The Paris Catacombs has to be one of the most fascinating and unique things to do in the French capital. Able-bodied travellers will enjoy an audio-guided tour of this subterranean cemetery and former mine hidden beneath Paris’ Left Bank. Walk the halls of skeletal remains from Paris past with this guide.
What are the Paris Catacombs?
Briefly, the Paris Catacombs are a series of abandoned limestone quarries that were historically used to store the skeletal remains of people from overcrowded cemeteries. For a more in-depth explanation, read on…
Paris Catacombs history
During the 18th century, overcrowded cemeteries were a public health hazard in Paris. The city’s main cemetery, Cimetiére de Innocents, was piled with human remains deposited there since the early medieval period. The ground was reported to be 2m (6ft) higher than the surrounding landscape due to layers upon layers of buried corpses.
A first attempt to remedy the situation saw bones exhumed and packed into charniers (mass graves) inside the cemetery’s stone walls. Still, graves continued to encroach on the spaces of the living and emit the horrifying stench of decomposing flesh.
Over generations, the Left Bank of Paris had been quarried for limestone. Beneath the surface it was a honeycomb of tunnels that at one stage were in danger of collapse (that’s another story). Officials decided to make use of these subterranean tunnels to store the abundance of corpses.
From 1785 through 1787, bones were relocated from charnel houses (vaults of skeletal remains) and mass graves at Le Innocents and dumped into quarry wells. The work was performed at night as to attract less backlash from locals and the church. In 1786, the site near modern Montparnasse was consecrated the “Paris Municipal Ossuary”.
After the French Revolution, more burial grounds were exhumed and skeletal remains relocated to the Paris Catacombs. Across 12 years through the 1850s and 60s, the city underwent a major glowup and use of the Catacombs accelerated to make space for modern boulevards, parks and squares.
Mining engineer and politician, Héricart de Thury, responsible for maintenance of the Paris Catacombs, oversaw a cleanup of the scattered piles of bones. He transformed the site into a monument with tidier, more systematic and aesthetically pleasing arrangements of bones and installation of signage. He advocated for the site as a public space, which eventuated starting in 1809.
Since the remains were not identified and everyone was lumped in together, Héricart de Thury had the bones organized largely by type, skulls here, tibias there… In some areas they are stacked into columns and other architectural-like details. He placed bones that exhibited diseases and deformities into a curio cabinet for study and educational purposes. Another cabinet featured samples of minerals found in the old quarries.
Paris Catacombs tour
Today, you can explore a 1.5km (~1mi) of Paris’ underground tunnels. The one-way route usually takes 45mins to an hour to make your way through.
The entrance to the official and legally accessible section of the Paris Catacombs is at 1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, on Place Denfert-Rochereau (located in the 14th Arrondissement). There are restrooms at the entrance only.
The tunnels exit at 21 bis, Avenue René-Coty, so be prepared to end your visit in a different location to where you started, though not far.
Visitors will need to be comfortable climbing stairs and travelling over uneven, sometimes wet and slippery surfaces, in low-light conditions. There are narrow passages, so if you suffer from claustrophobia or respiratory issues, this is not the sight for you. Due to the nature of the Catacombs, they are not wheelchair accessible and sight-impaired visitors must be accompanied.
Tours are self-guided using an audio device available in French, English, Spanish and German for €5.
Getting to the Catacombs
Take Metro Line 4 and 6 as well as RER Line B go to the closest train station, Denfert-Rochereau (in French: Gare de Denfert-Rochereau).
If you have a car, there is paid parking available in Boulevard Saint-Jacques.
Uber is an option, but Lyft does not operate in Paris.
Tips for visiting the Paris Catacombs
Only 200 people are allowed in the Catacombs at a time and they do get very busy, especially in the summer during the high tourist season. Here are a few tips to avoid the queues and crowds:
- Purchase your tickets online in advance, wherever possible. We visited in early September and they were completely sold out by 10:30am on a Saturday. If you wait until the day of your visit, you risk missing out. Note that due to ticket fraud, tickets are only released 7-days in advance so set yourself a reminder in your calendar. Furthermore, only purchase tickets for the Paris Catacombs from the official Les Catacombes de Paris website.
- The Catacombs are open year-round from Tuesday to Sunday excluding some holidays. See opening hours here, as well as a handy graph showing rush hours for different days of the week. Generally, go first thing in the morning or after 6pm – they are open until 8:30pm and the ticket window closes an hour prior.
- We found arriving early and therefore being at the head of our time slot helped us get a little more space inside. First there is a line outside the entrance, grouped by entry time (be prepared for waiting in potentially inclement weather). This is followed by the typical Paris security check before you receive your audio guide and head down the stairs into the Catacombs. In anticipation of a busy day, we were there 30-minutes prior and were the first in the queue for our time slot. They actually started letting us through about 10-minutes early and with our bags open, ready for inspection, we were able to scoot through and get slightly ahead of the group to follow.
What to wear and take to the Paris Catacombs
The temperature of the Catacombs is a fairly consistent 14°C (57.2°F), calling for a light jacket or sweater even in the summer months.
Again, flooring is uneven, wet and slippery. Wear flat and sturdy, closed-toe shoes with good grip.
You can only take a small bag under 40cm x 30cm (that’s a smidge under 16” x 12” for the American’s onboard). There is no coat check or storage for larger bags/luggage. There is a security check upon entry and another bag check at the exit to make sure you aren’t running off with any skeletal remains.
Sorry photographers, no tripods allowed.
Enjoy your exploration of the Paris Catacombs and for more fun, quirky, artistic and delicious things to do in Paris, check out this post.
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