Coolest Underground Travel Spots
While walking in the West Virginia woods in 1978, Dr. Robert Conte saw something that made him stop in his tracks: an aluminum door between green cement walls. With an ominous feeling, he quickly turned around and walked straight back to The Greenbrier, where he had just been hired as the hotel’s historian.
Dr. Conte had heard the rumors—everyone working at the luxury resort had—about an underground bunker built by the government during the Cold War that was said to exist somewhere on the property. “It didn’t take long around here to figure out that you didn’t want to bring the subject of the bunker up—it wasn’t a good career move,” says Conte.
Exposed in a Washington Post story that broke in 1992, the long-standing secret of the 120,000-square-foot “Government Relocation Facility” built for members of the U.S. Congress was out. Hidden in plain sight, part of it was even in continual use as a convention center and theater for Greenbrier guests. Gaudy wallpaper hid iron doors that could withstand a 30-ton blast. “I walk in and out of that space all of the time,” says Dr. Conte. “Now it’s obvious it was there.” Today, more than 33,000 people visit annually.
Underground exploration is part adventure, part history, and part plain curiosity. “Often, it’s like discovering something that’s slipped through time to the present day. It brings history to life,” says Steve Duncan, an urban explorer whose work takes him underground to the abandoned subway tunnels, empty tombs, and unused aqueducts in New York City, and who was part of the Discovery Channel’s short-lived television series “Urban Explorers.” Over the past decade, Duncan says he’s seen a real growth in the public’s desire to investigate what’s below the surface. “Part of what makes it exciting is that there’s always more to dig up.”
To this end, travelandleisure.com has excavated some of the world’s coolest must-see subterranean destinations. Take Wieliczka, Poland’s 13th-century salt mine turned museum; 1,072 feet underground, it has a grandiose concert hall, chandeliers, and even a life-size rock-salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II. Or, the 3,400-year-old Ice Caves of New Mexico, known to settlers as the “Desert Ice Box,” where a 20-foot-thick sheath glows bright green from the algae that lies beneath.
Some spots were discovered by accident, like the Basilica Cistern, built in Istanbul in the 4th century A.D. using 336 mismatched columns taken from the ruins of the buildings conquered by Constantine. Eighty-two feet below ground, the former royal reservoir was unearthed in 1545 by a Frenchman in search of Byzantine artifacts. It fell into disrepair again, but was reopened to the public in 1987 for tours.
Meanwhile, other locations, like Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, have been in constant use for a long time. The world’s longest cavern is filled with “mummies” and evidence of prehistoric man. In the Dambulla Cave Temple in Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have meditated since the 1st century B.C. And who knows?Montreal’s Underground City, a 4.5-square-mile modern marvel with shops, apartments, and a chapel, may be rediscovered centuries from now, lending insight into Canadian culture, and man’s ingenuity when it came to keeping warm during brutally cold winters.
These places remind us sometimes that what we see on the surface tells only part of the story. Who really knows how many adventures lie under our feet?
The Ice Caves
The Ice Caves
Grants, New Mexico
What Lies Beneath: In the New Mexico Badlands, a path carved by lava leads visitors from the Bandera Volcano to a cave where temperatures never reach above 31 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice floor is 20 feet thick and gives off an eerie green glow from the algae beneath.
How Did It Get There: No one knows how the formation began, but ice started accumulating in the spot some 3,400 years ago. Early settlers flocked to the “Desert Ice Box” with wagons filled with sawdust, so they could bring the ice home.
Cool Bonus: The local saloon, which at one time literally served iced cold beer, is now the Ice Caves Trading Company, with displays of 1,200-year-old stone tools used by the Anasazi Indians.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
What Lies Beneath: Hundreds of gilded Buddhist statues, some 50 feet long, sit, stand, and lie beneath 21,000 square feet of tapestry-like cave paintings depicting Buddha and his life. Statues of Ganesh and Vishnu are also garnished daily with fresh garlands from the pilgrims who come to worship.
How Did It Get There: Carved out of the side of a rock by the hands of Buddhist monks 22 centuries ago, this five-chambered cave temple has been in continuous use as a monastery ever since. As thanks to his saviors, an exiled king, who hid among the monks for 14 years before returning to power in the 1st century B.C., is credited with turning the caves into the temple that it is today.
Cool Bonus: Later kings followed suit, adding statues and paying for the temple’s preservation, but when the royalty stopped helping, an unknown donor stepped in and had the deteriorating paintings and sculptures refurbished in 1915.
The Greenbrier Bunker
The Greenbrier Bunker
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
What Lies Beneath: A top-secret, government-maintained underground bunker built as a fallout shelter for the House of Representatives and the Senate during the Cold War, hidden below the high-end Greenbrier Hotel for more than 30 years. Two football-field-size levels held 1,100 bunk beds, a fully stocked cafeteria and medical clinic, and a TV studio.
How Did It Get There: In 1956, a letter stamped “Secret” was sent to the owner of The Greenbrier by members of the government introducing their personal architect, and informing him of their plans to build. In 1992, the “Government Relocation Facility” was exposed on the cover of The Washington Post magazine, and three years later, when the lease expired, it opened to the public.
Cool Bonus: Government-sponsored construction also began on the Greenbrier Valley Airport and Interstate 64 shortly after the bunker was built. Today they benefit locals and visitors.
