Looking for something eerie to do in Paris? If bones are on your bucket list, head to Paris’ Empire of Death, the Catacombs of Paris.
What are the Catacombs? Simply put, they’re a mile long underground necropolis with more than 6 million artfully arranged skeletons. The subterranean cavity serves as a tomb and macabre momento mori.
The Catacombs are an alternative world draped in darkness and shrouded in silence. They have fascinated people for centuries. In fact, the Catacombs are one of the top tourist attractions in Paris, a place where you can step down into more than 200 years of history.
Tickets & Tours
First, some logistics before we delve into the Paris Catacombs.
Only 200 people are allowed inside the Catacombs at a single time to prevent any damage to the bones. The facility tracks visitors assiduously.
Because of this restriction and the site’s immense popularity, tickets sell out fast. It’s essential to pre-book a skip the line ticket. If not, you could encounter lines that last for hours in high season. Even in winter, when I visited, there was a line.
Click here to book a skip the line ticket. Wondering whether to book a tour too?
If you are fascinated with the history of the Paris Catacombs, this might be the right option for you. I went on this excellent 2 hour guided tour with VIP access.
I had an informative guide (Victoire) and we got to see secret spots in the Catacombs that a regular visitor can’t access. Also, the guide pointed out things I would have missed just because of the dim lighting.
You can also book a kid friendly tour with a storytelling guide.
The Catacombs do not offer any guided tours in English. There is one in French for 20 people on Thursday at 1:00 pm. You can book online on the website.
History Of The Paris Catacombs
No guide to the Paris Catacombs is complete without a look at its fascinating history. The Catacombs began as ancient underground quarries. The first excavations were from open quarries in Gallo-Roman times.
In the 12th century, there was a high demand for stone as the building of Notre Dame and the Louvre began. Workers dug underground, so as to not disrupt the top soil needed for farming.
When the mining started, the quarries were outside of town. But, over the centuries, the limestone quarries continued to extend to meet demand.
Today, it’s estimated that 10% of the city of Paris sits atop an underground quarry. Even today, when a person buys a house, they are entitled to know whether it was built atop the quarries.
The quarry workers toiled away in harsh conditions. Most of them went blind because of the lack of light in the tunnels. The only source of light was candles.
Sometimes the workers got lost in the maze of tunnels. It was easy to lose your perception of time and orientation.
To combat this problem, the streets in the quarries were given names that corresponded to the streets above ground. Paris has been redesigned many times since then. So, these are now akin to ghost streets, an identical carbon copy of 18th century Paris.
When a quarry was tapped out, it was abandoned. Houses were progressively built on top of the tunnels.
But the quarries proved to be a shaky building foundation. In 1774, due to the weight of the buildings, the first sink hole formed on Hell Street, taking down houses and people with it.
In 1776, the quarries were permanently closed. The state hired Antoine Dupont to map the underground spaces and stabilize them by erecting support walls and piers.
The task was so formidable he created a Quarry Inspection Unit run by Axel Guillaumot, who became known as the “Man Who Saved Paris.” He warned the king, Louis XVI, of the dire nature of the situation.
Guillaumot was authorized to fill in the open spaces and built an elaborate network of access tunnels to allow regular inspection and repair work.
Interventions still continue today, with the last sinkhole occurring in 1961. And even though their knowledge of the underground is detailed, modern day inspectors still stumble across previously undiscovered places.
But what of the ossuaries of bones? Well, sink holes weren’t the only problem in Paris. There was also a horrific sanitation problem affecting the health of the citizens.
Paris had a lot of dead bodies and a limited amount of space to bury them in cemeteries. The average life expectancy was only 20 years old. Bodies were stacked up in cemeteries and graveyards, rotting and poisoning the air with bacteria.
In response to the public health crisis, the French government decided to shut down and evacuate the city cemeteries. Beginning in 1785, bones from the cemeteries were transferred to the old underground limestone quarries.
The first transfers were from Saints-Innocents Cemetery, the largest one in Paris. Transfers continued until 1859.
To avoid public outcry, the bones were transferred at night and scrupulously ritualized. To respect the formalities, priests led ceremonial processions of black-veiled, bone-laden carts into the quarries and requiems were sung during the transfer.
Each transfer was completed with the placement of a plaque indicating the church and district from which that stack of bones came and the date they arrived.
Starting in 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the wealthy elite by appointment. Later, they were opened to the public at large and became a fashionable place to visit.
Parisians contemplated their fleeting mortality in an appropriately Gothic decor. Visits were by candlelight until electricity was installed in 1987.
It was Napoleon who really transformed the underground tunnels into a tourist attraction, akin to the Catacombs of Rome. He hired people to redecorate bones that lay in large piles.
Macabre quotations were engraved on the stones. The walls were lined with tibias and femurs and punctuated with skulls. Bones were arranged in circles or hearts.
