Wow, are the Paris Catacombs cool. After more trips to the City of Lights than I can count, we finally made it inside this creepy underground ossuary with a skip-the-line tour.
It is not possible to buy tickets for this Paris attraction in advance. And, they only let in 200 people at a time. To give you an idea, the queue when were there at noon on a Tuesday was “pretty good” at an estimated 3 hours long.
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Several companies offer skip-the-line tours of the Paris Catacombs, which is, as far as I know, the only way to see them without a wait. Through Viator, we bought this small-group tour, and I thought it was fantastic.
What Are the Paris Catacombs?
Underneath the streets of Paris, France, the remains of 6 million people lie in tunnels that were once quarries used to harvest stone for the city’s magnificent buildings. Why? Long story short, in the late 1700s, public cemeteries were overflowing.
There was so little space that people were buried on top of each other, and structures collapsed due to the weight. Bodies were exhumed and transferred to the unused quarries, which were structurally reinforced for this purpose.
Originally, bones were haphazardly placed. When the decision to open the ossuary to the public was made, the man in charge, a politician named Louis-étienne François Héricart-Ferrand, had the bones artfully stacked in patterns.
People began visiting in the early 1800s.
The catacomb network is about 200 miles in length, but not all are filled with bones. It has spawned a cult of people called the cataphiles who illegally sneak inside to party, graffiti, and hang out. Some get lost and die. About a mile of the network is open to the public.
How Our Skip-the-Line Tour Worked
I bought the tour and printed a voucher which had directions to meet slightly to the right of the catacombs entrance. Our group was about 16 people in size, including several kids my daughter’s age (9) and a few that were younger.
Our tour was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. A few minutes later, we proceeded directly inside the catacombs through a special line after having our bags checked. You can’t be late for tours like this; otherwise, there is absolutely no way to catch up with the group because you’ll never find them inside.
What’s Inside the Paris Catacombs
The catacombs are located below the city’s sewer system. A guest asked what the dripping water is, pictured below, and our guide said it’s sewer water… though filtered through the stone. Ew.
Before entering the ossuary via 130 downward steps, there is a series of informative placards in small rooms that explain the history of the catacombs. Our tour guide basically summed each one up in an efficient manner that the kids could also understand.
And then we walked through many, many long and dark tunnels in order to reach some of the 1.2ish billion bones inside. But there are also other things to see. A quarryman by the name of Decure who fought in the army of Louis XV created a sculpture of Port-Mahon on the island of Minorca, where he was thought to have been held captive by the English during the Seven Years War. There are various date stamps commemorating when certain walls were built or reinforced, remnants from use as quarry (foot baths for the workers and things like this), and even a bit of graffiti.
If you ever get lost inside this part of the catacombs, our guide said to follow the black line on the ceiling, a remnant from the past when they used torches to guide people inside.
You’ll also see lots of signage that is either spooky or in the form of a memorial. The entrance to the ossuary bears a sign that says, Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mor (Stop, this is the empire of death)!
And then there are the bones… so many bones cleverly stacked everywhere. It’s recommended that you wear backpacks on your chest to avoid bumping into them accidentally.
The Paris Catacombs also the final resting place for a number of famous people:
- Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist and politician from the French Revolution
- Maximilien de Robespierre, beheaded for his role Revolution and the Reign of Terror
- Charles Perrault, known for penning fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots
- and many more
Another advantage of our tour is that we were let into a few rows of catacombs that were off limits to the public. This meant we could listen to our guide without interruption and take photos without people walking through them (though the ossuary is far from crowded). Our guide pointed out little things we would have missed, because we didn’t understand the item’s significance or because of poor lighting.
Paris Catacombs with Kids
This tour at an hour and 45 minutes (others are longer) was the perfect amount of time and level of detail for my daughter and I. I was initially worried she might get bored but she and the other kids were into it the entire time. I do think it was a trip highlight.
The catacombs are not stroller or wheelchair friendly so wear young kids in a carrier and be sure walkers are up for what probably amounts to a good hour of leisurely walking.
I might suggest against a visit if your kids are prone to nightmares. Being inches away from real dead people is definitely dark and creepy.
Other Tips for Visiting
No bathrooms are inside. Bring a bottle of water as there are obviously no concessions either.
It is not suitable for people with claustrophobia, those unsteady on their feet and for those with heart or respiratory problems. The steps down to and up from the catacombs are steep and do spiral so those with vertigo may have issues.
Wear closed-toed shoes, avoid skirts (because of the stairs) and bring a light jacket or sweater as it can be cool underground.
Cell phone service isn’t available inside.
If you do not opt for a tour, there is an audio tour available. I’d highly recommend one or the other so that you get a proper overview of what this unique place is all about. Admission is $11 but included with this skip-the-line tour.
Once inside the ossuary, flash photography is prohibited. This is challenging given the dim lighting.
Exploring the catacombs involves a decent amount of slow, unsteady walking. You will also not exit at the entrance but rather about 10 minutes away by foot.
Expect bags to be searched at the exit because, yes, people steal bones!
I would give this experience five stars and highly recommend it. See other ways to skip lines at Paris attractions.
Have you visited the Paris Catacombs?