What lies beneath
City Market Catacombs, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Beneath the cafés of Indianapolis’s City Market, an eerily quiet network of catacombs stretches out for some 22,000 square feet (2,044sqm). The limestone brick arches and pillars were originally the basement of Tomlinson Hall, a vast municipal building that was demolished after a fire in 1958. Now, an organized tour offers the chance to explore the musty underground warren which is popular with ghost hunters. Note that tour times may be subject to change – see here for the current schedule.
Aldwych Station, London, UK
The London Transport Museum’s Hidden London tours typically allow visitors to snoop around the city’s disused tube stations. These include Aldwych (pictured), a former stop on the Piccadilly line that opened in 1907 and closed in 1994, and whose ticket hall, original elevators, and abandoned platforms and tunnels are still intact. Tours are temporarily on hold due to COVID-19, but it’s hoped that they’ll resume towards the end of 2020. For now, you can register for virtual experiences instead.
Turkey’s Cappadocia region has many awe-inspiring, ancient underground cities, but rambling and multi-chambered Derinkuyu is the largest. Dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries BC, the sprawling subterranean commune was built to protect its inhabitants from invading forces during sieges. As well as being capable of housing between 20,000 and 50,000 people, the network of man-made caves also housed food stores, stables, churches and wineries. Various companies usually offer tours of this subterranean world – check with individual operators like Turkish Heritage Travel for current availability.
Estación de Chamberí, Madrid, Spain
Madrid’s Estación de Chamberí opened in 1919 as a stop on the city’s first metro line, but it closed in 1966 after it became unusable due to longer trains. After years of being glimpsed fleetingly by commuters, the metro station opened for public tours in 2008 with its old ticket offices, turnstiles and maps in situ. There’s usually a one-in, one-out policy, which allows visitors to absorb the century-old memorabilia and abandoned atmosphere in peace. The station is temporarily closed to visitors.
Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
An eerie, preserved 19th-century wagonway runs under the northeastern English city of Newcastle to the Tyne River. Originally constructed to transport coal from a colliery to the river, it became an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. After undergoing repairs, the Victoria Tunnel finally opened for guided tours in 2010, and hour-long, single-household excursions are still available at present.
Crystal Palace Subway, London, UK
This spectacular space lies hidden underneath a road in south London. The ornately designed Victorian station opened in 1865 to bring passengers to the famed Crystal Palace, which was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was then used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War, and eventually closed to passengers in 1954. It would have been left in a state of neglect if not for volunteer group Friends of Crystal Palace Subway, who generally open the space to the public three times a year. Be aware that the subway is currently closed for a large-scale restoration project.
Old Sacramento Underground, California, USA
In late 1861, Sacramento was hit by powerful Pacific storms, which caused the rivers to surge through the town, sweeping thousands to their deaths. Instead of deserting their hometown, locals spent years slowly raising the streets and houses by nine feet (2.7m). Today, the Sacramento History Museum (pictured here before social distancing) usually offers tours around some of the abandoned basements, alleyways and underground streets. At the moment, only virtual tours are available, but keep an eye on the organization’s website for updates.
Củ Chi tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The Củ Chi tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh City were part of a vast network of cramped and dark tunnels constructed by the Viet Cong underneath the Củ Chi district to hide, launch guerrilla attacks and transport covert communications. Today, it’s usually possible for tourists to explore some of the tunnels.
Blair Street Underground Vaults, Edinburgh, Scotland
Beneath Edinburgh’s Old Town lie the spooky subterranean passages of the Blair Street Underground Vaults. The series of chambers were home to taverns, workshops and storage space for merchants in the 18th century, before falling into disrepair and becoming the haunt of the city’s poor and criminal underworld in the 19th century. They were rediscovered in the 1980s and ghost tours typically explore the creepy underground site.
Fort Worden, Port Townsend, Washington, USA
Darkened tunnels and eerie passageways make up Fort Worden, a defensive structure built between 1898 and 1917 in Port Townsend. It’s the best preserved of three military batteries that once guarded the Washington coast, together known as the Triangle of Fire. Today the deserted remains of the fort form part of the 432-acre Fort Worden Historical State Park.
