In the collective imagination, Paris has always been the Ville Lumiere, the glittering and luminous city, but perhaps not everyone knows that there is also an underground, dark and mysterious Paris, just as large and extensive as the one on the surface. These are the Catacombs of Paris, one of the French capital’s most unusual and unforgettable attractions.
In fact, 20 metres below the rive gauche, the equivalent of a five-storey building, a veritable labyrinth unfolds, with almost 300 kilometres of tunnels and underground passages, only a small part of which can be visited.
In this eerie underground world of macabre and romantic charm, the remains of 6 million people are preserved: mysterious and fascinating, a visit to the Paris Catacombs is an experience that will not leave you indifferent.
Founded in the Gallo-Roman era and used for centuries as limestone quarries, from which materials were extracted to construct buildings, Les Carrières de Paris were later abandoned to prevent numerous collapses and safeguard the city.
The real story of the catacombs only begins in the late 1700s, when Paris was in a serious state of overcrowding and its population was booming: there was a lack of both sufficient housing and adequate burial places. Due to the saturation of the city’s cemeteries, the unhealthy climate of Paris was causing epidemics to spread, mowing down the inhabitants at an alarming rate.
To solve the problem, the Council of State decided to close the most crowded cemeteries and move the human remains to abandoned quarries outside the city limits. It took two years, but all the dead were moved to these tunnels: today they contain the remains of around 6 million people, expertly and neatly arranged and sorted according to anatomical form. The city would later use the bones to create richly layered walls and structures that are impressive, if decidedly eerie.
In spite of what one might think, not only the remains of unknown citizens ended up in the underground vaults of Paris, but also those of illustrious personalities of the time such as Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, the writer Charles Perrault and some victims of the French Revolution such as Georges Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien de Robespierre.
Finally, during the Second World War, French resistance fighters used the 300-kilometre tunnel to escape the Germans, who had built a bunker under the Lycée Montaigne.
The city of the dead, as the Paris ossuary is often called, is as eerie as it is evocative, and only a small part of the approximately 300 km of tunnels can be visited. In fact, it can only be accessed by guided tour, as there is a very high risk of getting lost in its meanders.
There are dozens of entrances to the catacombs, but most have been walled up or hidden away for security reasons. Today, the only access for visitors is at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, near Place Denfert-Rochereau, a few steps from Montparnasse Cemetery and the Paris Observatory.
After descending about 20 metres through a small spiral staircase, the obligatory route winds its way down for almost 2 kilometres and the visit takes about 1 hour.
We would like to remind you that the average temperature in the underground vaults is 14°, with a rather high level of humidity, so the use of appropriate clothing is recommended. The visit, which takes place through narrow passages with disturbing lighting, is strongly discouraged for people with reduced mobility and those suffering from claustrophobia, heart or respiratory insufficiency.
In order to preserve the beauty of the site and ensure maximum safety, a limited number of 200 visitors are permitted at any one time, which is why queues are always very long and advance booking is compulsory.
During your visit you can admire how bones and skulls have been artfully stacked to create walls, facades and monuments, embellished with religious inscriptions and sculptures. The most significant works are:
Just before leaving this macabre place, you cannot help but read the Latin inscription that warns: He who learned to despise life does not fear death.
The catacombs of Paris have always exerted a great fascination. Even the famous French writer Victor Hugo mentions them in his most famous novel, Les Misérables, describing an underground city of tunnels and galleries in which some of his characters seek refuge.
Over the centuries, the dark and mysterious setting of the catacombs has fuelled many legends. At the beginning of your visit, you cannot fail to notice the inscription engraved at the entrance, which reads: ‘Stop! This is the realm of death’.
The most famous and widespread legend concerns a dark presence, which is said to roam the tunnels of the labyrinth: it is the ghost of Philibert Aspairt, caretaker of the Val de Grace hospital, who wanders desperately in search of the exit after losing his life in the dungeons in 1793.
According to another legend, the voices of the dead can be heard after midnight, speaking and telling their stories by spreading their words through the walls.
Horror film lovers may have recognised these macabre tunnels as the location of a film released in cinemas in 2014: Necropolis – City of the Dead.
This frightening thriller is precisely set in the underground world of Paris and tells the story of the archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe who, intent on following in her deceased father’s footsteps, sets out in search of Nicolas Flamel‘s philosopher’s stone.
The clues left by her father lead her straight to Paris, and to be precise, to one of the tunnels of the Paris catacombs, where the philosopher’s stone is supposedly hidden. Together with four other young explorers-speleologists, equipped with cameras to peer into the catacombs’ underground passages, the archaeologist will discover that the catacombs actually hold access to a frightening and dark portion of Hell, where they will have to face the ghosts of their past.
The film was shot entirely in the Paris catacombs and not on location. It was the first film production in history to obtain permission from the French government to film inside the necropolis. The real locations, consisting of narrow tunnels, low ceilings and lack of light, helped create a certain realism and added to the tension.
Catacombs, the world of the dead, is also set in the underground of Paris, but was filmed entirely on film sets. This time a shy and insecure girl, visiting her sister who is studying at the Sorbonne, attends a rave that takes place in the Parisian underground catacombs. When the police raid and the boys disperse, Victoria finds herself wandering alone in the underground passages, in the presence of sinister presences.
The Paris Catacombs are located at 1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy and are very well served by public transport.
The nearest metro station is Denfert-Rochereau, which can be reached with lines 6 and 4 or the RER B. Alternatively, you can take bus 38 and 68 and get off at Denfert-Rochereau.
City Card allow you to save on public transport and / or on the entrances to the main tourist attractions.