Paris cemeteries were overflowing in the 1700s, leaching disease into the water and soil and stinking up the city (plus literally overflowing into some particularly unlucky people’s cellars), so an old limestone quarry occupying 200 miles of land below Paris was converted into an ossuary that now houses the bones of over 6 million Parisians. One particular man put in charge chose to organise the bones in patterns and engrave all sorts of biblical quotations around the ossuary to give the dead their due respect. Or to frighten people, as this engraving directly outside the ossuary certainly suggests: “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead.”
I don’t want to oversell the Catacombs, but they are probably the most interesting thing we visited in Paris and definitely a must-do in my book. The line was remarkably long, so it’s far from Paris’ best kept secret, but it’s something I think a lot of travellers overlook and really should be one of the attractions you squeeze in!
All the details: Les Catacombs
Cost: Buy tickets to the Cataombs for 10€ (under 25’s; 12€ for adults). The audio tour is an additional 5€, which I would strongly recommend.
Getting there: The Catacombs are easy to reach via the #6 metro or RER A (depending on where you’re coming from), getting off at Denfert-Rochereau and just exiting onto the street. The Catacombs are immediately across the road, as well as signed and usually identifiable by the long line of people outside.
Top tips: The Catacombs open at 10am, but we read online that the lines tend to pile up due to strict limits on the number of people down there at once, so we went around 930am and still waited close to 90 minutes to be let in. If you can, get there even earlier!
It’s not a sad place to visit insomuch as a creepy one—these aren’t mass graves that housed victims of genocide or anything horrible, just underground tunnels filled with human bones, albeit unidentified, from natural deaths. If you really want to increase the creepy factor, watch the horror film As Above, So Below, which was actually filmed in the catacombs, and you will positively poo yourself, it’s horrible, but also do it..
There is a lot of history down in the Catacombs, as explained by a great audio tour, and even some geology fun for all you rock lovers out there (looking at you, dad). I wish I remembered more rock information from the tour, but a lot of it went right over my head. I do recall that the quarry yielded mainly Lutetian Limestone, named for Paris’ ancient city name (Lutetia) and dating back approximately 45+ million years in terms of rock layers. Excitement for the whole family.