Beneath the earth’s surface, a secret world awaits you. From sacred settlements to modern-day passageways built directly below huge metropolises, we’ve rounded up the most mysterious, stunning, and meticulously crafted underground cities in existence.
Some have transformed into hustling and bustling labyrinths and others remain long abandoned, but all are worth a tour or two. So let’s go underground and start exploring.
Turkey’s Cappadocia region boasts several underground cities, but arguably, none are quite as fascinating as Derinkuyu. Rediscovered in the 1960s, it’s widely believed that the 8th-century B.C. labyrinth complex was constructed as some sort of refuge during times of war and invasion, but no one’s totally sure.
Regardless of its true purpose, this 18-story, self-contained metropolis is nothing short of spectacular. Adding to the theory that it was meant as a place of protection, each level can be sealed off by giant stone doors when need be.
With ventilation shafts, wells, chapels, kitchens, school rooms, oil presses, community spaces, living areas, a bathhouse, and even a winery, it’s fully equipped to welcome 20,000 residents.
Once upon a time, a 12th century A.D. king commissioned the construction of 11 jaw-dropping Christian churches in the quaint Ethiopian village of Lalibela (originally called Roha.) Carved from volcanic rock, one of the things that makes this “New Jerusalem” so unique is that it’s been designed from the top down. In turn, each structure appears to be growing directly out of the earth.
The cross-shaped Church of Saint George is by far the most magnificent. Cut from a monolithic slice of stone, it stands inside a 100-foot deep trench and is meant to represent “the beating heart of spiritual Ethiopia.” And there’s more to behold than immediately meets the eye.
The underground complex is connected by an intricate network of underground passages, secret caves, and catacombs. Building this sacred village was previously said to have taken around 24 years, but historians now believe it was gradually constructed over several centuries.
These days, Petra is famed for its mesmerizing cameo in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Originally known to its people as Raqmu, this ancient caravan city tucked into southern Jordan’s mountains has been famous much longer than that. Inhabited since prehistory, the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom peaked about 2,000 years ago.
Once home to 20,000 people, Petra was abruptly abandoned around the seventh century A.D. and remained unknown to the rest of the world until the 1800s. The Nabataeans hand-chiseled the pink sandstone cliffs into an eye-catching collection of tombs, banquet halls, and temples.
To this day, one of the most celebrated edifices in the “Rose City” is Al Khazneh, or “the Treasury,” boasting an ornamental façade that ascends 130 feet up the rock face. And if you go to Petra, you can’t miss it.
Located in the Province of Terni, the hilltop town of Orvieto is perhaps best known for its wine, accounting for 80 percent of the region’s vineyards. It’s also celebrated for its picturesque architecture, above and below the ground.
Beginning with the ancient Etruscans, generations of locals ventured to this secret, subterranean maze nestled deep within painted volcanic rock. Initially carved to build wells and cisterns, this former hiding place was gradually sculpted into a full-blown underground metropolis with 1,200 interlocking tunnels, grottoes, chambers, sanctuaries, olive presses, and today, one-of-a-kind galleries.
Read More: America’s Best Wine Vacation Destinations
Shanghai Tunnels, Oregon
When you think of Oregon, a mysterious, underground city may not be the first thing that springs to mind. For decades, that’s just how the Portland locals liked it. But the secret’s out about the Shanghai Tunnels, sometimes called “the Portland Underground.” Legend has it, this intricate network of tunnels once linked Portland’s Old Town to Chinatown, to the central Downtown conglomerate and the waterfront.
Once an abandoned and hidden gem, it’s now a hotspot for public projects, walking tours, and ghost tours. If you look closely, however, remnants of a world that used to be can still be found. So keep those eyes and ears open.
One of the spookiest rumors about this underground export/import conglomerate is that the tunnels were once used for the practice of “shanghaiing:” kidnapping innocent bystanders and forcing them to work on ships. The Shanghai Tunnels are believed to be haunted by those once snatched. But don’t let the local lore stop you from seeing this place firsthand.
Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
Just 9 miles outside of Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was constructed in the 13th century and continued to produce table salt until 2007. Today, this unusually opulent underground salt city is one of the most popular tourist draws in all of Poland. But it didn’t always look like this.
Once a murky world of dark caves and tiny bridges over briney water, it’s been transformed into a dazzling labyrinth comprised of over 185 miles of galleries, 3,000 chambers, and nine stories. As you make your way down the wooden staircase, you’ll be transported to another place and time in Poland’s mining history. Some have even called a visit to the salt mines an unexpectedly spiritual experience.
Pilsen Historical Underground, Czech Republic
Built beneath the city streets of Pilsen, you’ll uncover the Pilsen Historical Underground, a 12.5-mile-long collection of passageways, ice cellars, a water tower, and wells. Once serving as storage space for food and beer barrels, this one dates all the way back to the 14th century. It’s also believed to have been built as an escape route if the city was ever under attack.
Locals suspect food wasn’t the only thing stored here for safekeeping, claiming the walls conceal bountiful hidden treasure. But the world may never have the luxury of finding out. This underground city forever keeps its secrets under lock and key, but you’re welcome to visit the world-renowned Brewery Museum while you’re there.
Underground City, Beijing
Originally known as Dixie Cheng, Beijing’s underground city is a masterfully laid out shelter built in the 1970s. Ordered by Mao after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s, its purpose was to safeguard against invasions, bombings, and nuclear attacks during a time of pandemonium.
Frequently called the Underground Great Wall, it boasts over 100 hidden entrances and has everything a civilization could need to rebuild itself, including schools, hospitals, and sleeping quarters.
Thankfully, it was never needed for its intended use and became open to the public in 2000. For years now, it’s been under renovation with tourism in mind, so make sure to add it to your list of must-see underground cities in the not-so-far-away future.
Read More: The World’s Oldest Cities to Visit