What’s so special about the Paris Catacombs?Unlike many cities, Paris has had several cemeteries within the city center for centuries. During the 17th and 18th centuries several of these cemeteries, especially Les Innocents, were severely overcrowded with bodies. That led to a few gruesome events where basement walls in properties next to graveyards collapsed due to the pressure of mass graves. In the late 18th century it was finally decided to forbid new burials in cemeteries inside the city limits and found new graveyards on the outskirts, but this still left the problem of what to do with a large number of remains which needed to be moved. A solution was found at the former Tombe-Issoire quarries, which were outside the city limits at the time. The ossuaries were consecrated in April 1786 and were opened to the public (on appointment) in 1809. The last bones were deposited in 1860, and it's estimated that the site holds bones of at least 6 million Parisians. It was also an eery concert and event venue during the 19th century.
Why are the bones arranged so elaborately?The ossuaries were arranged by Inspector Héricart de Thury, a French scientist, and director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service. Originally the bones were simply dumped into the space, but de Thury stacked skulls and femurs into the patterns which visitors can see, building walls which were able to contain bones and bone fragments while leaving the path free for visitors. He also used original decorations from the cemeteries where the bones originated as part of the display and added inscribed tablets and archways throughout with extracts from literature and poetry. Some critics find these in poor taste, while others find them to be an interesting addition which encourages visitors to meditate on death and mortality.
How long will it take to visit?The audio guide takes about 30 minutes to explain the history of the catacombs and their construction, and it takes between 1 hour and 90 minutes to walk slowly through the different ossuaries.
Is it suitable for children?A visit to the catacombs of Paris isn’t recommended for children under the age of 10, and children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. While there’s nothing particularly gruesome on display, the presence of such a large number of bones may be disturbing for young or sensitive children.
Can I take pictures?You can take photographs inside the catacombs, but please don’t use flash or bring tripods. The site is a burial ground containing human remains, and visitors are asked to be respectful of that when they visit, including when they take photographs.
Are the catacombs accessible to wheelchair users?Unfortunately, they aren’t. There is no elevator due to the historical nature of the site, and visitors must descend 131 steps to enter the catacombs and climb 112 steps to exit them. Within the catacombs, the floors can be uneven and slippery and there are some narrow passageways. Visits to the catacombs are also not recommended for pregnant women, those suffering from claustrophobia or cardiac and respiratory problems, or young children. Once inside the catacombs, you have to move along the one-way system, and there is no exit before the end of the 1 mile (1.5km) path.