Eerie, creepy and guaranteed to send a chill down your spine, catacombs are among the most unsettling tourist attractions in the world. Yet despite the disconcerting nature of catacombs, they remain incredibly popular places to visit, with millions touring their murky chambers to explore the grinning remains of their permanent residents…
While many of the catacombs which survive today date back to Roman times, not all catacombs are from the ancient era – indeed some of the best-known catacombs are relatively modern affairs.
In general, the most famous catacombs of the world – such as those in Rome or Paris – contain hundreds, if not thousands of skeletons, graves and tombs. Often the very walls themselves are made up of skulls and bones, making for rather sinister displays which are unlike anything most people will ever see anywhere else. It’s fair to say that catacombs are unique attractions, which have to be seen to be believed.
For those willing to get to grips with these unusual sites, we’ve put together a list of catacombs around the world and you can also use our catacombs map above to search further. So start exploring, if you dare…
Where are the most famous catacombs in the world?
Among the most famous catacombs in the world, the Paris Catacombs are underground quarries, housing approximately six million human skeletons. They first came into use as a burial place for Parisian bones in the eighteenth century following the overpopulation of the city’s cemeteries and the closure of the Cemetery of Innocents (Les Innocents). Further remains were amassed at the Catacombs of Paris over the years, including those who died in several riots during the French Revolution.
The Catacombs of the Capuchins or ‘Catacombe dei Cappuccini’ in Sicily house the preserved – often extremely well-preserved – corpses of thousands of people. It is believed that people were initially buried in the Catacombs of the Capuchins because those interred there were found to remain mysteriously well-preserved. Over time, more and more people wished to be buried there and in later stages many were embalmed. When describing the Catacombs of the Capuchins, it is difficult not to use the word “macabre”, especially when confronted with reality of seeing the array displayed mummified bodies which lie underneath the Capuchin Monastery. Many of them have distorted expressions on their faces and often they are dressed in their best clothes, creating a bizarre experience.
The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa in Alexandria, Egypt, are an incredible set of subterranean Ancient Roman tombs. Made up of three levels containing 300 bodies, these catacombs represent the true sophistication of Roman engineering. Built in around the second century AD, they comprise a maze of rooms and passageways, including the triclinium, a banqueting hall for the relatives of the deceased and the main tomb. The ornate decorations inside the catacombs are an eclectic blend of Roman, Greek and Egyptian.
The Catacombs of San Callisto are just one of the many catacombs of Rome, five of which are regularly open to the public. These Catacombs were used by Christians as subterranean burial places. Built in around 150 AD, the Catacombs of San Callisto span five floors and hold over half a million bodies, making them the largest of their kind in Rome. Whilst some believe that the practice of underground burials derived from the persecution of the Christians and thus the need to keep the graves safe, others think that this was just the custom at the time and due to the fact that they owned little land. Amongst its most famous residents are several third century popes, although not Pope St. Callixtus after whom the catacombs are named.
The Catacombs of San Gennaro are an incredible collection of ancient underground tombs in Naples, some dating back as far as the second and third centuries AD. Located near San Gennaro church, the catacombs were in use from the early era of Christianity to at least the later middle ages and possibly beyond. Many of the bishops of Naples from medieval times were interred here and, in the fifteenth century, the catacombs acquired the sinister role of being the burial place of victims of plague. Dimly lit and hauntingly atmospheric, the catacombs span two floors in which visitors can see sets of archways and well preserved frescoes and mosaics, some having been created in the second century AD.
The St Sebastian Catacombs (Catacombe di San Sebastiano) are fourth century AD underground Christian burial tombs. They are some of the earliest of their kind in Rome. Comprised of four levels of burial passages, these catacombs are believed to have once held the remains of their namesake, but he is now buried in the basilica above. Creepy but fun, it’s certainly worth a look if you haven’t seen any other catacombs on your trip to Rome.
Lurking just behind and underneath Casa Rosada, the presidential palace of Buenos Aires, lies the little known eighteenth century catacombs of Fuerte Viejo. Shrouded in mystery, the origins of these now exposed burial sites remain unknown to this day.
The Salzburg Catacombs are actually a series of mausoleums carved into the face of the Mönchsberg rock by the city’s St. Peter’s Cemetery. Inside the catacombs, visitors can wander through the altars, deciphering their fascinating inscriptions and taking in the murals. It is unknown as to when the Salzburg Catacombs were originally constructed, but they are believed to have been built by early Christians.
Petrovaradin Fortress in Serbia is a vast 17th century fortress which contains, among other things a catacombs complex believed to contain the riches of Serbia’s medieval leaders.
One of the most famous roads in the world, the ancient Via Appia Antica, built in 312 BC, boasts a great number of ancient graves, catacomb complexes and Roman tombstones, including the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. Christian catacombs such as the Catacombs of San Callisto and the St. Sebastian Catacombs.