Unsure about your French table manners? Click Here >> to avoid these 10 food etiquette mistakes !

logo on offbeatfrance
logo on offbeatfrance
logo on offbeatfrance
logo on offbeatfrance

Follow me on

  1. Home
  2. Île-de-France
  3. Haunted Catacombs of Paris

The Haunted Catacombs Of Paris: A Peek Behind The Curtain

Next time you take a stroll through the French capital, remember this: below you run many miles of tunnels, filled with the remains of six million people – the haunted Catacombs of Paris.

This is an eerie and unusual place to see in Paris, perfect if you're keen on the city's history, or if you're looking for something to do in Paris when it's raining, or searching for something off the beaten path 

Only a tiny portion of the underground is open to the public, but they are well worth the visit, as long as you don't mind the dark, dank and macabre.

The Paris Catacombs are named after the Roman catacombs, but it's a misnomer. Catacombs are underground cemeteries, with tombs where people are buried. An ossuary, on the other hand, is a room where human bones are stored, as opposed to a burial place. The Paris Catacombs are, in fact, a giant ossuary.

history of the paris catacombs

The catacombs weren't always a refuge for human bones: in Roman times, open-air quarries existed throughout the region, well beyond the city limits of what the Romans called Lutetia, long before it became the French capital. People helped themselves to the stone, first for their humble dwellings, but once the Middle Ages rolled in, for their huge cathedrals as well.

After all, why transport stone from far away when so much limestone could be found so easily just beneath their feet?

As the city spread, it found itself right above the quarries, but constant excavations would weaken the ground, creating an unregulated underground labyrinth that threatened to collapse. Sometimes, it did, like an infamous 1777 collapse on the Rue d'Enfer, which swallowed up an entire house.

Worried about the ground under Paris, authorities set up a General Inspectorate of Quarries (it still exists) to check on the stability of the quarries and to prevent anyone from digging  new ones.

Meantime, the cemeteries of Paris were filling up. The city was expanding, population was growing, and the city's 200 graveyards could no longer keep up with the demand for space. Each time a new grave was dug, bones would be found underneath. The sheer weight of all these bodies was straining the grave walls until finally,  in 1780, an entire chunk of the Cimetière des Innocents, the largest in Paris, gave way, right into the basement of a local restaurant.

Saint Innocents cemetery in Paris, ca. 1550 by Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer

Collapse was not the only danger.

The entire setup was utterly insalubrious, the many mass graves becoming sources of infection and illness, smelling of putrefaction and polluting the wells from which people got their drinking water. As the citizenry howled, Paris finally did something about the overflowing cemetery: it moved the buried remains to the former quarries of Tombe-Issoire, in what is now the 14th arrondissement. And that's how it all began.

The bones were carried in the dead of night to avoid scaring the city's respectable burghers. One can only imagine such a death procession, with priestly robes floating past by torchlight, accompanied by the squeal of heaving carts and the whispered blessings of the clergy as the cortège moved forward.

QUICK TIMELINE OF THE PARIS CATACOMBS HISTORY

  • 53 million years ago: Paris is a swamp
  • 47 million years ago: the city begins to take shape, with rivers and banks
  • 1st century CE: first open-air limestone pits
  • 14th century: first underground quarries
  • 1774: serious cave-in, 300 meters of tunnels collapse
  • 1776: Louis XIV bans mining under Paris
  • 1777: creation of General Inspectorate of Quarries
  • 1780: closure of Saints-Innocents cemetery
  • 1786: municipal ossuary opens in former Tombe-Issoire quarry
  • 1787-1814: more bones transferred from local Paris cemeteries
  • 1809: ossuary opens to the public
  • 1860: last bones brought in after being uncovered during Haussmann's urban works
  • 2002: Catacombs become part of the Musée Carnavalet (History of Paris)
  • 2017-2019: new entrance and exit inaugurated

—Courtesy Catacombs of Paris

The first bones were moved in April 1786, and more would be added over time, as other cemeteries filled up. By 1814, when the quarries finally closed, the tunnels would be home to six million Parisian souls.

They came to be known as the "catacombs", in reference to the underground necropoles in Rome, although in Paris they were ossuaries rather than places of burial. (Eventually, excavations during the 1960s would yield even more remains, which would also find their way here.)

