Paris is a city that seems to evoke a strong reaction from most travelers – they either love it or hate it. Regardless of where you fall on the affinity spectrum, it’s well acknowledged there are certain things everyone comes to Paris to see and do- the Eiffel Tower, the Louve, Norte Dame, eating croissants and drinking wine, etc.
If you’re interested in the darker side of the City of Light though, a visit to the catacombs should be on your list. While not off the beaten path or a secret, visiting the catacombs has an eerie, hidden feel to it.
More than 200 miles of tunnels sit underneath Paris, some of which are lined from the floor to ceiling and as far as the eye can see with bones.
The tunnels were first started in the 12 century to mine limestone, which was used in construction of buildings like the Louve. The mines were forgotten about until a tunnel collapsed in 1774, which spurred a movement to repair the remaining tunnels.
By the 17th century, enough people had lived and died in the city that its cemeteries were overflowing. Only the wealthy could afford a proper burial, and the poor were buried in mass graves without coffins. With time, the decaying bodies started to pollute the groundwater and spread disease.
The decided upon solution was to shut down the cemeteries and store the bones in the old quarries near Denfert Rochereau, beneath the outskirts of the city.
In total, 6 million Parisians’ bones were laid to rest in the catacombs. The tour of the catacombs only shows ~10% of the total remains, which is astounding to think about considering the endlessness we witnessed. Only a portion of the catacombs are open to the public, it’s said there are secret entrances throughout Paris and a labyrinth of unmapped tunnels.
As you walk through the tunnels, you’ll see engravings on the walls when each section was repaired. In some spots, plaques indicate when remains were placed there. Smaller bones are piled up against the walls and the longer ones are stacked up front, along with some of the skulls.
The tunnels are damp year-round, so dress warmly and wear shoes you don’t mind getting a little muddy. If you choose to do a self-guided tour, it should take you about 30-45 minutes. You’ll descend 130 stairs down into the catacombs and climb 83 back to street level.
Visitor numbers are restricted to 200 people at any given time, which means the line to get in to the catacombs can become long. If you’re on a budget, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon before they close, and be prepared to wait (1-3 hours depending on what time you arrive).
We booked a skip-the-line tour in advance, which we decided was worth the price in convenience over time. In addition to saving time, our tour guide was wonderful, sharing fascinating facts about the catacombs as we explored the tunnels.
If you’re just paying for entrance to the catacombs, it’s 12€ for adults. Getting to the catacombs is easy- take the Metro to Denfert-Rochereau. As you exit the station, you’ll see signs for the catacombs.