A Visit to the Catacombs of Paris – The Empire of the Dead!

(Last Updated On: December 21, 2018)

Paris the ‘City of Love’ is a top tourist destination. The lively atmosphere, the rich culture, the historical monuments, world-class museums, and the vibrant nightlife are the major draws for the tourists and fashionistas to this beautiful city. But did you know under these bustling streets of the gleaming city is an eerie world holding remains of over 6 million dead Parisians. The Catacombs of Paris are not amongst the top touristy places but definitely something you should not miss if you have some extra time on hand during your Paris visit.

We are not great fans of spooky places and visiting the Catacombs in Paris was never on our list. But after browsing through the pictures of the catacombs on the internet we were very much intrigued to visit the place and see it for ourselves. We had already covered the top Paris attractions and the popular day trips from Paris and were looking for something different and a unique experience for the next visit.

We had already missed Catacombs in Rome on a visit to the Vatican City so Catacombs of Paris was something we didn’t want to miss. We were based in Geneva in Switzerland and Paris is just 3 hours train ride away. We planned a trip to Paris coming weekend to visit Paris Catacombs and more of what the wonderful city of Paris had to offer.

Read: Top Things to do in Paris for the First-Timers

What are Paris Catacombs and Who built the Catacombs?

The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris which are believed to hold the remains of over six million people. Roman Empires were the first to refer to a place of burial as Catacombs. The Paris catacombs derived the word originally used by the Romans only in the 18th century.

The labyrinth beneath the city of Paris is the former limestone quarries dating back to the 13th century. The stone from the quarries was used in the construction of the buildings of the city of Paris. The limestone from these quarries is said to be used to supply the stone required to build Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and the Paris City ramparts.

Catacombs of Paris - Paris Catacombs Pictures

Catacombs of Paris - Paris Catacombs Pictures

By the end of the 17th century, the city of Paris was facing an alarming situation where its cemeteries were overflowing to the point where corpses started getting uncovered. So as a solution it was decided that the remains should be moved to the tunnels in the limestone quarries that were then not in use anymore.

Paris Catacombs History

During the 18th century, the City’s main cemetery ‘Saints Innocents’ near the Les Halles neighborhood was already filled to the brim. The people in the neighborhood complained of contaminated air and foul smell of decomposing bodies. The situation also posed a risk to the public health with a possibility of epidemic disease. It was decided that all the buried remains would be moved to the new large-scale burial grounds on the outskirts of the city. Nothing happened until 1780 when a wall of Les Innocents cemetery collapsed due to flood and the remains flowed into the neighboring property.

On the other side, there were numerous mine cave-ins occurring in the tunnels of the quarries due to the weight of the city above creating sinkholes. The mine renovation and cemetery closures were both crucial issues for the city of Paris which was entrusted to Charles Axel Guillaumot, an inspector at the Department of General Quarry Inspection. For the good of the public, the idea of moving the Parisian dead to the newly renovated underground passageways was adopted.

Several night processions of wagons carrying the remains of Parisian dead from cemeteries accompanied by a priest were carried out. The transfer of unearthed remains took almost 2 years to transfer bones from “Saints Innocents” cemetery and few more years to transfer of bones from other Parisian parish graveyards to the Catacombs. The transfer of remains continued until 1860.

Paris Catacombs Tour - Paris Catacombs Pictures

Initially, the bones and the remains of the dead were just dumped into the quarries in large heaps. Later in the 19th century, Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury took upon the task of rearranging the bones into artistic patterns with inscriptions and tombstones with an intention to turn the catacombs into a tourist attraction.

Paris Catacombs Tour - Paris Catacombs Pictures

There are different levels of the quarries of which the quarries occupy the upper and middle levels. A well called ‘Quarriers’ Footbath’ which we found walking along the tunnels is said to connect to the lower level.

One of the iconic displays is in the shape of a Barrel which is also known as the ‘Crypt of the Passion’ or the ‘Tibia Rotunda’. The arrangement made up skulls and tibiae supports the roof of the room in which it is housed.

Catacombs of Paris - Paris Catacombs Pictures

The underground cemetery became a tourist attraction from the early 19th century and has been open to the public on a regular basis since 1874.

Paris Catacombs Tour

We had booked tickets online to avoid queues. We collected the audioguides and climbed down the 130 steps to an underground depth of 20 meters equivalent to a five-story building. All the water pipelines and the entire city was now above us.

The tour started with a small space before the entrance to the ossuary which displayed exhibits and information boards on the history of Paris. The tunnels of the limestone quarries which today hold the remains of the Parisians were formed 45 million years ago. Forty-five million years ago Paris and the surrounding area were covered by a shallow sea which caused the sediment accumulation forming the limestone deposits visible in the Catacombs today.

Paris Catacombs Tour - Paris Catacombs Pictures

Then the visitors walk into the Ossuary through a door marked with an inscription ‘Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!’ which means ‘Stop! This is the empire of death!’.

We walked through the long dark maze of tunnels, chambers, and halls with carefully and artistically arranged bones in various patterns. Most of the bones are grouped by the cemeteries.