Couvre Porte, Vittoriosa, Malta
As well as being a maze of ancient alleyways above ground, Malta is also rife with subterranean passages. Capital Valletta is a veritable warren of cellars, crypts, tunnels, cisterns and transport tunnels, with some having been constructed by the Knights of Malta as protection against the Turks. Underground wartime complexes can also be found around the island, including one at Couvre Porte in Vittoriosa (pictured) and a hand-hewn chamber under a restaurant in Mgarr, which was used as an air-raid shelter.
Dollis Hill bunker, London, UK
You might know about the Churchill War Rooms, the underground HQ hidden beneath the London streets of Westminster where Sir Winston Churchill and his government sheltered during the Blitz. But did you know about the secret wartime bunker that was built in north London’s unassuming Dollis Hill? The alternative bunker was also used by Churchill on occasion. It was abandoned in 1944 and original rusting equipment remains. The site usually opens for tours twice per year.
Quintessential Umbrian hilltop town Orvieto is riddled with underground secrets. The labyrinth of man-made grottos, tunnels, wells and reservoirs lay forgotten for many years before being unearthed in the 1970s. One remarkable discovery was a medieval oil press, which was discovered under the Piazza Duomo, complete with millstones, press, furnace and mangers for the animals who worked the grindstones.
Uplistsikhe Cave City, Georgia
Stone walkways and stairwells fill the incredible age-old cave city of Uplistsikhe, carved out of the sandstone cliffs of the Mtkvari river. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, near Gori, is thought to date back to 1,000 BC, with its rock-hewn structures connected by tunnels. The once thriving city went into decline in the 12th century and was finally destroyed by the Mongols in 1240. Some of the caves feature ornately carved ceilings and the site is also home to Georgia’s oldest theater.
Concrete bunkers from the 1960s to the 1980s are a ubiquitous sight in Albania. They were built during the communist government of Enver Hoxha, who saw his country at threat from neighboring regimes, though the subterranean hideouts were never actually used for defensive purposes. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the bunkers were left abandoned and many are now derelict, though some have since been turned into museums, animal shelters and even accommodations.
German underground hospital, Channel Islands
Built by forced labor on the island of Guernsey during the Second World War, this grim military hospital doubled as a munitions store for occupying German forces. All that can be seen above ground are the small entrances and ventilation shafts, but underground there is a 75,000-square-foot maze of tunnels. The eerie complex is currently closed and is set to re-open in April 2021.
Quincy Mine, Hancock, Michigan, USA
Protected by the Quincy Mine Hoist Association, this Michigan mine ceased operations around 1945. The association now typically gives curious visitors rare access to the deserted buildings on the site in Hancock, from a tour of the underground copper mine to a close-up look at the shaft house. There’s also a little on-site museum that shines a spotlight on the region’s mining history.
Kongsberg Silver Mines, Kongsberg, Norway
Norway’s long-running silver mining history is still encapsulated deep into the Kongsberg Silver Mines, which were founded in 1623 and closed down in 1958. Just near Oslo, a 1.4-mile (2.2km) trip on a train leads into a tunnel carved into the mountain down the King’s Mine, the largest of Kongsberg’s silver mines. Guided tours run every day in summer (18 May–18 August) and focus on the intricacies of the extraction of silver and the Fahrkunst, an ingenious elevator which carried miners down to work the mine.
City Hall subway station, New York City, New York, USA
With its leaded skylights, vaulted tile ceiling and chandeliers, New York City’s abandoned City Hall subway station makes you wonder why other stations have to look so functional. City Hall opened in 1904 but closed in 1945 due to lack of traffic. Today, the New York Transit Museum typically runs tours of the spectacular subterranean space for members, but you’ll need to book well in advance to bag a space. The museum is temporarily closed – check here for updates. Take a look at incredible abandoned subway stations from around the world.
Daugavpils Fortress, Daugavpils, Latvia
A large-scale fortress complex, Daugavpils Fortress was constructed in 1810 by the Russians in anticipation of an attack by Napoleon. It is the last bastion-style fortress ever constructed in Europe and is the only one that’s been preserved without significant alterations. Today, the rambling structure has been reopened for tourists who can clamber down to its dank and spooky cellars and subterranean passages, while what was once the arsenal building is now Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre.
