I’ve been interested in weird, dead people stuff (as my Mum calls it) for as long as I can remember. Cemeteries, true crime books, serial killers. So, when I first got to London and was planning a trip on the Eurostar to Paris, a colleague strongly recommended that I visit the catacombs when I got there.
It’ll be a long line, but it’s worth it. Trust me. Promise me you’ll go.
He was right on both counts. We stood in line for about 2 hours, which was much longer than it took us to get into any other attraction in Paris. The only time I waited longer was to visit Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam. I loved it. While the catacombs alone were not the inspiration to start this blog, they were my first step down the dark tourism road and a catalyst for visiting many of the other sites I have written about and/or visited.
What are the Catacombs of Paris?
In 1780, heavy spring rains caused a wall around Les Innocents cemetery to collapse, and rotting corpses spilled into a neighboring property. Louis XVI declared that all cemeteries should be moved outside of Paris, and cemeteries began to be emptied from 1786. Over the next 12 years, the remains of six-to-seven million people were re-interred in the disused limestone quarries that run underneath downtown Paris. During the French Revolution, the dead were buried directly in the catacombs. The final bones were relocated in 1860.
Today, the Catacombs of Paris is a popular tourist attraction not far from the centre of Paris. It’s about 1.5km of walking underground, and you will walk past piles and piles of bones neatly stacked according to the cemetery that they came from. There are signs to denote where the bones came from, but not for the individuals they belong to. It doesn’t smell bad, just smells of dirt and damp. It was raining when we visited, so you could hear some dripping and there were a few puddles.
Tips & Tricks – Getting to the Paris Catacombs
The catacombs are located at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
If you take the metro to Denfert-Rochereau, the exit is right outside the catacombs. They are fairly nondescript from ground level, you’re looking for a green building that looks vaguely like a WC. They only allow 200 people to be inside at a time, when we were there the line wound its way all the way around the block. I’ve heard a rumour that they’re trying to cut down on the number of people loitering on the street, and will now give you a timed ticket to come back and enter later, but haven’t been able to confirm that from anyone.
The stairs getting down into the catacombs were scarier (in my opinion) than the catacombs themselves. It’s about 130-something stairs down, and then 80-something on the way back up. Now’s probably a good time to mention that you don’t enter and exit from the same point, you can’t bring large bags or suitcases into the catacombs and there are no lockers or storage facilities. There are also no toilets. The catacombs are kept at a constant temperature of 14C, which can seem shockingly cold when you first enter.
You will first pass through a doorway with the inscription “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!”, which translates to “Stop, this is the empire of death!” There will be some bland, uninteresting corridors at the start of your visit. Just long enough for you to start wondering if you’ve come to the wrong place. But before you know it, you’re surrounded by bones. I had touched quite a lot of them (just a friendly pat on the head, nothing sinister) before we passed a sign saying not to touch. They also will check your bags as you leave as there has been a lot of trouble with people souveniring the skulls and bones for their own personal collections. You will notice obvious gaps, usually where a skull should be. I’m sure it goes without saying, but this is such a shitty thing to do. Don’t be that guy.
The catacombs are open from 10 am to 8 pm every day except Monday. If you want to avoid the lines, I would go later in the afternoon as everyone else seems to have the Dad-logic of “if we go early in the morning, we’ll beat the queue!”. Last admission is 7 pm. You can also pre-purchase tickets online for €27, which is double what you’ll pay on the door. However, no lines. Up to you. I’m a backpacker and my time’s worth nothing, so it was a simple decision for me.
One thing a lot of people ask me is why I would want to visit a place like this. If you have to ask such a question, then it’s probably not the attraction for you. However, if death, dying and the dead fascinate you, then the Catacombs of Paris should certainly be on your bucket list.
remember you will die
remember you are alive