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Paris Underground City
Paris really is a tale of two cities. There is the City of Light, above ground, with its beloved Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum. This is the city that the world sees and loves. But there is also a secret Paris underground city, lesser-known by visitors and locals, which is more than the Paris Catacombs.
Indeed, there are at least 130 kilometers of Paris underground tunnels and secret places and some of them can be explored through exciting underground Paris tours. Most of these Paris underground tours are also a great way to learn lesser-known parts of the history of Paris.
Below, the compilation of some really cool Paris underground tours and visits: from Roman Lutetia (Paris’ first settlement) to the current Parisian Metro, there is something for every taste.
Underground Paris Map
In this underground Paris map, we have located all the Paris underground tours and visits described in the Paris Underground Guide. As you can see, the Paris underground city covers most of the Arrondissements of Paris!
Best Paris Underground Tours and Visits
The Catacombs of Paris are 15th-century underground quarries that were reused years later for stocking the bones of disappeared cemeteries in Paris.
The Paris Catacombs tour explores some of these Paris underground tunnels and halls decorated with bones from the Middle Ages. This is the most popular Paris underground tour – probably for its spooky side – and an excellent activity for the rainy days in Paris or for when it’s too hot outside.
The long lines to access the Paris Catacombs with a regular ticket are famous so a Paris skip-the-line ticket or guided tour is paramount to avoid wasting your time waiting in line. We recommend this Catacombs skip-the-line tour, which is fun and entertaining and gives access to secret halls closed to the general public.
La Petite Ceinture of Paris (the Little Belt railway around Paris) was a 32 km railroad line developed during the 19th century that circumnavigated the city.
Originally built to transport material goods from depot yards to the core of Paris, La Petite Ceinture became since 1862 also a service for passengers. This little train stopped operating in the ’70s when the Parisian metro became popular.
Today some sections of La Petite Ceinture are converted into green spaces opened to the public. In some places, it is possible to cross Paris underground, walking on the rails of La Petite Ceinture.
Known as the world’s most visited museum, the Louvre Museum was for many centuries a Royal Palace home to the French Kings and Queens.
The Palace of the Louvre has a long history that goes back to medieval times. The construction of the Louvre started in the 12th century under the rule of King Philippe Auguste who wanted to protect Paris better before leaving for the crusades. At that time, the Louvre was a small medieval castle, part of the fortress protecting the city.
Over the centuries, this former medieval castle was enlarged and embellished by King Philippe Auguste’s successors and we still can visit some of those remains in the Louvre underground.
After a great mise en scène work, today people visiting the Louvre can see some parts of the medieval Louvre such as the fortress’ foundations, the moat, and also some remains of the defensive towers.
4. Explore Roman Lutetia in the Archaeological Crypt of Paris
The Archaeological Crypt is a fascinating place located just in face of Notre Dame. Despite its proximity to one of the most visited monuments in Paris, the Crypt sees few visitors a day, which is a pity!
The place was supposed to be an underground car park until the excavation works uncovered one of the most well-kept parts of Roman Lutetia (4th century AD). Today, the Archaeological Crypt is an excellent place to learn about the history of Lutetia, its Gallic predecessors (the Parisii) and visitors can explore a part of the Roman Paris underground city: streets, public baths, and even a section of the Roman harbor along the Seine!
The picture above shows part of the public baths, with a pool, and a section of the Roman walls.
The Paris Sewer Museum is a fascinating place located in the 7th district of Paris that details the history of the sewer system and water in Paris from the former Roman Lutetia to its modern layout (19th century).
The museum also explains the sewer workers’ role and the methods of water treatment, with interesting anecdotes about water in Paris. We were happy to know that Paris is the city which has the biggest and most modern sewer system in the world!
The Paris Sewer Museum has been closed for a long time due to renovation works. It is expected to re-open its doors on 1 October 2020 so if you are in Paris after this date don’t miss this renovated museum!
