Below the surface: 9 incredible underground cities

Underground cities are the fascinating foundations that uncover the secrets of life above. While many of these subterranean worlds have become obsolete, others are fully functional urban spaces

Poland's secret underground city, Wieliczka Salt Mine, is a complex labyrinth of chambers and passageways spread across nine floors

Category Cities

Date 11th February 2016

Hidden passageways, ancient tunnels, illicit activities, and ghastly rumors and urban legends – the underground teems with magical stories of a life that once was, and activities few people ever heard about. Check out these 9 amazing underground cities around the world.

Derinkuyu, Cappadocia, Turkey

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Derinkuyu is quite literally a secret underground city, built to host 20,000 people

Cappadocia city, located in central Turkey, is home to no less than 36 underground cities, and at a depth of approx. 85 m, Derinkuyu is the deepest. Discovered in 1963, the subterranean network of tunnels and rooms include all the institutions and rooms you would find in a regular city: living quarters, stables, churches, storage rooms, refectories, and wineries – and the underground is said to have possibly held more than 20,000 people.

Opened to the public in 1965, only 10% of the underground city is accessible for visitors. Unique to Derinkuyu is the cruciform church located between the third and fourth level and the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Since there isn’t a lot of information hanging around on-site, book a guided tour and start exploring.

Read more: Cappadocia’s cave hotels

Find a flight to nearby Konya

Shanghai Tunnels, Portland, United States

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Discover the illicit affairs that once took place beneath the streets of Portland, Oregon, in the Shanghai Tunnels © pdx107

Portland has its own underground city known as the Shanghai Tunnels, or the less common name: the Portland Underground. This intricate network reportedly once consisted of tunnel passageways linking Portland’s Old Town, also known as Chinatown, to the central Downtown area. Unfortunately many of these subterranean spaces have been filled in during various public works projects, but a few of them are still there and open to explore.

Back in the day, the basements of many a downtown bar and hotel were linked to the Willamette River waterfront by way of these tunnels, allowing supplies to be moved from docked ships directly to basements for storage, thus avoiding rain and heavy traffic. Though still a controversial topic, rumor has it the tunnels have also been used for the practice of “shanghaiing”: kidnapping people for them to serve as sailors.

But, never fear, today you can take a safe and secure walking tour and explore a portion of the Shanghai Tunnels to get a sense of the complex network of tunnels, and an understanding of the seamy history surrounding Portland.

Find a flight to Portland

Edinburgh Vaults, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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Ghosts are still roaming the secret passageways underneath Edinburgh’s streets © fw42

Beneath the streets of Scotland’s capital lies a dark and damp world, dating back to the 18th century. The Edinburgh Vaults, also known as The South Bridge Vaults, are a series of chambers formed within the 19 arches of South Bridge.

Opened in 1788, a period of great expansion and growth, the vaults date back to a time when Edinburgh was a superstitious place. Today, they still exude a feel of gore and ghastliness. Originally built to house taverns, cobblers, cutlers, smelters and other tradesmen, and to store illicit materials, rumors have it that serial killers Burke and Hare also stored various bodies down here, which they sold for medical experiments. Later, when the businesses moved out, the vaults became home to the city’s poorest souls, a skid row complete with pubs and brothels scattered around the wet chambers. A place so grim it would make any of today’s red light districts seem nice and snug.

Delve down beneath Edinburgh’s graceful surface and listen to the guide’s shivering stories of the ghosts still lingering around.

Find a flight to Edinburgh

Dixia Cheng, Beijing, China

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Experience communist paranoia in the secret underground city of Dixia Cheng in Beijing

Beijing’s underground city, Dixia Cheng, was built in the 1970s to serve as a shelter during invasions, bombings and nuclear attacks. The lengthy network of tunnels, often referred to as the Underground Great Wall, included almost 100 hidden entrances and, reportedly, were built with complete services such as schools, hospitals, and sleeping halls in case citizens needed to seek refuge for a longer period of time.

Fortunately there never was an occasion for this massive underground shelter to fulfil its intended purpose, and in 2000 the place was opened to the public. A tour only includes a small circular stretch of the complex, but is still attracting travelers from around the world.

Dixia Cheng has been under renovations since 2008 and therefore closed for visitors, but make sure you put it on your bucket list to check out when it reopens at an indefinite date in the future.

Find a flight to Beijing

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland

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The underground tunnels of Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland © Il conte di Luna

Located in the town of Wieliczka just over 9 miles outside of Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was built back in the 13th century and has produced table salt continuously until 2007.

