23 Interesting Facts About The Paris Catacombs You Probably Didn’t Know
Want to learn more about the Catacombs in Paris? This post will give you all the interesting facts about the Paris catacombs you probably didn’t know before!
One of the things you may not know about Paris is that it is ironically built atop dead bodies in the catacombs.
The Paris Catacombs comprise a cluster of ossuaries and a stockpile of bones belonging to people dating back to the 18th century and a whole network of tunnels spreading for miles (kilometers) under the capital of France.
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This might sound morbid and gruesome to some but if you enjoy learning about strange things, then these interesting facts about the Paris catacombs might fascinate you.
From their origin to the weird activities in the cold dark, the catacombs have stories of their own to narrate for whoever wants to listen.
Before You Go, Here’s How to Plan Your Visit To Paris: Practical Quick Tips
WHERE TO STAY
Best Eiffel Tower Views: Hôtel Le Walt (9.0)
Luxury stay: Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel (8.2)
Mid-range stay: Hôtel Eiffel (8.7)
Budget Stay: People – Paris Bercy (8.9)
Apartment Rental: Résidence Charles Floquet (9.1)
BEST GUIDED TOURS
Louvre Museum guided tour: (4.5/5)
Seine River Dinner Cruise: (4.7/5)
Montmartre Walking Tour: (4.8/5)
Le Marais Walking Food Tour: (4.5/5)
Versailles Guided Tour: (4.8/5)
Eiffel Tower Guided Tour: (4.4/5)
- Considering travel insurance for your trip? World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation, and more.
- Prepare your trip extensively with this Paris Travel guidebook.
- Don’t forget a universal travel adapter, a travel neck pouch, and comfortable walking shoes.
- Consider getting either the museum pass or the Paris city pass if you plan to visit a lot of attractions. The city pass comes with free transportation and access to the hop-on-hop-off bus. You can read my Paris museum pass review to see if it’s right for you.
- Book this private transfer from CDG airport to Paris to avoid the hustle of figuring out how to get to Paris.
Fun Facts About The Paris Catacombs
This extensive and eerie burial site has guided tours (this is the one I recommend) if you’re interested but it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Once you’re several feet under, you will be greeted with mounds of bones and piles of century-old skeletons, which might be too unpleasant or shocking for some to see.
Apart from this, if you have claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), necrophobia (fear of corpses), or any underlying health problems, you may want to reconsider visiting this place.
However, if the catacombs still pique your curiosity or you just want to learn more about them before your visit, then here are 23 interesting and weird facts about the Paris catacombs you need to know.
Psst… If you want to visit the Catacombs, make sure that you book this skip-the-line ticket to avoid long queues, or better yet book this Paris catacombs guided tour to learn more history about them and access some restricted areas that can only be visited with a tour guide.
1. the Paris Catacombs Are Bigger Than You May Imagine
Among the catacombs of Paris facts that might interest you is the sheer extent of their size.
The expanse and depth of the catacombs are unimaginable. Some swear they’re 300 km (185 miles) long, but others suggest they might be 500 km (310 miles). It is also believed that they cover a total area of 11, 000 square metres.
Depth-wise, they’re about 20 meters (65 feet) underground. To put it into perspective, this is close to the height of a 5-story building. And, there are close to 250 steps when you combine those to go up and to go down.
Suffice it to say, the catacombs are huge, and some portions of them are still unexplored remaining uncharted.
2. It wasn’t always called Catacombs! initially, it was Paris Municipal Ossuary
The Paris catacombs weren’t always called so. The largest cemetery in Paris, used for many centuries to bury the dead, had to be closed in 1780 due to space constraints.
Subsequently, the remains needed to be moved from there. The underground quarry sites were prepared to become resting places for the dead bodies.
Eventually, it was consecrated as the Paris Municipal Ossuary on April 7, 1786. Later on, people fascinated with the Roman catacombs started referring to this site as catacombs too, even though the ossuary covered only a minor section of the mines.