What Lies Beneath: Eighty-two feet below Istanbul is a 450-foot-long, 213-foot-wide former royal reservoir. This Byzantine engineering feat has 336 mismatched columns taken from the ruins of the buildings conquered by Constantine the Great, who built the cistern in the 4th century A.D.
How Did It Get There: After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the cistern was all but forgotten, except by the residents whose houses sat on top. Rediscovered in 1545 by a Frenchman searching for Byzantine antiques, it briefly was reintroduced to everyday life, but fell into disrepair once more, not to be used again till 1987 when it was reopened as a tourist attraction.
Cool Bonus: Two stone Medusa heads, pilfered from an ancient pagan site and used in construction, are placed in a disrespectful fashion—one upside down and one on its right side—to mark the builders’ belief in Christianity.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
What Lies Beneath: Seventy-five miles of Vietnam War–era tunnels, once inhabited by the Viet Cong. In 1988, the Vietnamese government turned a section of the tunnels into a tourist attraction, and more than a million people, local and foreign, visit every year.
How Did It Get There: During the war, the Viet Cong dug an elaborate 250-mile-long network of tunnels to hide guerilla fighters. Located outside Ho Chi Minh City, the tunnels served as a hidden base, complete with living quarters, hospitals, kitchens, and the meeting rooms where the Tet Offensive was planned. The tunnels were heavily booby-trapped, and special teams of American soldiers known as “Tunnel Rats” had the unenviable job of exploring and demolishing them.
Cool Bonus: Once you emerge from the tunnels, you can sample boiled taro root, the staple of the Viet Cong diet, before heading to a nearby shooting range to fire an AK-47 or an M16 for a dollar a bullet.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Wieliczka Salt Mine
What Lies Beneath: Salt has sustained this 13th-century salt mine turned museum, concert hall, and spa. Grandiose salt chandeliers with 300 burning candles cast shadows on a life-size rock-salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II and a wall carving of da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
How Did It Get There: Beginning in the Middle Ages, residents of Wieliczka, Poland, realized that a local natural resource, salt, could be a profitable commodity. During its working years, many lives were spent 1,072 feet below the surface in the mine’s 186-mile-long tunnels.
Cool Bonus: Tours of the mine began in the 14th century. A guest book, which is still used today, includes the signatures of Copernicus, Goethe, and President George H. W. Bush.
Cave City, Kentucky
What Lies Beneath: The world’s longest cave. Over the years, “mummies” of prehistoric cave explorers have been discovered. The first recorded find was in 1935: a six-ton boulder with a body pinned underneath. In the mid-1800s, a doctor who (incorrectly) believed the humid conditions might be a remedy for tuberculosis, turned the cave into a sanitarium.
How Did It Get There: Parts of the 365 miles of the underground caverns started forming from tributaries more than 10 million years ago, and caves continue to form even today. The tunnels’ constant atmospheric conditions, combined with the salty soil and absence of sunlight, preserved the bodies of people who met their deaths below the surface.
Cool Bonus: Stephen Bishop, the cave’s most famous explorer, was brought to the caves in 1838 as a slave. He was the first person to descend all five levels of the cave, 360 feet below the surface, and made the scientific discovery of the eyeless Kentucky cave fish that still swim in the waters today.
What Lies Beneath: At first glance Montreal does not appear to be overcrowded, but maybe that’s because everyone is underground. More than four and a half square miles make up this second city—the world’s largest underground complex, with 4,350 hotel rooms, 2,727 apartments, 930 retailers, 68 metro stops, nine fitness centers, three skating rinks, two libraries, and a chapel.
How Did It Get There: Montreal’s known for its brutal winters, so in 1962, while breaking ground for the city’s first metro, the idea for an underground shopping mall was born.
Cool Bonus: “If you live in one of the underground apartments you can take the metro to work, come back, do your shopping,” says Bertin Jacques, manager of Tourism Montreal. “You can spend a week down there without sticking your nose out.”
What Lies Beneath: Well, just about all of the 3,500-person population of Coober Pedy, an opal-mining town in South Australia. The town’s name comes from a mispronunciation of an Aboriginal phrase thought to mean “white man in a hole.” Because of outdoor temperatures that climb above 120 degrees, most residents live in underground homes carved into the rock. Shops, churches, hotels, and even a swimming pool make coming up for air unnecessary.
How Did It Get There: The first opal was discovered in the rose-colored sandstone in 1915; the town soon became the world’s opal capital. Discharged World War I soldiers came looking for their big break and would sleep in a dugout. Underground living was born.
Cool Bonus: Coober Pedy can be seen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome; and Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World.
Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa
Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa
What Lies Beneath: Three levels of burial chambers dating back to the 2nd century A.D. An impressive architectural achievement, its three levels of tombs reach a depth of 100 feet. The décor is an unusual combination of ancient Egyptian iconography with Greco-Roman motifs: one relief wall carving shows the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis wearing the uniform of Roman soldiers.
How Did It Get There: Alexandria’s catacombs were modeled after those in Rome and were first built for a single wealthy family.
Cool Bonus: Picnics among the dead were a tradition (and it’s still common for families to lunch while visiting dead relatives). And “carry in, carry out” did not apply—it was thought to be bad luck to bring the plates and cups used back into the life of the living. A chamber on the second level of the catacombs was found full of broken shards of pottery used in these morbid meals.