By the late 1700s the cemeteries here were overflowing. To improve sanitary conditions, priests were ordered to empty the church burial grounds and relocate the remains of 6 million Parisians to the existing quarries honeycombing beneath the city.
It isn’t at the top of most visitors’ lists but offers a great contrast to the standard itinerary. If you agree that blending with locals is a more rewarding way to experience a culture, the Catacombs takes that concept to the extreme. Far from the touristy hustle and bustle, a non-descript green doorway whispers “très bien, you’ve found me, you’ve earned entry”. Seconds later, with no fanfare or fancy signage, you’re freefalling 60 feet down a narrow spiral staircase into an endless dimly-lit stone corridor guaranteed to bring out your inner Goonie. Surprisingly, before you even reach the bones you see evidence of more recent inhabitants: the French Resistance as they hid and plotted against Nazis in WWII.
Just at the point you start noticing the limestone on the tips of your shoes, you arrive at an ominous doorway whispering something a bit different than the green one six stories above: Arrète! C’est ici l’empire de la mort (Halt! Here lies the empire of death). Thus begins a long winding labyrinth of carefully stacked remains, the very femurs and skulls that were buying baguettes and drinking cafés crèmes on the streets above a few hundred years before you showed up. Part ghoulish adventure, part anatomy lesson, part mortality check, it’s a great way to experience Paris in a raw, visceral way. Plus how often do you get to see baby stalactites? Sooo cute.