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Urban Exploration: Hidden Cities, Off-Limits Sites

Around the World, Featured — By Alex Resnik on May 6, 2010 at 5:40 pm
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Indiana Jones pounded through a library floor to head under Venice in his search for the holy grail; Haruki Murakami’s book, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, takes place largely in an anachronistic sewer network under Tokyo; the Bat Cave can be found under Wayne Manor. However you look at it, hidden cities, off-limits places, and underground constructions are pretty cool – in fiction.

There are some who seek out the hidden corners of cities, attempting for example, to find the Cloaca Maxima (the world’s first sewer) underneath Rome, or mapping abandoned subway stations in New York. These “urban explorers” often risk life and limb – as well as hefty fines and sentences for trespassing – to find and photograph cramped catacombs, forgotten façades, and industrial relics. But how can the average traveler – encumbered by hum-drum safety, monetary, and legal concerns – get into these places? It may not be a purist’s definition of urban exploration, but here are some (mostly) legal and (probably) safe ways to see the other side of cities and places you thought you knew.

Seattle’s Underground City

Beginning as a rough-and-tumble logging town, Seattle was not originally constructed with concepts like urban planning and civil engineering in mind. Because Seattle was built on flats along the Pacific shoreline, the first Seattleites had to contend with tidal flooding, often wading through inches of muck on the streets and sidewalks, losing shoes, personal articles, and possibly small children in the mire. Another dingy drawback was that toilets would not flush – and would often back up – at high tide.

Image: zetrules/Flickr

The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 put an end to the first Seattle, with civic leaders making two important decisions. The first was a building ordinance specifying that all new constructions must be of brick or masonry. The second was to elevate the new city above the tideflats, effectively turning the second story of buildings into the new ground floor. Shop-keeps quickly rebuilt, and sidewalks and streets were planted one story higher than before, creating underground passageways lined with the original storefronts.

Today, walking around Pioneer Square, you wouldn’t even notice that you’re treading on the remnants of old Seattle. Take the Underground Tour, however, and you’ll experience the dank, muddy, and downright stinky Seattle of a hundred years ago.

Image: SightsinSeattle.com

Catacombs and Mines of Paris

There’s nothing like a catacomb to pique the interest of any self-respecting urban explorer, and indeed there are uncounted “cataphiles” in Paris and around the world, all vying to get into the maze of mines and ossuaries sitting just below Paris. The catacombs have been partially open to the public since 1867, with tours every day taking the curious visitor through the macabre ossuary packed with the bones of centuries of putrefying Parisians.

Image: albany_tim/Flickr

The stone mines are a different story. Because of extremely dangerous conditions, the abandoned mines of Paris – the birthplace of plaster of Paris – are off limits to the public. That doesn’t stop intrepid cataphiles with a flashlight and a penchant for subterranean architecture from trying, and sometimes succeeding, to get in. Maybe not the day trip of choice for the tourist with a money belt and a pressed suit, but definitely a unique view on the City of Light… in the dark.

Image: Vlastula

New York’s Abandoned Subway Stations

There have been quite a few incarnations of the New York subway system in its more than 100-year history. Tracks have been moved, lines altered, and stations demolished or left to rot. Fortunately for urban explorers, this means lots and lots of leftover infrastructure to explore, photograph, and map.

Among the jewels of New York’s many forgotten sites for the ferrophile is City Hall station, originally built as the southern terminal of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) system and a showpiece of New York’s spanking new subway in 1904. The station sports intricate tiled designs along the walls, elegant archways and stairways, and even expansive skylights.

Image: Salim Virji/Flickr

Although all of New York’s abandoned subway stations are closed to the public, there’s a slight chance that the New York Transit Museum will be operating a tour of City Hall station when you’re in town. But don’t hold your breath: post 9/11 security concerns have halted all but the most important events at City Hall station. The last time it was open to the public was after a VIP ceremony held for the 2004 IRT Centennial celebration.

Image: NYC Resistor

Gunkanjima (Hashima Island)

Off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island,” in Japanese because of its high sea walls and profile) was once the most densely populated place on Earth, and is today completely abandoned. Mitsubishi bought the island at the end of the 19th century for its coal deposits and operated a mine there until 1974. Miners and their families, along with Mitsubishi brass, lived and worked on the windswept rock during the life of the mine, eventually reaching a population density of 835 people per hectare in cramped concrete quarters towering above the coastline.

