Paris Catacombs – Exploring the Macabre Side of France

Posted By Jeremy in Europe


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Catacombs of Paris, FranceParis 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.

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.

For more things to do in France, check out the lavender flowers of Avignon, Bordeaux wine, some of our favorite Paris restaurants, or our favorite European food!

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8 Comments

  1. I visited Paris during the early spring and do agree; “The Catacombs” is a must see. The only place in Paris where you don’t have to worry about a lot of tourists, as I found myself alone in the catacombs. A most welcomed change, as I tend to be a loner.

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  2. These days, I’m in Paris only a few days a year (this week-end actually), but same thing, anytime to travel to France, do not hesitate to tell me.

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  3. That map is amazing, particularly the skull and cross bones around the ossuary area. I think I’m going to have to dig around to find more maps on that site.. it is quite interesting!

    No one told me about this catacomb affair on my tour other than that they were doing restoration. I was under the impression that they just do restacking once in a while, but that sounds more plausible now that I am thinking about it.

    We’ll probably be in Paris for an afternoon next year and again the year after that… so if you’re ever there.. let me know 🙂

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  4. Ah! Just found the map that I was to show you!

    http://geos1777.free.fr/carte_oss_off.htm

    This site is amazing -but in French- I just learned that there are actually other ossuaries -but smaller and we can’t visit them- including one under Montparnasse cemetery.

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  5. Actually, while it seems long when you’re underground, the visit is only about a mile long (including the long tunnel at the beginning) and if you ever get to see a map of the ossuary, you’ll be surprised as we’re almost walking in circles when visiting it.

    (the rest of the catacombs is about 200 miles of tunnels, quite a different story)

    Apparently you went after the big “Catacomb affair”. It was closed during several months a couple of years ago because one night some people (I don’t think they were ever found) managed to sneak into the ossuary and they badly damaged it. It took months to restore it.
    It was quite a big deal when it happened.

    (and that also means that you went to Paris when I lived there, too bad we didn’t know each other then, we could have shared a beer or two)

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  6. “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.”

    LOL. I know you’re joking, but just in case, I want to reassure your readers. It’s impossible to get lost in the Ossuary.

    Of course, for the rest of the Catacombs (which cover pretty much all of the Left bank, are not open to the public and that don’t contain any bones – except for the few people that got lost and never managed to return to the surface?) it’s a completely different story. But you just don’t end up there randomly, you also need to know how to get in, so no worries. 😉

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  7. @David#1 – I guess I should have made the distinction between the two. O:-). The bones do go on for quite a bit of time, but yes, the whole catacomb network goes on a lot longer than that. I’m making sure I discourage my readers to not attempt to get themselves lost.

    @David#2 – Do it! I’d check in advance to make sure they will be open when you go visit though. Apparently when I went they just were done revamping them (restacking the bones, apparently) and had been closed for several months. I would have been so upset to miss it, but just made it by a week!

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