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…
Lurking just behind and underneath Casa Rosada, the presidential palace of Buenos Aires, lies the little known eighteenth century catacombs of Fuerte Viejo.
Casa Rosada is a presidential palace in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires.
Literally translated as the “Pink Palace” due to its distinctive pink façade, Casa Rosada houses the executive branch of Argentina’s government. The area on which Casa Rosada is located was once by the sea and in the late sixteenth century was the site of the Royal Fort of San Juan Baltasar de Austria built under the orders of Don Juan de Garay.
In fact, the land on which Casa Rosada sits was subject to many changes and it was only in 1857 that President Justo José de Urquiza partially demolished and renovated a fort which stood there, creating a customs house which would become Casa Rosada.
The building was renovated and decorated in the 1860, first by Bartolomé Mitre and then by Domingo Sarmiento, transforming it into a presidential residence.
Probably the most famous aspect of Casa Rosada is its association with Eva Peron or “Evita”, the wife of President Juan Peron who addressed the people from its balcony.
Today, Casa Rosada is open to the public, and has a museum in its lower levels containing numerous artifacts relating to Argentina’s history and its government. Behind Casa Rosada are the little known 18th century catacombs of Fuerte Viejo.
Dating back as far as the second and third centuries AD, the Catacombs of San Gennaro are a complex of dimly lit, haunting underground tombs in use from early Christianity right through to medieval times.
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.
The relics of San Gennaro, which were located there until the ninth century, are long gone, having been first moved to Benevento and then located in Naples Cathedral. Nevertheless, the catacombs are still a fascinating site and the burial place of many of the bishops of Naples from medieval times. In the fifteenth century, the Catacombs of San Gennaro 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 frescos and mosaics, some having been created in the second century AD. The highlight for many is the painting of San Gennaro himself.
Comprising of a maze of ancient chambers and containing hundreds of Roman graves, the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa in Alexandria, Egypt, rank among the best ancient tombs to have survived.
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, the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa represent the true sophistication of Ancient Roman engineering.
Built in around the second century AD, the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa 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.
Whilst the bottom floor is now inaccessible due to flooding, the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa remain a truly incredible site. This site also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Egypt.
The largest and most famous of Rome’s Christian catacombs, the Catacombs of San Callisto cover five levels and hold over half a million bodies.
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.
The most famous residents of the Catacombs of San Callisto are a number of popes of the third century, but not Pope St. Callixtus after whom the catacombs are named. Instead, this pope was responsible for part of the construction and expansion of the Catacombs of San Callisto.
Among the creepiest catacombs in the world are the Catacombs of the Capuchins, in which thousands of preserved corpses dating from the sixteenth century onwards are displayed.
The Catacombs of the Capuchins (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 oldest of the bodies at the Catacombs of the Capuchins is that of Silvestro da Gubbio, dating back to 1599. Like all of the people who were put to rest here in the early years of these catacombs, da Gubbio was a friar. Later, nobles and dignitaries would join the religious community in the Catacombs of the Capuchins. In fact, the corpses are divided according to categories such as vocation and even gender, for example there is a women’s corridor.
Meanwhile, the last person to be laid to rest in the Catacombs of the Capuchins was two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. Having died of pneumonia in 1920, Rosalia now lies under a blanket, a bow tied in her hair and her face bearing a calm expression. Tragically, one could mistakenly assume that this little girl was sleeping. She is actually known in Sicily as “sleeping beauty”. This site also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Italy.
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.
Petrovaradin Fortress is a seventeenth century fortified structure in Novi Sad, Serbia.
In fact, there has been a fortress on the site since the Bronze Age and the first fortifications on the site of Petrovaradin Fortress were built by the Romans and expanded by Cisterian monks in the thirteenth century. However, this fort was captured first by the Ottomans in 1526 and then by the Austrians in 1687.
Under the remit of Austrian Emperor Leopold I, the fortifications were destroyed and rebuilt in 1692. On 9 September 1694, Petrovaradin Fortress was attacked by Ottoman forces once again and subjected to a siege, but was not captured. Renovated and reinforced in 1753 and 1776, Petrovaradin Fortress now contains a maze of underground passageways.