Image: snotch/Flickr

Living conditions were deplorable, weather conditions rough, and working conditions unimaginable on Hashima Island. The current ghost town is a reminder of the lasting destructive impact of industrialization. And today, you can visit the site where it all happened! Tours of the island have been operated since 2009, and include a cruise to the site and guidance in Japanese. However, the legally operated tours only allow visitors to walk on a newly constructed concrete pier on the coast of the island, for fear of the dilapidated and highly unsafe buildings. Talk to a Nagasaki local with a boat to get the insider tour.

Image: wata_masa/Panoramio

Cincinnati Subway

One of the antiquated oddities of modern American transportation infrastructure, the Cincinnati subway system was constructed in the early 20th century, but never opened due to post-World War I inflation and rising building costs, leaving the largest abandoned subway tunnel in the United States to molder. There are three uncompleted stations, and some entrances spread around downtown Cincinnati, but no tracks have ever been laid. The subway remains nothing more than a rumor even to native Cincinnatians to this day.

You can tour the tunnel through the Cincinnati Museum Center‘s talk and walk tours, the only way to legally get in. However, the tours are extremely limited, with only one tour offered in 2008 and 2009 and no specific plans for tours in the future. But hey, you could try emailing the city fathers to get on a waiting list.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

MIT Vadding

Image: http://www.jessekb.com/

Nothing more than a way for college kids to kill time by getting into the hidden maintenance passageways and roofs of their beloved campus, vadding – known today as “roof and tunnel hacking” – has been a tradition at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for decades. Often the activity results in pranks designed to amuse and bewilder in classic tech-geek style: a true revenge of the nerds.

New York’s Freedom Tunnel

Underneath New York’s Riverside Park, this Amtrak train tunnel was originally intended to expand park space for the neighborhood’s residents when it was built in the 1930s. With the growing popularity of cars and trucks, however, the tunnel quickly fell into disuse and in subsequent years was best known for its gigantic homeless shanty town.

Image: Pro-Zak/Flickr

Today, however, the shanty towns are gone and the tunnel is a destination for some of the city’s most notable graffiti artists, on top of the stray urban explorer, of course. The privacy and security granted by the tunnel mean that graffiti artists like Chris “Freedom” Pape can take their time to create more daring pieces. Natural light streams in from the rare ventilation grate or doorway, spotlighting artists’ work. It’s an ideal gallery in a city known for its sometimes shady street art.

Image: doobybrain.com

Chernobyl/Pripyat

The site of the worst nuclear accident in history is dilapidated, dangerous, and desperate for some tourist dollars! So maybe Chernobyl doesn’t hit you as a “hot spot” (for tourism, at least), but it’s the ideal destination for the urban explorer on the lookout for industrial ruins; they’re Soviet-era ones to boot.

Image: Timm Seuss/Flickr

The power plant’s cooling towers (still partially standing) overlook a still-radioactive but surprisingly intact nuclear wasteland. Studies of the area have found Chernobyl’s flora and fauna largely unaffected by the radiation, and the absence of any human presence has made for an unexpected resurgence in the region’s wildlife. Radiation levels are also low enough to be safe, as long as you stay in designated areas.

Image: Robert Polidori

The nearby town of Pripyat, also evacuated and abandoned after the meltdown, is a ghost town monument to the thousands of people who survived the disaster. Soviet apartment blocks, still brimming with personal effects left behind in the hasty evacuation, give an idea of what is was like to live and work in communist Ukraine. Tours guide visitors through the power plant and the city, and include transportation and a lunch.

The Jorvik Viking Centre

A relocating confection factory spurred the discovery of ancient Viking ruins under a street in central York, England during excavations between 1976 and 1981. Over 40,000 objects, including ruins of houses and other buildings, as well as everyday articles, were dug up. What could the York Archaeological Trust do with such a monumental find? Clean up the debris, restore the artifacts, and open up a family-friendly Viking-themed park, of course!