Catacombs of Paris - Paris Catacombs Pictures

Along the way, one would find other monuments, tombstones and lots of inscriptions of historical events.

The Catacombs visit may not be recommended for people suffering from claustrophobia, cardiac or respiratory problems. During our visit, we did feel a little eerie initially walking amidst the piles of bones but we soon got engrossed in the audio guide information. We had our daughter along with is who was just about a year old which meant she didn’t understand much. But if you are visiting with older kids you may want to decide if you want to take them along. When we visited there were some kids who visited with their parents and looked pretty comfortable to tour the catacombs.

Paris Catacombs Facts

Only some part of the underground quarries which are used to keep the remains of six million people is open to the public for tours. But it is believed that the network of tunnels under the city of Paris even more extensive. The tunnels dug by limestone miners is estimated to be around 320 km most of which are undiscovered. At several points during the tour, we could find gates blocking passages leading to other unrenovated and unvisitable parts of the catacombs closed to the tourists and the regular tours.

During World War II the tunnels of the quarries were used by the Parisian members of the French Resistance as well as by the Nazis who built underground bunkers.

Catacombs of Paris - Paris Catacombs Pictures

The catacombs have a constant temperature of around 14 deg Celsius and high humidity. Make sure to dress in warm clothes and comfortable shoes.

The path winding through the tunnels are dim lit, uneven and sometimes slippery and hence is not accessible to people with reduced mobility.

Paris Catacombs Tickets and Open Times

The Catacombs of Paris are open from daily from 10 am to 8:30 pm except for Mondays when it is closed. Check here for ticket rates and guided tours.

Your entrance tickets to Catacombs are timed and only 200 people are allowed inside the catacombs at a time. It is recommended that tickets to the Catacombs are booked online which comes with Paris Catacomb Skip the Line benefit. The entrance has really long queues. The Audio Guides are included in the entrance tickets.

Catacombs are not only in Paris but in various cities all over the world. Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Egypt, London, Greece, and Spain are few to name.

The entrance to the Catacombs of Paris is located in Paris’ 14th arrondissement, at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.
You can take either the metro line 4 or 6 to Denfert-Rochereau metro station which is less than 10 minutes walk away.

The Catacombs of Paris may not be among the top visited museums in Paris but it definitely offers an unusual experience. Have you visited the catacombs? Do you find these Catacombs interesting or eerie? Let us know what you think in comments.

Recommended Tours

Further Reads

Annecy Day Trip from Paris 

A Weekend in the Medieval Town of Avignon from Paris

Versailles – Day Trip from Paris

White Chalk Cliffs of Etretat – A Weekend Trip from Paris

Bayeux and D-Day Experience in Normandy

Giverny Day Trip from Paris

International Cities you can visit on a Day Trip from Paris – Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Pin for Later Read?

 

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36 thoughts on “A Visit to the Catacombs of Paris – The Empire of the Dead!

  • May 23, 2016 at 6:52 pm
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    I have been down the catacombs in Paris, it was a friend’s birthday and we made an illegal visit during the night, it is a eerie but fascinating place.

    Reply
    • mm
      May 27, 2016 at 8:53 am
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      Woah.. That sounds exciting.. Birthday amidst the dead… 😉

      Reply
  • May 24, 2016 at 4:25 pm
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    oh dear! That looks like such an eerie place! I love ghost-tours and graveyard walks, but I’m not very very keen about going underground. Not very sure I’ll love this experience! Great job sticking it out though – you look quite happy! HA 🙂

    Reply
    • mm
      May 27, 2016 at 8:57 am
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      🙂 We would say the history was so interesting that we got completely absorbed into the audio guide that may be reason you can find us happy and not worried lol

      Reply
  • May 24, 2016 at 4:48 pm
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    I adore Paris, but I admit this is one site that I have not seen. Thanks for sharing your photos and experience. I am still not sure that I would add this to my to do list for next Paris visit. The history is fascinating… so maybe.

    Reply
    • mm
      May 27, 2016 at 8:58 am
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      Yeah True.. It isnt a place everyone would want to add to must do list 🙂 Agree history may be a reason to check it out.

      Reply
  • May 25, 2016 at 2:42 am
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    Wow those pictures are quite impressive! Never seen so many skulls at once! Kinda scary! It’s the first blog I got to read about this type of activities and I think I would like to visit one as well ! Great post!

    Reply
    • mm
      May 27, 2016 at 8:59 am
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      Thanks Tina.. Though Its spooky you would want to visit it to experience the history 🙂

      Reply
  • May 25, 2016 at 8:22 pm
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    I live in Paris, and I’ve never been! Being a tourist in my own city is a thing I regularly do, but I’ve never been to the catacombs! I know the story, but I’ve learnt a bit while reading your article! The photos are so cool, and it’s really spooky!

    http://tomboychronicle.com/

    Reply
    • mm
      May 27, 2016 at 9:00 am
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      Agree Liana Its Spooky indeed 🙂

      Reply
  • May 26, 2016 at 9:51 pm
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    I’ve never been to Paris, or France in general, but if there’s one think I’d like to see there – it’s the catacombs 🙂
    Lovely post 🙂

    Reply
    • mm
      May 27, 2016 at 9:01 am
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      That’s good to know Teky that you would like to visit them.. 🙂 There’s someone who thinks alike 😉

      Reply
  • May 27, 2016 at 8:06 pm
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    Indeed, spooky! It reminds me of the last scene in Chang-Rae Lee’s “The Surrendered” where the two main characters visited a church adorned with human skulls.