The Paris Catacombs were opened to the public on 1 July 1809 with great fanfare, creating a stir among the glitterati who visited − these included such contemporary luminaries as Napoleon III and the Emperor of Austria.

map catacombs parisThis isn't quite a map of the Paris Catacombs, but it does show you the areas where the mines were once located. Plan by Émile Gérards (1859–1920)

visiting the Paris catacombs

The section that's open to the public is called the Ossuary of Denfert-Rochereau, across the street from the metro station of the same name (Denfert-Rochereau, by the way, was a military leader who led the heroic resistance of the city of Belfort in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War). There's no question this is one of the more unusual places to see in Paris.

Descent into darkness

It's a simple journey, beginning with a corkscrew stairway that plunges you 20 meters underground. There's no avoiding this – there are no elevators.

After looking around a well-lit room filled with information and displays, the hush begins. A pseudo-grand entrance leads you into the Catacombs with these words: "STOP: This is the Empire of Death."

Not discouraging, but not quite welcoming, either. They're not called the haunted Catacombs of Paris for nothing.

Haunted places await

Know that you'll be walking through lengthy tunnels of humid earth for quite a while before reaching the actual ossuary, so claustrophobes should abstain, as should those who have difficulty breathing.

As you advance, any noise will become more muted and muffled, enveloping you in the silence of the earth beneath. The path forward is relatively well marked, but don't wander off because there is no phone signal down here and if you get lost...

There is a famous story about a certain Philibert Aspairt who wandered into the depths of the Catacombs in 1793 but never found his way out (you can read more about him below). Who knows if his ghost isn't still wandering around...

Bones as art

You'll see plenty of astonishing things: bones built up into unusual shapes and structures, signs with names of the streets above, small rooms with vaults...

Rather than the grim and gory scenes you might expect, the bones have been positioned to please, a decision made long ago by the then General Inspector of the Quarries, Héricart de Thury. He set up the bones as museum, with spectacular architectural structures such as doric columns, plaques, altars – and unusually shaped structures, many of which are considered works of art.

Had he been at work today, some of the more whimsical constructions would not have been considered good taste by 21st century sensitivities.

The sculptures of the Catacombs

While much of what there is to see is made up of bones, there are several unexpected sculptures as you wander through the tunnels, most of them dating to between 1777 and 1782 and hewn by a certain Décure, a quarry worker with the General Inspectorate.

A former army veteran, he had fought for the liberation (from the English) of Minorca, in the Balearic Islands, and imprisoned at Port Mahon, the island's capital.

While working in the quarry, he discovered a cavern that had opened after a rockfall. At lunchtime, while his colleagues returned above ground for lunch, he would enter "his" cavern and chip away at the rock. For five years, he fashioned buildings underground that reminded him of those of Mahon.

Sadly, some of the sculptures were damaged during the French Revolution, which would break out shortly after his death, and, in later years, by nature and people, although much has been restored.

What a legacy!

Port Mahon Par Deror avi — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6085528

Looking for more unusual places to visit in Paris? Things to do you may not know about? Here are...
7 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Paris!

the illegal catacombs of paris

Long before the catacombs became commercialized, electrically lit and properly mapped, people wandered down here, to explore. Those who kept coming back are called cataphiles, passionate visitors of the forbidden underground, owners of the Parisian netherworld.

The cataphiles of Paris

There are many Paris Catacombs stories, and with only a small portion of the tunnels open to the public, it is inevitable that adventurers would want to explore the rest and uncover their hidden stories.

How cataphiles came about

People have been visiting the tunnels for centuries but wandering off unaccompanied (by officials) has been illegal since 1955.

Cataphiles as we know them became particularly active during the May 1968 street revolts, when students used the Catacombs to circumvent police barricades. By the 1980s, being a cataphile was often a lifestyle choice, with manholes almost turning into revolving doors, and some underground chambers so crowded their party music clashed with that of neighbouring tunnels.

Enough was enough, and authorities eventually sealed off most of the entrances. The number of cataphiles dwindled, and only the most passionate remained.

