Urban Exploration: 10 Must-See Underground Sites

Featured — By Alex Resnik on June 24, 2010 at 4:11 pm

While most travelers tend to explore traditional landmarks and monuments typically found above ground, there’s something special about discovering a hidden spot that lies underground. After all, while the streets of a city pulse with a unique urban beat, whether you’re in New York, Tokyo or São Paulo, the lifelines of a city — whether they are historical or modern — lie beneath the sidewalks. Urban explorers have known this for decades, indeed ever since there were cities to explore at all. In our previous post, Urban Exploration: Hidden Cities, Off-Limits Sites, we gave you “some (mostly) legal and (probably) safe ways to see the other side of cities and places you thought you knew.” And you liked it.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled a short list of ten more sites around the world that really should have been in the first post. We owe our readers for the comments that came into the first post, directing us toward some even more interesting ruins, tours, and underground constructions. Specific thanks must go to Terrisa, Rachel Greenberg, Zain Iqbal, Zanni Davis, Kevin Evans, Mabus, John, Saymwa, and Bethie for their awesome tips. Without further ado, more places to sate your mole-man inclinations.

Titan Silo Open

Image: behance.net

In our previous post, we mentioned the prevalence of Titan missile silo sites around the country. Indeed, the West is chock full of these subterranean sources of the most destructive weapons ever known to Mankind, but getting into most of them would involve schmoozing with private owners. That is, if you don’t want to trespass (and we’re assuming you don’t).

It turns out that there is one Titan II silo open to the public near Tucson, Arizona. The Titan Missile Museum displays the relic of “the front line of the Cold War” in full.

Image: strategic-air-command.com

There are various tours to choose from: a standard one-hour guided tour, an hour-and-a-half “Beyond the Blastdoors” tour that takes you into the silo’s crew quarters, a “Moonlight Madness” tour conducted by the light of the full moon, and a four-and-a-half hour “Top-to-Bottom” tour. The standard tours on Tuesdays at 2pm are conducted by a former Titan silo crew member.

Palermo’s Catacombs

Image: dailymail.co.uk

It turns out there are tons of catacombs littered throughout the world, just waiting to satiate tourists’ more macabre inklings. One of the best can be found in the Italian city of Palermo, at the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. Originally built in 1533, the catacombs

were an extension of the Capuchin monastery that was built above, when it outgrew its first cemetery. At first, it was intended as a burial place only for the monastery’s monks and other ecclesiastical personalities.

The catacombs quickly became a high-status tomb for the remains of Palermo’s noblesse oblige. Being buried in the catacombs was similar to buying a prime piece of real estate or carousing about town in a Ferrari: the nobility’s final flaunting place.

Indeed, even inside of the tomb corpses were organized by class and station in life (often dressed in their Sunday best), providing a unique look into the lifestyles of the formerly rich and famous. One of the main attractions is the remarkably well preserved mummified remains of Rosalia Lombardo, a 2-year-old child who died in 1920.

Image: elultimoquecierrelapuerta.files.wordpress.com

Underground Beijing

As the United States and the Soviet Union raced to space, China quietly prepared for the contingency of nuclear war. Covering an area of 85 square kilometers and containing 1,000 anti-air raid structures, the subterranean Dixian Cheng (地下城) complex directly beneath Beijing was mostly hand-dug by 300,000 local residents in the 1960s and 70s as both a defense against supposed Soviet missile attacks and an ideal project for the edification of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Image: hua.umf.maine.edu

Project leaders boasted that they had built a network of tunnels and underground spaces large enough to house all of Beijing’s 6 million or so residents. More impressive still are the amenities: fully equipped living quarters, classrooms, fungus farms, even movie theaters were all built underground as Mao gazed down from plentiful propaganda posters. The army was enlisted to build special passageways from the government’s seat of power at Zhong Nan Hai to the Great Hall of the People and the numerous military bases near Ba Da Chu to the west of town.

