I haven’t done many tourist type things since living in Paris. I am gradually making my way through the famous attractions, but my focus is more on experiencing the rhythm of everyday life here.
I had been looking forward to seeing the catacombs since before I arrived in Paris. I’ve been intrigued by them for a while. Before this experience I wondered what they are, why they exist, and what the tour is all about.
I learned a lot, and my curiosity was satisfied.
I went to see the catacombs with my friend Caitlin who was in Paris for the month of June. It was her last day in Paris before flying back to the US, and this is one of the things we had been wanting to do while we were both in the city.
It was a rainy day and the line was long. The waiting time can be a few hours when it’s sunny. I’d imagine it was a little shorter than usual due to the weather.
We chose not to stand in the line. We bought our tickets in advance and got to go straight to the front when we arrived.
There are many vendors offering these tickets, and a quick Google search makes buying them seem more complicated than necessary. Fortunately for you, I have explained the best way to buy tickets online and where to get them from. Keep reading to find out.
We booked the guided audio tour. It contains a headset to listen to while walking through the tunnels, providing historical information and anecdotes about the catacombs.
I must say, the catacombs are one of the strangest places I have visited in my life, simply because it’s so different to most other experiences.
I don’t recall if I have ever seen a real human skeleton before, but seeing the bones of so many humans stacked neatly into patterns was almost surreal. I couldn’t help but thinking about all those lives, all their stories, all the families, and how they all died.
Death is something a lot of people don’t think about until they are personally affected by it. But it’s something that is inevitable, and something we all will face sooner or later. During this tour it’s hard not to think about death. Perhaps this is a good thing, as I’m sure this experience puts life into perspective for many people.
There is a sign above the entrance to the catacombs, which reads: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort!
This translates as: Stop! This is the empire of the dead!
This dramatic statement does a good job of setting the tone for the tour.
What are the catacombs?
Basically, the catacombs function as a mass graveyard. By the mid-1700s, Paris was experiencing an overflow of corpses in the local cemeteries, particularly Les Innocents, the largest and oldest cemetery in the city. As you can imagine, the city smelled terrible, and this was affecting quality of life, health, and business in central Paris.
In 1780 a prolonged period of rain caused a wall around Les Innocents to collapse. This spilled corpses into the city and it was decided that something needed to be done about the situation. The bones kept in the cemeteries had to be relocated. The old mines underneath the city would become the new home for these remains. Thus, the catacombs were born.
The remains of more than 6 million people needed to be transported, so this was a tremendous endeavour. The work began in 1786 and it took twelve years to move all the bones underground. Some of these bones were up to 1,200 years old.
The relocation of these remains had to be done in a respectful way. The bones were ceremonially blessed by Catholic priests before they were moved to their new location. Once taken underground into the catacombs, the bones were intricately arranged.
Today the catacombs are open to the public, where we can learn about this unique chapter in the history of Paris.
I’d recommend this fascinating experience to anyone visiting Paris. It’s an interesting (although admittedly macabre) change of pace from the usual tourist attractions.
If you are claustrophobic, or the thought of seeing thousands of human bones makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps this experience is not for you. Go check out Parc des Buttes-Chaumont instead.
Where to buy tickets?
There are a number of options to buy tickets to the catacombs. You may purchase them at the door, although the waiting time can take hours.
There are several ways to buy tickets online. The official Mairie de Paris tourism website sells online tickets. The tickets cost €29 and this includes the audio guide. There is a catch: the website is only in French, and the system is not efficient. I tried to buy tickets from there and I couldn’t find a way to buy more than one ticket at a time. The select a date feature didn’t seem to work properly either. So I kept looking.
I found other websites offering skip the line tickets. The prices for these started at €80, which costs significantly more than buying tickets at the door. Eventually I found a useful website called Headout. They offer a number of Paris experiences for reasonable prices. The website is easy to use and the service is efficient. I bought our tickets here for €30 each, and this includes the audio guide. Headout seems to be the best option for buying tickets online, and I would recommend them. I was impressed with their service and I will probably try out some of their other packages soon.
Next time you’re in Paris, get underground and visit the catacombs. And book the audio tour while you’re at it.
A word of advice: if you have the audio guide, listen to it all the way through. We were so immersed in the catacombs experience we forgot to listen to most of the guide, and before we knew it we were already at the exit! So we sat outside and listened to the rest of the recordings while everyone else was leaving. It was totally worth it though.