Underground Architectural Marvels and Oddities Around the World


Most people wouldn’t expect to see Romanesque Revival architecture, fancy pants Guastavino tile, and brass chandeliers in a New York City subway station, but the City Hall stop (opened in 1904) along the Lexington Avenue Line features all that and more. Longer trains, longer platforms, and low ridership caused the city to close it off to the public in 1945, but its elegant architecture has endured for over seventy years. You can still catch a glimpse of it while rounding the loop heading back uptown, or during a tour (book ahead). We felt inspired by the ghost station to take a look at other secret stops along the underground: houses, societies, and entire cities. Head past the break to explore unusual underground marvels around the world.


The underground city of Derinkuyu in Turkey is just one of many subterranean networks in the historical region of Cappadocia — thanks to its soft volcanic rock — but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Eleven stories deep and with the ability to house up to 50,000 people, Derinkuyu is believed to have been a haven for refugees and religious purposes, first built around the 7th/8th centuries B.C. [Image credit: willunderground]

The Edinburgh Vaults

It wasn’t until 1985 that researchers discovered that the Edinburgh Vaults — tucked inside the nineteen arches of the South Bridge — had actually housed people. Many assumed the poor air quality and damp conditions were too unbearable for human habitation, but Scotland’s South Bridge business district and the poverty-stricken population did set up camp there during the 18th and 19th centuries. The various chambers contained taverns and tradesmen, who also used the vaults for storage space (pictured above). When the vaults began to flood and the area largely became a slum, the city’s poorest citizens took over — squeezing large families into one cramped room. The Edinburgh Vaults’ claim to fame? Serial killers and secret corpse merchants Burke and Hare reportedly found some of their victims there. And yes, the place is supposedly haunted.

New York City’s Freedom Tunnel, as seen in Dark Days

Recently re-released by boutique distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories, Marc Singer’s award-winning documentary Dark Days shed light on the underground homeless community that lived inside New York City’s Freedom Tunnel system. Many knew the hidden railway was a hangout for graffiti artists and the city’s homeless, but most never imagined just how extensive the shantytowns built inside it were. Hundreds were evicted in the ’90s, but Singer’s film helped secure them housing. The director lived with his subjects below ground during the making of the movie, allowing many to become the film’s crew when they weren’t in front of the camera sharing their fascinating stories.

Gary Neville’s Eco-Friendly Home

Many suggested that English footballer Gary Neville was channeling his inner Teletubby when he submitted his plans for an eco-friendly bunker buried in the moorland of northwest England. The petal-shaped house will consist of four bedrooms, a children’s playground, and a swimming pool — not unlike your typical family abode, just underground and a model zero-carbon design that has environmentalists everywhere drooling. Last we heard, plans were given the go-ahead, which means we should be able to gawk at the 8,000 square foot house — complete with solar panels, a wind turbine, and ground source heat pump — soon.

Leavenworth’s Underground City

Leavenworth, Kansas may not be a blip on your radar, but it’s now famous for its underground passages — a network of hidden vaults and storefronts that stretch several city blocks below the concrete. Its origins are a mystery, but people have speculated that the area could have been used to house slaves, hide fugitives, and it’s believed several breweries conducted business under the downtown area’s streets.

The Barry Troglodyte Village

Village troglodytique de Barry in France was inhabited for over 1,500 years, dating back to 500 C.E. It’s last residents (a window and her servant) left at the start of the 20th century when the stone homes built inside the cliff overlooking the Rhone Valley started to collapse. Neolithic tools have been uncovered by archeologists at the site, whose residency started seeing a decline in the 1800s. Its incredible to imagine someone calling the twisty, humble accommodations home sweet home so very recently.

The Cheyenne Mountain Fortress

Former home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), this underground defense district in Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain was built in 1961 as a safe haven for thousands during a nuclear attack. The Cold War complex has its own water and electrical supply, air filtration system, and sewage setup. Buildings inside (15 total) are built on springs to absorb the shock of a deadly blast, and offer inhabitants (should they survive the hellacious sh*tstorm outside) two fitness centers, a chapel, dining facility, barber, medical facility, and more. The fortress doors seen above are several feet thick, each one weighing 25 tons.

Moscow’s Abandoned Tunnels

Moscow’s metro system is one of the most heavily traveled transit systems in the world, but there are endless tunnels and passageways throughout the Russian city’s underground that have been abandoned for years. Most served as shelters during wartime, and several are only half-built, the projects left eerily incomplete for various reasons. [Image credit: Russos]

Switzerland’s House in a Hill

Architects SeArch and Christian Müller designed a striking, hidden home in a Swiss hillside. The Villa Vals is an unobtrusive — and from certain angles, nearly invisible — design that takes advantage of the gorgeous Alpine scenery around it. Also, you should be jealous of the owners’ heating and cooling bills as they barely have a need for either most months. [Image credit: Iwan Baan]

Beijing’s Underground Cities

China’s Chairman Mao Zedong had an underground city built beneath Beijing, which winds its way 18 miles through multiple tunnels — and it was excavated by hand. More than 300,000 local citizens (including children) dug out the passageways and rooms from 1969 to 1979 to create a bomb shelter for residents during a nuclear attack. Ancient city walls and towers were destroyed and used as building materials for the secret city, which could hold up to 40% of Beijing’s population (the rest would have been ushered into the hills). Stores, restaurants, schools, and other provisions were included, but were never needed.