Going underground: 10 of the world's best underground tours
Venture underground to get a different perspective on some of the world’s greatest cities and lesser-known destinations on these fascinating guided tours.
If you’re a traveller who likes to dig a little deeper into the culture and history of a destination, there are few better ways to do it than underground tours of the cities you visit.
From a virtual reality experience deep inside Emperor Nero’s palace in Rome and Berlin’s eerie fallout shelters to strolling down a 17th-century street under Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and a boat trip surrounded by twinkling glowworms, these tours offer a sightseeing experience with a difference.
1. Salzwelten Hallstatt
Imagine getting to work every day by zipping down a giant slippery slide! That’s what the workers at this historic salt mine used to do, and now it’s your turn. Tours begin in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of Hallstatt, one of the prettiest destinations in Austria, with a trip on a funicular railway.
After checking out the Skywalk lookout platform, you’ll slip on a boiler suit and zoom down one of the two miners’ slides to arrive at the Salzwelten Hallstatt mine. During this family-friendly tour, you’ll see a subterranean salt lake, ride on the mine train and learn what it took for everyone, from those living in the Bronze Age to modern salt miners, to harvest the ‘white gold’ found deep inside the mountain.
Address: Salzbergstraße 21, 4830 Hallstatt, Austria
2. Domus Aurea
After entering the rather nondescript entrance with an archaeologist, you’ll walk into what was once Rome’s largest palace, where many of the mosaics and frescos are still clearly visible after thousands of years.
Even more impressive is the virtual reality experience that transports you back to the palace during Nero’s reign and a very different landscape with virtual parks, lakes and colonnades that formed part of the original palace grounds stretching out in front of you.
Tours of Domus Aurea only run from Friday to Sunday due to the archaeological works and must be pre-booked in advance.
Address: Viale Serapide, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
3. Maginot Line
Despite a huge investment in engineering and construction, The Maginot Line’s vast network of fortresses, bunkers, minefields and gun batteries designed to defend France from Germany during the Second World War was widely regarded as a colossal failure. However, this only makes a tour of the Hackenberg Fort section of The Maginot Line even more interesting.
Filled with innovative features that were state-of-the-art at the time, the line was run in the same way as a submarine, with soldiers shut away from the world for months to prevent the secret nature of their base from being discovered. The mental challenges this entailed proved to be the Line’s greatest weakness but also its greatest strength, as you’ll discover on this underground tour in the Moselle region of France.
Address: Rue Commandant Martial Reynier, 67250 Hunspach, France
4. Underground NYC Tour: Subway 101
Join an expert guide from the New York Transit Museum and venture underground to ride the New York Subway and discover how it transports millions of passengers daily. On this tour, you’ll learn about abandoned stations, hidden artworks and the fascinating history behind one of the world’s most iconic modes of transport.
A visit to the New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn, where the tour ends, is included in the tour price. Exploring a 1930s subway station and a fleet of vintage train cars at the museum is a fitting end to this underground adventure.
Address: Begins at Astor Place Station, Astor Place and Lafayette Street New York, NY, USA
5. Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Māori Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti began escorting visitors through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in the late 1800s – and you can still visit them today.
After a walk through the cave, you’ll travel by boat into a cavern filled with thousands of Arachnocampa Luminosa glowworms, which can only be seen in New Zealand. Local stories and Māori legends bring the history and beauty of this incredible place to life as you gaze at the sparkling glowworm grotto overhead.
Address: 39 Waitomo Village Road, Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
6. Paris Catacombs
One of the most eerie tours in Paris involves a trip underground to tour the Paris Catacombs. The Paris Catacombs are an ‘Empire of the Dead’ that opened to the public for tours by appointment in 1809.
Constructed using a network of empty underground quarries in the late 1700s, the ossuary was created to provide a solution to the city’s growing population and its dead, but it went on to become a popular tourist attraction for locals and visitors alike.
Tours provide a fascinating look at some of the six million-plus sets of bones collected during the city’s history that have been used to create artworks and hidden caverns containing the remains of the city’s poor and aristocracy.
Address: Begins near Denfert-Rochereau Metro Station, 75014 Paris, France
7. Galleria Borbonica
Pitched as a magnificent public works project for the people of Naples in the 1800s, the Galleria Borbonica (Bourbon Tunnel) was, in fact, a military route for soldiers and an escape route for Naples’ nobility.
The tunnel network, which also contained an aqueduct system, went on to serve as a Second World War bomb shelter for locals and a police vehicle impound. A variety of tours offer a virtual journey back in time that encapsulates the often-complex history of this Italian city.
Choices range from a guided walk through the tunnels to an adventure that requires mining helmets and a good level of fitness for exploring the Roman aqueduct system and ancient water wells.
Address: Various entrances depending on the tour
8. Moaning Caverns
The largest single cave chamber in California was discovered by gold miners in the mid-1800s who went in search of gold and came out empty-handed. The fascinating tours of the Moaning Caverns are far more rewarding, even though they no longer make their eerie moaning noise.
Narrow passageways with names like the Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal provide an idea of what you can expect on the hardcore half-day Expedition Crawling and Spelunking Tour. If you would prefer something (much) less adventurous, the Spiral Tour takes visitors down a towering spiral staircase built with scrap metal from a First World War battleship to see the cave’s elaborate rock formations.
Address: 5350 Moaning Cave Rd, Vallecito, CA, USA
9. Berliner Unterwelten
Uncover the history of the East-West conflict as you venture beneath Berlin on a Bunkers, Subways and the Cold War tour. On this underground adventure, you’ll explore the original underground bunkers designed to protect the citizens of Berlin from a possible nuclear war.
These hopelessly inadequate structures, plus a subway station that doubled as a fallout shelter, could only hold a tiny fraction of the population and provide a tangible and sobering look at the politics and policies that powered the East-West regime and impacted the lives of so many during the Cold War.
Address: Brunnenstraße 105, 13355 Berlin, Germany
10. Exclusive Cappadocia Tour
There are plenty of tours in Cappadocia that explore the ‘fairy chimneys’ and ancient cave dwellings that make this region in Türkiye famous.
However, the Argos in Cappadocia takes this one step further with luxury underground accommodation and complimentary private tours through the hotel’s thousand-year-old monastery, caves and underground tunnels, Türkiye’s largest underground wine cellar and a vineyard surrounded by Cappadocia’s famous ‘fairy chimneys’.
Address: Tekelli, Kayabaş Sk. No: 23, 50240 Uçhisar/Nevşehir Merkez/Nevşehir, Türkiye
11. Mary King’s Close
Venture beneath The Royal Mile in Edinburgh and take a trip back in time to the 17th century when the street known as Mary King’s Close was one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, packed with stallholders hawking their wares and shoppers who were eager to buy.
At The Real Mary King’s Close, dressed as a former resident, a guide in period costume leads you down a set of stairs and into the Close, sharing tales of Old Town Edinburgh’s past residents, hidden secrets, murders and ghouls during this entertaining one-hour walking tour.