Bastion tunnels, Tallinn, Estonia
As you’d expect with any self-respecting fortified town, Tallinn has a tangle of mysterious passageways lurking beneath its streets. Built as part of its defense system, some have only recently been discovered while others such as the Bastion passageways, which date back to the 17th century, were repurposed as bomb shelters during the Second World War. The Soviets later installed electricity, running water, ventilation and a phone connection. Daily tours include old equipment left still in situ and stretches that haven’t changed since the Middle Ages.
The Government Bunker, Bonn, Germany
This cavernous underground complex, built between 1960 and 1972 inside two railway tunnels, is located just near former capital Bonn. It was created to shelter the West German government in the event of a nuclear winter or Soviet invasion. Most of the now redundant complex is derelict but you can visit certain areas, including a replica of the bedroom where the German chancellor would have bedded down, on a guided tour.
Nottingham caves, Nottingham, UK
Did you know there’s a maze of more than 500 sandstone caves underneath the streets of England’s historic Nottingham that date back to the Dark Ages? These amazing secret underground spaces include a medieval tannery, an air raid shelter where thousands of people sought refuge during the Second World War and the remnants of Drury Hill Victorian slums. The caves are open for visitors and audio guide tours are also available.
Halliggye Fogou, Cornwall, UK
A remarkable underground maze of Iron Age stone-lined passages, known as fogous after the Cornish word ogo, which means cave, have been unearthed in Cornwall. The largest of which, Halliggye Fogou, is thought to date from the 5th or 4th century BC. The intriguing tunnels may have been places of refuge, storage chambers or ritual shrines. But no one knows for sure which only adds to their appeal. The caves are usually open during daylight hours from May until September but have had to temporarily close.
Seattle Underground City, Seattle, Washington, USA
When a fire razed Seattle to the ground in 1889, the city was rebuilt one story higher, to lift it out of the boggy land. Roads were filled in and raised, and buildings reconstructed so their ground floors became basements. New pavements then bridged the gap between the raised roads and first floor entrances, leaving tunnels below. Today, these subterranean passageways, taking in shop façades, bank vaults and even a toilet can be seen on a guided tour.
Naval Museum Balaklava, Balaklava, Crimea
This former top-secret USSR submarine base, set strategically on the southwestern tip of the Crimean Peninsula in Balaklava Bay, was built to survive a US nuclear strike. The vast underground facility, which includes a network of water channels and warehouses to hide vessels and weapons, lies beneath Mount Tavros. After being abandoned from the early 1990s for nearly a decade, it fell into a state of disrepair but the Cold War relic is now open for tours and houses a museum.
Great Siege Tunnels, Gibraltar
This warren of man-made underground passageways can be found in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, hidden inside the Rock of Gibraltar. The labyrinth is known as the Galleries or the Great Siege Tunnels, after its original use as a defense system during the Great Siege of Gibraltar between 1779 and 1783. The network was extended during the Second World War and today, the well-preserved tunnels are open to visitors – note that face coverings must be worn at all times.
Butte underground city, Montana, USA
Hiding beneath Butte is a deserted secret world, including a barber, shoe shops, a prison and the Rookwood Speakeasy, a hidden bar from Prohibition days. These well-preserved relics are from the early 20th century when mining was at its height. The population swelled to around 100,000 and space was at a premium so people started using underground areas connected by tunnels. Today, the underground city can be visited on a subterranean tour.
Erdstall tunnels, Europe
Mysterious and ancient man-made tunnels known as erdstall (meaning earth stable) are found around parts Europe, particularly in Bavaria, Germany and Austria. While it’s not known for certain exactly when or why the series of narrow carved tunnels were created, some archaeologists think they were built for storage or as hiding places. It’s possible to clamber inside some of the claustrophobia-inducing chambers, should you wish. Take a look at haunting photos of the world’s abandoned sacred places.
The Ruien, Belgium
Above ground, Antwerp is a fascinating mix of medieval history and contemporary cool. This unusual tour beneath its streets explores the network of former sewers, vaults and canals in semi-darkness, while revealing the secrets of Belgium’s second city through the ages. Be prepared for bad smells and dark tales. The Ruien has reopened – but check for updates here.
Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra, India
A cliff face in Maharashtra hides remarkably well-preserved murals, carvings and sculptures dating from the 1st or 2nd century to the 5th century, which are considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art. Undisturbed until a hunting party stumbled across an entrance in 1819, the 30 or so caves were used as a retreat by monks during the monsoon and house a network of halls, with columns carved out of the rock. The caves are currently closed.
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