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 spooky remains of their permanent residents.
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.
We’ve put together a guide to some of the most fascinating catacombs around the world. So start exploring, if you dare…
1. The Catacombs of Paris
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.
2. Catacombs of the Capuchins
The Catacombs of the Capuchins or ‘Catacombe dei Cappuccini’ in Sicily are home to the preserved corpses of thousands of people. Those that were initially buried in the Catacombs of the Capuchins 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.
The Catacombs of the Capuchin have a somewhat macabre historical attraction, featuring a large array of mummified bodies on display, 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 an unsettling experience.
3. Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa
The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa in Alexandria, Egypt, are an incredible set of subterranean Ancient Roman tombs. Made up of 3 levels containing 300 bodies, these catacombs are an amazing display of the true sophistication of Roman engineering.
Built around the 2nd 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.
4. Catacombs of San Callisto
The Catacombs of San Callisto are just one of the many catacombs of Rome, 5 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 5 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 popes, although not Pope St. Callixtus after whom the catacombs are named.
5. Catacombe di San Gennaro
The Catacombs of San Gennaro are an incredible collection of ancient underground tombs in Naples, some dating back as far as the 2nd and 3rd 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 15th century, the catacombs acquired the sinister role of being the burial place of victims of plague.
Dimly lit and hauntingly atmospheric, the catacombs span 2 floors in which visitors can see sets of archways and well preserved frescoes and mosaics, some having been created in the 2nd century AD.
6. St Sebastian Catacombs
The St Sebastian Catacombs (Catacombe di San Sebastiano) are 4th century AD underground Christian burial tombs. They are some of the earliest of their kind in Rome. Comprised of 4 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.
7. Casa Rosada
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 underground museum also features a brief political history of Argentina in several of its chambers.
8. Salzburg Catacombs
The Salzburg Catacombs in Austria are actually a series of mausoleums carved into the face of the Mönchsberg rock by the 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 when the Salzburg Catacombs were originally constructed, but they are believed to have been built by early Christians.
The catacombs and cemetery are also featured in the 1965 film, The Sound of Music , in which the Trapp family escapes through St. Peter’s Cemetery, taking refuge in the catacombs before escaping to Switzerland.
9. Petrovaradin Fortress
Petrovaradin Fortress in Serbia is a vast 17th century fortress which contains, among other things, a series of lengthy catacombs which are believed to contain the ancient riches of Serbia’s medieval leaders.
The underground military galleries—often referred to as the catacombs—run over 4 floors and are roughly a 16 km long network of passageways.
10. Via Appia Antica
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. It is home to some of the most important Christian catacombs in Rome, including the Catacombs of San Callisto and the St. Sebastian Catacombs.
These are some of the longest and oldest catacombs in the world. As the local population increased the chambers grew massively to take in many more dead. At the time it it was seen as important for people to be buried close to their religious saints and leaders. As the local area became more overcrowded, so indeed did the catacombs.