Over the last few years, the Paris Catacombs have exploded in popularity. Since you will be going down into tunnels, it could be tricky to know what the not-to-miss spots are. Read on to make sure you don’t miss the best sites in the Paris Catacombs.
Pro Tip: Bookmark this article in your browser if you are planning a trip to the Paris Catacombs… it could come in handy! Check out also our 11 outdoor monuments in Paris. For a tour check out our Privileged Access Paris Catacombs Tour with Secret Rooms.
We asked our favorite Cataphiles. (people who study and explore the Paris Catacombs regularly) about the places they visit and their stories. Below are their answers:
6 Things You Should See in the Catacombs of Paris
1. “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.”
Surprisingly the Paris Catacombs have been open to the General Public since 1809 and were created pretty much from the getgo as a tourist destination. Therefore you will notice a sense of theatricality as you are walking through.
Before you enter the main area where you begin to see the bones you will immediately see a sign that reads, “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort.” This translates in English as, “Stop, this is death’s empire.”
In today’s world, where we have the internet, we are exposed to many sights, but imagine back in the 19th century? You would have had the option of either going to the theater or coming here. One other thing to keep in mind is that there was no electricity back in the day, so when you would come down to view the catacombs, you would be walking through these dark tunnels with just a candle. All of that would have added to the theater-like experience.
Before we go on, let me tell you one of the scariest cataphile stories. One day a group of cataphiles happened upon a video camera on the ground. To their surprise, the camera had footage on it. As the group watched the footage, they heard disturbing noises.
It became apparent that the man holding the video camera was lost, and had no idea how to escape. In the video, the audience can clearly draw that the man is going mad inside of the underground network of tunnels.
The video ends abruptly, with the man dropping his camera on the ground. To this day, no one knows who this man was, or if he came out alive. Many believe that the movie “As Above, So Below” was inspired by this tragedy.
2. Rendering of Citadel de Mahon
We have to remember that the Paris Catacombs were designed for tourists, so there were also some exhibitions that were put in. One of the most fascinating ones were created by a mysterious fellow called Decuré.
He was a veteran of the French army and after spending time in Menorca, he perfectly carved the Citadel of Mahon by memory along with other buildings in the area. Imagine what kind of memory you need to do that?
As beautiful as the sculptures are, this story has a tragic ending. Once he finished the sculptures, he started building a staircase in order to allow visitors to easily access his masterpiece. During this construction, the part above him collapses and kills him. While they say he haunts the catacombs, he is not the only ghost here.
During the French revolution, a man named Philibert Apsairt was a doorman at the Val-de-Grâce hospital. On a mission to fetch a certain liqueur from a cellar, Philibert actually ended up entering the Paris Catacombs instead.
Walking around the pitch-black Catacombs alone with just a single candle, Philibert became incredibly lost and confused. Many believe he may have been intoxicated at the time as well. Philibert’s candle blew out, making his vision completely black.
At this point, it was virtually impossible for him to escape the profound darkness of the Catacombs. His body was not found until 11 years later when a group of cataphiles uncovered it.
They identified him by the hospital key ring hanging from his belt. Aspairt is buried in the Catacombs in the exact same place where he died with a tombstone describing his death. Cataphiles and Catacombs folklore tellers say that each November 3rd, Philibert’s ghost haunts the labyrinth of the Catacombs.
3. The Well
At a certain point, you will come across a winding staircase that finishes at a small well. This was the first geological drilling done in Pars. They dug the hole to originally see the various geological layers of the city of Paris.
You will also see a white light shining onto the back wall with the words, ” Bain de pieds des Carriers”. This means literally- Foot Bath of the Quarrymen.
The name comes from a kind of quarrymen joke or you can call it ” Quarryman Humor”. The water is so clear that it’s invisible and you cannot even see it. The new quarrymen would be sent down the staircase and when they got to the bottom they would get their feet soaking wet. As weird as this sounds, I have seen it with my own eyes and can attest that if you are not looking for actual water, then you would have no idea it’s there.