Image: iamaviking.files.wordpress.com

Complete with lifelike figures of Viking inhabitants in their homes and workshops, the Jorvik Centre might not technically be a destination for the hardcore urban explorer, but hey, the fun-house feel of the place is great for the kids. Perfect for those times you want to explore an underground city, but have diapers to change.

Moscow Metro-2

This one is the stuff of legends for the urban exploration set. Steeped in decades of rumor, hearsay, and innuendo is possibly a kernel of truth: a top-secret subway system built below Moscow‘s already massive metro. Codenamed D-6 (by the KGB, no less), the project was purportedly started under Stalin and exceeds the Moscow subway in length and depth, connecting the Kremlin with a government airport, FSB headquarters, and an underground city, along with other strategically important places around and beyond Moscow.

The idea was, apparently, to give top communist leaders at the Kremlin an escape route in the event of a coup or political unrest. Nobody has ever come forward with solid evidence of Metro-2′s existence; all the more reason to book a ticket to Moscow for your shot to be the first.

Underground Naples

Beneath Naples runs an underground geothermal zone called the Campi Flegrei (fiery fields). The geothermal activity and later mining operations have opened up wide caverns and passageways that have been used over the centuries by those crafty Romans and the like as sewers, cisterns, and aqueducts. Maybe more interestingly, you can also find places of worship, cult burial chambers, and ancient tunnels buried in the volcanic sandstone making up the Campi Flegrei.

Image: feline_dacat/Flickr

Tours can be arranged through the Southern Speleological Association, and cover the vast area’s natural formations, ancient infrastructure, and more modern innovations, like an air raid shelter built by Mussolini.

Image: www.chauffeurs-italy.com

Myoryuji (Ninja-dera)

Secret passageways, hidden chambers, and rooms built to dissuade sword-wielding assassins. What else could the architecturally minded urban explorer ask for? Myoryuji, built in Kanazawa, Japan during the Edo period, was never actually associated with ninjas per se, but has earned the nickname Ninja-dera (ninja temple) because of its many cunning innovations designed to deceive and conceal.

Image: http://lh6.ggpht.com/

You need to make a reservation for the tour, conducted in Japanese. There are some excellent English materials available as well. Not included in the tour is a rumored underground passageway that extends from the bottom Myoryuji’s deep well all the way into Kanazawa’s castle, at least half a mile away.

Titan Missile Silos

Scattered around the Midwest and western states, Titan I and II missile silos housed one of the most powerful weapons in the United States’ Cold War arsenal: nuclear warheads capable of unleashing a blast 20 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Sobering to think about such destruction, yes. Since the end of the Cold War, these silos have thankfully been out of commission. More sobering today is the idea of actually entering an antiquated, rusticated missile silo spanning subterranean miles chock full of hazardous materials left to stew for decades.

Image: mangpages/Flickr

The Titan silos remain, each facing very different plans for the future. Some have been sold to civilians, who have put them to a wide variety of uses, from unique homes to LSD factories to indoor climbing gyms. A quick scan of the blogosphere indicates that urban explorers are finding their way into these silos, equipped with respirators, flashlights, and safety equipment of course. Arranging a tour should be as easy as getting in touch with one of the private owners of these silos. Good luck.

Image: www.titan2icbm.org

Catacombs of Rome

The original home of the catacomb is Rome. Some only found recently, the Catacombs of Rome currently number about 40, housing the remains of ancient Rome’s Christian, Jewish, and Pagan populations. They began as a secret place for adherents of banned religions to bury their dead in consecrated grounds, and evolved over the centuries into expansive underground networks, sometimes with up to four layers of crypts.

Image: Lawrence OP/Flickr

Today, the Roman Catacombs are important sites for studying the history of the persecuted peoples of the Roman Empire. Much of the frescoes and sculptures adorning these tombs still remain, providing art history buffs with a valuable resource. Tours are operated often and can be easily booked.

Image: travelerfolio.com

Berlin Bunkers

In preparation of the outbreak of WWII, Hitler’s personal architect, Albert Speer built 200 bunkers around Berlin to protect Nazi leaders and civilians from the ravages of war. Needless to say, many of them survived the worst that the Allied Forces could dish out and remain poignant reminders of the war today.