Image: serasphere.net

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the now-obsolete underground city fell deep into obscurity, a source of rumor and conjecture. It wasn’t until 2000 that Mao’s project was opened to the public, with limited tours entering from the 90 or so secret entrances placed inside shops and restaurants on the main streets of Qianmen. Tourists marveled at the extent and detail of the construction: there were cinemas, restaurants, and hotels, as well as a working silk factory and ample signage to above-ground landmarks, like Tiananmen Square.

Image: yuantravel.com

And then, in February of 2008, it closed again for pre-Olympic “renovations.” Today, it’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to get into the underground complex. If you’re feeling adventurous, your best best would be to try the last known entrances: 62 West Damochpooang Street in Qianmen, the Beijing Qianmen Carpet Factory at 44 Xingfu Dajie in Chongwen District, and 18 Dazhalan Jie in Qianmen. Good luck and let us know what you find!

Luxembourg’s Medieval Tunnels

Known as the “Gibraltar of the North,” Luxembourg’s ancient fortress sat atop 21 kilometers of tunnels (or, “casemates”) covering around 40,000 square meters of subterranean real estate.

Image: lifeinluxembourg.org

Originally built to house infantry and artillery (as well as workshops, slaughterhouses, kitchens, bakeries, and equipment) to defend the fortress in case of attack, the casemates serve various purposes in modern times. Some have been closed off indefinitely, while others are used as art galleries (like the Am Tunnel) and historical tourist attractions.

Image: luxembourg.co.uk

Although the fortress itself is long gone today, entrance to 17km of the tunnels (the Casemates du Bock, a UNESCO World Heritage site) can be gained through Luxembourg’s Bock Cliff, from March 1 to October 31. Tours run daily.

Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels

Also known as Underground Portland, the tunnels beneath the city of Portland were originally built for off-loading cargo ships docked at port. Later on, rumors began to circulate about the more sinister goings-on in the city’s dark underbelly.

Image: themixtapediaries.com

Actually no more than a series of interconnected basements, the Shanghai Tunnels have been widely rumored to be the site of thousands of “shanghai” attempts. From about 1850 to 1941, able-bodied men were supposedly intoxicated, tricked, or drugged and taken down to these underground grottos, where they waited to be smuggled onto ships and forced to work as deck hands. Also popular are rumors of a “white slavery” trade thriving under Portland, where women were kidnapped and sold into prostitution. And, of course, the tunnels are said to have been used as sites for bootlegging and rum-running during Prohibition.

Image: toptenz.net

Today, there’s little evidence that Portland was home to any more shanghaiing or white slavery than, say, San Francisco, but the tours of Underground Portland are still intriguing for the urban explorer with a historical proclivity. They cover the darker history of Portland by exposing unique underground architecture, holding cells, and even trapdoors supposedly used for ensnaring drunken bar patrons.

Abandoned Tube Stations

Image: infrastructurist.com

Much like New York, and most likely surpassing it, the abandoned subway network of London is legendary. It’s no wonder: the city’s subway system is the oldest in the world, and more than 100 years of daily use, architectural shift, and world war have taken their toll.

Image: urban75.org

Entire websites are dedicated to mapping and documenting the expansive, dilapidated, sometimes grandiose subterranean constructions of the London Underground. There are about 40 abandoned Underground stations, ranging widely in states of decay. Some are almost completely gone today, no more than a widening of the subway. Others, like the British Museum stop, are better preserved, with boarding platforms and railways intact, as well as signage from when they were used as air raid shelters during WWII.

Image: paulreed.me.uk

There are currently no official tours of abandoned Underground stations, despite the fact that they are well known to urban explorers. Check out the plethora of information on how to see these relics by yourself, either from a train window, or above ground. Venturing into these places on foot is illegal and highly dangerous. Uh, did we just make you want to see them even more?

