The Catacombs, Paris

Visiting the Catacombs of Paris makes for a highly unusual underground experience!

Let’s begin with a little history…

In the 18th century, the French capital wasundergoing a period of considerable growth. This created its own unique set of problems with one being that the city’s cemeteries were practically full to the brim. The Cemetery of the Innocents located in the heart of the city was the most affected, and the problem was further compounded by widespread flooding due to heavy rainfall in the region.
The decomposing dead bodies, that for lack of space had never been properly buried, rose to the surface of the flood waters releasing foul, nauseous odours that made life for the local inhabitants unbearable. It wasn’t just the smell that was a problem though, the cemeteries quickly became a source of pestilence and disease. The city had to act quickly to find a radical solution to what was becoming a major public health problem.

And so it was, that over a period of nearly 30 years, from 1786 to 1814, nearly 150 cemeteries were closed down and the remains of six million Parisians were transferred to ‘ossuaries’ in the empty underground quarries of Paris. Of course, following this massive transfer it was practically impossible to identify the individual dead. What is known, however, is that many notable people from French history were among the bodies that were moved: Charles and Claude Perrault, Rabelais, Racine, Colbert, Robespierre and Danton, to name but a few.

The first time visitors were admitted to Paris’ newly created Catacombs was in 1787. These visits remained strictly private however. In 1806 things began to change with the organisation of public tours for a lucky few, but these were limited in number and then only on certain dates. Over the years, more and more curious visitors were drawn to explore the mysterious depths of the capital and facilities were added over time to accommodate them.

In 2017, the Catacombs underwent its most recent renovations with the installation of toilets and the construction of a new exit, all to increase visitor comfort.

1857 Map of the Paris Catacombs
1857 Map of the Paris Catacombs

If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating and little-known story of the tunnels that snake beneath the Parisian capital, take a look at the book Catacombs of Paris by Gilles Thomas, an expert on this world beyond the grave!

            To learn more about the “Cataphiles”, the intrepid, thrill-seeking, underground explorers who regularly visit the Catacombs, try this book (in French): La Cité des Cataphiles. “Cataphile is the name given to the part-time explorers of Paris’ 300km of underground tunnels under the southern part of central Paris that lie even deeper than the metro lines and sewers.” (B. Glowczewski, JF. Matteudi 1983)

Some numbers…

This gigantic Parisian ossuary covers an underground area of 11,000 m2.

Officially (or legally) it’s only possible to visit about 1.8km of this underground network but this is only a small part of the hundreds of kilometres of labyrinthine galleries that extend beneath the city streets.

Here lie in eternal rest the bones of six million people collected from 150 different Parisian cemeteries.

It took nearly 30 years to exhume and bring all these remains to their new and final resting place.

The Catacombs’ underground arches reach a height of 1.8m.

The average underground temperature is a steady 14 degrees centigrade and the humidity is quite high.

Twenty meters below the metro system and sewers, a sinister, macabre world lurks.

You’ll need to do just a little exercise though if you want to visit it: Once inside the entrance you’ll begin descending 131 steps. To climb out again, another 112 steps wait to bring you back to the surface.

You’ll need somewhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour to complete the visit.

            Before 1983, visits were by candle light as electricity had not yet been installed!

            At the beginning of 19th century, an enterprising individual called Chambéry began taking advantage of the Catacombs’ unique temperature and humidity to grow Paris’ famous mushrooms.

            During World War 2, both sides in the conflict used the Catacombs.

            Several Bunkers were built there, and one of them, located under the Lycée Montaigne, still exists to this day!

            The Cataphiles: A close-knit and dedicated community of explorers!

            Improvised swimming pools used by the cataphiles can also be found scattered underground.

Ready to explore deep beneath the streets of Paris?

Before exploring the Catacombs, a little preparation beforehand will help you better enjoy your visit.

If you just go out of the blue without doing your homework then you might be in for a long wait! The Catacombs are definitely one of Paris’ must-see attractions. They may not be quite as popular as the Louvre Museum or the Eiffel Tower but they still manage to attract some 500,000 visitors every year. With the Catacombs being strictly limited to a maximum of 200 people at any one time for safety reasons, queues to get in can get very long during peak periods!

