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The Paris Catacombs are an unlikely tourist draw. Beneath the city of lights, an empire of death. And yet, more than half a million people visit the Paris Catacombs every year, descending underground into one of the world’s most famous ossuaries for a close-up look at human mortality.
The catacombs began as a solution to the problem of overcrowding in Paris cemeteries, a place to store remains out of sight, out of mind, ad outside the city centre. They are now an official Paris Museum, a setting for family vacations and illegal raves. Airbnb ran a contest to sleep down there overnight. Even Emily in Paris went there.
For me, the Paris Catacombs is a place to think not about death, but about life, and all its fragility. I’ve had the pleasure to go twice. On my first visit, it was still *somewhat* a secret, for the morbidly minded. When I returned in 2022, I discovered a radically overhauled attraction— complete with gift shop. Thankfully, there’s only so much you can gentrify tunnels of human skulls. And so if you visit the Paris Catacombs today once underground you will still get a raw and authentic experience.
There are quite a few things to know before going to the catacombs—from how to score tickets, what you can and can’t bring, and who really shouldn’t go. So whether you’re planning your first visit, or your first visit in a while, here’s the latest on how to visit the Paris catacombs.
What are the Paris Catacombs?
The Paris Catacombs that you can visit refers to a 1.5km circuit located underground, part of a much bigger network of tunnels that are off-limits.
They date back to the late 1700s, when the city of Paris was experiencing overflowing cemeteries. They decided to exhume the remains of several cemeteries and transfer them to an underground site that was, at the time, located outside the city limits. The official name was the Paris Municipal Ossuary.
By the early 1800s, the Paris catacombs were given a makeover. Loose piles of bones were rearranged into a more artful configuration—rows of tibiae alternating with skulls. They added grim messages on stone tablets, such as the famed entranceway announcing: “Arrete, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.” (Stop! This is the empire of death.”) The last bones were deposited here in 1860. Visitors have been coming ever since.
It’s estimated that the number of humans represented by the remains in the Paris catacombs is 6 million. That’s almost three times the current population.
You won’t meet all 6 million on your visit to the Paris Catacombs – only a small section of the tunnels has been made safe for tourists to march through. But there is still a lot to see and to contemplate. I doubt one could count the number of skulls, it’s truly a staggering and sobering sight.
Where are the Paris Catacombs?
The Paris catacombs are located in the 14th arrondissement, on the south side of the river Seine. If you’re also planning to visit the Pantheon, the gardens of Luxembourg park, or the Montparnasse cemetery, this is the same general area so it would make a good combo with any of those things.
Actual street address for the entrance, which was renovated in 2019, is 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, beside the small park called Abbé-Migne square. The closest metro and RER stop is Denfert-Rochereau.
An important thing to note: the circuit is not a circle. You will not exit here. The exit is 1.5km away at 21 bis Avenue René-Coty. For this reason, there is no coat check or area to leave your baggage at the entrance. There is also no washroom here, only at the exit. (Through the gift shop, of course.)
If you arrive before your timed ticket slot, you’ll be waiting in a queue outside the entrance building that is not covered.
When can you visit the Paris Catacombs?
The Paris Catacombs are open every day except Mondays. Standard hours are 9:45 am to 8:30pm. But the last entrance is at 7:30pm.
They are closed for these holidays: January 1, May 1 and December 1.
Most people spend between 45 minutes and one hour in the tunnels. There is a capacity of 200 people inside at once, and most people get the 60-minute audio guide and move through at the same pace. But there’s nobody patrolling how quickly you walk through, if you want to contemplate more or take photos ,etc.
If you understand French, there is a guided tour offered on Tuesdays at 1pm or Wednesday at 6pm. Limit of 20 people and must be over 15. This gets you two hours with an employee of Paris Museums who will reveal more history and secrets of the catacombs. Info and tickets here.
How do you get tickets to the Paris Catacombs?
Buying a ticket in advance is highly, strongly, definitely recommended.