Hopefully, the underground Paris Sewer Tours will resume also soon. Walk through the Paris underground tunnels to learn the secrets of this underground world that manages the city’s water supply and protects it from flooding of the River Seine. From 19th-century engineering feats to cultural references such as in Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables‘, discover the legends and marvels of this underground part of the city with this fantastic Paris underground tour.
6. Visit Roman Lutetia’s Sewer System
The Romans of Lutetia also had an efficient sewer system – different from the current sewer system – and you can see a part of it just below the Roman baths inside the Cluny Museum, in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris.
These underground tunnels can be visited only during special guided visits by one of the museum’s curators. The visits are in French but even if you don’t speak the language the opportunity to see this Paris hidden gem is well worth it.
You can check the museum’s scheduled guided tours here.
The Canal Saint-Martin was designed in the 19th century by the engineers of Napoleon I to bring drinking water in Paris. The Canal connects the Bassin de la Villette to the Seine upstream with a drop of twenty-five meters.
Canal Saint-Martin has nine locks and two swing bridges and it measures 4.5 km long, more than 2 km of which goes underground. The Canal’s underground section is covered by a vault which was illuminated every year by the Japanese artist Keiichi Tahara at the passage of the cruise boats.
This part of the canal is also frequently used for shooting films: movies like Ratatouille, Queen Margot or last Mission Impossible shot some of their scenes under the vaults of Canal Saint-Martin.
You can explore this fascinating area of underground Paris by booking a Paris canal tour. This beautiful Paris canal tour from La Villette to Port de l’Arsenal, is a great alternative to the classic Seine river cruises.
The underground lake below the grounds of the Opéra de Garnier is, in our opinion, the most fascinating secret of Paris!
Gaston Leroux’s tales in his novel The Phantom of the Opera were just stories?
On the book, Erik the phantom is a deformed architect who helped to build the Opera of Paris. At the same time, he secretly built below the grounds of the Opera an underground palace for himself surrounded by a vast subterranean lake.
This lake really exists and it is located exactly below the opera scenario. Yes: somehow, the ballet dancers are dancing over the water!
When the opera’s foundation works started in 1852, the architects realized that they were digging into a marshy area where the groundwater was very high. Charles Garnier, the Opera’s main architect, had the idea of incorporating a cistern into his design to redistribute the water and relieve the water pressure on the basement walls. The cistern is usually full of water, like a lake, to be used by firemen in case of fire.
Unfortunately, only a few people have access to this subterranean lake but you can explore it virtually here.
There are lots of fascinating mysteries and legends around the city’s beautiful Opera Theater and you can learn about them with this Opera de Garnier tour with an expert guide.
The famous Paris Catacombs only represent 0.5% of the Paris underground city. There are other places less easy to reach, sometimes forbidden places, which years ago were the object of clandestine parties and other kinds of meetings.
Les Carrières des Capucins (the Quarries of the Capuchins) is a great, more local (and totally legal!) alternative to the Paris Catacombs. This limestone quarry located below the districts of Paris 14, Paris 13 and Paris 5 is maintained and enhanced by a non-profit association in the form of a museum.
This unusual and rather confidential torchlight underground tour unveils part of the city’s exceptional industrial heritage (the world of underground quarries) and some interesting curiosities. This tour (in French) is also a step back in time: indeed, under the streets of the 21st century, the Paris of the 18th century still exists inside the Quarries of the Capuchins.
10. The Metro’s Phantom Stations
With a daily ridership of 4.16 million (2015), the Parisian Metro is the most known part of the underground Paris. The metro of Paris has 300 stations spread all over the city, and there are beautiful metro stations that you can visit with a single metro ticket.
The Parisian Metro also counts 18 phantom stations, metro stations that for different reasons were abandoned. Among them, Porte des Lilas is the most popular phantom metro station because it is the one used for shooting movies. Metro scenes like the one in Amélie Poulain were shot at Porte des Lilas.
However, our favorite phantom metro station is Saint-Martin. Located in the 2nd arrondissement in Paris, this station was closed after the Second World War because it was very close to the bigger station Strasbourg-Saint Denis.
