphe, an arch of stacked bones and skulls erected to honor the dead. Other notable displays include the City of the Dead, a circle of skulls arranged to represent the neighborhoods of Paris, and the Osseous Cathedral, a gothic-style “ribbed vault” ceiling made from thousands of interlocking femurs and fibulae.
The Dark History Behind the Paris Catacombs
Catacombes de Paris formed from centuries of stone quarrying underneath the city. Originally used as storage and dumping grounds, the catacombs soon became the backdrop for many dark moments in Parisian history.
During the French Revolution in 1789, bones from overflowing cemeteries such as Les Innocents were placed in the tunnels to make room for a larger burial ground. Over 6 million skeletons were eventually deposited, and workers arranged them in a macabre design. This western ossuary section of the catacombs became a tourist attraction, though one lined with death.
In WWII, the catacombs served as a hiding place for members of the French Resistance. With miles of tunnels and numerous exits, German occupiers found locating resistance fighters taking refuge underground challenging. Secret meetings were held, and clandestine materials were stored below the city.
Beyond wartime uses, the tunnels also attracted secret societies throughout the nineteenth century who met in only a small section of secluded corners to conduct occult rituals. Groups like the Priory of Sion and the Phalansterian sect performed ceremonies involving human sacrifice and black magic ceremonies. Rumors of these dark groups and their ceremonies helped create an ominous aura around the catacombs. Upon investigation, police discovered a secret cinema with a giant screen and large bags.
Even today, stories of groups performing rituals in the labyrinth of old bones persist, adding to the eerie and dark history of the Catacombes de Paris. Though now a major tourist attraction, it’s impossible to forget the sinister events in these gloomy underground passages that transpired for centuries.
Safety Concerns When Visiting the Paris Catacombs
Les Catacombes de Paris is a centuries-old network of tunnels lined with human bones. This underground maze holds an eerie fascination and potential dangers if safety precautions are not followed.
- Flooding: Parts of the catacombs are prone to flooding, especially during spring when the water table is high. Flooding can happen suddenly.
- Getting Lost: The tunnels are vast and easy to get disoriented in. There are a few signs and markings. Some visitors have gotten lost and have not been found for hours.
- Collapsing Tunnels: Parts of the tunnel system are ancient and unstable. There have been instances of tunnel collapses due to structural issues.
Tips for Staying Safe
- Guided Tours Only: Only go into the catacombs with an authorized guide. They know the tunnels well and can ensure a safe and informative visit.
- Check Flood Risk: Check online whether any areas of the catacombs are closed due to flooding before planning your visit. Avoid flooded routes.
- Bring Charged Phone: Keep your phone fully charged and bring it with you. Phone service is limited but can be used to call for help if needed.
- Stay with the Group: Stay close to the guide and group during your tour. Do not wander off on your own for any reason.
While filled with the remains of over six million who sought final rest within their stony walls, the Paris Catacombs remind us of our shared morality and humanity. They were created to reflect the best human intentions- to provide a dignified burial when space for a mass grave ran out above ground.
Yet there is a darker side, too, as the stacked skulls and bones artistically arranged into designs like flowers reveal a particular morbid fascination with death and the macabre. They cause us to reflect on life’s impermanence while also sparking curiosity about the lives and stories of those who now reside here.
If you journey into this dimly lit underworld, remember the history you walk upon. Les Catacombes de Paris offers a rare chance to peer into our finite existence and be reminded of life’s fragility and the preciousness of each living moment.
Looking for more things to do in Paris? Check out our post 17 Places You Absolutely Can’t Miss in Paris.