Thames Tunnel

Among Mankind’s many constructions referred to as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” is the Thames Tunnel, a site possibly actually deserving of the title. Opened in 1843, it was the first tunnel to be built with the use of a tunneling shield under a navigable river, setting the pattern for countless tunnels to follow.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It was originally intended to carry cargo across the Thames, but costs went so high over budget that there was no money left at the end of construction to build the wide entrances necessary to let vehicles through. Instead the Thames tunnel opened as an underwater pedestrian walkway, its astounding engineering drawing up to 1 million visitors in the first ten weeks of operation…and this was at a time when the population of London was only 2 million.

Image: chancecollective.wordpress.com

Of course, the tunnel didn’t prove profitable as a tourist attraction for long, and the board running it quickly looked for other money-making schemes. In 1869 the East London Railway took over and began running steam locomotives through the tunnel.

Image: londonist.com

Today the tunnel is once again in a transition period. On March 12th and 13th, limited walking tours were given, showcasing the revolutionary engineering and Victorian details that make it such an interesting underground site. Don’t expect it to open again any time soon to walking tours: the London Overground will resume running trains through the tunnel later this year.

Tashkent Subway

Central Asia’s only subway system is also one of the world’s most beautiful. Built in Tashkent, Uzbekistan by Soviet brass in the 1970s, Tashkent’s underground is not only an efficient way of getting around town, it’s a history and art exhibit itself.

Image: flux.net

Much like Moscow’s metro, the Tashkent subway is full of architectural details – chandeliers, sconces and candelabras, tile mosaics, carved alabaster, and ornamental marble – that speak to the opulence of former Soviet public projects, and an obsession with centralized transportation. Unlike Moscow, each station in Tashkent’s system is dedicated to a different artistic theme, with paintings and sculptures dedicated at one station to the USSR’s cosmonauts, and at another to Uzbekistan’s rich agricultural heritage.

Image: mic-ro.com

The entire system was built to double as a nuclear bomb shelter, and since it’s still considered a military installation, photography is prohibited. You can ride the Tashkent subway for the fare of 400 sums (UZS), a measly $0.25. Although you can get across town in about 20 minutes, you could easily spend days exploring all of the 29 unique stations on three lines.

Underground University Campuses

Infiltration zines and urban exploration blogs love to talk about the utility tunnels located under many American university campuses. The huge complexes are often chock full of subterranean passageways that provide access to steam pipes, machinery, and electrical wiring. There’s also the added benefit that many urban explorers are already living in campus housing, right above the targeted sites.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

UCLA is one of many schools famous for its tunnels, which seem to connect all of the campus’s major buildings. UCSD is rumored to have tunnels connecting it with nearby Pendleton Air Force Base. The University of Arizona has an elaborate system of bunkers underneath its surface, built in the 1950s as air raid shelters. Georgetown University is said to have a tunnel underneath it running directly to the Capital building, and fitted with classrooms for secret society meetings.

Image: the-i.org

All of these underground campus networks are strictly off-limits to all but maintenance workers and perhaps the odd bitter dean looking for a secret lair to plot his revenge on those unruly Alpha-Betas.

The Tunnels of Las Vegas

It seems that one of our Local Experts has discovered another gem for the urban adventurer: the tunnels of Las Vegas. Apparently built to protect the city in the case of flash floods (it is the desert, after all), the tunnels are home to hundreds of otherwise homeless Las Vegans, representing “the American dream gone awry,” according to one local journalist.

Be aware: there are no tours of the tunnels, nor any kind of regular public access. But you can check out the full story here, for an an intriguing look at “the labyrinthine underworld of Las Vegas’ flood control channels… Dark, cramped, and crawling with creatures like crawfish and black widow spiders.” Who wouldn’t want to explore?

Got more off-limits, underground spots we missed? Let us know!

Tags: arizona, Beijing, Catacombs, caves, italy, Las Vegas, London, Luxembourg, off-limits sites, portland, subway, Thames Tunnel, Tube, tunnels, tuscon, UCLA, UCSD, underground, University of Arizona, urban exploration, Uzbekistan


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