Image: Sarah Jane/Flickr

War bunkers can be found all over Berlin, with entrances sometimes in the most obvious places, like subway stations, native Berliners passing them by every day. Some are very much intact, still housing tools and furniture. Many tours of these important sites are operated throughout the city.

Image: The Guardian

Tags: battleship island, Berlin, bunker, Catacombs, chernobyl, cincinnati, freedom tunnel, gunkanjima, hashima island, jorvik, kanazawa, metro-2, missile, mit, Moscow, myoryuji, nagasaki, Naples, New York, ninja-dera, Paris, pripyat, Rome, roof and tunnel hack, Seattle, silo, subway, titan 1, underground, urban exploration, vadding, york

    29 Comments

  • Lauren Quinn says:

    Great, thorough article! This is exactly the kind of stuff I go crazy for.

  • This is probably the coolest post I’ve read in 6 years. I don’t know what that article I read 6 years ago was, but this one is definitely way more interesting. I would love to visit all of these places, except two of them, I’d pass on those.

  • Terrisa says:

    We have a hidden, off-limits area here in Las Vegas that people are just learning about: the underground flood channels, where homeless people are living–in summer, it’s one of the only ways they can escape the hellish heat. I can’t imagine what it’s like when the flash floods rush through. Most tourists have no idea that people are living underground in Las Vegas. Local author Matt O’Brien wrote a book about it, Beneath the Neon. He’s got a web site: http://www.beneaththeneon.com/beneath_the_neon.html

  • Rachel Greenberg says:

    NEAT! I went on the Seattle Underground tour last week while I was there visiting a friend…meh. You can’t see much but it is a really interesting story. And the tours are run by failed/budding/unemployed comedians which I greatly appreciated.

    I’ve also heard that my alma mater UCSD has a maze of underground tunnels that used to be used by the military! Camp Pendleton is only a few miles away so it wouldn’t surprise me. Supposedly if you even tried to get into them there were trip wire video cameras and AUTOMATIC EXPULSION!! So I never tried…

    Tyler, which two? Lemme guess…the two that are still radioactive? Just a shot in the dark…

  • Emma says:

    An interesting but largely irrelevant fact: Jorvik smells like a farm.

  • Zain Iqbal says:

    gotta love the subway systems in the former Soviet Union, even the secret ones. the one in Tashkent, Uzbekistan doubled as a bomb shelter for residents (each station has huge blast doors) and they’re also aesthetically mind-blowing.

  • Zanni Davis says:

    Rachel – speaking of underground tunnels at schools there is a vast network of tunnels built under the University of Arizona campus built in the 50s for quick evacuation if ever a nuclear bomb went off in Tucson. You access them through various manholes throughout campus. A couple sorority sisters of mine (they shall remain nameless to protect their identities) went on a self-guided tour our senior year. They were hot and scary apparently

  • @Zanni – the girls were hot and scary or the tunnels were hot and scary? Either way I’m intrigued!

  • Kevin Evans says:

    Love it. Palermo also has catacombs, but the skeletons are dressed up in crazy period clothes. http://www.thetraveleditor.com/article/1165/Things_to_do_Historic_Cemetery_Catacombe_dei_Cappuccini.html

    Beijing has an entire underground city which Chairman Mao built for the people in case of nuclear war with the Soviets (thought they were friends? no way) http://geography.howstuffworks.com/asia/beijing-underground-city1.htm

    The archaeologists who discovered Jorvik created a thing called DIG where you can dig for viking artefacts. a great family day out. http://www.thetraveleditor.com/article/3463/Things_to_do_Historic_Archaeology_Down_to_Earth_at_Jorvik_DIG_York.html

  • I think the story behind the Seattle underground is very interesting. Been through the Catacombs and it’s somewhat creepy in a cool kind of way. I loved having to go through a security check at the end. Why you ask? Because it’s infamous for people trying to sneak a skull in their purse or fibula down their pants. True story, as told by the security guards.

  • Dindinha says:

    Que legal essa matéria. Eu tenho imensa curiosidade de saber onde estão as minas de Morro Velho aqui debaixo de Belo Horizonte. Dizem que grande parte da cidade está construída sobre essa mina. Mas parece que é segredo.

