The Paris catacombs guide
A vast memento mori, Paris’s labyrinth of catacombs was built in the 18th century to relieve overflowing cemeteries. They meander for around 200 miles underground, some parts unexplored. The catacombs are the final resting place of revolutionaries Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat; the French Resistance bunkered down there, too. ‘Cataphiles’ have held raves and movie screenings there, illegally. Above-board visits to this stretch of ossuaries start with the welcoming legend ‘Stop! This is the empire of death!’ Get ready for a macabre walk far below the city.
The sculptures of Décure
As a soldier in King Louis XV’s army, Décure was imprisoned on Port-Mahon, Menorca. He later worked (and died) in the Tombe-Issoire quarries, where he secretly carved intricate sculptures depicting his reminiscences. Book a guided tour to see his carvings of the Cazerne Quarter and Ports Phillipe and Mahon – a glimpse of life in a place of death.
The Rotonde des Tibias
Tasked with organising the bones of six million Parisians, dating back to Merovingian times, Inspector Héricart de Thury created a sanctuary for reflecting on death. He arranged skulls and tibiae in patterns alongside crosses and poetic quotes. This skull-clad support beam, nicknamed ‘the Barrel’, is a grimly beautiful grotesquerie.
The Sepulchral Lamp
The oldest artefact in the catacombs is this fire pit, which quarrymen used to control air flow and light the dark chambers. It’s now the centrepiece of the Crypt of the Sepulchral Lamp, framed by columns and the bones from the Saint-Laurent Cemetery. A dramatic and picturesque gallery, the crypt was the first monument Héricart de Thury crafted here.
Take a break
Les Fauves33 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 75014
Neo-bistro Les Fauves (‘big cats’) does a roaring trade below the Montparnasse Tower. Its verdant, wood-lined interior complements an almost entirely organic menu of beautifully braised meats and exotic salads. Its brunch is toothsome, too.
La Crêperie de Josselin67 Rue du Montparnasse, 75014
Rue du Montparnasse is a gauntlet of crêperies. Blinker up and head straight to famed Breton spot Josselin. It’s rowdy and old-school – all tooled wood panels and frou-frou lamps – with a menu as fully loaded as its tasty offerings.
Sadaharu Aoki56 Boulevard de Port-Royal, 75005
Top pâtissier Sadaharu Aoki skillfully marries French pastries and Japanese flavours. Alongside trays of jewel-like chocolates are sesame-cream-piped eclairs, lemon-and-yuzu tarts and a Kyoto Forest cake – a green-tea-infused Black Forest gâteau.
Cartier Foundation261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014
Jean Nouvel’s dazzling building hosts works by a global gang of modern artists (and perennial stars: Nobuyoshi Araki, Patti Smith…). Don’t miss Lothar Baumgarten’s gardens and the Nomadic Nights, when an artist has carte blanche to decorate.
Fondation Giacometti5 Rue Victor Schoelcher, 75014
Giacometti is synonymous with lithe statuary (especially since L'Homme au Doigt sold for $141m). This gallery, in the ‘hood where he lived, reveals his range in sketches, sculptures and notebooks, plus his faithfully recreated studio.
Les Grands Voisins74 Avenue Denfert-Rochereau, 75014
This arts space hosts a niche film festival one day, then Afrobeat DJ sets and social-responsibility seminars the next… It’s a welcoming spot: migrants can stay onsite and workshops and affordable eateries create a communal joie de vivre.
10am to 8.30pm, Monday to Sunday; final bookings are at 7.30pm. The catacombs are closed on Christmas, 1 January and 1 May.
Denfert-Rochereau is the closest Metro station; the catacombs are a two-minute walk from there.
€13 an adult (€11 for concessions), free under-18s. Skip-the-line tickets are €29 an adult and €5 a child aged four–17 (with an audio guide).
Skip the line
Skip-the-line tickets allow you an allocated entry time. However, to avoid congestion, try to visit mid-week. If visiting on-the-fly, aim for Wednesday–Friday around lunchtime or arrive later in the day.
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Image credits: © Getty; © Getty; © Eric Emo; © Pierre Antoine; © Alamy; © Les Fauves; © La Crêperie de Josselin; © Jean-Charles Karmann; © Luc Boegly; © Xavier Bejot; © Les Grands Voisins