Travel tales

The underbelly of Paris: Touring the sewers

Paris sewer tour

So I know I said I wanted to see some of the more unusual sights of Paris, but aren’t the sewers a step too far? After visiting another of Paris’ underground attractions, the catacombs, I heard that part of the sewer system had been turned into a museum – Le Musée des Égouts de Paris. It might sound like a strange place to visit, but if you’re looking for an alternative to the usual museums and sights, interested in engineering, a fan of Les Misérables (the sewers were the hideout of Jean Valjean), or just looking for somewhere cool to hide out on a hot day, you might be tempted to head down into the underbelly of Paris.

Underground Paris sewer tour

Some of the underground tunnels you can walk though at the museum

Paris’ first sewers were built in 1370 – before then waste just ran down a channel in the middle of the road. The early sewers were still open which didn’t do much to help prevent disease. So in the 1800s, Baron Haussman designed a new system with underground tunnels for drinking and non-drinking water as well as waste. The tunnels ran for over 373 miles by 1878 and hundreds of miles were added over the next few centuries, forming a network below the surface mirroring the one above, right down to the street signs.

“Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form” (from Les Misérables). The sewers have always interested visitors to Paris and tours started back in Victor Hugo’s time. Then you could travel around the tunnels in carriages pulled by a locomotive, and later on you could even take a boat trip along the sewers. But it’s all a bit more sanitary now.

Sewer museum in Paris

Some of the museum’s exhibits

The entrance to the sewer museum is near the Pont de l’Alma bridge. After buying your ticket at the ticket office on the surface, you descend down stairs to the large underground galleries. The tunnels are quite wide and spacious, in contrast to the more claustrophobic tunnels of the catacombs; built of modern concrete rather than the old stonework you might imagine. When you see some of the machinery used you realise why they need to be big – like the huge metal balls used to clean the tunnels which push through any blockages by a build up of water pressure behind them.

Other exhibits show tools and machinery used in the past. And as you can’t have a sewer without rats, there’s even a few stuffed ones in a glass case. But the whole exhibition is not as dirty – or smelly – as you might imagine, though you’re probably best to follow the instructions to wash your hands after you leave. There’s even a gift shop at the end where you can satisfy all your waste-related gift needs to commemorate this less glamorous, but vitally useful, side of Parisian life.

Paris sewer tour

One of the underground ‘road’ signs, and some stuffed rats

The details

The entrance to the Musée des Égouts de Paris is by the Pont de l’Alma, opposite 93 Quai d’Orsay. The nearest Metro station is at Alma-Marceau. The museum is open Saturday–Wednesday, 11am to 5pm (or until 4pm from October to April) and entry costs €4,30 for adults or €3,50 for children aged 6–16. Tours are self-guided and take about an hour.

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The underbelly of Paris: Touring the sewers – On the Luce travel blog

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30 Comments

  • Reply
    Browsing the Atlas
    September 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Oh my gosh. I love underground tours! I’ve been to the catacombs twice and just took and underground tour in Cincinnati. (Not of sewers; of beer tunnels.) This does seem decidedly unique. I’ll have to do this next time I’m in Paris.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      A beer tunnel tour sounds great! I’ve been in a few wine cellar tours but might have to look out for one of those.

  • Reply
    Ship's Cook
    September 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Sounds interesting and glad to hear it isn’t too stinky, Think I might put it on my Paris list for next time.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      You do get the odd waft but the tunnels the museum are is in are fairly separate luckily!

  • Reply
    UrbanBilingual
    September 11, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Reblogged this on UrbanBilingual.

  • Reply
    Brendan @worldwanders
    September 11, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I love this! How the hell did they decide to make a museum in the sewers! I really wanted to do a cataphile tour – apparently a huge amount of cataphiles just roam the underground pathways in paris – having picnics, secret anarchist meetings, film nights, etc. I always believe that people should be aware of the more unknown qualities of paris so, awesome post!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 11, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      So weird isn’t it? But there were quite a few visitors so it wasn’t a bad idea! Like the idea of a cataphile tour to complete the set of underground adventures, may have to look out for that on my next trip.

  • Reply
    Travelbunny
    September 11, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    It looks so much cleaner than I expected! You’ve definitely told us about some of the more unusal sights to see in Paris 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 12, 2012 at 11:29 am

      Each visit the choices get a bit weirder! I’ll have to see what I can come up with next…

  • Reply
    My Travel Affairs (@MyTravelAffairs)
    September 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I have been on this kind of trip in Seattle, it was a really cool thing to do, didnt know they have one in Paris, next time when I’m over 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      I didn’t realise there were tours like this in other cities – something to remember when I finally make it out to Seattle!

  • Reply
    Margaret
    September 13, 2012 at 4:54 am

    This was one of my daughter’s favorite sites when we went to Paris, and makes for a good negotiation point. “If you are patient in the Musee d’Orsay, we’ll take you to see the sewers afterwards!.”

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      It definitely seems to be a popular one with kids – though they usually love the disgusting stuff!

  • Reply
    The Exhibition List
    September 14, 2012 at 12:05 am

    This is wonderful! Are you happy for us to reblog?

  • Reply
    missmadaboutravel
    September 17, 2012 at 11:55 am

    This sounds like a really interesting thing to do! 😉

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      It’s definitely a different view of Paris!

  • Reply
    Kathryn
    September 22, 2012 at 10:39 am

    That’s got t be one of the most bizzare tours I’ve heard of!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      It shows you can make a tourist attraction out of pretty much anything!

  • Reply
    Ana Silva O'Reilly (@mrsoaroundworld)
    September 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Very interesting and unusual 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 27, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks Ana, it was definitely a unusual perspective on Paris!

  • Reply
    Rachael
    October 3, 2012 at 8:10 am

    My kids would love it! Added to the to do list. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      October 3, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      It’s the sort of things kids would definitely love!

  • Reply
    Mike
    October 22, 2012 at 5:14 am

    This is a unique and different from the museums I’ve visited.Looks interesting.I’ll definitely visit this museum on my next Paris vacation.Thanks for sharing Lucy!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      October 22, 2012 at 10:53 pm

      It’s certainly an unusual one! Hope you enjoy it if you do visit.

  • Reply
    Cassie | Ever In Transit
    February 27, 2013 at 2:19 am

    Fascinating! I’ve heard of underground subway tours, but never the sewer! I’m an urban planner, so I do remember learning in grad school that modern city planning all started because of the need to deal with the poor public sanitation in rapidly-growing cities (late 19th/early 20th centuries). I’ve got to check this out when I’m there!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      As an urban planner sure you’ll be really interested in it all. It’s a pretty unusual thing to see on holiday but it makes a good story!

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