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Geography

7 Major Cities That Sit Below Sea Level

By Bradley O'Neill
Read time: 5 minutes

Curiously, it’s possible for settlements to exist while technically being lower than the height of oceans and seas. As the world’s ocean is technically one continuous body of water, its surface level is generally the same throughout the planet. “Sea level” is the basis from which elevation and depth are measured on planet Earth. Locations that sit below sea level can occur due to a variety of factors, including tectonic activity, rising water levels, and human developments such as land reclamation. Check out these seven major cities that are all situated below sea level.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Row homes along canal in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Credit: a_Taiga/ iStock via Getty Images 

The country name Netherlands means “low-lying lands,” and there’s a reason for this. An estimated 26% of the Netherlands is located below sea level, and that number rises to as high as 59% following heavy storms and other times of increased water levels. The Dutch capital, Amsterdam, sits approximately 7 feet below sea level. The city stays “afloat” thanks to a system of canals, dikes, dunes, floodgates, and pumping stations. It’s part of the Delta Works, a massive engineering project initiated after significant flooding in 1953. The Dutch continue to find innovative ways to adapt to the country’s low-lying location. For example, in 2023, an underwater bicycle parking lot with space for 7,000 bikes opened next to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. 

Georgetown, Guyana

Colonial architecture in Georgetown, Guyana
Credit: pawel.gaul/ iStock via Getty Images 

Located where the Demerara River meets the Atlantic Ocean on South America’s northern coastline, Georgetown is the English-speaking capital of Guyana. It currently sits at about 6 feet below sea level. Protecting much of Georgetown is the Kingston Seawall, which is the country’s oldest sea defense structure. It keeps the Atlantic at bay and helps to preserve the country’s many rice and sugarcane fields.

Often called the “Garden City of the Caribbean,” Georgetown is also known for its colonial architecture. Notable landmarks include the Gothic Revival-style City Hall and St. George’s Cathedral. Visitors often use the city as a starting point for tours to explore nearby natural wonders such as Kaieteur Falls in Kaieteur National Park and the Iwokrama Rainforest.

Kristianstad, Sweden

Castle surrounded by gardens and body of water in Kristianstad, Sweden
Credit: Antony McAulay/ Shutterstock 

The lowest point in Sweden sits at 8 feet below sea level, and it’s located just outside the city of Kristianstad, set on the banks of Lake Hammarsjon in the southern part of this Scandinavian country. In the 19th century, part of the lake was drained to create a reverse dam called Hammarslundsvallen. Since the area is low-lying, its job is to keep water out rather than retain it.

However, the dam almost breached in 2002, after which a project was launched to pump water out. By 2025, the goal is to have over 6 miles of embankments and six pumping stations to prevent future flooding. Still, water plays an important role in the town’s culture and surroundings. The Kristiansand Vattenrike Biosphere Reserve extends around 22 miles along the River Helge. This wetlands area features nature trails, bird towers, and interpretive centers.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Large windmill and waterfront buildings in Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Credit: nantonov/ iStock via Getty Images 

The second-largest city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam is an important maritime port set along the Scheur river, close to the North Sea. About 85% of the city is located up to 23 feet below sea level. Despite this, Rotterdam is regarded as one of the safest delta cities on the planet. This is mainly thanks to creative engineering and architectural projects.

The Maeslantkering is a storm surge barrier built on the river that shuts automatically when floods and tidal surges threaten the city. It’s controlled by a centralized computer system and can withstand a water increase of 16 feet. Rotterdam is also home to other water-based infrastructure projects such as a floating solar park and Nassauhaven, a collection of sustainable homes that move with the tide.

Baku, Azerbaijan

Mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan, with modern skyscrapers in distance
Credit: Ayhan Altun/ Moment via Getty Images 

At 92 feet below sea level, Baku is the lowest capital city in the world. It’s also the largest city situated on the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water. Baku was settled in the Bronze Age, and the landscape of the city has changed dramatically since its early beginnings. Today, it’s an ultra-modern metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers, including the iconic Flame Towers. At night, hundreds of LED screens illuminate these three towers to simulate flickering flames.

Baku’s location on the Caspian Sea is key to Azerbaijan’s economy, as the body of water is rich in both fish and oil reserves. City planners also took advantage of the waterfront setting to create the Mini Venice tourist attraction, which has canals, islands, restaurants, and gondola rides. 

Bombay Beach, California

Rocks jutting out of California's Salton Sea
Credit: Tom Grubbe/ Moment Open via Getty Images 

Part ghost town, part thriving arts community, Bombay Beach isn’t quite a “major” city — but it is the lowest incorporated community in the United States. The town sits at 226 feet below sea level on the shores of Salton Sea, a saline lake that originated when canals transporting water from the Colorado River burst in 1905. By the mid-1900s, Bombay Beach had become a waterside escape loved by watersports enthusiasts and even celebrities.

But an unfortunate combination of flooding, rising summer temperatures, and rotting fish (thanks to contaminants and hypersalinity in the lake) forced residents out during the 1970s. However, life has come full circle here. In the 2010s, former residents and retirees started to return, and they were soon joined by artists. The Bombay Beach Biennale, founded in 2016, is a celebration of art and music inspired by this quirky and resilient town.

Jericho, West Bank

Farmland next to sandy hill in Jericho, West Bank
Credit: Zoonar/J.Wachala/ Zoonar via Getty Images Plus

Jericho, situated about 10 miles from the Dead Sea (the lowest point on the planet), is both the lowest and oldest city in the world. The exact, record-breaking low point is known as Tell es-Sultan, which sits 864 feet below sea level. Excavated remains of the Natufian peoples found here date back over 10,000 years to the Neolithic period.

Further archaeological digs in and around Jericho have shed light on the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman influences on the city. The Russian Museum also recounts the often-unknown history of Russians in the Holy Land. It shelters an ancient sycamore tree, which — according to Christian tradition — Zaccheus climbed to watch Jesus on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

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