Cities are be defined by their skylines, the buildings and structures visible from the ground up. But that’s just the tip of the ice berg for many metros around the world: there’s a whole host of subterranean infrastructure that supports second cities below the surface.
Sure, we’ve all heard of the Catacombs of Paris (and its creepy, creepy crypts), but everywhere from Leavenworth, Kansas to Kaymakli, Turkey have hidden underworlds.
We’ve descended into the world of secret cities and rounded up some of the most fascinating examples across the globe:
History: Also known as the “Underground Great Wall,” the network of bomb shelters and tunnels below Beijing was built in the 1970s in case of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Measuring an incredible 85 square kilometres (or 33 square miles), the government claimed the underground apartments could fit the entire city’s population. Clearly they were hoping to shelter people there a long, long time as the complex was outfitted with, well, amenities including restaurants, clinics, schools, theaters, factories, a roller skating rink, a grain and oil warehouse, and a mushroom cultivation farm.
Creep factor: High. Nuclear war and a civilization prepping for the worst is bound to cause lots and lots of anxiety.
History: Beneath South Fourth and Delaware streets, a series of storefronts stretch across three city blocks. The only thing known about the underground is that they were probably used for commerce, though it’s anyone’s guess whether the vaults were used for bootlegging, moving fugitive slaves or whether the original settlement was abandoned, filled in, then built over. At least one old storefront sign was found below.
Creep factor: Moderate. Though the mystery may never be solved, it doesn’t seem like anything terribly nefarious was going down if there was signage.
History: Turkey has a whole host of villages carved into mountain sides and valleys including one in the citadel of Kaymakli in the Central Anatolia Region. Hundreds of tunnels surround the community, which was used for hundreds and hundreds of years by locals hiding from Romans, Persians and Arabs. The multi-level city had plenty of stowaway space: the third level was reserved for storage places, wine or oil presses, and kitchens.
Creep factor: Moderate. The tunnels are steep and the ceilings are low so avoid if claustrophobic.
History: The mostly-below-ground web of tunnels downtown is made up of malls, office buildings, apartments, condos and even the Bell Centre. Montreal’s Underground City, or the much cooler sounding French name, La Ville Souterraine, is largely known for its shopping options. The first part of the subterranean space was built in 1962 and kept growing, connecting to new Metro stations. Spanning 32-kilometres (or 20 miles), the complex stretches past Toronto’s similar Underground Path system (which measures 28-kilometres or 17 miles).
Creep Factor: Low. Shopping isn’t scary unless its December 24th.
History: Built in the 13th century, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was in operation until the end of the 20th century. Spanning 287 kilometres (178 miles) and spread over 9 levels, the underground space houses three chapels, a cathedral, conference rooms and event spaces.
Creep Factor: Moderate. Though most of subterranean space is well-lit and reasonably easy for tourists to navigate, there is a a 4-hour “Mysteries of the Wieliczka Mine” route that takes you deep down underground (mining helmets and carbon monoxide absorbers required).
History: After a massive fire destroyed 31 blocks of mostly wooden houses in 1889, city leaders decided to rebuild. The streets around Pioneer Square were regraded one to two stories higher than the original level. The city eventually condemned this Underground for fear of the bubonic plague in the early 20th century, but some parts were used covertly as speakeasies, opium dens and flophouses. There are currently tours of what’s left of Pioneer Square.
Creep factor: Moderate. I mean, just look at it.