The Character of Paris: sewers & catacombs

By staff writer Lisa A. White. Photos Copyright © Lisa A. White.

NOWHERE IS QUITE as peculiar or intriguing as underground Paris. Many people arrive via Charles de Gaulle international Airport (CDG), quite a trek from the heart of the city, then travel into the city by way of the Metro trains. But the Metro is only one of the fascinating series of tunnels hidden beneath the City of Lights.

If you plan to stay in Paris for a number of days, you may want to consider buying a Paris Museum Pass. It gets you into many of the most popular museums and sites as well as a jillion lesser-known ones. Equally importantly, certain (shorter) lines are designated for people who have a Museum Pass.

Included in this pass is the Musee des Egouts de Paris. Translated this means the Museum of the Sewers of Paris. Remember the phantom of the Opera who lived in the sewers below Paris? Yep, same sewers.

Paris was a technological leader in the poo business. To show off the marvels of invention, the sewers were first opened for tours in the 1800s. Wealthy citizens dressed in high fashion boarded specially designed boats and sloshed down the underground rivers of muck, learning how the massive wooden and metal balls used gravity and pressure to clean the sewers.

Inside the Sewer Museum--the massive wooden gravity powered sewer-cleaner ball.

Inside the Sewer Museum: the massive wooden gravity powered sewer-cleaner ball.

I visited this museum about twenty years ago and still fondly recall the extremely funny tour guide who made it a comedy act. Unfortunately, the sewer tour is now self-guided, which is not nearly as much fun unless you bring your own comedian.

Today there are no boats, but this underground museum is still interesting and the environment somewhat less stinky than you might imagine. Even further below the surface of Paris than the sewers and the Metro trains are the Catacombs.

In the depths of the Catacombs below Paris. Millions of bones, neatly arranged.

In the depths of the Catacombs below Paris. Millions of bones, neatly arranged.

In the late 1700s, public health concerns about water contamination, the plague, and the ever-burgeoning number of bodies in the Cemetery of the Innocents forced a change. The leaders of Paris decided to use mines deep below the streets as an ossuary for human remains. Unless you are seriously claustrophobic or cannot climb steps, you simply must tour the Catacombs while in Paris.* The lines are long but you can be assured of meeting some fun folks in the process.

*Unfortunately, the Catacombs are not included on the Paris Museum Pass.

Deep below Paris lie miles and miles of bone-filled tunnels. There are no coffins, markers, or urns, but instead the bones have been sorted and arranged by type. Thigh bones are neatly stacked in rows, separated by a design row of skulls, and carvings in stone are used for embellishment. It is macabre yet beautiful.

Bone designs in the Catacombs of Paris

Bone designs in the Catacombs of Paris

Every time I recall my visit to the catacombs, I mentally begin singing the children’s song, “Dem Bones”:

The foot bone connected to the leg bone. The leg bone connected to the knee bone. The knee bone connected to the thigh bone. The thigh bone connected to the back bone. The back bone connected to the neck bone. The neck bone connected to the head bone. Oh, hear the word of the Lord!

Skulls inside the catacombs

Skulls inside the catacombs

I can only imagine the workers who stacked the bones of nearly six million people calling out to each other. “Jean-Pierre! Pass me three more femurs, a few tibulas and a stack of skulls.”

The catacombs are an extremely popular attraction so plan your day around going. This is a bucket list place to go in Paris.

Stone carved buildings inside the catacombs.

Stone-carved buildings inside the catacombs.

Whether wandering on the Metro or touring the catacombs and sewers, remember that you are seeing only a snippet of the underground tunnels that lie beneath the city. Most of the tunnels and caverns are off limits to the public . . . but you haven’t really seen Paris until you’ve seen its dark underbelly.


Beer in Brussels

Lisa drinking beer in Brussels

Lisa White has wandered through world like she has wandered through professions. In both pursuits, she always has more to explore, more to learn, and more to do. Currently she practices law in the area of dependency and neglect as well as other cases that address the well-being of children. Often this is an area of law that feels exceptionally “heavy.” When it becomes too emotionally burdensome, she catches a flight somewhere–anywhere–to remember the good, positive, beautiful, tasty, and fun of the world.

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  1. Ann Mc says:

    I loved this! I’ve seen the catacombs in Sicily, but had NO idea they were also in Paris. Beautifully written – you gave me a mini (and macabre) cyber-vacation…thanks!

    • Sicily?? Exciting! We want to go there too! I will have to check that out–and no, I am not obsessed by the macabre. It seems like I should compare experiences and travel EVERYWHERE.

      I was amazed at the number of people who made the catacombs a major part of their trips to Paris. We had a lot of fun talking to a couple from Toronto in the catacomb line. When we showed up, we all groaned at the length of the line. The husband was bound and determined to stay in line; his wife wanted to leave. We all stayed and talked non-stop.

  2. Perfect that I caught this. We are heading to Paris in July. Can’t wait to add this to our list of crap to see (cough, cough).

    Thank you for this highly entertaining and timely piece.

    • Enjoy Paris…and don’t forget to relax and have fun! Be sure to read my article about “Becoming Parisian” so you take time to smell the flowers.

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