Updated: 12/16/2018 | December 16th, 2018
Paris may be known as the City of Lights, but it hides a dark and disturbing history.
Underneath the city of Paris, you’ll find a 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.)
This tunnel system is commonly referred to as “The Catacombs of Paris.”
The Catacombs are what is left of rock quarries built and expanded over the center 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.
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.
Yet, in this maze of tunnels, one part open to the public – the famous Catacombs of Paris.
The Catacombs of Paris were “created” at the end of the 18th century. As the cemeteries filled up and had to move outside the city as the city expanded, a portion of the tunnels was turned into an ossuary that contains the remains of millions of Parisians, who gradually transferred here between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. 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 ossury simply piled up. Eventually, the bones were organized and displayed in the way that you see them today.
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.
In the dark galleries and narrow passages, you’ll see bones arranged in a macabre display. 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 be 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 here is incredible and you can see markings on the walls from the centuries of visitors here. It’s one of the best things to see and do in Paris and should not be missed!
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 is 2 kilometers long.
- It takes at least 45 minutes to explore the Catacombs.
- The constant temperature in the Catacombs is 14 Celsius.
- The surface area of the ossuary is 11,000 square meters.
- There are over 6 million dead Parisians here
- Both sides in WWII used the Catacombs for clandestine operations. The Germans built hidden bunkers while the French Resistance used the tunnels for navigating the city unopposed.
- There are secret, unmapped pools in the Catacombs that explorers visit and swim in (but people have also gotten lost down here and died so don’t go exploring by yourself!)
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 10am-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!). if you can’t reserve a spot, make sure you get there early. Tickets cost 13 EUR for adults, with discounts available. There are audio guides available in English, French, German and Spanish for an extra 5 EUR. They are definitely worth the money if you don’t have a guide as they add a lot of extra information and historical context to your visit.
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 completely and will give you a much more nunahced understanding of this historic city.
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