Although most of the bones are anonymous, it’s thought that some famous Parisians are buried there — Jean-Paul Marat, Maximillian de Robespierre, Charles Perrault, Nicolas Fouquet, Jean de La Fontaine, and 1343 people guillotined at the Place de la Concorde during the Reign of Terror.
Among those guillotined were King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Some say the ghost of Marie Antoinette haunts the Catacombs.
What Is A Cataphile?
The official Catacombs are the only space open to the public. But there are still 170 miles of sprawling underground quarries.
Urban explorers who enter them illegally are called “Cataphiles.” These rule-breakers have a deep-rooted attraction to the underground.
They enter the Catacombs through secret unauthorized entrances via tunnels, drain covers, or sewers known as Cataflaps. Information on where to find entrances is a fiercely kept secret and the entrances are often camouflaged.
The fine for illegally entering is only € 60, so that doesn’t have much of a deterrent effect. Cataphiles are rarely caught and many inspectors look the other way.
Some Cataphiles come for the peace and quiet of the surreal place. Others create art or crave adventure. Still others set up party rooms and host concerts. Some like the camaraderie of their fellow Cataphiles, almost like a secret cult.
My guide told me that in 2004, near a metro station, Cataphiles pirated power from the station’s electricity. They built an underground bar and cinema with a full size move screen, complete with fairy lights. They guarded the space with a tape of dogs barking to scare people away.
The Cataphiles took the precaution of having surveillance cameras set up. When they saw inspectors (called Catacops), they whisked away all their things and vanished. They left a note saying “Do not try to find us.”
Still, as the unofficial custodians of the Catacombs, the Cataphiles can be useful.
With their expert knowledge of the networks, they help find people who stumble into the Catacombs and get lost. They also anonymously report dangerous spots to inspectors so that they can be fixed before a deadly cave in occurs.
The Cataphiles don’t like the thrill-seeking newbie explorers who have little interest in the history of the place. The Cataphiles call them “Cataclasts” because they often degrade the quarries and leave rubbish. The Cataphiles then do a “Cataclean” to spiffy up their special place.
Guide To The Paris Catacombs: What To See
When you visit the Catacombs, legally, you are only seeing a tiny part of this vast underground network.
There are two parts to a Paris Catacombs visit: the quarries and the ossuary. If you are on a tour, you will also have access to several restricted areas in the quarries.
When you enter, there is a series of informative placards in small rooms that explain the history of the catacombs. If you’re on a tour, the guide will give you a summary.
Your visit to the bony underworld begins by descending a 130 step spiral staircase that takes you 60 feet underground. You’ll first pass through the underground quarries. When you reach the ossuary, you’re greeted by a sign reading “Halt, this is the empire of the dead.”
You’ll walk along uneven limestone floors for about a mile and eventually emerge at a location quite far from where you entered.
Here’s what you can see along the way.
1. Signs, the “Negative” of Paris
As you begin to walk down the dark and narrow corridors of the quarries, you’ll see signs and a black tar line on the ceiling marking the direction to take.
The signs indicate the names of streets you are under, many of which no longer exist. The signs are referred to as the “negative” of Paris.
The architects and engineers of the Quarry Inspection Department also marked their works sites with years and initials. The engraved inscriptions allow historians to follow the progress of the work.
2. Stone Masonry Workshop
The part of the Catacombs called the “workshop” or “atelier” is the part of the quarry still visible.
Two pillars hold up the ceiling, put there by sheer human force. They date from the Middle Ages.
The workshop shows the quarryman’s use of a hagues et bourrages (dry stone wall and waste) quarrying technique. They would extract limestone and then fill in the void with construction waste.
3. Decure Sculptures
If you are on a guided tour, you will make a small detour to a lower level and see two sculptures carried out by a member of the Quarry Inspection Unit named Decure. You may have to wait a bit for a guard to unlock this restricted area for your group.
Decure was the original Cataphile. He would come early or stay late in the quarries to work on his sculptures. The first one was competed in 1782 and is assumed to represent windmills in Minorca, an island he visited as a soldier.
The second one is more elaborate and represents the citadel of Port Mahon on Minorca. Decure worked on it from 1771 to 1782.
Unfortunately, while working on his masterpiece, he was fatally injured when a roof caved in on him.
4. The Quarryman’s Foot Bath
Near the Decure sculptures is the Quarryman’s Foot Bath. It’s a water well that was the first geological drill to be used in Paris.
It got its name from the fact that the water was so clear you could only detect it by stepping into it.
One can imagine what fun a mischievous 19th century guide would have had with this feature.
At this point, the quarry gallery overlooks a steep ramp that connects the upper and lower Catacombs. The ramp was installed when the Ossuary was created in the 18th century.
Tuscan pilasters are actually solid pillars holding up the ceiling.
