Deep underneath the bustling city of Paris resides an eerie resting place of the dead. Shrouded in dark macabre, the Paris catacombs are one of the largest underground burial sites in the world.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Are the Paris Catacombs?
- Why Do the Paris Catacombs Exist?
- Can You Visit the Catacombs Today?
- Who’s Buried in the Paris Catacombs?
- Frequently Asked Questions About the Paris Catacombs
Death is an indisputable fact but dealing with death in different cultures slightly varies from one country to another. Bodies are disposed of in various ways around the world. Hindus, for example, burn their dead in a process called cremation.
For the majority of people, however, regardless of whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or have no religion at all, the practice of the day has largely been to bury the dead. There are many reasons why people bury the dead. The preference of burial over options is just one reason why the Paris catacombs came into existence.
What Are the Paris Catacombs?
The Paris catacombs are an extensive network of tunnels beneath Paris that form a nearly indecipherable labyrinth. Paris has a strong link with its underground world of tunnel systems and you can find ancient crypts and even nightclubs buried underneath.
The catacombs are just one part of the vast underground structure made in the former limestone quarries that once supplied stone to the city.
The creation of the Paris catacombs began decades before they were officially opened to the public in 1809. Interestingly, it was Napoleon, inspired by Rome’s catacombs, who decided to make the Paris catacombs into a tourist spot. However, to make the tunnels attractive and presentable in all of their spooky glory, the loose piles of bones were carefully and artistically rearranged.
Inspector Héricart de Thury was assigned the duty of designing the ossuary into catacombs worth visiting. The bones were rearranged and positioned along the length of the walls. They were then neatly stacked in a specific order: several rows of femurs, tibias, and other small bones and then a layer of skulls and then once again several rows of small bones followed by skulls.
In addition to making captivating macabre monuments with the bones, numerous other features were added to increase the appeal for tourists such as:
- Doric columns, tombs, and altars built in Egyptian and Antique styles to create an overall atmosphere of death.
- The Lachrymatory Sarcophagus and the Samaritan Fountain which became two of the most popular monuments named for religious themes.
- Two “curiosity” cabinets. One cabinet houses mineralogy specimens and the other cabinet holds pathology treasures for all to see.
- Plaques plastered to the walls of the galleries containing ominous, poetic, and religious sayings.
- Arrows and other symbols carved into gallery walls to prevent people from losing their way around the quarries.
The caves silently welcome adventurers and curious tourists alike to dive deeper into its hideous galleries. Just be careful that you don’t get lost! The thought sounds horrifying but it has been known to happen.
Ask anyone and they’ll say the Paris catacombs have thrived under Paris since their construction started in the late 18th century. The catacomb site where tourists have access to the underground netherworld, however, is just one part of the vast underground tunnel system in Paris. It can be entered at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris in France.
The graveyard of about 6 million Parisians has one entrance for tourists and it’s just beyond the exit of the Metro station at Place Denfert-Rochereau. One small tip if you’re having trouble finding it: just look for a long queue—people are always lined up waiting to get in.
Size and depth
The Paris Catacombs are an expansive network of tunnels, burial chambers, and galleries. If you’re planning on a long trek through the underground world, however, you’ll be in for a surprise. The size and depth that tourists are allowed to access is only a fraction of the total space that makes up the Catacombs.
The depth of the Catacombs is a total of 20 meters, or the equivalent of a five-story building. You can access the shadowy underworld via 131 steps down at the entry point and another 112 steps up at the exit.
In terms of size, the area accessible to tourists consists of a total of 1,500 meters or just under one mile of walking trail. It will take most people around an hour to fully explore the area with official Catacomb guides on hand. The total observable area from the walking trail totals 11,000 square meters, or six and a half square miles of space.
How large is the section that tourists can’t legally enter? Official maps from the IGC, the Inspection Generale des Carrieres, vary and are updated as areas cave in or get discovered. To date, however, around 200 miles of tunnels and networks have been discovered that lead from or to the Catacombs directly under Paris.
Why Do the Paris Catacombs Exist?
The Paris catacombs weren’t created due to any frivolous reasons. This underground burial labyrinth first got started in the late 18th century when Paris was overrun with a huge problem: too many people buried near the surface of the earth.
Paris is a really old city (it’s about 2000 years old!) so millions of people have lived and died there. As a result, by the 18th century, cemeteries were brimming with bodies of the dead. Over time, they neared max capacity and the city began to be overwhelmed by the nauseating smell of dead bodies. Perfume shops near Les Innocent Church complained that the awful smell was bankrupting their business and trouble also started brewing in the food markets of Les Halles.