That said, the arrival of Covid-19 had an unexpected effect on the Catacombs: it encouraged illegal gatherings, where young people could get together away from prying eyes − and from the curfews imposed because of the epidemic.

THE FIRST CATAPHILE: PHILIBERT ASPAIRT

The doorman of a military teaching hospital, he is widely considered the first cataphile. 

According to the story, he one day ended up in the quarries by following a stairway found in the courtyard. And he lost his way.

Eleven years later, he was found, identified by the keychain he carried on his belt.

Not everyone believes the story, but it does serve as a cautionary tale for those who would wander around unprepared.

Today, Philibert is widely considered the cataphile patron saint.

Being a cataphile is not risk-free

There's no question security is an issue.

The possibility of getting lost exists, of course, and there's no phone signal down there. But that's not all.

There be rats. Of course there are: we're underground! Rats carry diseases, like leptospirosis, and these days, we know how dangerous that can be.

There are other possible dangers. The tunnels could flood – some are already half-full of water, or could cave in, because not all the tunnels have been reinforced. And you can't assume all cataphiles are friendly. In fact, some are downright sinister and muggings underground are not unknown.

Undeterred? Still want to go?

Tracking down a cataphile

To many cataphiles, tourists who simply want to experience the forbidden Catacombs as a bucket list item are cause for disdain.

But that doesn't mean you won't find someone to guide you.

Since this is an illegal endeavour, cataphiles willing to guide don't advertise. Fines have become stiffer and motion sensors make a visit riskier, so a cataphile might not necessarily be overjoyed to have some stranger tagging along.

You'll have to build a relationship first: they're guarded about their underground travels and a simple request for a guide might be ignored. Plus, they don't know you. You could be a serial killer and who wants that kind of company deep underground, where not even text messages reach?

That said, there are plenty of sites dedicated to exploring the Catacombs, but they're all in French, so if you do speak the language, you'll probably find someone if you try. You can browse through the Twitter #cataphiles hashtags. There are forums (here's one) where you can talk to real cataphiles and, who knows, maybe convince one to take you down. There's also this listings page.

Before you become a cataphile

If you get that far and actually connect with someone willing to take you down, you'll be instructed on what to wear (waterproof shoes, a flashlight, drinking water, food, a map if you can find one, candles...), where to meet, how to behave. Here's a brief survival guide, again, if you read French.

If you're curious about what's down there, this short YouTube video will give you a glimpse (and you might just change your mind).

Cataphiles and catacops

That's right! It's not what they're called but since 1980 a special police brigade has been patrolling the Catacombs, looking for... cataphiles, of course.

Several times a week, they head into the tunnels, hoping to dislodge a few insistent cataphiles in what often turns into an unofficial game of hide and seek.

They look for clues (they are police, after all) – these could be cigarette or marijuana butts, the smell of fresh paint from tags or wall art, the sound of distant music from an underground party, an empty can or bottle... and often, they find people and parties. One night, they stumbled upon an entire discotheque with 300 guests. They also seal off new entrances when they find them, and rescue the occasional lost soul who wandered down, thinking it would "be fun".

The fines can range from €60 into the thousands but the lowest fine is usually applied when no damage has been done. That said, patience is eroding and fines are creeping up.

It's a frustrating job because it's dangerous, it's wet and smelly, and spending hours of the night under those conditions may be fun for cataphiles, but the police aren't amused. Not to mention the menacing tags they sometimes find scrawled on the walls about an unwelcome police presence.

Even the police don't know their way around it all: in 2004, they discovered a motion-sensor recording of dogs barking, designed to keep people away, along with a huge cavern equipped as a cinema, with a bar and restaurant next door (along with phone and electrical installations). When they returned a few days later with electricians, everything had been disconnected and a note left behind: "Do not try to find us." 

And while their primary job is finding illegal visitors, they have another job: they check on the tunnels themselves, to make sure nothing has shifted or is in danger of collapse, a quick spot-check brigade whose eye can help spot trouble before it happens.

Haunted Catacombs of Paris: the legend of the cat skulls

Let's leave the cataphiles and focus on the cats.

Many Paris catacomb legends may be true, or not, but the story of the cats' skulls is guaranteed to give you chills. It is to be found in a book about underground Paris, which revealed an 1896 discovery of hundreds of skulls in the tunnels. Cat skulls.

