Visting the Catacombs

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.

Read about the absolute­ly bonkers Paris tun­nels here, here, and here. Oh, and peo­ple shoot pornos down there. City of Love! 

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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). 

Also, if you have a back­pack or purse, you’ll be searched before and after. Why? Two rea­sons: peo­ple steal bones (of course they do), and peo­ple bring bur­glary tools to break through the walls to res­i­den­tial stor­age caves, one of which famous­ly held hun­dreds of thou­sands of Euros of rare wine. 

The Cat­a­combs are more than just spooky stacks. The antics of the liv­ing are the real draw. 

Address: 1 Avenue du Colonel Hen­ri Rol-Tan­guy, 75014 Paris, France

Metro: Den­fert-Rochere­au (lines 4, 6)

Neigh­bor­hood: Mont­par­nasse, 14th arrondisse­ment 

Near­by: Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens, Mont­par­nasse Ceme­tery, Musée d’Orsay, Notre Dame

Open­ing times: 9:45am to 8:30pm. Closed Mondays

How to book tick­ets to see the Catacombs

From 29€ with an audio guide and 24€ with­out (27€ and 22€ for cer­tain groups), 5€ for kids aged 4–17. Reduced rates for last minute tick­ets on their web­site but lim­it­ed availability. 

Oth­er­wise, you can buy your entry tick­ets here or here

More Stories
Free Things to Do in Paris