3. The catacombs were previously limestone quarries
If you want to know some lesser-known facts about the catacombs in Paris, here’s one for you.
Before becoming a burial site, the area was a bunch of mines called the Tombe-Issoire quarries.
A particular kind of limestone was mined from it, known as Lutetian limestone. This limestone was used for various buildings in Paris (like the Louvre museum, Les Invalides, etc) around the 15th and 16th centuries.
When the quarries didn’t have more stones left, miners stopped using the shafts, and the quarries were abandoned.
4. Some parts of the Catacombs are not open to visitors
Due to their extensive depth, the catacombs cannot be fully explored. In fact, many areas within it have restricted access and are difficult to get to.
The part open to the public is called the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, which forms a small area of the entire catacomb network.
However, there is a community of enthusiasts who like exploring the catacombs called cataphiles.
They frequently traverse them as much as they can, sometimes even exploring the parts blocked off/not open to the public. Please note that these parts are not safe and should not be explored.
5. There are more people buried there than alive in Paris
The largest cemetery in Paris at the time, the Holy Innocents’ cemetery, had over 2 million remains buried in it.
But once the remains were excavated and moved into the quarries (since some parts of the Holy Innocents’ cemetery collapsed), it was decided that other cemeteries having space constraints would also move the bodies into these mine shafts.
Slowly, the bodies started piling up (quite literally!), and the last count is said to be over 6 million bodies which is much more than the 2 million people living in Paris.
Hence, there are more dead people below the city than alive above ground. If this isn’t one of the eeriest Paris catacombs facts, then I don’t know what else is.
6. Famous people have visited it since its opening
The ossuary, or catacombs as it is now known, was opened to the public in 1809. For years, the only way to enter was by registering names in a register kept at the entrance.
This ensured a check on the number of people visiting the tunnels while keeping a record of them.
Since prominent people were buried there, some famous personalities came to pay respects, and others to indulge in the catacomb’s curiosity.
Some of these were the former King of France, Charles X (Count of Artois), the former Austrian emperor, Francis I, and Napoleon III with his son.
7. There’s a Gate of Hell below, and the catacombs extend from there
If you’re ready for another one of the Paris catacombs’ scary facts, here it is. Paris has a pair of tollhouses on its outskirts that were former city gates called Barrière d’Enfer (Gate of Hell).
The structures remain, although they are no longer used for their intended purpose. Some say the gates were named after the street Rue d’Enfer, infamous for nefarious activities.
Others say it could be because of the material used to build them (en fer which translates to “of iron”).
But regardless of the origin of the name, the catacombs extend south from these Gates.
8. The last bones and remains to be put in the catacombs were in 1860
Nearly 2 million remains had to be moved from Les Innocents cemetery, which took almost 15-18 months.
Following this, bodies from other cemeteries were also moved into the quarries. By the end of this, the French Revolution (1789-1799) began and more bodies piled below.
Until 1814, dead bodies were still being transferred into the quarries. But, between 1814 and 1840, there was opposition to this movement, so the transfers stopped.
Afterward, they began again, until 1860, when the last remains were transferred.
9. Bones were displayed creatively after 1810
From 1810 to 1814, French politician and mining engineer Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury decided to rearrange the bones.
What initially started as a dumping ground for the bones turned into a museum that displayed them like artworks.
Macabre art has its own following, and people have since then appreciated the creative displays. Skulls and bones were placed in patterns, used in archways, and arranged in shapes.
10. The catacombs were opened to the general public in 1809
After the dead bodies were successfully relocated from different cemeteries, the public became curious to see what was below.
Initially, entering the catacombs was off-limits but finally, in 1809, they were opened to the public, albeit with some restrictions and by appointment only.
To enter inside, people had to enter their names in a register kept at the entrance, and entry was only allowed a few times a year and with prior permission.
Over the years, this changed and now they’re open throughout the year and allow every kind of visitor.
