This Paris catacombs tour will be one of the freakiest and fascinating excursions you’ll take.
When I found out that I’d have a couple of days in Paris before and after my canal cruise in the South of France, I was overwhelmed with the amount of things to do. Naturally, there are the super famous sites in Paris, like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. And then there are the other gems around the city, such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Panthéon. However, if you’re looking for something offbeat, intriguing, and something you’ll talk about long after your visit, you simply must visit the Paris Catacombs.
History of the Catacombs of Paris
The Paris Catacombs stretch below the streets of the city, containing the remains of over six million people. But, why were the catacombs of Paris built? Why are so many bones on display underground rather than proper burials in cemeteries? I’ll give you a very brief history of the catacombs, though it’s most fascinating to hear more information directly from your tour guide.
Why Were the Catacombs of Paris Built?
The catacombs of Paris weren’t always meant to be an ossuary. Paris sat on top of 200 miles of limestone tunnels, dating back to when the city was built. Workers dug up stones from beneath the city to construct it. However, the weight of the city started to collapse into the tunnels, causing massive sinkholes.
In 1777, the King’s architect, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, was tasked with stabilizing the tunnels to save the city from collapse. As you visit Paris catacombs, you’ll see carvings into the walls with dates and numbers. These numbers show the amount of attempts it took to stabilize that particular space. While some numbers will read 1 or 2, I saw attempts in the 60s and 70s. This was not an easy job by any means.
At the same time, Paris was growing and prospering, becoming one of the most heavily populated cities. Its rapid growth caused cemeteries to overflow. There simply wasn’t enough space to bury the dead. Paris started to smell quite badly of decomposing bodies, and it posed a huge health hazard. By 1785, the tunnels were stable and the remains of the dead were transferred into them. This transfer of bones lasted until 1859. Here is a picture of a tunnel where they dropped the bodies and bones into the quarry.
Interestingly enough, it was actually Napoleon who decided that the catacombs of Paris should be a tourist attraction. As the great empire of Rome had its own catacombs attraction, Napoleon decided that Paris should have something similar. Quarry workers began sifting through the piles of bones to create decorative works. They lined the walls with femurs and tibias, and tastefully arranged the skulls. You’ll see signs with commemorative plaques, and bones arranged into various shapes.
Cataphiles of Paris
While the tour is restricted to around 2km of tunnels, there are 200 miles of tunnels. There are some people who are a little more obsessed with the catacombs and illegally venture into forbidden areas beneath the city. These people are known as the “cataphiles of Paris”. It is potentially possible to enter the tunnels through manholes and metro stations.
Sometimes the cataphiles visit as part of an artistic movement, and other times they’re exploring and adding to their own maps. Back in 2004, authorities discovered a secret underground movie theater in the catacombs. However, no one was ever caught or fined. If you are caught unofficially exploring the tunnels beneath Paris, you will be heavily fined.
Paris Catacombs Skip the Line Tour
Trust me, you’re going to want to book a skip the line tour for the Catacombs of Paris. As you can imagine, the lines here get frustratingly long. Do you really want to spend half of your day in a lengthy line (especially if it’s really hot outside)? Or would you rather skip the line and waltz right indoors, heading directly to the attraction? I can’t imagine not booking a ticket in advance for this Paris Catacombs tour. A Paris catacombs skip the line tour is the best way to visit.
How to Buy Tickets to Visit Paris Catacombs
If you’re looking for how to visit the catacombs in Paris, take my advice. Head on over to the Take Walks website and select the date and time you’d like to visit. There are usually multiple times for each day. I recommend buying your tickets farther in advance to avoid disappointment. Numbers are limited for each tour, and it definitely has the potential to sell out.
You’ll meet your guide at a separate meeting point. Ours was right across the street from the Catacombs of Paris entrance. Our small group had less than 20 people in it (the maximum number for the tour, including the guide, is 20 people). We walked together across the street and right into the building, past the huge lineup of people there. It was a good feeling!
