Intrepid travelers have a tendency to gravitate toward heights. Mountaintops, skyscrapers, Ferris wheels — the higher the better. But traveling in the opposite direction, below the ground, can provide a whole new level of excitement. The following tunnels, mines, and even entire subterranean cities are hidden within the depths of the Earth, waiting to be explored. Read below (pun intended) for seven of the world’s most incredible underground landmarks.
Wieliczka Salt Mine – Poland
Descending 1,000 feet below ground, Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine dates back to medieval times. Named one of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978, the massive salt mine features a tiered underground network of tunnels and connecting rooms. It was operational from the 13th century, when salt was a highly valued commodity due to its ability to preserve food, all the way through the late 20th century.
During the height of salt mining, Wieliczka expanded into nine levels to accommodate the area’s Catholic miners who lived underground seasonally. As a result, subterranean salt chapels were installed so these devout workers could still practice their faith. Perhaps the most impressive of these is St. Kinga’s Chapel, located 330 feet underground and featuring a giant salt chandelier and elaborate salt sculptures. Today, visitors can not only tour the inoperative salt mine’s extensive tunnels and chapels but also attend mass on Sundays.
Kaymakli Underground City – Turkey
Situated in central Turkey almost 300 feet beneath the town of Cappadocia, Kaymakli Underground City was built in seventh century BCE for Christians to hide from persecution during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. To accommodate the needs of its residents in hiding, the Christian refugees created a complex organized community — entirely underground.
With space for up to 3,000 people, Kaymakli consisted of small rooms for citizens to sleep in, with storage spaces, water wells, and ventilation shafts added to make underground life more comfortable. The city also contained burial chambers, a kitchen, and a church for Christian worship. Of the Kaymakli’s eight floors, only four remain accessible to visitors today, who will need to navigate steep stairways and narrow passageways throughout the tour.
Dambulla Cave Temple – Sri Lanka
As one of the largest and best-preserved cave temples in the world, Dambulla Cave Temple is an active Buddhist shrine dating back 2,000 years. The religious complex actually contains five cave temples, the first of which was carved into the rock by Buddhist monks sometime between the first and third centuries BCE. Over time, ancient kings funded four other cave temples to be built as a gesture of gratitude to the Buddha.
Inside the temples, 157 statues are on display — including a 45-foot-long reclined Buddha — while intricate cave murals depict the life and teachings of Siddhartha. As a sacred pilgrimage and a place of worship, the cave temples are open to the public with certain stipulations. A strict dress code forbids shoes and hats and requires knees and shoulders to be covered.
Blair Street Underground Vaults – Edinburgh, Scotland
This unique site in Edinburgh’s Old Town sprang up in 1788 after the city’s South Bridge was completed. The bridge’s lower levels, home to numerous arched vaults and chambers, quickly transformed into a busy subterranean community beneath the streets of the Scottish capital.
At first, cobblers, metalsmiths, and merchants gathered in the Blair Street Underground Vaults to hawk their wares, but due to flooding and lack of ventilation, these businesses eventually departed for higher ground. Brothels, gambling rings, and unlicensed distilleries replaced them, and the vaults became synonymous with unseemly business and criminal activity. After being sealed off in the mid-1800s, the vaults were rediscovered in the 1980s. Today, the underground site is rumored to be haunted — in addition to daytime tours, night tours are available for the very brave.
City Hall Subway Station – New York, New York
Located directly beneath New York City Hall, this long-forgotten subway station has been abandoned for over half a century. Designed by Heins & LaFarge, the same firm behind the Bronx Zoo, the City Hall Subway Station is an architectural marvel featuring vaulted tiled ceilings and leaded glass skylights. With hopes that a rapid public transit system would transform New York into a world-class metropolis, officials unveiled the City Hall Station on October 27, 1904 — the same day the New York City Subway opened to the public.
As train technology advanced, the city abandoned the station in 1945, since the newest models of trains could not navigate the station’s sharpest curve. Today, tours of the old subway station can be made through the New York City Transit Museum, but word of caution: tickets tend to sell out well in advance.
Catacombs of Paris – France
With the bones of approximately 6 million bodies hidden beneath the city’s 14th, 15th, and 16th arrondissements, the Paris Catacombs are one of the most fascinating sites in the city. The reasoning behind the mass grave is a practical one: In 1785, due to a surplus of bodies in the communal cemeteries, the government began transferring bones to a network of underground mines 65 feet beneath the city.
Once in the catacombs, the bones of the dearly departed were shaped into meticulous and macabre designs, even forming tunnels and archways. In 1809, the city opened the catacombs to visitors, and it has since become one of Paris’ most popular historic sites. Although the network of tunnels runs for 124 miles, less than two miles remain open for public exploration.
Churchill War Rooms – London, England
Beneath the streets of Westminster, the Churchill War Rooms is where the famous prime minister slept, strategized, and schemed ways to defeat the German troops during World War II. Here, stationed inside these top-secret subterranean rooms, the British government fought the tactical side of war. The map room — untouched since 1945 — is notably where Churchill, King George VI, and other leaders convened to discuss the progress of the Allied Forces.
The rest of the mesmerizing underground displays are also frozen in time, including the bunkers where British citizens hid during the Blitz and the cabinet room where crucial decisions were made. Both guided and self-guided tours are available of the Churchill War Rooms and the adjoining Churchill Museum.