When it comes to city planning, “upward” and “outward” are never the only options. The most impressive cities are those underground, saving space by extending into the earth. Though this may sound far-fetched, such structures exist around the world, and can be easily found in:
Having been inhabited for thousands of years by a wide variety of peoples and civilizations, the US has no shortage of architectural wonders. Among them are a number of different underground cities, some built recently and others millennia ago. These include:
Located below the Death Valley in California, the Shin-Au-Av is a series of tunnels believed to be 5,000 years old. We don’t know exactly who built them, but the indigenous Paiute people have many stories and legends describing the site. The tunnels house mummies, artifacts, and other records of an ancient civilization that would otherwise be lost to history.
Discovered in 1885 beneath a coal shaft, the Lost City Of Missouri is notable for containing remains of people who appear much larger than modern humans. It also contains granite and flint tools, as well as some early works of metal.
The indigenous Sioux people of the American West have a legend of an elaborate series of tunnels beneath their feet. Although the legend has not yet been confirmed to be true, many believe that they are real and represent the entrance to a grand subterranean city.
Though the name might imply that they are in China, the Shanghai Tunnels are in fact beneath Portland, Oregon. They were built to connect Downtown Portland with other important parts of the city, notably Chinatown. The tunnels remain open, allowing you to see an important part of Portland’s historic transportation network.
The United States is hardly alone in housing impressive underground urban areas. The Great White North has its own subterranean cities, many built recently as creative ways to expand terrestrial towns. These include:
Begun in 1962, the RÉSO has become a city beneath a city. This network of shops, theaters, libraries, restaurants, hotels, and other amenities extends for 20 miles beneath Montreal. Residents and visitors can experience the city as soon as they exit the subway, gaining the full Montreal experience before they even reach the earth’s surface.
Taken from a darker chapter in Canadian history, the Moose Jaw tunnels were built to protect Chinese immigrants from anti-immigrant persecution. Immigrants would work in above-ground Moose Jaw during the day and live in the tunnels at night, allowing them to avoid head taxes and other unfair policies.
Long the subject of popular rumor, the Puebla tunnels were confirmed to exist in 2015. Historians believe that the Spanish first built these tunnels when they founded the city in 1531. City authorities plan to clean out mineral deposits, explore the area for additional structures, and open the tunnels to public viewing as soon as possible.
As one of the original sites of human civilization, Turkey is home to a myriad of historic sites, many of which are still being discovered. The country thus has its fair share of historic underground cities, the most stunning of which include:
Built out of volcanic rock, Derinkuyu is believed to have had a population of 20,000 at its height. The site contains not only underground tunnels, but homes, stables, wineries, and places of worship. This indicates that the people who built it were technologically and socially advanced and that they inhabited it continuously for long periods of time.
Built by the ancient Phrygian people, Kaymakli has been used by many civilizations over the course of thousands of years. It contains houses, kitchens, storage spaces, wineries, and oil presses. Each room is organized around a ventilation shaft, ensuring that everyone living inside has access to breathable air.
A more recent addition to Turkey’s underground collection, Ozkonak was probably built by the Byzantine Empire, though some believe it to be older. The city has a complex ventilation system, a winery, moving doors, and a well for water. It could house 60,000 people for up to 3 months at a time.
Already famous as a center of religious reverence, Mt. Tsurugi may also be the site of a mysterious city. Archeologists have detected paving stones, an arch, and numerous other stone and brick artifacts within the mountain, as well as what appear to be underground tunnels. Though we don’t know exactly what the city was used for, it may offer a clue as to why the mountain is considered a sacred place.
Being the oldest continuously existing civilization in the world, China has had countless opportunities to expand its cities in every direction. It thus stands to reason that the country would have a fair amount of underground architecture. Key Chinese subterranean sites include:
Though technically not built as underground cities, time and sand have left the ancient cities of the Taklamakan Desert well below the surface. These towns once served as oases for traders who traveled along the Silk Road. Historians have discovered preserved bodies, tombs, and other remains of these ancient civilizations lost beneath the sand.
Built in the 1970s, this underground urban area was designed to shelter Beijing’s large population in the event of a nuclear attack. The city contains everything that Beijing’s residents would need for long-term living, including schools, sleeping areas, and hospitals. Since the end of the Cold War, Dixia Cheng has become a popular tourist attraction.
As one of the oldest continuously inhabited parts of the world, Egypt has seen the rise and fall of countless civilizations, and thus countless cities. It’s hardly surprising that some of these would be underground. If you’re looking for subterranean marvels in Egypt, visit:
Full of stone walls covered in hieroglyphs, this underground complex is thought to house the ancient Egyptians’ most important knowledge. Western scholars have known of the Labyrinth since ancient times, and although no modern explorer has been inside, researchers have shown that it exists.
The site of Greek city-states, the Roman Empire, and numerous other historic societies, Italy has no shortage of art, architecture, and culture. Much of this can be found underground, buried deep within:
Built during a period of religious persecution, the Catacombs were provided refuge to Rome’s Jewish and Christian populations. They were mainly used for burial rites, and thus contain frescos, sculptures, and graves. They provide a valuable window into ancient Christian and Jewish history.
Beneath Naples runs a geothermal zone that provides natural heat. City residents discovered this heat and tunneled down to use it, building passageways, aqueducts, theaters, catacombs, and other structures. Today, it is also home to a museum cataloging the many artifacts that historians have discovered beneath Naples.
Underground Orvieto houses wells, quarries, storage areas, galleries, and a wide variety of other structures built over the course of several centuries. It also contains escape tunnels, which ancient aristocrats would use to get out of Orvieto when the city was under attack.
Constructed within the arches of Edinburgh’s South Bridge, the Edinburgh Vaults arose in the late 18th century to deal with overcrowding. It contains the homes of cobblers, smelters, cutlers, and other skilled workers, as well as taverns and brothels to keep them entertained.
First constructed in the 13th century, this labyrinth began as a mine for table salt, a product it continued to supply until the year 2007. It also contains chambers, galleries, and a salt statute in honor of Pope John Paul II.
Though technically not subterranean, this town is built into the sides of a large rock gorge, and thus required many of the same skills it takes to build an underground city. With the rest of the gorge hanging over the town, you’ll feel as if you are underground.
This labyrinth extends for over 12 miles beneath the city of Pilsen, housing wells, cellars, and passageways for transportation. Residents stored beer and food here, and may also have used it as an escape route when their city was under attack.
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