Unusual Place of the Month: The Catacombs of Paris

Paris Catacombs skulls Underneath the city of Paris, you’ll find a honeycomb of tunnels. The French resistance used these tunnels during World War II, and rave parties flourished there during the 1990s. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system when he wrote Les Misérables. In 1871, communards killed a group of monarchists in one chamber. The tunnel system is a giant maze and no one knows quite how many tunnels or chambers there are out there. Paris is, after all, a very old city that has been built and rebuilt many times.

Yet in this maze of tunnels, you’ll find one part open to the public – the famous Catacombs of Paris. The Catacombs of Paris were created at the end of the 18th century. From the late seventeenth century, Paris’ largest cemetery, Les Innocents, became too filled with bodies, and neighbors began suffering from disease due to contamination caused by improper burials and open mass graves.  Neither the cemetery, nor any of the others for that matter, could keep up with the population growth of Paris. After multiple complaints by residents, the Council of State in November 9, 1785 pronounced the removal and the evacuation of the cemetery.

Paris Catacombs skullsParis Catacombs skulls and cross

The bones were removed from 1786 and continued until 1788. The bones were always moved at night to a ceremony made up of a procession of priests who sang along the way to the Catacombs.

Since the first day they were complete, the Catacombs have been an object of curiosity, even for royalty. In 1787, Lord of d’Artois, who became King Charles 10, went down there with the ladies from the Court. In 1814, François 1st, Emperor of Austria, went to visit and explore them while he was in Paris. In 1860, Napoleon III went there with his son. The catacomb walls are also covered in graffiti dating from the eighteenth century. Everyone has left their mark on this place. Towards the end of the 18th century, the catacombs became a tourist attraction and have been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867.

The Catacombs are eerie. They are quiet, dark, damp, and a bit downright depressing. There are lots of bones around and most of them are just stacked up on each other. You’ll never know who is who – that skull you are looking at could be someone who died from the plague or from a wealthy aristocrat. You never know.

To get to the Catacombs, you can take the subway and the RER to Denfert-Rochereau or use Bus 38 and 68. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Monday. Last admission is at 4 p.m. Visits are limited to 200 visitors in the site (entries can be stopped temporarily) and it costs 7 Euros. Check their website before you go because they are sometimes closed without warning or explanation.

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  1. I definitely believe that the catacombs are depressing and eerie. But I still wish that I would have gone there when I had the chance. Another great reason to go back to Paris. Thanks

  2. Sounds super-cool, Matto. I like being underground. There’s a similar attraction in Beijing, dating from the cold-war.

    If I ever get to Paris…

  3. Great post,

    I remember seeing a documentary on them once, and thought, hey, thats neat. But never knew about all the famous “A-list historical figures” who visited them. That alone is a cool enough reason to go. I’m hoping to someday live in Paris, or at least in France somewhere, I’ll be sure to check this out once I get there. Looks very intriguing.

  4. Carrie

    This is an absolute must-see! The one thing I didn’t like was the 80-something stair walk-up after you’ve been roaming around the eerie maze of skulls and bones for quite awhile! The walk down was longer, but it’s obviously easier to go down. I was also amused to see so many people getting busted for removing remains. Too many people attempt to take a little something with them when they leave the Catacombs.

  5. Oooh, definitely worth a visit if you like something a bit macabre! It’s good to hear about some of the lesser-known tourist attractions in Paris. I’ve been writing a guide to France for the Auto Europe website, and I’ve tried to steer clear of the usual haunts (no pun intended…) but I hadn’t heard of this one.

  6. @jen I agree, a rave in the catacombs would be eerie but interesting… big basslines bouncing off of skulls and bones… could have a unique sound to it! You’d have to have a pirate theme to it.

    I find it funny King Charles 10 took ladies down in the catacombs.. “c’mon my darling, lets sit down and gaze at the femurs and ankles, it’s so sexy”

    All in all I look forward to visiting the catacombs when in Paris!

  7. Theresa

    On our 12 hour jaunt through Paris on our layover between Santiago and Johannesburg, we made time to tour the catacombs. It was my second visit, Jeff’s first. The first time I was there the lights went out halfway through our visit. I think they were probably out for less than a minute but it felt like an eternity.

  8. I was a little skeptical of visiting the Catacombs, but glad I did. Just a fascinating place and a great story behind it. At the end I was perplexed that we had to be searched, but the Security Guard said that people have tried to steal bones before, going at great lengths, including putting arm and leg bones down their pants or shirts.

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