This is not the only well however. Close to the Barrel of Passion ( read below), there is the well where they used to drop the bones down. When the bones were dropped in the well, the narrowness caused some pieces to stick. The priests would then drop a long metal chain in the center of the well and attach it to the bottom in order to shake the bones free.
There are other wells as deep as 45 ft inside the catacombs. One time a girl fell into one of them. She couldn’t climb out of it because the well is flared at the top ( like a funnel). Her friends managed to tie some ropes and clothes do lift her up. The well has been renamed Miss Plouf- after the sound you hear when something ( or someone) falls into the water.
4. Copy of Paris
When you get underground, one bizarre thing you’ll notice are street signs as you are walking throughout the tunnels. You might even recognize some of the names of these streets. That’s because when building the catacombs, they decided to label the tunnels with the corresponding street above. The only difference is that you are 60 ft. ( 20m) below.
Interesting fact is that some of the street names are even outdated, showing you how old the Catacombs really are. Some of the galleries are filled up with bones that are so narrow that you have to crawl to fit in.
The people who are buried in the Paris Catacombs are the same people who were buried in the overstuffed grave sites. Among those who were moved into the catacombs lies Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. It took 12 years to move all of the bodies and bones to their final resting place.
A famous Paris Catacombs legend says that a mystifying thing occurs within the burial site after midnight.
The legend says that if you are inside of the Paris Catacombs after midnight, the walls begin to speak. Disembodied voices will try to persuade you to venture deeper and deeper into the Catacombs until you can’t find your way out.
5. Cross-roads with the lower Catacombs
It is possible to cross from the upper Catacombs to the lower Catacombs via a support ramp. This is a great example to show you the inner workings of how the underground city was organized.
Generally, the quarries were dug out on one level. Sometimes however the quarrymen exploited the stone on two different levels. In the suburbs of Paris, it is actually possible to see underground quarries with 5 different levels. You can imagine at that point how complicated it is to read.
Underneath the alleys of the cemetery of Montparnasse ( where Serge Gainsbourg is buried) a lot of galleries are still running. The cemetery decided to get rid of the mass graves content down there, just like the former Parisian cemeteries did. Unlike in a museum, the bones are just lying on the ground. Therefore, Cataphiles tell us that they are simply walking over them when visiting this section.
6. The Barrel of Passion
In the midst of bones, skulls, skeletons, and all things resembling death, meet the center of it all: the Barrel of Passion. In an area of the Catacombs called the Crypt of Passion, spot a barrel shape consisting of all bones and skulls. It was meant to be shaped like Obelix from the cartoon Asterix and Obelisk
This eerie yet impressive display was made famous in 1897 when an illegal concert was held in the crypt. The concert featured 45 musicians and over 100 guests! The concert featured Chopin’s Funeral March and the Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens in the middle of the night.
The 2 men who organized the concert were actual quarrymen working in that unit and they were eventually found out and fired as quarrymen due to holding the illegal event. It is said that afterwards they were hired back, so all is well that ends well.
Another interesting story about people illegally being in the catacombs is the following:
In 2004, a group of police officers was exploring a part of the Paris Catacombs restricted from public access. They began to uncover very strange things. First, they found a PA system with pre-recorded guard dog barking noises playing. Then, they found 3,000 square feet of galleries, wired for phones using pirated electricity.
The officers found a bar, living area, workshop, lounge, and even a cinema with room to seat 20 people. The cinema seats had been carved into the stones of the Catacombs. The creepiest part was, they saw cameras on the ceilings recording them.
The police squad went back to the area a few days later with a larger team to further investigate. Everything they had discovered, from the phone lines to the Paris Catacombs cinema, had vanished. The only thing they found? A note that read: “Ne Cherchez pas,” meaning, “don’t search.”
The best pay to see the Paris Catacombs is with a local expert tour guide or even a Catophile! That is a person obsessed with catacombs. We run small group tours of the Paris catacombs with expert local guides and even a Catophile. Don’t miss out on a fun learning experience that gets you past the line and into restricted areas to avoid the crowds.