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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Visiting the Paris Catacombs

If you've been reading along, you know I've been gushing about how lovely Paris is.  I've been talking about the City of Lights, about walking the streets of Paris with someone you love (and a crusty loaf of bread).  I've been painting this picture of strolling through steep cobblestone streets in an authentic Parisian Village with stops for espresso.  Well, today?  It's going to be a little different.  Okay, a lot different.  We are going underground and digging into some of Paris's history (all the puns intended).  Today we are talking about the Paris Catacombs.  

It was my brother Philip, Adam and I on the tail end of our 4-day tour of Paris.  We had loose plans to see some sites but there was one thing we all agreed was a must-see, the Paris Catacombs.  We had heard about this tour of the tunnels, of the ossuary underground and were eager to take advantage of this unique way to learn about the city in a different light.  We were told the catacombs were must-see and to spend the few extra euros on the audio tour.  This attraction was the only thing I had agreed to wait in line for and we opted for a traditional pass at a lower cost versus a "fast pass" at a steeper price for a specific time.  And so, we headed to our spot in line, waiting our turn to enter the bottom of Paris.

first impressions 

Visiting the catacombs was a truly unique experience.  After spending a few days strolling over ornate bridges hand in hand, having dinner in open-air restaurants as the streets come alive at night, taking boat tours around the city of lights and spending afternoons sipping wine at streetside cafes - this was so different.  It was eerie and historic, a piece of Paris you don't easily see or understand by merely walking through the city.  You have to head to a different part of town and wait in line outside a building before descending down a spiral staircase into a world unknown.  Long spooky dimly lit hallways five stories down under the city of Paris, rooms lined with skulls and bones that were transported from local cemeteries down into these tunnels turned Ossuary.  You literally walk the halls where over 6 million dead Parisians.   If you are in town, I agree it is worth the line and the ticket price and yes you need the audio tour to understand this wild and weird part of Paris - welcome to the Catacombs.  

about the tunnels

The Paris Catacombs weren't originally built for burying the dead.  These quarries were created when Lutetian limestone, also known as “Paris stone” was being mined to supply building stone for the city until the early twentieth century.  So instead of making a new space to bury the dead, bones were transported to the preexisting tunnels of former quarries.  

Operating since at least the fifteenth century before being completely abandoned, these quarries were a small part of the underground maze that burrowed under the city covering over 800 hectares.  The transformation from a quarry to an ossuary was managed by Charles Axel Guillaumot of the Department of General Quarry Inspection, founded in 1777 by Louis XVI.  The mission was to consolidate the abandoned quarries following major collapses of the ground under Paris in the mid-eighteenth century.  Paris was literally collapsing into the underground tunnels that had long been forgotten and abandoned under the city.  

about the ossuary

So we have collapsing tunnels running under Paris, why fill them with bones?  Major public health problems during the late eighteenth century tied to the city’s cemeteries led to a need to transfer their contents and in this case, to an underground site.  The former Tombe-Issoire quarries located just outside the capital was chosen by Paris authorities due to its easy accessibility for this large transfer.  The first evacuations of bones from the cemetery were made from 1785 to 1787 and concerned the largest cemetery in Paris, the Saints-Innocents.

This transformed quarry was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” on April 7, 1786.  The ossuary adopted the name “Catacombs” in reference to the Roman catacombs which had intrigued the public since their discovery.  The catacombs opened to the public by appointment in 1809.  Since then, people all over the world have been intrigued by the catacombs and have been visiting as paid tourists or as "cataphiles", illegally entering the tunnels to explore. 

To form the ossuary the bones (previously loosely piled) were carefully organized in walls, according to a quarry backfill arrangement. The fa├žade consists of rows of tibiae alternating with skulls, and the remaining bones were piled behind this wall.

Yes, you will literally walk through corridors of tibia with ornate skull details. It's eerie but it's pretty impressive and somehow not as spooky as you envision. 


Lines:   the number of simultaneous visitors is limited to 200, hence the longer lines during popular times.  The tour will take 45-minutes to an hour.  Visit during the weekdays and early mornings to avoid the lines or pay a little more to get a specific ticket window and guaranteed entry. 

Location:  The visitors’ entrance is located at 1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau) 75014 Paris

Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; ticket window closes at 7:30 p.m.
The Catacombs are open on July 14, August 15, November 1 and November 11.
 Closed on Monday and certain holidays: January 1, May 1 and December 25.

red tape 
  • This is not handicap accessible - there are 131 steps to go down and 112 steps to climb up
  • You will be 20 meters underground, the depth of a 5-story building
  • Children under fourteen must be accompanied by an adult
  • The tunnels are pretty dark and quite narrow and are kept at 14C 
  • The 1.5-kilometer circuit is one-way only
  • You cannot bring large luggage and there is no luggage room
  • This is not great for very claustrophobic people as it is a one-way tour through dark narrow tunnels


*Highly recommend you buy the audio tour handset 
But really. Do it - you learn so much about the catacombs. 

Free: under 18 years old and other *
 (Please note that this rate does not apply to the quick access ticket for children under 18)
Reduced rate: ages 18-26
Full rate: 18 and older


We descended down the spiral staircase which feels never-ending as you travel deep underground into tunnels built under the city.  From the start, the hallways are narrow and sort of feel never-ending, they are one way and rather long.  I consider myself someone who is certainly claustrophobic but the audio tour helped me focus on the facts, listening to the history of this ossuary as I traversed underground. 

The first half of the tour is simply walking down tunnels (no bones yet) - you walk and walk while the audio tour teaches you about the quarries and the transition from mining operations to safety concerns and eventually into the ossuary.  Towards the end of the tour, you start to see the bones organized in ornate patterns to form centerpieces, walls, and designs.  It's eerie and spooky but fascinating as you walk by, being very careful not to brush by anyone's skull or shins as you make your way through the tour.  It feels like it goes on forever and while the catacombs of Paris are spread across hundreds of miles, the public has access to only about 1 mile.  The rest of the area is declared unsafe for exploration by public.

It's strange to think just how many people's remains are located here underground and as you walk, you start to picture the undertaking that was moving these bones below ground and organizing them to form walls and barriers.  After about 40 minutes of spooky facts and narrow passages, you make your way to another set of spiral stairs, happy to return to the light as you wind make your way up and up and of course, ending in a book shop.  

It's spooky and it's fun, and a chance to learn some interesting facts about Paris underground.  If you don't enjoy walking by a labyrinth of bones while visiting the city of lights, then you can skip the catacombs and thank them for your city views.  Because these tunnels are located directly under the city streets, the catacombs make large architectural foundations nearly impossible to maintain.

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