Last Updated: 7/30/23 | July 30th, 2023
Paris may be known as the City of Lights but it hides a dark and disturbing history.
Underneath the city, there is a gigantic honeycomb of tunnels. The system is a giant maze, and no one knows quite how many tunnels or chambers there are out there (that’s how big it is). Paris is, after all, a very old city that has been built and rebuilt many times.
These tunnels and chambers are what is left of rock quarries that used to be on the outskirts of the city. Much of the limestone that built the city was extracted from these mines, but as the city grew it expanded to where the quarries were, and quarries had to be abandoned, leaving a sprawling network of tunnels below the city.
The French resistance used these tunnels during World War II, and rave parties flourished there during the 1990s. The famous writer and politician Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the tunnel system when he wrote Les Misérables. In 1871, communards (members of a short-lived commune in France) killed a group of monarchists in one of the underground chambers.
Also located in this maze of tunnels, are the famous Catacombs of Paris. And they are open to the public.
The Catacombs of Paris were “created” at the end of the 18th century. As the cemeteries filled up and had to be moved outside the city, a portion of the tunnels was turned into an ossuary (a place where human skeletons are stored) that contains the remains of millions of Parisians, who were gradually transferred here between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. (Fun fact: 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.)
At first, they were deposited in a rather haphazard manner and the ossuary simply piled up. Eventually, the bones were organized and displayed in the way that you see them today.
Since the first day they were completed, the Catacombs have been an object of curiosity, even for royalty. In 1787, Lord of d’Artois, who became King Charles X, went down there with the ladies from the Court. In 1814, François 1st, Emperor of Austria, explored them while he was in Paris. And in 1860, Napoleon III visited the catacombs with his son.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the catacombs became a tourist attraction and have been open to the public on a regular basis since 1867.
In the dark galleries and narrow passages, you’ll see bones arranged in a macabre display. The catacombs are eerie. They are quiet, dark, damp, and a bit 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 a wealthy aristocrat. You never know!
I’ve visited this site multiple times and I always find it super creepy yet super interesting. I’ve been to many unusual places over the years, and the Catacombs of Paris is definitely one of the best. The history is fascinating, and you can see the markings and initials from the centuries of visitors on the walls. It’s like stepping back in time.
Interesting Facts About the Catacombs of Paris
Here are a few interesting facts about this unusual tourist attraction:
- The depth of the Catacombs is equivalent to a five-story building.
- The area you can tour is 2 kilometers long. In its entirety, the catacombs are believed to extend 320 kilometers (199 miles).
- It takes at least 45 minutes to explore the Catacombs.
- The constant temperature in the Catacombs is 14 Celsius.
- There are over 6 million dead Parisians here.
- In World War II, both sides used the Catacombs for clandestine operations. The Germans built hidden bunkers while the French Resistance used the tunnels for navigating the city unopposed.
How to Visit the Catacombs
To get to the Catacombs of Paris, you can take the subway and the RER to Denfert-Rochereau or use Bus 38 and 68. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:45am-8:30pm (closed Mondays).
The number of visitors is limited to 200 at a time so the line can get really long. I highly recommend reserving your space in advance to avoid the line. (Seriously, the line gets to be hours long!).
Advance tickets cost 29 EUR while last-minute same-day tickets cost 18 EUR. Tickets are not sold at the door, so even for the discounted same-day tickets you need to book online.
There are audio guides available in English, French, German, and Spanish. They are included in the advanced booking tickets, and if you purchase last-minute tickets you can add them on for an extra 5 EUR. They are definitely worth the money if you don’t have a guide as they add a lot of historical context to your visit.
If you want a skip-the-line guided tour you can book one with Take Walks for 102 EUR. They offer the best tour in the city. It gives you a super detailed look at the history of the catacombs. I was really impressed by it.
Visiting the Catacombs is one of my favorite activities in Paris. It’s something I highly recommend you don’t skip. It only takes about an hour to wander through it completely and will give you a much more nuanced understanding of Paris.
Don’t skip it!
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Book Your Trip to Paris: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe, so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. Three of my favorite places to stay are:
If you’re looking for more suggestions, here for my favorite hostels in Paris.
And, if you’re wondering what part of Paris to stay in, here’s my neighborhood breakdown of the city.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
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