  • pitman says:

    That is awesome, I also found this great experiment video about a diet coke and mentos explosion in a microwave on youtube that was really entertaining. It is pretty near death as far as diet coke and mentos goes. It is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVPZSK77yTw. Take a peek, its worth it.

  • Ana says:

    Fascinating reading! Also interesting is how the author was able to collect information – lots of research by the local NileGuide correspondents?

  • Mabus says:

    Interesting article, I like it alot.
    I live in Luxembourg, and under our capital city there is a maze of medival tunnels (23km thereof 17km still existing). So called casemates. A small part of it is open for tourists, but a large part can only be visited during special tours. Maybe they aren’t well know in other parts of the world, but I think everyone visiting Luxembourg should go there.

  • Ann E Mouse says:

    You should add to this list a pointer to the series of articles that were in the SF Chron/Ex about a group of people living in tunnels under the BART system. I believe it turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Also the late, great Golden Gate Bridge Tunnel site – “those who know go below”. That site is being blocked from being accessed on the internet archive by the domain squatters who currently own the domain, shameful.

  • jasper says:

    an update to Emma’s comment – I was quite young when Jorvik was discovered and remember going there when the Museum / Theme park was opened. The exhibit designers actually had chemists re-create the smells of a viking settlement. Yes it’s a bit like a farm, but is more like my local ‘Nan and Curry’ Tandoori place – but after the full tour it just smells awful.

  • John says:

    Near Tucson, AZ, in the town of Sahuarita, one can tour the last complete Titan 2 missile silo, which is being preserved for historical sake by the USAF. It is well worth the $12 or so to get in.

    http://www.titanmissilemuseum.org/

  • Saymwa says:

    Use the goog for the Brunel London Thames tunnel and abandoned chube stations.

  • bethie says:

    Also missing: the Portland Underground. There are tunnels under parts of the city that were used for white slavery trade, hence the name the “Shanghai Tunnels.” You can even see old working trapdoors used to abduct drunken bar patrons.

  • cotocan says:

    Desde Spain me gustaria compartir mis trabajos de lugares abandonados con vosotros en la siguiente direccion web:
    http://rutasabandonadas.es
    PD:Enhorabuena al admon, por tan interesante Web
    Desde Madrid Jabier Suarez

  • Awesome list of places! I definitely want to visit most of these! I never knew about the place in Nagasaki. If i’d have known while i was there I would have checked that out. I want to go to Pripyat one day and check it out for myself.

    There’s also a few de-commissioned London Underground stations you can visit. Some of which are used for movies and TV as sets. Others have just been abandoned. Every year the London Underground organise tours. Worth looking out for if you’re in London.

  • Ndeso says:

    I feel scared when entering the dark area. Such this tunnel.

  • Rachel says:

    I ditto Ndeso’s words – dark tunnels scare me – but this is fascinating. I tried to enter the Catacombes in Paris a while ago but I chickened out….

    Thank you for this post. Stumble Upon is great tool (I used it to find you guys).

  • JD says:

    I am looking for a map of the underground tunnels in Seattle. An overlay of existing streets over the top of the tunnel routes would be ideal.

    anyone??

  • JOE says:

    I definitely think the tunnels surrounding and leading up to Hitler’s “eagles nest” would have been a great addition to this article. Burrowing through the mountain side are tunnels with layers upon layers of feet of brick, tar, and concrete leading into tons of other tunnels, air raid shelters, bedrooms, classrooms, and prison cells. Along with all the power structures and boilers and underground caverns and bridges. all leading to a 40 person elevator going to Hitlers mountain top lookout atop the alps. truly one of the most magnificent things i have ever seen

  • tihomir says:

    this is very cool article.
    Im from Croatia (one of former Yugoslavian countries) sory for bad english ;))
    Did you know that in our capital city Zagreb is lot of interesting tunels build by Church and army in ww2,and on lots of islands in Croatia,i think that would be wery interesting to show the world this endles tunnels and bunkers…

  • I’d be inclined to give green light with you one this subject. Which is not something I typically do! I love reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  • I never knew there were underground cities,

  • Lil Kim says:

    I am glad I found, several weeks were a few. Well perfectly. I need it for a project, fortunately for me mine is on the same subject as yours. I am relieved that I found it, have a good one.

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