If you want to visit this peculiar place too, then all you need is to purchase this skip-the-line entry ticket that comes with an audio guide. Alternatively, you can opt for this guided tour to learn more history about it.
11. Paris Catacombs were used as underground tunnels in WWII
One of the most interesting facts about the catacombs of Paris might be this one.
During World War II when Germany occupied France, the French Resistance took advantage of the Catacombs below their capital and used them as hideouts since the underground tunnels and hidden pathways made for the perfect hiding spot.
However, the French Resistance was not the only one to see the Catacombs as good hiding spots.
The Germans too used them, evident from the German bunkers found there. At one point, it was discovered that tents from both parties were not so far away from one another.
12. Tall buildings cannot be constructed near the catacombs
One of the scariest facts about the Paris catacombs is that a large area of the capital is built on top of underground tunnels, of which nobody knows the extent.
In the 1700s-1800s, reckless construction was happening across the city and by doing so, the city workers were digging their own graves, ironically, since the earth would collapse with the buildings above it.
Alarmed by sections of the city caving into the ground, by the late 1900s, the French government took drastic measures.
They announced that not many tall buildings would be built in the city, especially near the tunnels of the Catacombs and every structure would have a weight restriction.
13. Part of the tunnels of the catacomb is still unmapped
Since the catacombs were mines earlier, miners kept digging further in different directions to unearth more stones but no one kept track of how far they dug or how much was being dug. Slowly, it became a maze of unmapped tunnels.
Two medical doctors, Jean Talairach and René Suttel explored the Catacombs in 1938 and mapped however much they could discover but they couldn’t cover the entire thing.
This map was later donated to the French Resistance to help them use the Catacombs as a hideout and were able to coordinate the battle even better with it.
14. Apart from burial Grounds, The catacombs have also been used for entertainment
The catacombs weren’t solely used for burial! Cataphiles used them for entertainment too. In 2004, a group of policemen undergoing training stumbled upon an unexpected discovery.
They found equipment that suggested people were hosting parties there. There was a restaurant, bar, lounge, and even a makeshift cinema theater with a projector and seats carved into the stones! There were also wires used to siphon off electricity to power the devices down there.
In addition, the tunnels have also been used to host temporary exhibitions like The Dead of the French Revolution and Skeleton Story.
15. There is a fortress carved below
Among the macabre displays of art is this unique carved wall structure. A veteran French soldier in King Louis XV’s army named Francois Décure had been imprisoned in Ciutadella de Menorca (Menorca’s Citadel) prison.
After returning to Paris, he became a quarry worker and recreated wall sculptures in his free time and the fortress of Citadel de Mahon is one of them, carved entirely from his memory.
Unfortunately, while making a pathway for his sculptures, he lost his life to a cave-in.
16. A hospital doorman/porter got lost in the catacombs and wasn’t found for 11 years
Here is another one of the many Paris Catacombs scary facts.
During the French revolution, Philibert Aspairt, a doorman/porter at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital accidentally entered the Catacombs through the staircase that was in the hospital’s courtyard and got lost below.
He couldn’t be found for years until a group of cataphiles found him 11 years later, albeit dead.
In fact, tragically, his body was found near an exit which proves that Philibert was close to escaping from the tunnels.
He was buried in the same place he was found with the tombstone inscription describing the tragic incident.
And while you can’t see his burial place since it’s in the restricted area of the catacombs, it’s still important to know about this tragic incident.
17. The Paris catacombs Have A well
Given its depth, some parts of the catacombs have touched the water table below the earth. This has given rise to underground water bodies and waterways.
So, if you thought all of the staircases in the catacombs led to skulls and bones, think again. One unique spiral staircase leads to a well at the bottom, which is said to be the site of the first geological drilling in Paris.
And since it is so deep in the ground, the water in this well is so clear that it borders invisibility.
18. Underground swimming and scuba diving are Theoretically Possible
In connection with the previous point, the water bodies in the catacombs might be clear, but no one knows what lies within or underneath them.