Our guide had all of our tickets purchased ahead of time and knew all of the employees that worked there. Within moments, we were descending into the catacombs themselves. With that said, skipping the line with a guided tour is only one of the perks.
Of course, you’ll gain a much better understanding with a Paris Catacombs Tour. I learned about so many stories and interesting facts that made this attraction so special. If you walk around without a guide, you’ll see lots and lots of skulls and bones. It’s really cool to see, but it’s even better when you have an understanding of it all. And then there are the areas you can only visit with a guide…
Special Access Areas for Tours Only
There were two areas behind locked gates that regular tourists could not visit. With our historian guide, we were allowed to venture into these rooms. Our small group had these rooms all to ourselves when we visited. We had the opportunity to view two wall sculptures within the ossuary.
The Sculptures de Décure were secretly carved into the limestone by a quarry worker named Francois Décure between 1777 and 1782. One showcases the facade of a building in the Quartier de Cazerne. Another depicts Port Mahon where he was imprisoned, and another carving illustrates a spot called Port Philipe. These sculptures detail his memories or imagined visions of these places.
They’re incredibly detailed and created in such a challenging environment. Decure had to work by torch light, far underground in such a dark and damp place. Sadly, he was killed underground in a cave-in while constructing a stairway to his artwork. A trip to view the Sculptures de Decure are certainly worth a visit. You might find the skulls and bones to be a little too ominous, but these are purely fascinating without the creepy factor.
What to Know Before You Visit
There are a couple of details that you need to plan before your trip. Here are some specific tips for your Paris catacombs tour. There aren’t any bathrooms in the catacombs of Paris, so use the restroom in advance. Please do not touch any of the bones. Your bag will likely be searched when you exit as they want to ensure that people aren’t stealing bones. No flash photography is permitted inside the ossuary, although you are allowed to take pictures. You can bring a bottle of water with you.
Is it Cold in the Paris Catacombs?
It is very damp and cold in the tunnels. It’s naturally air conditioned, so it’s a great place to head in the heat of the summer! So, is it cold in the Paris Catacombs? Yes, it is! This means that you might want to plan what to wear in advance.
What do you Wear to the Paris Catacombs?
What do you wear to the Paris Catacombs? I didn’t really think about this ahead of time and I wish that I did. Bring a sweater on your Paris Catacombs tour. Wear shoes that are sturdier as you’ll be climbing up and down stairs at the beginning and end of your trip (like sneakers/running shoes/closed toed shoes).
Are the Catacombs of Paris Haunted?
So, you might be wondering…are the catacombs of Paris haunted? Well, it all depends on what you believe. I’m not sure that I believe in ghosts myself. However, our guide told us a story about a contest from a few years ago. Airbnb rented out the catacombs of Paris for one night, offering the chance for two people to spend the night there. They set up a bed in the ossuary, naturally surrounded by the bones and skulls. In the evening, it was lights out.
Of course, the mind can play tricks on you in complete darkness. The winners of the contest didn’t end up spending the entire night there. They were too scared. But, it’s hard to say whether or not the tunnels are truly haunted. I’m sure if there was a place in the world that was haunted, it would likely be the catacombs of Paris. I mean, there are 6 million people buried down there!
More Information and Location of the Catacombs
Your tour will meet near the entrance of the Paris Catacombs, which is near the Denfert Rochereau Metro station. The exit of the tour is a couple of blocks away. This tour is approximately two hours in length. Only 200 people are permitted inside the catacombs at any time. I really like that it is restricted, so it never feels crowded down there.
The Verdict: Paris Catacombs Tour
I highly recommend that you visit Paris catacombs on your trip to the city. It might seem a little weird or even creepy to see the world’s largest grave. However, it’s truly fascinating. It’s a little overwhelming to think that every skull represents life. But, it’s a very intriguing part of Paris’ history that you can easily see with your own eyes. You’ll learn so many interesting facts about the history of the city through your guide. I absolutely loved this tour and I’m sure you will, too!
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Thank you so much to Take Walks for hosting my tour. This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.