Saint-Martin metro station is a step back in time. It still keeps the aesthetics and ceramic decoration of the 30’s when it was still working and its advertising panels still display the products of that time. Because Saint Martin is the saint patron of the ceramic workers, these workers executed for this station an awesome ceramic decoration with raised motifs.
Saint-Martin metro station can only be visited during special occasions. The guided tours are organized by the RATP.
11. WW2 Bunkers
During the Second World War II, the city of Paris built underground bunkers to provide “a place to retreat for citizens in case of an air attack”. Some of these bunkers are still intact and they are an interesting place to visit, the reminder of a sad chapter of Europe’s past.
The most famous underground bunkers are the bunker located on the grounds of Gare de l’Est, open to the public on rare cultural occasions, and the bunker located under Champ-de-Mars, just next to the Eiffel Tower under a southern pier.
Easier to visit are the bunkers of the Carrières des Capucins and the bunker 20 m below the grounds of the Museum of the Liberation of Paris (point #11 in the map). This museum, inaugurated on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris in 2019, is one of the most interesting free museums in Paris. The visit includes the underground command station of Colonel Rol-Tanguy, head of the Paris branch of the French Forces of the Interior.
12. La Maison du Fontainier and its Distribution Pools
During the 17th century, King Henry IV of France ordered to build a new aqueduct to bring water to the Left Bank of Paris. This new aqueduct, known as Aqueduct Medicis, was 13 kilometres long and could be accessed for inspection through 27 different inspection chambers called regards.
Chamber #27, also called Grand Regard de l’Observatoire, was the inspection chamber at the end of the aqueduct. Above it, a little house for the waters inspector or Fontainier was built.
What is interesting about this place is what happens below the house’s grounds. At this point, the waters of the aqueduct were finally collected before being distributed to the city.
The grounds of the house were divided into three different vaulted halls, each one with its own distribution pool. The King’s distribution pool with the water for the use of the King was obviously the biggest. Then, there was a second distribution pool for the religious communities. Finally, the third distribution pool (the smallest) brought water for the rest of the population.
Later in 1845, the engineers Lefort and Mary built a large reservoir-hall to store the overflow of water that drains at night. This tank-hall is connected to the old distribution pools through a large pipe. Crossing the pipe from the old distribution pools to the tank-hall is the most celebrated part of the guided visit, especially by kids.
On the picture above you can see the arrival of water from the aqueduct to the distribution pool for the religious communities. La Maison du Fontainier can be visited during special cultural events like Les Journées du Patrimoine in September.
13. Le Regard de La Lanterne
The aqueducts of Paris could be inspected thanks to different inspection chambers called regards. Today 18 ancient regards still exist in the city but only eight are visible on the surface.
Among them, Le Regard de La Lanterne is the most beautiful. This cylindrical, stone building located in Paris 19 was built during the 16th or 17th century as the main inspection chamber for the Aqueduct of Belleville. This aqueduct was bringing in the past water from the hills of Belleville to the Right Bank of Paris.
This little regard that looks like a mushroom is covered by a dome surmounted by a lantern which allows the circulation of fresh air inside. Some stone steps allow visitors to descend to the bottom of the well and get a glimpse of the underground tunnels that brought the water to central Paris.
Today this regard has no longer any technical function but it continues to receive water from the Belleville water table.
14. The Montsouris Water Reservoir
This water reservoir was designed by the engineer Eugène Belgrand, the father of the current sewer system in Paris, between 1868 and 1873 to feed with drinkable water the southern part of Paris.
This is definitely the most awesome site of underground Paris which looks like a beautiful underground cathedral with arched stone walkways in every direction and filled with turquoise water. You can see more pictures of this spectacular site here.
Unfortunately, the Montsouris Water Reservoir, located in the 14th Arrondissement of Paris, is classed as a “sensitive site” (this is an important water storage unit for the city) and guided visits are today very rare.
So there you have it, our selection of best underground Paris tours and visits. Which Paris underground site would you like to explore right now?
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