The Paris Catacombs stretch for miles under the city in an eerie labyrinth made of skulls and bones. Oui, in the late 1800s, they thought that femurs made great deco. Cottage core, but for Goths?
During the Haussmannian reconstruction of the city from 1851–1871, the powers that be were like, « We need more room for living people, so let’s move this millenia’s-worth of Parisian bones from these putrid cemeteries » (they had been stacked up underground like high-rise apartments, layering a mille-feuille of bodies over time).
This, and general poor sanitation management, gave a certain odor to the area surrounding cemeteries and, most appallingly, to the inhabitants of the surrounding quarters. Yes, you could actually smell if a person lived near the cemetery. Eau de gross. It’s no wonder the French are master perfumers.
Few historical facts make me more grateful to live in this glorious contemporary era, but back to the fun stuff.
Visit the Catacombs and check out all the creepy and semi-depressing plaques decorating the place to remind you to eat your vegetables or whatever it takes to not die. Here’s a good one:
‘Quocumque te vertas mors’in insidiis est.
De quelque côté que tu tournes, la mort est aux aguets.’
Translated: Whichever way you turn, Death’ll be waiting for you.
I suppose this was sort of the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ of that era. They even have it in Latin AND French so you can get depressed in both languages.
Don’t confuse the Catacombs (an ossuary piled with bones and skulls for days) with the tunnels (party central). There is a vast network of tunnels under Paris from this same reconstruction era wherein all that pretty limestone we now associate with Paris was quarried from underneath the city. The tunnels remaining after being reamed out of limestone were used for the aforementioned Catacombs and also the metro, our glorious socialist transportation system.
As for the actual Catacombs, as in, the one you can buy a ticket to visit, prepare yourself for some cardio. You must walk down (and up) a flight of stairs that feels endless but that only adds to the freaky vibe you were probably going for. This is one of THE most inaccessible sites for visitors with mobility issues.
Also, the tunnels themselves are relatively spacious, but you will be DEEP underground (not like James Cameron-deep but 131 stairs), so be forewarned (besides the Catacombs’ foreboding signs constantly warning you that we will all die and be bones and such which is the main lesson of the place). If you’re claustrophobic, you might have not be down with this.
There are several ways to visit and get your spook on:
Book a tour with a guide (pricey AF, but you get to cut the epic line. We have been on his other tours and he’s excellent: pablo airbnb catacombs).
Book your timed-entry ticket in advance for a bit more (27 euros), but they sell out quickly as space is extremely limited (book that here).
Show up, get in line, and listen to an audioguide or just read the signs as you walk along at your own pace. This is the budget option as basic admission is about 22–27 euros (last-minute tickets are here, might as well try).
There are 6–7 millions of French people’s bones down there (and probably some Romans, of course, those guys were everywhere), and someone had the idea to organize them by bone type. There’s a hallway of femurs, skulls, etc. It’s like the Marie Kondo of skeletons was in charge.
Many on the pile were guillotined in the (first) French Revolution, so that made the skull-organizing part easy as they were already separated for filing away. Some of the most famous bits and pieces among the anonymous masonry of former people belonged to Maximillien Robiespierre and Jean-Paul Marat, whose murder was immortalized in the painting, Death of Marat.
So if you are feeling posh, book a spot on a guided tour as guides get priority entrance and this is one of the places where skipping the line can be worth the extra 70 or so euros. In high season, the line is a 3–4 hour ordeal as the actual space where visitors are allowed has a limited capacity and it’s as popular with the living as it is with the departed (and deconstructed).