It seems the catacombs shared a well with a nearby restaurant, undoubtedly run by an unscrupulous manager who passed off felines as rabbits, their taste apparently resembling one another.

This being an unacceptable practice, disposing of cat carcasses in the well isn't, well, inconceivable. Yet another of the creepy stories are told about the Catacombs...

The hidden uses of the Catacombs

As cataphiles became familiar with the tunnels, they often returned to the same rooms and eventually made themselves at home, decorating walls, bringing down furniture, adding street art to the walls and naming their secret rooms according to purpose or decor − La Plage (the beach), Le Cellier (the cellar) or La Salle du Chateau (the castle room).

The high-ceilinged "Room Z" may have been a gathering place for a right-wing splinter group in the 1930s, and was the scene of massive parties in the 1980s.

The catacombs have been used to grow mushrooms, to meet for illicit sex, or even as nuclear shelters. During World War II, the Germans built a bunker down there, complete with electricity, reinforced doors and toilets. And until the 1970s, a mass was celebrated down here each year for the Day of the Dead.

While cataphiles may know their way around, the same cannot be said of others who don't drop by often.

Sadly, the Catacombs are not immune to vandalism and regular clean-ups are needed to get rid of the worst messes. A few years ago, vandals caused much destruction several months were needed for repairs.

faq

What are the Catacombs in Paris?

The Catacombs are an ossuary, an underground cemetery, built inside tunnels beneath the streets of Paris.

Why are there Catacombs in Paris?

The Catacombs are former quarries, which were transformed into ossuaries when the city's cemeteries became too full.

When were the Paris Catacombs built?

The quarries have been here for centuries, but were used to house human remains beginning in 1786, when the first bones were moved here.

Who built the Paris Catacombs?

The quarries date back to Gallo-Roman times, but the actual Catacombs were developed by the French government in the late 18th century.

How deep are the Paris Catacombs?

The Catacombs are located 20 meters / 65 feet underground.

How long are the Paris Catacombs?

While the tunnels as a whole are about 250-300 km (155-186 miles) long, the actual Catacombs are only 1.7 km (1 mile) long.

How many bodies are in the Paris Catacombs?

The Catacombs house the remains of six million Parisians.

Have the Paris Catacombs been fully explored?

Certainly not. They are huge, some areas are impassable, and there is no real original map of the Paris Catacombs.

Are the Paris Catacombs dangerous?

Not at all, at least not the "official" Catacombs, those open to the public. The only difficulties are the spiral entrance stairway, and the long, dark hallways, which could be difficult for people who have problems with small spaces. 

A few more facts about the catacombs of paris 

  • The tunnels run some 250-300 km (155-186 mi) under Paris. The ossuary, the part where the bones are kept, accounts for some 1.7 km (1 mile). The passageway is about 1.8m high (6 ft), although I'd quibble about this in some parts, where I was sure I could feel the ceiling not far above my head. The temperature is a uniform 14℃ (57℉) so don't forget your sweater.
  • The tunnels are well lit but I felt better having a flashlight. What if there was a power failure? (Here's my favourite.)
  • Good walking shoes are a must, not only for the stairs down and up but because of the humidity on the ground.
  • People actually try to steal some of the bones, despite the numerous security cameras stationed throughout the Catacombs.
  • Did you know there's a Paris Catacombs movie? It's called As Above, So Below, and is a Blair Witch-type shoot of a trip down below. It's a horror movie so no, I haven't seen it.
  • You can visit the official Catacombs on your own or with audio guide. Frankly, I didn't find the audioguide particularly helpful, although it did point out one or two things I might have missed otherwise  − at 5 euros for the guide, we're looking at 2.5 € per fact, added to the steep entrance fee. (Click here to get your tickets for Catacombs Paris.) If you'd rather be with a small group, this Catacombs of Paris tour might be the answer.
  • This is also one of the fun things to do in Paris with kids! While there's no minimum age limit, it's not recommended for children under 10.

If you liked this story, please share it on social media!

You might also like these stories!

Shop this post on Amazon

Pin these and save for later!

catacombs pin1
catacombs pin2