In 1780, a disturbing event occurred that sealed the deal on finding another solution. During a particularly rainy season, the walls enclosing Les Innocent Church fell down, sending bodies in the cemetery spiraling into the adjoining area. This incident made the people realize that something needed to be done. They had to find another place to bury their dead, particularly a place outside of Paris. Hence, the catacombs were born.
At first, the purpose of the catacombs was one-fold. It was to be a place where the remains of Parisian could be tucked away. The Tombe-Issoire quarries beneath the Montrouge plain were chosen as the ideal location since they were outside the city.
Inspector Charles Axel Guillaumot from the Department of General Quarry was given the job to prepare the honeycomb tunnels of the quarry and oversee the transfer of the bones from the cemeteries in the city to the quarries. From 1785 to 1787, the dead collected in the Les Innocent Church were transported in the middle of the night in order to avoid protests from the Church and citizens. The transfer of bodies from graveyards to the tunnels stopped shortly during the French Revolution, then continued on until 1814. The transfer of bones and bodies officially ended in 1860.
Though originally built to serve as a method for sanitary burial, the site eventually became a tourist attraction when Napoleon realized its potential. The ossuaries were redecorated and eventually became one of the creepiest dark tourism spots in the world.
Can You Visit the Catacombs Today?
After they were made, people from all over the world came to dive into their mysteries. Even royalty wanted a piece of it! To this day, the catacombs are one of the most crowded dark tourist spots in the world. However, only a certain part of the tunnels are open to the public.
Duration of the trip
The circuit for visitors is around 1.5km long and the visit can last from about 45-minutes to 1 hour. During the entire trip, you’ll have to walk 131 steps to descend into the catacombs and another 112 steps to ascend back up to the surface.
All tourists are advised to wear comfortable walking shoes like soft padded boots or sports shoes.
Like all underground places, the Paris catacombs are damp, dank, humid, cool, and the temperature remains constant at 14°C.
Since it’s cool but also humid inside, you should dress in mild to warm clothes. You can bring a coat if you’re going to be waiting in line during the colder months since only 200 people are allowed in at one time.
Restrictions for visiting
Since the catacombs are underground and in a tight, enclosed space, officials have set various guidelines in place that restrict visitation for certain groups of people. The following groups should call ahead to determine whether visitation is suitable:
- Anyone confined to a wheelchair or anyone requiring the use of a walker.
- Catacomb access is stairway-only.
- Anyone who is claustrophobic due to the confined space of many tunnels.
- The catacombs run 20 feet below ground in an enclosed space. There is only one way in and out.
- Anyone with heart or respiratory issues.
- The air is stale, musty, and may not be suitable for those with breathing or heart problems.
- Children under 14 years of age.
- Children must be accompanied by a responsible adult.
Some small rules to follow
The catacombs are old and areas may be slippery. Maintain caution for a safe and fruitful walk amid the dead. Follow these tips:
- Walk slowly and carefully as the floor may be slippery.
- Take only small bags that can be carried in front of you, around 40x30cm in size. Bags larger than these dimensions will not be allowed for any reason. No diaper bags or suitcases are permitted.
- No flash photography is permitted. You can take photos without a flash with your phone or camera. Extra camera equipment such as stands or tripods is not permitted.
- No touching the bones! Break this rule and you might end up breaking the bones as they are incredibly fragile and delicate.
Tickets and timing
The Paris Catacombs are open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 8:30 pm. They’re open on select holidays including the 14th of July, 15th of August, and the 1st and 11th of November but they’re closed on other holidays including New Years Day, Labor Day, and Christmas. You can usually reserve tickets online, or you can buy them at the door.
You can also buy a ticket when you get there but it’s not generally recommended since you’ll have to wait in a long line and might have to stand in the cold for hours while waiting. The ticket office closes at 7:30 pm so you’ll need to buy a ticket before then for entry.
Who’s Buried in the Paris Catacombs?
For such a famous location, it’s natural to expect a few famous people to be buried deep within the Paris Catacombs. Surprisingly, however, the people laid to rest within the maze of tunnels were ordinary Parisians.
In Paris, burial land was at a premium. Eventually, cemeteries were filled to capacity and then some. By the 1700s, the Saints-Innocents Cemetery was so full that bodies started turning up in the flooded basements of shops and restaurants that backed up to the cemetery. Corpses were starting to poke up from the dirt they were haphazardly buried beneath, and sanitation was becoming a huge issue.
To solve these problems, Paris looked to the abandoned quarries and began a massive relocation project moving bodies from city cemeteries to the underground quarries. The above-ground cemeteries were officially shuttered during the process and remained that way after the bodies were transferred.
