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Deep underneath the typically bustling neighborhood of New York City's Northern Little Italy (or NoLita, for those in the know) lies a secret. Not only does NoLita serve as the original home for the Archdiocese of New York, but beneath the surface, there exists an entire system of catacomb tunnels.

The history of this cathedral can be felt from the moment one walks up to its front steps, as easily as when one strolls through its parish cemetery, where some of the earliest Catholic New Yorkers are still buried. For the macabre-inclined, anything from sarcophagi to crypts and (many) unmarked graves can be found here — and that's all before one descends the steps to its candle-lit catacomb tunnels.

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We had the chance to tour the catacombs at the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral by candlelight, and this is what it was like.

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Experiencing The History Of New York City's Most Famous Catholic Cathedral

For history lovers, there's nothing more thrilling than knowing that the ground you're standing on was once such a significant part of its past. This sense of history is felt all around the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, and it's one that's worth experiencing in person.

The New York Catacombs by Candlelight tour begins with an introduction of the Basilica itself, which includes a long, winding, and entirely fascinating history that would surprise even a native New Yorker (and it did!).

  • What You Should Know: The Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral should not be confused with its Midtown counterpart, known simply as St. Patrick's Cathedral. While the two are related, they are not the same.
  • Why?: Catholicism first came to New York during the 17th century while it was still known as New Amsterdam. The Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral — which did not gain Basilica status by the Vatican until much later — has been open for more than 200 years. When the newer, more well-known St. Patrick's Cathedral was built in Midtown, the original cathedral underwent a name change in addition to earning the title of a 'Basilica' in the process.

These are several out of possibly hundreds of facts one will learn on the tour of this historic cathedral, helping to curate an experience that is educational, engaging, and altogether humbling.

After a brief intro to the Basilica and its current standing in New York, tour participants will move outdoors to begin the walking portion of the tour (the entire tour takes place on the church premises, so there's not too much walking involved).

The parish cemetery is the next stop on the tour, and we were lucky enough to be scheduled with Mike, who was a fantastic guide. With a jovial sense of humor and a knowledge base that was unbelievably extensive, there seemed to be no question that could not be answered, and no stone — no pun intended — was unturned during his talks.

He led us to the cemetery, where we learned as a group that it's home to more than 4,000 people buried — most in unmarked graves — around the church.

Many of the people buried at this parish cemetery were early Catholics who came to New York, including notable legal, political, and noble figures who existed during the 19th century.

Finding where those are buried, however, is a bit more complicated — over the years, some gravestones and markers have been worn down and are unreadable. This also adds to the overall unintentional atmosphere of the tour, which adds a layer of mystique and intrigue.

What is most fascinating — or disturbing, for some — are the unmarked graves which are, quite literally, everywhere... including where one might be standing while taking the tour.

In addition to the mix of century's old burial sites, there are newer crypts, as well as several final resting places for the ashes of modern notable families who have afforded their place within the parish cemetery for eternity.

The Tour Of The New York City Catacombs

After about 30 minutes of walking through the parish cemetery, participants will move to the front of the cathedral, where the tour takes an even more historic turn.

As it turns out, the original St. Patrick's had quite a history — and it was one that many people wouldn't be aware of unless they were privy to its origins and the cataclysmic events that occurred in New York City around the time Catholic churches began gaining recognition.

This also meant they were under attack and, while we won't give away too many spoilers, we were particularly floored to learn that at one point in time, the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral once had its own musket-guarded walls.

It's hard to picture the upbeat, colorful neighborhood of NoLita as a Protestant vs. Catholic war zone won over by none other than Bishop "Dagger John" John Hughes, but this is only one piece of New York City's unique history that one will learn on this incredible tour.

New York City's Catacombs: The Descent

After stopping by the original stairway that led down into the catacomb tunnels — which is just as creepy as it sounds — participants have roughly 10 minutes or so to spend within the cathedral. For those who have never been inside the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, the first steps inside are a humbling few.

Not many would know that such a breathtaking interior exists behind the tan stone facade that hides the inner chapel.

Beautiful stained-glass windows let through enough light to illuminate the altar and its religious artifacts, known well by anyone who is familiar with the Catholic Church and Pope-led ceremonies. The crowning jewel of the cathedral, however, is the Henry Erben Organ, which was part of a $15 million dollar renovation, found on the upper floor at the back of the cathedral.

From the cathedral, tour participants are led down a set of stairs where the final part of the tour begins.

Related: The Belvedere Hotel: Why Staying Here Is An Iconic NYC Experience

New York City's Catacombs: The Underground Tunnels

Without giving too much away, the catacombs are as fascinating, mind-blowing, and unique as one might imagine.

It's a whole other world that feels entirely detached from New York City, yet completely appropriate for the families who hold final resting places within the hallowed walls of this cathedral. Their stories, inscribed on sealed catacomb doors, vary from the most elite and famous Catholics of the city to tragedies that reveal how difficult life once was during the early 19th century in New York.

One of the most famous catacombs is that of the late General Thomas Eckert and his family. Inside this catacomb, fully-tiled walls, artistically pieced together by none other than engineer and builder Rafael Guastavino (known for his work in Grand Central as well as Ellis Island), along with original Thomas Edison light fixtures. And yes — Eckert did have electricity installed in his catacomb vault!

Major Takeaways From The New York City Catacombs Tour

The New York catacombs were only opened to the public as recently as 2017, and have only garnered attention since then.

As one of the most impressive in the U.S., it's a rare treat to be able to walk the candlelight-lined halls where so much history has been kept for more than 200 years.

The tour of the parish cemetery and time spent within the cathedral are additional perks of the tour, and only help to add authenticity and significance to an already exceptional historic walk into New York City's past.

New York Catacombs By Candlelight Tour Details

  • Duration: ~1.5 hours
  • Cost: $37/person
  • Location: The corner of 266 Mulberry and Jersey in the neighborhood of NoLita

As visitors raise their own candlelight to read each inscribed catacomb marker, it's one more step they take back into a world where New York City was transformed — and it's an experience that's worth having.

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