Paris is one of those cities filled with tourist attractions and historical artifacts in just about every corner. From the Louvre, to nearby Notre Dame and the famed Eiffel Tower, the sights in Paris continually make the lists of the world’s best attractions to see. While many rush to rent one of the many apartments in Paris for a great trip, don’t forget about one unique sight that is quiet possibly my favorite in the entire city: the catacombs.
The Paris catacombs are an unusual destination for many visitors as the topic of the visit is something that makes everyone a bit uncomfortable – death. Well over 6 million sets of bones line the catacombs under the streets of Paris and is much now a tourist attraction as it is a place of remembrance for those who came and went several hundred years ago.
The Catacomb’s History
The history of the catacombs can be traced back for several hundred years and is the general theme of most burial locations around the world. A growing city and lack of room posed an interesting problem. 18th century Paris had an added layer of difficulties as most people could not afford a proper burial or even a casket, which forced many locations to bury the dead, add a layer of earth, and start again. This build up of decomposing matter can get into the well water over time as well as take up all the finite space.
With this, a new law was passed in the city in the late 1700s ordering all bodies within the central limits of Paris exhumed and placed in the abandoned tunnels underneath the growing city, with new cemeteries being created on the outskirts of the capital. The tedious task of transporting all of the 6 million dead and stacking the body parts throughout the many kilometers of underground space began, and the catacombs of today were born.
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What You Can See
Visiting the catacombs is as simple as heading to Denfert-Rochereau station and exiting towards the tiny dark building across the street, likely with a modest line. Although the line goes slow the wait is worth it as you will soon be climbing down the stairs into the several kilometer long walking path surrounded by skulls, femurs, and other bones stacked 2-3 meters tall (6-9 ft) and 4-5 meters deep (13-16 ft) that go on as far as the eye can see.
What starts as being lumped together with many others entering the site quickly dissipates as the large complex allows everyone to go at their own pace and be entirely alone with the dead and occasional security guard that will yell at you for taking a photo. Keep in mind that you will only be walking in a small fraction of the entire catacomb underground tunnel, so it is best to stay on the trail as those who veer off might become lost forever.
The one downside of the Paris catacombs is that you pop out several kilometers away from where you started, and it takes some time to get your bearings after coming above ground to realize where you are. Wander around some, ask for a metro, and enjoy coming back to the world of the living as those below are not so lucky to join in.
The city of lights is often considered to be a cliched city full of sights we have heard of and seen time and time again. Even the most remarkable attractions can be balanced with new and unusual spots that are often outside the normal tourist radar. Luckily, Paris has both! So when you are out exploring the city from your Paris apartments, be sure to make the trip down to the catacombs and experience the macabre in a way not available anywhere else in the world.
The catacombs are open every day of the week except Mondays and public holidays. Admission is 7 Euro for adults and half off admission for students up to age 26.