The Empire of Death: A Paris Catacombs Tour

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

“Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death” reads the inscription on the wall, but I don’t know this until later because it’s in French. I’ve just descended a staircase that has taken me over sixty feet underground into the catacombs of Paris, a 200-mile underground ossuary holding the remains of an estimated six million people. But before I got here, I had a little waiting to do, two hours to be exact. And that’s with an arrival fifteen minutes after opening time, mind you. Touring the Paris catacombs became a popular thing to do in the 1800’s, and it’s no different today.

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

Descending Beneath the Streets of Paris

After making it inside and down a seemingly never-ending staircase (130 steps), we entered a series of underground tunnels. The entire stretch of these tunnels is close to 200 miles, but only a very small portion of that is open to the public. Many of the tunnels are short and narrow, so if enclosed spaces give you the heebie jeebies, I’d think twice about visiting. (What am I saying? You’re here to see old bones possibly infected with the plague. You’re not scared of anything, are you?)

This was when the guy standing in line in front of us thought it would be funny to hide behind one of the corners in the tunnels and jump out and scare me as I passed. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t funny at all. (But his little girls sure did get a kick out of my terrified shrieking!)

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

The Limestone Quarries

Here we are in the blurry “Workshop”. (Sorry, low light makes it difficult to get decent photos in some of the tunnels!) Before these tunnels became the final resting place for millions of Parisians, they were limestone quarries used for mining stone that was used in building Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Louvre, among many other places. The empty spaces where the limestone had been became the perfect place to house bones from nearby overflowing cemeteries.

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

Port-Mahon Corridor

After passing the Workshop, we came to the Port-Mahon corridor where sculptures built by a quarryman named Décure remain intact. This one is of the fortress of Port-Mahon, the largest town on the island of Minorca where Décure is believed to have been held prisoner for a number of years.

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

Exhibition Areas

Just before entering the ossuary, we made our way through a much more spacious section of the tunnels that led us to the final exhibition room. The exhibitions change regularly. When we visited, it was an exhibition about the geology of the land around the tunnels.

We quickly perused the exhibits before heading straight to the crypt, because really, we were here for only one reason – to creep ourselves out looking at old, dead bones. (Give me a break – it was the day before Halloween! If you can’t do something a little macabre then, when can you?)

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

The Paris Catacombs

Femurs and tibia and skulls, oh my! There were stacks upon stacks of bones everywhere once we entered the catacombs! There were so many of them that I forgot for a second they were real. When I remembered that, it got a little freaky. Besides that realization, there was also the niggling thought in the back of my mind that if someone were to close the door and lock us in, we’d be spending the night with six million, possibly angry because they’ve become a tourist sideshow, souls. That thought will give you the willies.

Even though you’re not supposed to, I couldn’t keep myself from very lightly touching the top of one of the skulls. Positive that this quick contact had left me riddled with disease, Lexie refused to come near me for the rest of the day. (For the record, after I did it, I regretted it.)

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

History of the Paris Catacombs

So how did these bones come to rest underground in the first place? Back in the late 1700’s, the Cimetière des Innocents, a popular cemetery in Paris, had become so full of remains that it was a health hazard to those living around it. Plans were drawn up to begin using the abandoned underground quarries to house the overflow, and in 1786 the first of many bones were brought into the Paris catacombs.

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

Coming from cemeteries all over the city, at first the bones were simply thrown into the tunnels, but it wasn’t long before the curiosity of the public motivated the city to renovate the underground cemetery, allowing visitors to enter and tour the catacombs.

Bones are displayed along every inch of wall space in the Paris catacombs, most of the time in tall stacks using skulls missing their jawbones as “accent pieces”. Here and there, bones have been laid out in more artistic formations, like those that make up the barrel in the Crypt of the Passion. It was in this crypt that a secret, illegal concert attended by prominent and wealthy city members took place in 1897. Talk about a unique venue!

A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

Taking a Paris Catacombs Tour

Tours through the Paris catacombs are self-guided and take approximately 45 minutes. In my opinion, after the first kilometer (you’ll walk about two), it all starts looking very similar. Bones, bones, and more bones. Granted, I realize that the sheer amount of remains is part of the appeal, but there are only so many you can see before it gets a little repetitive. Photography is allowed in the catacombs, but using flash is prohibited. Your best bet is to try to shoot directly beneath the lights, everywhere else will only produce grainy or blurry photos unless you’ve got a tripod. (Which I highly doubt are allowed on the tours.) When you eventually make your way to the exit, you’ll only need to climb 83 steps to get up to street level. Much better than the 130 at the beginning of the tour!

