In Paris, a dark tourist – like myself – will want for nothing.
Dark tourism is tourism to places connected with trauma, death or disaster for educational purposes. From one end of the spectrum is a place like Auschwitz and on the other a Jack The Ripper walk.
Even though none of these 5 sites, I’ve selected here, are connected to war or trauma, the last site is a bit disturbing. Of course, this is not a complete list, but instead my must-sees for the dark tourist.
Top 5 dark tourism sites in Paris
THE TOMB OF NAPOLEON
Napoleon believed himself to be a great man. But he ended his days on the island of St. Helena in dishonour.
When he fell ill with stomach cancer, he did his best to stage his funeral and burial site. The British and the new French regime argued what was to become of the remains of Napoleon and in the end, the emperor was laid in the ground in an unmarked grave. Probably to avoid any worship. But Napoleon had the last laugh.
20 years after his death, he was transferred to Les Invalides – a military funeral church. Here his generals were already buried alongside his brother.
The entire place was rebuilt to match the status of the dead emperor. Staged as to enter from the church, pass behind his two generals’ tombs, enter the temple-like entrance down to the gigantic sarcophagus.
And it’s spectacular!
Napoleon not only has one or 2 coffins or sarcophagi, but 6! Nearby is the chambre de relics with the remains of his sons. Another son, Napoleon 2, lies in the rotunda as well.
Notice: you buy the ticket in the Musée de l’Armée. Speaking of that: the museum is definitely worth a visit. Find Napoelon’s death mask, horse and the famous painting, where he looks like King Charles III at his coronation.
Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Honore de Balsac, Gertrude Stein, Eugene Delacroix, Marcel Proust, The biggest cemetery in Paris is full of stories about violence, art sickness, music, poverty , beauty, great literature and love.
Proust is the guy with the book with the madelaine cake – which you should try. The cake that is, since the book is a bit overrated. Well, actually, so is the cake. Both a little dry – but this love story is not.
One of the world’s biggest romances: Abelard was a monk and Heloise a nun. They fell in love and wrote letters full of wisdom and love. If you don’t know it, google it! It’s a whole famous tragic love story, that proves reality beats fiction. Heloise is also a very an important figure in the establishment of women’s representation in scholarship.
BASILIQUE de SAINT-DENIS
The funeral church (or necropolis) for the French kings and queens. AND the first real Gothic church. But for some reason, the cathedral only attracts a few tourists. I think there’s more to discover here than in Notre Dame, but maybe that’s just me…
Basilique Saint-Denis is an abbey church and one of the most beautiful – if not the most beautiful – Gothic churches, I’ve ever seen. Maybe because it the OG. Built by trendsetting Abbot Suger around 1150 on the site where Paris’ first bishop Denis allegedly was buried. So, a tomb is where it all began.
The colourful stained glass windows make the place even more magical, when a rainbow fills the basilica. For the best light visit in the late afternoon, when the sun is low.
The main reason for visiting Saint-Denis are the many royal tombs. Since the 500s (no, I did not forget a 1), French royals have been laid to rest here. Have you seen “Reign” or “The Serpent Queen” you know Catherine de Medici. Her and her husband’s funeral monument is one of the most elaborate and made fashion. The king and queen are sculptured to look really dead.
Luckily, the outstanding piece of art survived the destruction of tombs and epitaphs during the French Revolution. Many tombs and also the bodies were destroyed by decree.
Marie Antoinette is also here. After her execution, she and the king were placed in a shallow grave. In the 1800s all the royal remains – that could be found – was re-interred in the Cathedral (again reality tops fiction).
PANTHÉON OF PARIS
Panthéon is inspired by the ancient Roman Pantheon and has the same name meaning: “all the gods”, but here it’s a burial site for all the famous. It was only used as an actual church for a short while before the revolution hit. After the funeral of author Victor Hugo’s in 1885, Panthéon became a national monument with the tombs of revolutionary heroes.
Later is has become the funeral church for France’s national heroes in general. People like Rousseau and Zola whom are an integral part of the French history, but also newer cultural personalities like Josephine Baker are buried here. Unfortunately the new coffins are all alike and very plain. If you like skulls and angels, Saint-Denis is the better option.
It’s been a church on-off, but now it’s just a museum meaning it does not close for service. Book the panorama – if you want to be sure.
THE CATACOMBS OF PARIS
“Stop! This is the dominion of death” a sign says in French above the door. 150 km of tunnels beneath Paris containing 6 millions skeletons – the Paris catacombs is the world’s largest underground cemetery!
Every year 300.000 visitors go 20 meters underground to explore this dark tourism site. So the sign is apparently not working…
In the late 1700s, Paris grew and with more inhabitants, the more people need a burial place. The old cemeteries used since the Middle Ages was becoming health hazards. It was decided to move the bones from several cemeteries to an underground Roman tunnel system.
It took 15 months to move all the remains including famous people like Rabelais, Pascal and Racine. This means that today no one knows which skull belongs to whom.
Dark tourism is not a new thing: In 1809, the underground cemetery opened to public. But please be respectful. This is actual bones of actual people and DO NOT take one. I can’t believe that they have to put up a sign. But sadly, as you can see in some of the images, this sign is not working either.
Like me, you might have heard stories of people getting lost and dying. Obviously, don’t go off the beaten track here, but it’s pretty easy finding your way. Some of the underground streets are called the same as above ground, and a black line in the ceiling direct you.
Remember to book in advance.To understand the site, you definitely need the audio guide. For a dark tourist, the gift shop is pretty fun. I bought a cup, a shirt and a new notebook – all with skulls.
If you want to see a more sunny side of the city of lights, try How to Live La Vie en Rose in Paris If you want to continue in the dark, trace the grim past in Sarajevo.