And although it can be dangerous, many cataphiles enjoy swimming in these. In some areas, the digging is so deep that sections get submerged or flooded when it rains. In these areas, enthusiasts go scuba diving to explore the hidden, submerged bits.
But be warned that this is highly unsafe and risky to do and in any case, you shouldn’t attempt to do it at all.
19. The Paris Catacombs Receive between 350,000 – 550,000 Visitors every year
Paris Musées is a public institution that manages the museums in Paris. A total of 14 museums are currently under it, with the Paris catacombs being one of them.
Yes, you read that right! The catacombs were included in the list of museum attractions in 2013 and continue to be there.
Since it became a popular attraction in Paris, around 350,000 – 550,000 tourists and locals visit it yearly but people have been visiting since the time it opened to the public.
20. Mushrooms were Once grown there
By now, you already know about the catacombs being a quarry, a burial site, and their usage for entertainment.
Another activity that it was used for was growing mushrooms. The humidity and stable temperature of the quarries were a suitable environment for certain species of button fungus known as Champignon de Paris to grow.
Mushrooms were grown there by farmers in the 19th century, which sprouted nearly 1000 tons of yearly produce.
21. The perfect heist…. does exist!
The darkness, temperatures of 13-14°C, and humidity of the catacombs at close to 90% is a conducive environment for another activity — preserving alcohol.
Since the catacombs are below establishments, brewers used them to make and store wine and beer.
In 2017, some thieves planned a heist at a different level altogether. They decided to tunnel into a cellar in the middle of the night and steal 300 bottles of wine.
The labyrinth of underground tunnels abetted the thieves to escape with the stolen bottles worth around $300,000.
22. 2 People Spent a Luxurious Halloween Night in the Catacombs
For a brief moment, travelers had a chance to win a romantic/luxurious night in the Catacombs on the rental booking website, Airbnb in 2015.
Though it was just a publicity stunt for Halloween, Airbnb paid over 350,000 Euros to privatize the Paris catacombs and lucky visitors would have a bed, a candle-lit dinner, breakfast, and a private concert all while being surrounded by the 6 million bones and skeletons.
The contest began and after various people participated explaining why they are the best fit for the prize, 27-year-old Pedro Arruda won, and he was awarded a night among the tunnels of the Catacombs and he brought along his mother.
As Airbnb promised, they were treated to a dinner, a concert, and a scary story to take the Halloween experience even further.
23. A Movie Was Filmed in The Paris Catacombs
One of the catacombs in Paris facts you may not know is that a movie has been filmed there before.
With the Catacombs being a “sacred” place, no film had been filmed there before until As Above, So Below, a horror movie that was released in 2014.
After getting permission from the French authority, the Paris catacombs were made the filming location and much of it was portrayed in the movie as it is in the Catacombs.
FAQs On The Facts About Paris Catacombs
Why are the catacombs of Paris famous?
The Catacombs of Paris are famous because they house over 6 million remains of people in their underground tunnels.
How big are the Paris catacombs?
The Paris catacombs are estimated to be between 300 km (185 miles) to 500 km (310 miles) covering a total area of 11 000 m2 though some parts are not mapped.
How deep do the catacombs in Paris go?
They are about 20 meters (65 feet) deep.
How old are the Paris catacombs?
The Paris Catacombs date back to the 18th century, particularly in 1786 when they were named Paris Municipal Ossuary.
Who owns the Paris catacombs?
The Paris Catacombs have been part of the Paris Musées institute since 2013.
How many people are buried in the catacombs of Paris?
There are over 6 million people buried in the Paris catacombs.
Final Thoughts on the Fun Facts About Paris Catacombs
What did you think about the interesting facts about the Paris catacombs? Are you ready to walk down 243 steps to see the 6 million people?
Let me know the fact(s) that fascinated you the most or if you know of any other, leave it down in the comments.
And if you decide to walk down to one of the largest graveyards in the world, don’t go alone. Take some company along, preferably on this Catacombs guided tour with a knowledgeable guide to tell you everything you need to know.
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