Today, Petrovaradin Fortress is a popular tourist destination and visitors can tour its walls as well as its buildings. One of the most popular aspects of Petrovaradin Fortress is its catacombs, which are believed contain the riches of Serbia’s medieval leaders.
Believed to have been built by early Christians, the Salzburg Catacombs are series of mausoleums carved into the face of the Mönchsberg rock.
The Salzburg Catacombs are series of mausoleums carved into the face of the Mönchsberg rock by the city’s St. Peter’s Cemetery. St. Peter’s Cemetery (Petersfriedhof) was built in 1627, making it Salzburg’s oldest graveyard.
St Peter’s Cemetery is the resting place of several eminent people including the composer, Michael Haydn, the architect of Salzburg Cathedral, Sanction Solaria and Mozart’s sister, Mannerly. The historic Salzburg Catacombs overlook this beautiful cemetery and are accessible via a stone staircase.
Inside the Salzburg 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.
Comprised of four levels of burial passages and graves, the St. Sebastian Catacombs are some of the earliest Christian catacombs in Rome.
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.
The many catacombs of Rome are the remnants of early Christianity, a reminder of a time when persecuted Christians would bury their dead in underground chambers outside the city walls. Several examples of these subterranean cemeteries still exist, with the St Sebastian Catacombs listed among the best known.
Comprised of four levels of burial passages, the St. Sebastian 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.
Entry to the St. Sebastian Catacombs also includes a guided tour.
Among the most famous catacombs in the world, the Paris Catacombs are underground quarries, housing approximately six million human skeletons, which date back to the eighteenth century.
The Catacombs of Paris (Les Catacombes de Paris) came into use as a burial place for Parisian bones in the eighteenth century following the overpopulation of Parisian cemeteries and the closure of the Cemetery of Innocents (Les Innocents).
The Catacombs are underground quarries encompassing a portion of Paris’ old mines near Place Denfert-Rochereau and, at the time, were outside the city gates. The official decision to use the quarries was made on 9 November 1785 and they were blessed on 7 April 1786, following which bones from the Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs cemetery were moved there. Further remains were amassed at the Catacombs of Paris over the years, including those who died in several riots during the French Revolution. Overall, approximately six million human skeletons lie within the Catacombs of Paris.
A fascinating, unusual and somewhat haunting tourist attraction, The Catacombs of Paris are well worth a visit for those who are not claustrophobic or easily spooked. A tour of the Catacombs takes approximately an hour and involves climbing 83 steps.
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.
Via Appia Antica, also known as the Appian Way, is one of the oldest and most important roads leading to Rome. Built in 312 BC, it was slowly extended and, by 191 BC, it reached the port of Brindisi, over 550km southeast of the city (along the “heel” of Italy). Thus, Via Appia Antica became a gateway to the east.
In 66 BC, Julius Caesar became the curator of the Appian Way and, to gain crucial electoral votes, borrowed significant sums to restore the ancient highway.
Over the centuries, several important events are said to have occurred along Via Appia Antica and, perhaps most notably, Christian legend has it that it was the road on which Christ appeared to a fleeing St. Peter, convincing him to return to Rome thereafter being executed and martyred.
In ancient Rome, the Via Appia Antica was a popular location for tombs and catacombs, many of which are scattered along the road today, including the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. Christian catacombs such as the Catacombs of San Callisto and the St. Sebastian Catacombs can also be found there.
Other impressive monuments on the Via Appia Antica, which became the route to the affluent suburbs of Rome, include the Villa and Circus of Maxentius, the Villa dei Quintili and the Baths of Caracalla.
With such a clear route to so many incredible monuments, the Via Appia Antica offers tourists a great way to explore the road’s history, which is so inextricably intertwined with that of Rome. Today, the Parco Regionale dell’Appia Antica oversees much of the site.
Probably the best way to travel along Via Appia Antica is by public transport. Indeed, it is closed to private traffic on Sundays and on holidays. For itineraries along Via Appia Antica, check the official website.