    Reply
    • mm
      May 29, 2016 at 8:35 am
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      Am yet to check out that movie Jona, will surely do 🙂

      Reply
  • May 28, 2016 at 6:30 am
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    Very Very spooky. Reminds me of the stories some of my traveler friends had told me about the Killing Fields museum in Phnom Penh.
    I liked the way you’ve provided the detailed background story to this place.

    Reply
    • mm
      May 29, 2016 at 8:34 am
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      Thanks Tamshuk. I have read those stories of Killing fields but in this case the Catacombs isnt where these people died they remains were moved from some other place.

      Reply
  • May 28, 2016 at 1:42 pm
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    Ooh, these photos are so delightfully creepy! I went to the catacombs when I was in Paris as a child, but I haven’t been back since. I hope to go there again soon!

    Reply
    • mm
      May 29, 2016 at 8:32 am
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      Ahh you are courageous Stella we may not have dared as a child 🙂

      Reply
  • May 28, 2016 at 2:34 pm
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    This is extremely horrifying and scary. It totally reminds me of the killing field. I wonder what is the smell of the place? does it have an awful odour?

    Reply
    • mm
      May 29, 2016 at 8:31 am
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      Nope Bernard isnt awful smell nor did we find it scary just an interesting history 🙂

      Reply
  • May 29, 2016 at 3:47 pm
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    Woah, so haunting…. I loved reading all the history here. In Rome I visited the catacombs and found it very heartbreaking to hear how due to religious differences, they had to keep it secret and be buried there in secret, otherwise they would be cremated.

    Reply
    • mm
      May 29, 2016 at 4:47 pm
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      Thanks Sarah. We had tried visiting the one in Rome too but looks like they do the booking months in advance so could not make it.

      Reply
  • May 29, 2016 at 9:18 pm
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    Oh dear god, that was scary! Kudos for actually going! Catacombs have always scared me. Although, I’d love to explore Paris one day, just not under it, lol.

    Reply
  • May 29, 2016 at 10:13 pm
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    Oh dear. I would be so afraid to go there! And I would have intense claustrophobia issues! Well done you!

    Reply
  • May 30, 2016 at 3:26 pm
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    This is really spooky, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable in such a closed space together with all those skulls. Actually I have visited a mausoleum in Romania that had a room covered with skulls of the people that died on that battlefield. I was a kid in a school trip and I remember how scary that was. I know that London also has some underground Dungeons, but I never visited.

    Reply
  • May 30, 2016 at 7:58 pm
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    I would love to visit Paris, but I have to admit that visiting the catacombs wouldn’t be top of my list of things to do!

    Reply
  • May 30, 2016 at 8:38 pm
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    Gosh, this is just so cool. It’s amazing that people built these vast catacombs. I need to see them for myself one day.

    Reply
  • May 30, 2016 at 9:32 pm
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    I don’t think I could visit because I am claustrophobic and this would freak me out but I do love history so I can just admire it from afar.

    Reply
  • May 31, 2016 at 5:16 am
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    Oooo how interesting yet kinda creepy!!!! I would definitely love to visit and take a tour some day.

    Reply
  • May 31, 2016 at 7:36 am
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    A very interesting place, but not for everyone. I don’t know if I can do this. I admire your courage! 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your photos and experience with all of us! Happy Tuesday guys!

    Reply
  • May 31, 2016 at 10:23 am
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    This place looks really fascinating. I love historical places like this. They are so interesting and your photos are incredible.

    Reply
  • May 31, 2016 at 4:51 pm
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    I have read about the catacombs in boos and I always thouht it would be intriguing to visit. Those photos look creepy but I am willing to try to go there if given the chance

    Reply
  • June 1, 2016 at 7:16 am
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    I got chills by looking at your pictures! really fascinating but im afraid I would never ever dare to visit such a place ! Incredible photos , you are very talented

    Reply
  • June 1, 2016 at 1:44 pm
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    Wow I cannot get over the skulls. Something about this place is breathtaking in a creepy. I would love to visit it, despite being afraid of the dark LOL

    Reply
  • June 1, 2016 at 7:08 pm
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    I didn’t even know that there are catacombs and for such a long way 2km! Those photos give a great idea how it is down there. I’m definitely interested in going there:)

    Reply
  • November 9, 2016 at 5:12 am
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    Oh! Missed this! The history behind this is mindblowing.
    It is different from the one I saw in Evora, Portugal!
    Hats off to you for your courage to pose with the skulls. 🙂

    Reply

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