The catacombs have become a must-see attraction in Paris, and with the limited capacity, tickets do sell out.
However, you can only buy them 7 days in advance online, and you must choose a specific time slot. On my last visit, we actually set an alarm in our calendars to remind us!
Tickets are 29 Euro for adults, 27 Euro for those 18-26 years old or students, and 5 Euro for youth under 18. This includes an audio guide you pick up before going underground, available in French, English, German and Spanish. You must pick a day, and a timeslot. Purchase an advance timed ticket here.
There is a discounted same-day ticket for slots that don’t sell out in advance, but I’d only recommend this if you are prepared to be disappointed. (Or if you are staying in Paris for an extended time and can be flexible to go at the last minute.) This costs 16 Euro but does not include the audio guide. Purchase a last minute ticket (if available) on-line here.
Basically, you can’t just walk up to the catacombs and buy a ticket anymore.
Who shouldn’t visit the Paris Catacombs?
Real talk: the catacombs are chilly, damp, small tunnels lined with millions of human bones. That’s not for everyone. But it’s especially not for these people:
Anyone with a disability or mobility issue that can’t walk up and down stairs. There are 131 spiral steps to go down, and 112 steps to climb back up. No, there’s no elevator or other accessible alternative.
Claustrophobic people. The stairways are winding and narrow. Once in the catacombs themselves, there is no natural light, low ceiling, and while not tight like cave spelunking, it’s pretty tight.
Babies. Sure children are technically allowed but honestly? It’s pretty creepy. For that reason, children under 14 are not allowed without an adult guardian.
The catacombs also don’t recommend this for “individuals with cardiac or respiratory insufficiency,” pregnant women, or “sensitive individuals.”
What’s allowed and not allowed?
Yes, you can take photos and videos. Like most museums, no flash. It’s mostly dark down there, but there are sections that have been lit that take a decent photo even with a phone camera.
No touching the skulls! And it shouldn’t need to be said, no stealing the bones to take home either.
Not allowed: any large bag, suitcase, stroller, or motorcycle helmet. Backpacks up to 40x30x20 cm are OK but you must carry them on the front or side, not the back.
Want to see the Paris Catacombs from home?
The pandemic forced many museums to get creative and the catacombs developed a video tour you can stream from home for 5 Euro. It’s presented by a curator, an engineer, and anthropologist. French audio with French subtitles and English audio with English subtitles both available. Purchase here.
And if you like horror movies and want a deeper look, the 2014 film As Above, So Below was actually filmed inside the catacombs. I imagine the filmmakers got permission because they’re telling a story about the reasons you should not go exploring off the official tour down there!
Why would anyone do this?
The term “dark tourism” relates to many things – visiting the sites of mass tragedies, for example, or important battlegrounds of past wars. I’m not a huge fan of the phrase, because it implies that anyone who goes to these places is “dark” – when I know that a site like the Paris Catacombs draws all kinds of curious people. (On my last visit we saw some very bored looking teenagers.)
I can only tell you why I have been, and will go again. Some dark, some less so. So much of the history of this city, and what makes it great today, relates to its urban planning. The decisions made in the late 1700s to create this underground ossuary allowed Paris to grow, to become one of the greatest cities of the world. That someone also decided to make it artful? I’m fascinated by that.
The main reason I visit the Paris catacombs is this: as one of the signs reminds us, “they were who we are.” Death comes to us all. When I look at skulls, I think about life. And it’s different from wandering through a cemetery. There’s no sky above to lift your head towards. There are no pretty birds or trees to distract you. It’s literally row after row after row of skulls, with nothing else in sight for an hour. This makes me grateful, to be in Paris of course, but also to be alive. I may be a dark tourist, but I’m always thinking of the light.
Visit the official Paris Catacombs website for the latest updates.
Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudonaris is an eye-catching photo-heavy examination of the world’s most famous and extraordinary death-themed sites, including the Paris Catacombs.