An amazing underground world with an incredible history

Quick notes:

  • The catacombs were created in the 1780s from old quarry tunnels

  • They cover over 320 km of tunnels, some still unmapped, 20m under the city of Paris

  • The catacombs have been used for parties, movies, dining and much more

Underneath the bustling city of Paris, sits an ossuary (or burial chamber) that contains the remains of over six million people. The catacombs were created from old limestone quarry tunnels to relieve the overflowing cemeteries of the city. In 1780, when the walls of Les Innocents, Paris’ main burial ground, began collapsing and bodies began poking through, it was time to move the city’s dead.

Between 1785 and 1787, Les Innocents was emptied. In the dark of night, the dead were piled high on carts and moved to their new location. Their bones were dumped into two of the old quarry wells and then moved into place by the miners. After the French revolution, more remains from other graveyards around Paris were moved into the catacombs. Since then, they have become both a fascinating and gruesome attraction in France’s capital city.

Decorative displays in the catacombs

The catacombs sit 20 meters below Paris and stretch for over 320 km. They were opened to the public in 1809 and were a great hit, especially amongst royalty and the well-to-do. For the first time, the public could see the skeletal decorative displays that the miners had made with the bones of the dead. Instead of just piling them up, they had lined the walls with skulls and created decorative patterns and displays such as crosses, circles, and hearts using other bones.

Pixabay / Tdfugere

One of the most well-known decorations is the Barrel. It is a large structure that supports the roof of the tunnel made out of skulls and tibiae. It may seem strange and macabre to many people who visit the catacombs, but others believe that it is a beautiful, haunting tribute to Paris’ long dead. The miners created their displays out of respect for the departed.

Not just a burial chamber

The catacombs have been used for everything from parties to movies to growing mushrooms! In World War II, they were a hiding place for the French resistance who were planning their attacks on the Germans. They could also use them as an escape route when the Germans invaded the city. Once the Nazis had taken Paris, they used them too, creating underground bunkers in the extensive network of tunnels.

They became famous as a place for ‘cataphiles’ – young Parisians who liked to explore the tunnels and escape from the outside world. Although it has been illegal to enter the catacombs without a guide since 1955, it was possible to find other ways in up until the late 1980s, including through buildings on top of the tunnels.

Miners lined the walls with skulls and created decorative displays such as crosses, circles and hearts

In 2004, Parisian police were on a training exercise in an unmapped section of the catacombs. Strangely they found someone had left a sign reading “Building site, no access,” and further in was a camera that was recording their entrance. They discovered a cavern that had been turned into a cinema with a giant screen, chairs, and a variety of films.

Not only that but in another cavern was a restaurant and bar. No one knew who had turned the tunnels into their own entertainment area. Mysteriously, a note was found that read, “Do not try and find us.” Today, the catacombs can still be visited. Just over a mile is open to the public for guided tours while the rest is off-limits.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101

Spooky tales of premonition and death

Paris is one ancient city!