Queues to access the Catacombs
Queues to access the Catacombs
Catacombs Entrance
Catacombs Entrance

 If you’d like to cut the waiting time in two and be amongst the first visitors of the day, try getting there about an hour before opening.

If at all possible, try and avoid going during school holidays, you’ll be waiting at least 2 hours in whatever weather Paris decides to throw at you. Going at 7pm is a bad idea too, it’s unlikely you’ll get in.

There is hope however! A skip-the-line ticket is one of the best ways of getting in without wasting your time in endless queues. You’ll also get an audio-guide included in the price, a great way of enhancing the enjoyability of your visit. For the best possible experience, we recommend a guided tour. These last about two hours and in the company of your expert guide you’ll be able to visit areas normally out of bounds to the general public.

Your visit consists of a descent to the underground quarries where the amazing gallery of bones awaits.

Spiral staircase
Spiral staircase

Your visit starts with 130 downwardly spiralling steps that will take you 20 meters underground. Comfortable shoes are not a bad idea if you have a pair. Once at the bottom, you will find a series of long narrow corridors. At the end of one of these corridors lies the impressive Port Mahon Gallery sculpture.

Sculpture of the Port Mahon gallery
Sculpture of the Port Mahon gallery

Another fascinating feature is the Bain de pied des carriers (the quarryman’s footbath), where the spiral steps go right below the water table. This is NOT an exit!

Bain de pied des carriers
Bain de pied des carriers

The second part of the visit is not for the faint of heart!

Look up and you’ll see the following words carved into the stone above the small door that leads to the ossuary: “Stop! Herein lies the empire of death!”  This is the first in a series of literary phrases, with many dating from the nineteenth century. Throughout your visit, you will come across this “underground literature”, a series of macabre messages signed by great writers of the time like Balzac, Dumas, Nerval and Leroux, to name but a few.

The entrance to the ossuary of the Paris Catacombs
The entrance to the ossuary of the Paris Catacombs

A murky atmosphere, a peculiar smell, ambient temperature of 14 degrees, all 20 meters underground: you finally enter the ossuary!

It is here, and over a distance of 800 meters, where lie the millions of bones taken from the cemeteries; these bones, sorted and arranged by type, cover the walls from floor to ceiling.

Plaque descriptive des ossements en provenance du cimetière
Commemorative plaque of cemetery bones

While exploring you’ll come across elaborate artistic structures like this one called the Tonneau (the barrel) located inside the Crypt of Passion.

Ossuary art: the Tonneau
Ossuary art: the Tonneau
The corridors of the gallery of bones
The corridors of the gallery of bones

How to get there?

Address: 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (Place Denfert-Rochereau) 75014 Paris

The entrance to the Catacombs is located at the Place Denfert-Rochereau, which is easy to get to by public transport.

Metro: Get off at Denfert-Rochereau (lines 4 and 6)

RER train: Get off at Denfert-Rochereau station (RER Line B)

Bus: Get off at Denfert-Rochereau bus stop (lines 38, 68 and 88)

Practical information

For safety and conservation reasons, suitcases or voluminous bags are not permitted inside. Only bags measuring no larger than 40×30 cm are allowed and these must be carried on your chest or by hand. As the exit is quite far from the entrance (about 700m!), there are no cloakroom facilities. The exit itself is located at 21 bis, Avenue René-Coty.

Photographs for private use are allowed, provided you do not use flash, tripods or any other equipment likely to disturb visitors.

Eating and drinking are not allowed during your visit.

Animals are not allowed.

Please do not touch the bones. Not only are they the remains of once living people, they are also very fragile.

            This visit is not recommended for pregnant women, people with claustrophobia, or anyone suffering from cardiac or respiratory problems. The visit is also not recommended for psychologically sensitive individuals who might find the place disturbing. Young children must be accompanied by an adult. 

Opening hours

Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am to 8.30pm with final admission at 7.30pm.

The Catacombs are closed on Mondays and on the following bank holidays: January 1st, May 1st and 8th, Easter Sunday, the Feast of the Ascension, July 14th, August 15th (Assumption), November 1st and 11th, December 25th.