Compellingly Creepy: A Guide to Visiting the Paris Catacombs
Stop! This Is the Empire of The Dead
Engraved in the stone entryway of the Catacombs below the streets of Paris is a warning:
Arrete! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort!
Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead!
Sounds very welcoming, doesn’t it? However, if you ignore the sign and enter anyway you’ll find one of the most intriguing attractions in Paris.
The Catacombs were created because in the 1700s Paris had more dead people than it had space to bury them all. It was becoming a problem, especially when an overstuffed cemetery resulted in a wall collapsing and corpses spilling into a local basement. The improper disposal of bodies was leading to unsanitary conditions and the spread of disease.
So, they exhumed more than 7 million bodies over the next several decades and moved the bones to the Catacombs. (The tunnels themselves were already there, a byproduct of when limestone was quarried to build the city.)
These underground ossuaries hold 200 miles of tunnels and rooms filled with bones, neatly stacked on top of one another in macabre little displays. A pile of femurs here, a tidy arrangement of skulls there — some even in an artistic arrangement such as a heart shape. Are they haunted? Maybe, if you believe in that sort of thing. But even if they aren’t, they are creepy enough.
Interested in checking them out for yourself? Here’s a guide to going on a Paris Catacombs tour.
Booking Tickets and How to Get There
The entrance is located in the 14th arrondissement, on Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. You can reach it via the Metro — just get off at Denfert-Rochereau.
The advice from many who have visited the Catacombs and written reviews or blogs online is to book your tickets in advance and get there at least 45 minutes before it opens, so you don’t have to wait a long time in the queue. (Only 200 people are allowed in the Catacombs at once.)
However, Heather from SecretsofParis.com says that the best time to visit is around 6:00 p.m., approximately an hour before the last entrance.
Also, be sure to take a moment to check out the underground space that is used for themed exhibitions right before the entrance to the ossuary. The exhibition changes, but it’s always something fascinating about the history of Paris.
The 2-kilometer walk through the Catacombs takes around an hour. If you struggle with claustrophobia and think spending a lot of time in an enclosed space with a bunch of skeletons might freak you out, you might want to skip this Paris attraction.
More Tips for Visiting the Catacombs
- There are workers within the Catacombs to answer your questions. It’s also possible to purchase an audio guide for 3 euros, which you can listen to in order to glean more historical insight from your visit.
- You should absolutely wear sturdy footwear. You’ll need to climb down steep stairs and the floors in the Catacombs are uneven. Watch your step!
- Bring a jacket! Even if it’s warm and sunny above ground, the temperature in the tunnels is a cool 14 degrees Celsius.
- There are no bathrooms or water fountains in the Catacombs, so make sure you use the toilet before you go underground.
Look for Bones from Significant Paris Historical Events
As you creep through the underground passageways you’ll find bones of those who died in a range of significant events from Parisian history, such as the riots at the Place de Greve in 1788.
You can also find the bones of some significant people from history, such as the radical revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, the writer Charles Perrault (known for “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella”) and Salomon de Brosse, the architect who designed the stunning Luxembourg Palace in Paris.
Respect the Dead
While exploring this Paris attraction, don’t forget that this is a mass grave — the final resting place for millions of souls. Act as you would in any graveyard and make your way through the tunnels with quiet respect.
Many tourists have defaced the tunnels (you can see graffiti dating back to the 18th century) and some have even tried to take a small bone as a souvenir. However, your bags will be searched as you exit! Instead of disturbing this final resting place, why not treat yourself to something from the gift shop across the street?