Paris may be known as the City of Light, but lurking just beneath its glossy exterior of majestic museums and monuments is a darker element, a side that not all visitors to this city get to experience. Paris isn’t just about the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysées; there is more to the city than the Opéra, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Sacre Coeur. There is another element to Paris: this is Paris of the macabre, the weird and wonderful, the Gothic and bizarre.
Visit these mysterious locations in Paris for an alternative insight into the capital.
Cemeteries don’t really tend to be on the itinerary when planning a city visit, but Paris has its fair share that are well worth exploring. You can tour Père Lachaise, Paris’s largest cemetery at 44 hectares, famous for housing the tombs of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Chopin, amongst a million others (or two to three million if you include the human remains housed in the Aux Morts ossuary).
This is a Gothic masterpiece with over 70,000 intricately carved towering monuments, from angels to sleeping bodies and busts to mausoleums and chapels. Cobbled tree-lined paths wind uphill between 19th century monuments in this city of the dead, and it has a hauntingly peaceful air about it making it the perfect place for a morning stroll. It can be reached by metro; if you get off at Philippe Auguste on line 2 you are right next to the main entrance, whereas the Pere Lachaise stop is a short stroll from a side entrance (but slightly quieter). Pick up a map as you have a hard time finding the tombs you want to see without one.
The Cemetery of Montmatre, close to Place de Clichy and the Butte of Montmatre, is another cemetery worth seeing – it is the final home of many of Paris’s famous artists and composers. It was built below ground level in abandoned gypsum quarries, and was originally the gruesome site of a mass grave used to house the bodies of those killed during the French Revolution. This site was enlarged and developed in the early 19th century, and the cemetery of rolling hills and trees now has a size of 11 hectares. The tombs of Stendhal, Berlioz and Degas can be found here amongst many others. The nearest metro stops are Place de Clichy on lines 2 and 13, or Blanche on line 2.
To experience macabre and mysterious Paris at its best you need to take a Paris Catacombs tour of the Ossuary of Paris, the place where the bones of the dead were transported at the end of the 18th century when the city’s central cemeteries became overcrowded and unsanitary. During night-time, bones were transported to the limestone quarries on the southern outskirts of the capital in horse-drawn wagons while services were conducted by priests, and by the mid-19th century the catacombs were full of the bones of approximately 6 million Parisians gathered from every cemetery.
Visitors can explore this labyrinth of narrow tunnels, caves and passageways stretching about 1.5 miles to see this underground sepulchre, with walls decorated with skulls and artistically-arranged bones. These tours, which last between 45 and 90 minutes, are not for the faint-hearted or for those who suffer from claustrophobia! To visit the catacombs, open every day except Mondays, take lines 4 or 6 to Denfert-Rochereau metro station.
Ghosts and Vampires
Paris has a large number of ghosts and ghouls, and the best way to hear the horror stories about things that go bump in the night is to take a Paris Ghost Tour. This 90-minute walking tour, which runs between March and the end of October, will take you around the winding lanes of the old city. Learn all about Sweeney Todd of Paris, hear about the mysteries of the Notre Dame, and be captivated by stories about sorcery, alchemy and necromancy in the City of Light. It’s family friendly despite its ghoulish nature, although children under 16 should be accompanied by an adult, and the ghosthunter guide really brings the stories to life. Tours take place every weekday at 9pm except Tuesdays.
If you like vampires and the myths that surround them, Paris has the very thing for you–its very own Vampire Museum dedicated to these supernatural beings. This is a private museum, but appointments can be booked for guided tours which are led by the enigmatic curator, Jacques Sirgent. He will take you into another realm to show you his collection of vampire books, artifacts, Gothic paintings, costumes, masks and posters, and will talk about the history of vampires and how it relates to Paris today. This museum is macabre Paris at its best; atmospheric, Gothic, unusual and fascinating. Tours are conducted in French or English at 12.30, 3pm and 7.30 pm and must be booked in advance, so don’t turn up at the blood-red door with no appointment. The Vampire Museum is on the eastern outskirts of Paris, but can be reached by metro by taking line 11 or 3 to Porte des Lilas.
Let’s finish at a beautiful spot – or is it? One of the loveliest parks in Paris also has a gruesome past. The Parc des Buttes Chaumont is the city’s second largest park and is situated in the 19th arrondissement, just off the beaten track in north-east Paris. This pretty and enchanting man-made park, constructed under the command of Napoleon III, is full of bridges, waterfalls, grottoes, streams, lakes and even a temple perched on a hill.
But the history behind the park is not so pleasant. In the 13th century the Montfaucon gallows stood here, a stone structure placed on top of a hill that was over 16 meters high. These horrific gallows allowed for multiple corpses to hang and be prominently displayed for years at a time to act as a deterrent for would-be criminals. After the gallows were closed 300 years later this area became a rancid dumping ground for the city’s sewage and waste. When plaster of Paris was discovered in the ground this land then became used as a quarry and tunnels were dug out, which then became the hideouts for criminals. Napoleon stepped in to regenerate this dismal area and destroy any reminder of its violent history, and in 1867 the construction of this delightful park was completed.
However, its horrible history didn’t quite end there. In 1871, around 800 Communards occupied the park, and were subsequently executed by the government and buried in the underground quarries. In the present day in the park there is no evidence of its grisly past, but the bridge leading to the hilltop Temple de Sybille does have a rather startling name–Suicide Bridge. This is probably the only suggestion of the macabre events that once unfolded in this peaceful place.
Read more about Paris’ ghosts and haunted spots
– Louise Hanzlik