Though there are no official records, there were several notable members of society buried in the overflowing cemeteries and were most likely transferred to the Catacombs. So whose bones might you see while wandering below on a tourist excursion? Again, there’s nothing official, but these gentlemen were buried in the burgeoning cemeteries at the time and were likely transferred:
Jean de la Fontaine: A writer best known for his collection of fables from both the East and West.
Charles Perrault: A writer best known for penning stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots.
Simon Vouet: A famous painter who was commissioned by Louis XIII to serve as Premier peintre du Roi.
Salomon de Brosse: A famous architect who designed the Luxembourg Palace.
During the French Revolution, the Catacombs were often used as a burial place, and many guillotine victims went straight from center stage to burial place underground. Among the notables of that time, it is generally accepted that the following are somewhere below ground after having been beheaded at the guillotine:
Antoine Lavoisier: A famous French chemist whose findings revolutionized the field of chemistry.
Maximilien Robespierre: A lawyer and one of the leading figures in the French Revolution.
Georges Danton: A leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Paris Catacombs
Still have a few burning questions you’re dying to get answered? Here are three of the most frequently asked questions about the Catacombs from tourists and locals alike.
Have people ever gotten lost in the Paris catacombs?
The short answer to this question is yesーpeople have definitely gotten lost. The Catacombs are a gigantic network of tunnels. Apart from the 1500-meter section of well-lit path, the rest of the tunnels are strictly off-limits. If you decide to wend your way underground through a secret passageway and you’re discovered, you’ll likely be fined since the activity is illegal.
Authorities have prohibited Catacomb exploration because the underground passageways are rather unsafe. Areas still cave in, many parts can flood within minutes when there is heavy rainfall outside, and the darkness easily causes disorientation and confusion. These issues don’t deter everyone, however, and people still get lost exploring from time to time.
In 2017, two teens were found by fire and K9 crews after getting lost in the tunnel system. They were in the caves for three days before the rescue crews located them. Though unhurt, they were taken to the hospital and treated for hypothermia.
There are other reports of people who have gotten lost and gone missing, never to be heard from again. Most of these stories are unsubstantiated, but with hundreds of miles of caves and tunnels, and areas still unexplored, who knows what might be down there.
How are the Paris Catacombs used today?
A small section of the Paris Catacombs is used as an interesting tourist destination. The 1,500-meter walking trail provides access to a number of ossuaries for curious onlookers and history buffs alike. The area is the only legally accessible area for the public.
The rest of the Catacombs are closed off to the public and aren’t used for any official purposes. Many self-proclaimed “Cataphiles,” however, spend time illegally searching out unexplored sections of the tombs.
Have the Paris Catacombs been fully explored?
The IGC is the official government branch responsible for all affairs connected with the Catacombs. As such, they’re the ones to map out the underground maze of tunnels and caves. With that said, over 200 miles have been mapped out, and there are still areas left unexplored.
The underground map is continually changing due to cave-ins, the unstable and shifting structure, and the nature of centuries-old tunnels untouched by anything other than rising rainwater and time.
Visit the Empire of the Dead
Under the proverbial noses of the French, the Paris Catacombs are a horror-filled marvel waiting to be seen and explored. Drop by for a spooky, heart wrenching, and mysterious adventure. Empire des Morts awaits your visit!
- “History of the Catacombs of Paris.” Sightseeing in Paris, Come to Paris, 2020. cometoparis.com/paris-guide/paris-monuments/the-catacombs-of-paris-s955
- “Individual Rates.” Les Catacombes de Paris, Histoire de Paris, 2018. catacombes.paris.fr/en/visit/individual-rates
- “Site HIstory.” Les Catacombes de Paris, Histoire de Paris, 2018. catacombes.paris.fr/en/history/site-history.
- “The Archaeological Crypt.” Musee Carnavalet, Carnavalet, 2020. carnavalet.paris.fr/en/museum-carnavalet/archeological-crypt-notre-dame-and-catacombs-paris#:~:text=The%20Carnavalet%20Museum%20%E2%80%93%20History%20of,history%20and%20memory%20of%20Paris.
- “The Ossuary.” Les Catacombes de Paris, Histoire de Paris, 2018. catacombes.paris.fr/en/history/ossuary.
- “To Read Before Your Visit.” Les Catacombes de Paris, Histoire de Paris, 2018. catacombes.paris.fr/en/visit/read-your-visit.
- “Useful Information.” Les Catacombes de Paris, Histoire de Paris, 2018. www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/visit/useful-information#