What are the Paris Catacombs?

Garry Crystal

Tourists flock to Paris, France every year. It is a historic city, and there are numerous sight-seeing attractions. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the grave of Jim Morrison all attract thousands of visitors, but one of the biggest tourist attractions is situated in the dark depths below the city streets. The Paris catacombs, officially called les carrieres de Paris, or the quarries of Paris, is not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart.

Secret entrances to the Paris Catacombs can be found through manholes in the street.
Secret entrances to the Paris Catacombs can be found through manholes in the street.

A labyrinth of winding tunnels lies deep beneath the Paris boulevards. In Roman times, they were originally lime stone quarries. In 1786, these quarries were turned into mass burial graves. The original cemeteries in the center of Paris were rife with contamination and disease due to improper burials. The remains from many Parisian cemeteries were ordered to be moved discreetly to the quarries.

Located in northern France, Paris is one of the world's most famous cities.
Located in northern France, Paris is one of the world's most famous cities.

There are around 186 miles (300 km) of tunnels that make up the Paris catacombs. Some are open to the public, but many are restricted and cannot be toured. Some of the tunnels are extremely narrow and prone to flooding. This does not deter some intrepid visitors from entering through hidden entrances to the tunnels dotted around Paris. Secret entrances can be found through the sewers of Paris or through manholes in the street.

The official entrance to the Paris catacombs is a simple door in a small building. From there, you climb down a long, spiral staircase and begin walking through the dark, winding tunnels. Then take a deep breath as you enter another chamber marked with a plaque reading, ArrĂȘte! Cest ici l'empire de la mort, Stop! This is the empire of death.

Your eyes may take a few seconds to adjust to the sight that will greet you. The walls are packed with human skeletons, stacked one on top of the other. Skulls and stacks of bones are arranged inside these walls, some piles reaching as high as 5 feet (1.5 m). The depth of the cavernous walls at some points reaches 20 yards (18 m), all filled with skeletal remains.

The official route for visitors is about a mile long (1.5km), but the actual burials reach much further into the Paris catacombs. There are thought to be around six million skeletons in the Paris catacombs. None of the remains are marked, and the skeletons are mixed together haphazardly. The bones of peasants are mixed in with those of the gentry. In the Paris catacombs, there is no class distinction.

Anyone caught in forbidden areas of the tunnels faces a fine, but the temptation to explore the Paris catacombs unescorted has proven too much for some people. There have been stories of catacomb parties, and there are even rumors that certain people live in the tunnels. If visiting Paris, it is well worth a trip to the Paris catacombs. As long as you have a strong constitution and do not stray from the official route, you should make it out safely.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Captain here. From Paris. Yes we do party in the forbidden catacombs. We also explore, build, dig, unsolder, restore, get lost sometimes, reopen old entrances, and there is a real community of people spending their nights underground.

Tourists, beware, the part you're going to visit is a 'museum.' It does not reflects all of the aspects of history.


When I went on a vacation to Rome, I visited the Capuchin Crypt and the catacombs below the St Agnes Cathedral (I think that is what the place was called). The Capuchin Crypt is about five hundred years old and contains the bones of more than 4,000 monks and friars form the church that it is located beneath.

The St Agnes Catacombs were even older. If I remember correctly, they are about 1800 years old, and they were used by Christian and Jewish churches for burials, and as a safe haven during times of religious turmoil. Both of these places are open to the public, and I would recommend anyone interested in the Catacombs of Paris, make a trip to Rome to check these out.


@ Highlighter- I have heard about Churches in NYC that have underground catacombs. One church that I have heard rumors of catacombs is the Church of the Holy apostle in Chelsea. Supposedly there is a network of catacombs that lies beneath the church. It was built in 1846-1848, so it would completely corroborate with the article you read in the Times. As far as access to the site goes, I would assume that it would be fairly restricted.


I would love to tour the catacombs of Paris. I live in New York, and I recently read an article on the NY Times website that took a look at an old article from the late 19th century. The article was about the catacombs that lie under some of the Churches in the City. There was a period of time when the churches would be built with underground catacombs that were used for burial of the dead faithful. I don't think the city does tours, or if the catacombs are even open to the public, but the fact that they lie below such a modern city is interesting to me.

Post your comments
Forgot password?