Next, you arrive at the Catacombs’ pièce de résistance, the Ossuary. The sign “Stop, this is the empire of the dead” marks the entrance. Thus begins the path that leads you through the remains of millions of Parisians.
Another lintel forces you to bend down, as if mandating respect. On one side, it’s engraved with the words Memoriae majorum (in memory of ancestors). The reverse side warns that “However thou enterest, Death shadowlike will follow thy every step”
At first, the bones were thrown in somewhat haphazardly. But under Inspector General Herbert de Thury, this area was developed.
The long bones and skulls were arranged decoratively in different patterns to form a back wall. Behind that wall other bones were piled and you can see how far back they go.
To convey a strong sense of respect for the dead, Thury installed plaques specifying which cemetery the bones came from. They almost look like museum exhibits, making the Catacombs more of a monument with appropriate funeral decor.
You begin by walking between two walls of bones. The walls are ornamented with cranium-studded friezes arranged at different heights. Some craniums are arranged in the shape of a heart.
If you have a guide, they will point out the difference between male and female skulls in their eyebrows, eye sockets, and ears bones. You can also identify people who died of syphilis or leprosy.
You will see a stone cross, the Croix de Bordeaux, which is a rare religious symbol in the Catacombs. Most religious markers and symbols of the monarchy (like fleur de lis) were eradicated during the French Revolution.
The next monument you encounter is the Samaritan Fountain. Its name refers to a bible verse promising water to all. But the quarrymen inverted the verse warning that if you drink from it, you will always be thirsty.
If you are on a guided tour, you can also inspect the Altar for Mass. Once completely surrounded by bones, it was damaged and consolidated.
Today, it’s a reproduction of an antique tomb. The very first bones transferred to the Catacombs lie behind the altar. This is where you can have a seat.
You will then walk past a massive support pillar called the Imitation Pillar, Gilbert’s Tomb, and the Le Mierre’s Gallery.
The latter is known as the Grand Gallery of the Catacombs. This is where Thury gathered together strange anatomical objects discovered during his tenure — fused bones, fractured bones, necroses, and oddly shaped specimens.
Then, there is a tomb monument in tribute to the French Revolution, one mentioning the 1871 Paris Commune, the French Revolution Crypt, a monument dedicated to Pierce Oscar of Sweden’s visit, and another for the bones from the Madeleine Cemetery.
The next gallery space, a bit lower, is the Crypt of the Passion of Christ. You will see the Barrel, a steel pillar clad in bones that resembles a giant barrel vat.
At last, you will arrive at the exit staircase, which is narrow and spirals upward. Built in 1784, it dates back to the origins of the Catacombs.
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting The Catacombs Of Paris:
Here are some must know tips for visiting the Paris Catacombs.
Address: 1 Av. du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. The entrance to the Paris Catacombs is located just outside the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. At the end of your visit, you will exit at 21 Bis Avenue Rene-Coty.
Opening Hours: The Paris Catacombs are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 8:30 pm. The last entrance is at 7:30 pm.
Ticket price: 29 € (audio guide included)
Here are some things to expect on a Paris Catacombs visit.
As you might anticipate, it’s cold below ground in the Catacombs. If it’s summer, bring something to put over your sundress or sleeveless top. The Catacombs are supposedly maintained at 57 degrees, but it felt colder than that on a winter visit to me.
You should also expect it to be humid and a tad smelly (perhaps from stale air).
It should go without saying that you can’t touch the bones at all. They’re very fragile. Taking bones is also considered grave robbing. Instead, you can buy a skull mug at the gift shop.
In fact, if you have a small backpack with you, you’ll have to wear it in front or carry it with your hand to avoid inadvertently bumping into the bones. Signs warn that bags can be checked at the exit.
You cannot bring large backpacks or luggage. And there are no cloak rooms for storage.
You can take photos, but you can’t use a flash.
If you are prone to claustrophobia, there may be a better destination for you. Though I thought, despite the low ceilings, that there was plenty of room to move around.
The Paris Catacombs were built for people in the 18th century, who weren’t as tall as most of us today. The height of the tunnels is approximately 6 feet. So, if you’re tall, you’ll need to bend down a bit and watch your head.
The paths are pebbly and uneven. If has been raining, they may be damp. So wear comfortable shoes and take care.
Unfortunately, the catacombs are not accessible and there is no wheelchair access or elevator. To visit, you’ll need to be able to navigate up and down the spiral staircases.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Paris Catacombs. You may enjoy these other Paris travel guides and resources:
- 5 Day Itinerary for Paris
- 3 Day Itinerary for Paris
- 2 Day Itinerary for Paris
- Tips for Planning a Trip to Paris
- Tourist Traps To Avoid In Paris
- Top Attractions in Montmartre
- Top Attractions in the Marais
- Best Museums In Paris
- Hidden Gems in Paris
- Best Churches in Paris
- Best Things To Do in Paris in Winter
- Guide to the Opera District
- Secret day trips from Paris
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