Final verdict: I liked our Paris catacombs tour, and I love a lot of the pictures I got from it, but I did not enjoy the two hour wait beforehand. Since tickets are not available for purchase online and still-breathing bodies in the Paris catacombs are restricted to 200 at a time, that’s the wait you’re looking at if you decide to go.

Tickets are quite reasonable at only €8 for adults and free for children. Audio guides are an extra €3. Due to the subject matter and that much of the tour is in the dark, be aware that this might not be the place to bring really small children. Otherwise, if you’re looking for something different, or maybe even a little creepy to do, a Paris catacombs tour will certainly fit the bill!

Paris Catacombs: Website
Address: 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris

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A Paris Catacombs Tour: What It's Like To Visit The Burial Site Beneath The City's Streets

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  • Dong Shao
    February 10, 2014 at 2:54 PM

    Paris is always in my wish list. I have traveled mostly in Asian countries and unfortunately never visited Paris yet. I have heard many praising words about tourist attractions in the city including Catacombs as well. May be in last weak of August I will be there. I also have planned an itinerary for my trip. Please have a look.

    Give me your important guidelines about the trip and itinerary planning. As it is my first time to plan a trip to France so I am very excited about it.

  • Anna
    December 23, 2013 at 5:22 PM

    We did this too! You took great photos considering how dark it is in there – we struggled with ours. It’s very creepy and we had to wait for over an hour too just after opening time. I thought it was worth it and very interesting but I probably won’t be doing that again!

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 24, 2013 at 3:11 PM

      I wouldn’t do it a second time either, but I am glad we did it!

      We ended up using the flashlight app on my iPhone to get a few shots. Placed to the side, it didn’t cast such a harsh light that a camera flash would have. We saw an employee using a flashlight for some other visitors, so we figured it was okay if we did it, too!

  • Emmymom
    December 20, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    You did get so many awesome pictures! Yes, it would be much easier to view all of that without really thinking about what it is

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 20, 2013 at 7:58 PM

      I think if it had been just one real skeleton, I would have been more frightened. But because there were so many, I almost felt like I was on a movie set or something. So weird to think about them actually being people at one time or another.

  • Miwa
    December 20, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    Being a bit claustrophobic, I don’t know if I’d be able to stay calm in there. And just thinking about all of those people, their lives, and their loved ones might be just a bit too much for me! It’s still a very interesting place though! (200 miles of this? Wow…)

  • Jasam
    December 19, 2013 at 5:33 PM

    Interesting and creepy. Looking at those skull pictures gives me the jitters. I can’t believe you even touched them! That’s all you, friend. Pictures are enough for me! *chills*

  • Katrin
    December 19, 2013 at 8:12 PM

    This is on top of my list! I definitely want to go there when we visit Paris, this place is fascinating!And your pictures are fantastic, thank you sooo much for sharing!

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 19, 2013 at 9:17 PM

      I hope you have a great time in Paris! You’ll have to tell me all about the things you did while you’re there. I’m looking for ideas for our next trip!

      • Katrin
        December 19, 2013 at 9:25 PM

        Thank you, Sarah! I definitely will! Can’t wait to post about it! I got a lot of inspiration from your blog!

  • Shaylynn
    December 19, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    uhm. I love you. and no disrespect to the dead, but no. no. no. not ever, no.

  • Jenn Bowers
    December 18, 2013 at 10:39 PM

    WOW!!! That would be pretty creepy. GREAT photos!

  • Alex Fahey
    December 19, 2013 at 3:04 AM

    When I was in Paris the catacombs were closed. I will definitely put this on my list of things to see when we return. I can’t believe you touched one!

  • Keith Wynn
    December 18, 2013 at 3:23 PM

    This reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade :)

  • Amy | Club Narwhal
    December 18, 2013 at 4:01 PM

    Sarah, your photos are amazing! I remember going on this tour when I visited Paris with my family years ago. I would love to go back!(Also, love that story of you screaming–I’m also super jumpy :)

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 19, 2013 at 10:09 AM

      Hi Amy! Thanks for the compliment! Did you go as a kid? My daughter loved it, but I’m curious how most children would react to being around all the skeletons!

      • Amy | Club Narwhal
        December 20, 2013 at 3:39 PM

        I was about 12 so a little older, but my little brother was 8 or 9 and loved it!

  • Mandy Southgate
    December 18, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    Sarah! I loved this post and you had me in absolute stitches with your funny quips. You got some fantastic photos, especially when you consider the low light.

  • Jamie | The Healthy Passport
    December 18, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Soooo cool!!! I have to go!!

  • Sara Louise
    December 18, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    This is something I could never, ever do, you Sarah, are a braver woman than I. I get creeped out just looking at the photos! And oh man! I would have killed that guy for scaring me like that!