One of the biggest tourist draws of Poland, this underground salt city has evolved from a series of dark caves to a complex labyrinth now comprising over 185 impressive miles of galleries, about 3000 chambers and nine floors, with the first three open to the public.

Once you descend the 378 steps wooden staircase, you’ll be greeted with a vast variety of guided tour options: If you’re interested in the history of the salt mine, take the Miners’ Tour and get insights into the difficult profession of a salt miner. Alternatively, if you want to learn more about the religious aspects, join the Pilgrims’ Tour that includes a visit to the salt statue of John Paul II and a Holy Mass upon the end of the tour.

Find a flight to nearby Krakow

RÉSO, Montreal, Canada

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Escape the winter cold at RÉSO, Montreal’s complex network of underground passageways © Phil Roeder

RÉSO, stemming from the French word réseau, meaning network, is one of Montreal’s cornerstones. This giant maze runs under Montreal’s streets in and around the Downtown area and houses a wide-range of shops, restaurants, hotels, galleries, seven metro stops, cinemas, a library and even apartment buildings.

The first interconnected sections were built in 1962 with the objective of easing traffic and providing a sheltered way of transportation, especially handy during the harsh winter season. Since the Montreal Metro started operating in 1966, more connections have been added and today RÉSO consists of 20 miles of tunnels with more than 120 exterior access points. Apart from going shopping, come around to check out the permanent artworks on display, public squares and cultural centers. If you want to discover all the hidden spots, book a guided tour and start walking.

Find a flight to Montreal

Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain

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Enjoy a coffee underneath a rock in the pueblo of Setenil de las Bodegas in Southern Spain

Unlike some of the other places on this list, Setenil de las Bodegas, a pueblo (small town) in Southern Spain, isn’t an underground city per se, but it lies underneath massive rock overhangs. Located along a narrow river gorge that’s eroded by the Rio Trejo river, the houses are built into and under the walls of the gorge itself. People actually settled here for practical reasons: in order to keep out the summer heat and the cold in the winter, they only built the facade of the house, while the back was shielded by nature.

While it’s small in size, Setenil de las Bodegas does have some great offerings: visit the small tapas bars tucked underneath the gorge and have a taste of local delicacies such as chorizo, olive oil, honey, jam and Andalusian wine. And, if you’re a nature lover, walk down El Escarpe de Río Trejo, an area of natural diversity, or Ruta de los Bandoleros, which inspired many romantic legends.

Read more: Taste of Spain – tuck in to the nation’s best bites

Find a flight to nearby Malaga

Pilsen Historical Underground, Czech Republic

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Beneath the streets of Czech city Pilsen lies a complex network of secret passageways

The city of Pilsen, in the western part of the country, is home to Pilsen Historical Underground, a 12.5 mile long labyrinth of passageways, cellars and wells built below the city streets in the 14th century. These cellars once served as storage space for food and barrels of beer and, some say, as an escape route in case of an attack. Legend has it that there is treasure buried within the cellar walls, although looting is discouraged.

Take a guided tour and explore this ingenious underground system; highlights include the ice cellar, the water tower and the exhibit on medieval bookbinding. The tour ends at the Brewery Museum, where you can sample the renowned local Pilsner Urquell beer.

Find a flight to nearby Prague

Tunnels of Moose Jaw, Moose Jaw, Canada

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Buy your ticket for the tours of the Tunnels of Moose Jaw and start exploring what lies beneath the streets © daryl_mitchell

The sleepy city of Moose Jaw, located in the state of Saskatchewan in Southern Canada, is home to a series of tunnels that have two separate stories.

In the beginning of the 20th century Canada imposed its now infamous head tax on Chinese immigrants due to the fear that they would steal jobs away from locals. Afraid and unable to pay the tax, illegal Chinese immigrants were forced underground. Entire families lived here and worked in the local businesses above ground in exchange for food and supplies until the 1920s, when this underground maze acquired a new purpose: Due to the proximity to the US, the tunnels were used for transporting of booze to the US through Canada during the prohibition-era. Word has it Al Capone was connected to all the bootlegging, though that has never been proven.

Book these two interactive theatrical tours and travel beneath the streets of Moose Jaw – lay low with an early Chinese immigrant and shake hands with the infamous Al Capone.

Find a flight to nearby Regina
For more travel inspiration, check out our list of best budget destinations of 2016 and discover our best European city breaks.

Originally published

11th February 2016