The Paris Catacombs is an unmissable tourist destination for travellers of all ages. In addition, you don’t need to be a fan of the supernatural or an advanced student of European history to truly appreciate the awesomeness of these underground ossuaries.

The Paris Catacombs is also known as the Cemetery of the Innocents. Significantly, it’s the final resting place of more than 6 million Parisians including some famous French Revolutionary figures – Robespierre, Murat and their counterparts.

Cemetery of the Innocents 1550
The Cemetery of the Innocents in 1550 – image courtesy of Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer

The Paris Catacombs and the Archeological Crypt

The Catacombs and the Archeological Crypt on Île de la Cité, are two of 14 municipal museums managed by the Paris Musées public entity. You will enter the Paris Catacombs via the Archeological Crypt on Île de la Cité.

The Crypt was temporarily closed to the public to allow renovations following the 2019 Notre Dame fire. And in the wake of the global Covid lockdowns, all tourist attractions in France have been largely off limits, until more recently – now that the pandemic appears to be over.

Hollywood salutes the Paris Catacombs

The Crypt and the Catacombs were also featured in a 2014 Hollywood suspense thriller, As Above so Below, which was filmed entirely on location within the Paris Catacombs.

The French Government and museum authorities gave the filmmakers carte-blanch to film on location. And the filmmakers used very few props or special effects. The real star of the film was actually the location itself: the Paris Catacombs.

Film poster “As Above So Below” – Image courtesy of Collider – fair use

Unfortunately, the film’s script and storyline was poorly written. The film was clearly shot on a shoestring budget. The found footage cinematography (and endless jump scares) potentially made audiences feel claustrophobic. Every scene in the film was shot in a tight, dark and enclosed space. The movie trailer provides a reasonable synopsis of the film.

Tentatively making my way through the tunnels

Despite this, even after watching the film, “As Above, So Below” I was still keen to visit the Paris Catacombs – and I did – in September 2016. I tried to capture our visit using iPhones and a handheld video camera but the lack of natural lighting made it difficult to get any decent footage.

Brief History of the Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs was officially consecrated as the Paris Municipal Ossuary on 7 April 1786. The site later became known as the Paris Catacombs in reference to the Roman Catacombs.

The Catacombs are located above the former Tombe-Issoire quarries which were abandoned mines. The Tombe-Issoire quarries had been operating since the fifteenth century and they formed a small part of a labyrinth extending beneath the city covering about 800 hectares.

Who is buried in the Paris Catacombs?

The human remains were transferred by the Department of General Quarry Inspection led by French bureaucrat, Charles Axel Guillaumot. Louis XVI ordered this agency to consolidate all the abandoned quarries following major collapses under Paris in the mid-eighteenth century.

Afterwards, and between 1785 to 1787, under Guillaumot’s management, the first site evacuations commenced by moving contents of tombs and common graves from Paris’ largest cemetery, the Saint-Innocents cemetery, which had been used for almost ten centuries. The Saint Innocents cemetery contained around 2 million souls.

Other prominent Parisian cemeteries also had bodies moved and relocated into the Paris Catacombs – including: Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, Madeleine Cemetery, Errancis Cemetery (which housed victims of the French Revolution) and Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux.

Eventually, Guillaumot’s Department began moving bodies at night to avoid alarming the public and raising the ire of the Church. And they were still transferring human remains from the cemeteries listed above until about 1860.

Why did they build the Paris Catacombs?

The Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment from 1809. The Catacombs was created to manage public health problems arising from overflowing Paris’ cemeteries and the pressing need to find a central location to store the remains of what would eventually contain 6 million souls.

Bones in Paris Catacombs
Human remains interred in the walls

In the first few years, the Paris Catacombs was a random boneyard until 1810, when the Director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service started renovations to transform the tunnels into a proper museum. Consequently, the skulls and femurs were stacked into the patterns you see today. They also added monumental tablets and archways with ominous warnings about death and dismemberment – which added to the creepy ambience of the Museum.

How do you get there?

You enter the Catacombs via the 14th arrondissement at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy near the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Catacombs are open from 9.45am to 8.30pm and cost between 27 to 29 Euros to enter (which includes an audioguide). Children under 18 are admitted for 5 Euros. These days all tickets have to be pre-purchased online.

Visitors are advised to wear a jacket, as even in summer, the temperature drops to around 18 degrees Celcius (57 degrees F) as you descend into the tunnels.

Descending tunnels at Paris Catacombs
Descending into the Paris Catacombs

Upon descent, the floor becomes progressively damper while the air is dank and moist. Correspondingly, on the lower levels there are mossy patches which are quite slippery and visitors need to watch their step.

How to Enter via the Crypt?

You will enter the Paris Catacombs via the Archeological Crypt on Île de la Cité, which is located on the square in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Paris catacombs
Enter via the Crypt

The Crypt is worth spending some time in. It showcases 2,000 years of geological history, from Antiquity to the 20th century including:

  • the Quay of the port of ancient Lutèce
  • Gallo-Roman public bathing establishment
  • surrounding wall from the beginning of the 4th century
  • basement of the former chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu
  • medieval remains of rue Neuve Notre- Lady; and
  • foundations of the Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés, and traces of the Haussmannian sewers.

And it has models of various structures, including the structure of Notre Dame Cathedral from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Warning sign at entrance

Another quirky fact about the Paris Catacombs, is the creepy warning sign near the entrance with confusing infographics. The sign has the usual museum warnings: don’t touch exhibits, don’t eat hamburgers or drink beer, take photos, pat the dead and absolutely no pets.

The confusing infographic next to the sign also implies that you mustn’t steal the skulls. This could be a tangential reference to an urban myth about a tourist who didn’t leave empty-handed. Rumour has it that a tourist had removed a human skull from one of the walls of the Paris Catacombs – later taking the souvenir back to their home. Shortly afterwards the bone-snatching tourist reported having nightmares for months afterwards. Because of guilt and mostly fear, the thief eventually returned the skull to Museum.

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for tourists to try and steal skulls or bones from the exhibits. However, it’s strictly forbidden to touch the human remains or try to remove anything from the museum. And museum security may also be checking bags on your exit.

Final Thoughts

Students of history can find out more at the museum’s official website of Le Catacombes de Paris. That website also mentions that the Catacombs run for one and a half kilometres. That distance means that most visitors usually take around 45 minutes to complete the tour. Visitors completing the tour will have walked a total of 243 steps (131 down and 112 up).

Additionally, while the Paris Catacombs attracts around half a million visitors from around the world every year, visitors often face lengthy queues. This is primarily because the Museum only allows around 200 people at a time to enter the tunnels. These limits may be less now and still be incorporating COVID-19 restrictions.

Because of the size of the narrow corridors, limiting visitor numbers is a sensible policy. No doubt, this also addresses general safety reasons and avoids overcrowding making it less likely that tourists will become claustrophobic or panic in the enclosed, dark spaces.

While, there’s lots to see and do in Paris and its not all above ground. The Paris Catacombs is one of the coolest and spookiest museum experiences you will get in the City of Lights.