Scratch the Surface: 11 of the World’s Coolest Underground Attractions

November 4, 2016 by

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Just like with music, a city’s greatest hits can often be found underground. Though churches, theaters, mountains, and museums are staple attractions when getting to know a new location, a look below the surface can reveal spectacular and little-known sights you probably wouldn’t find on a postcard. Found in places as diverse as underground churches, gardens, wineries, and music festivals, these top attractions from around the world are worth the trip below ground.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Waitomo, New Zealand

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The New Zealand glowworm caves in Waitomo

No matter how you feel about worms, a visit to the Waitamo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand is certain to leave an impression. Found below rolling green hills about two hours south of Auckland, these native glow-in-the-dark worms make for one of the coolest sci-fi shows in nature. Tours will take you on a boat ride down an underground river, and while there are other activities available in the caves, seeing the glowworms scattered like stars is a highlight.

The Jarvis Estate

Napa, California, USA

Sample wines in the cool temperature of Jarvis Estate's underground winery

Sample wines in the cool temperature of Jarvis Estate’s underground winery

Though many Napa Valley wineries use caves to barrel age their wine, few are able to accommodate an entire estate underground. Northern California’s Jarvis Estate does precisely that (and was the first in the U.S. to do so). A 45,000-square-foot (4,181-square-meter) cave tunneled into the Vaca Mountains brings wine country visitors directly to the vino in a visually and technologically stunning subterranean estate that gets bigger the further you journey through it. Two full basketball courts could fit in the winery’s farthest chambers, which are fitted with brass wall sconces, arched alcoves, and chandeliers for an interior design as attractive as the wine.

Llechwedd Slate Caverns

Snowdonia, Wales

Llechwedd Slate Caverns

Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Wales, UK

The Snowdonia region in Wales is known for its beautiful national park, majestic mountains, and dramatic coastline, but its most unique outdoor attraction never sees the sun. Once a slate mining town, Snowdonia has introduced an activity center into one of the old mines. Far more than your average cave tour, a visit to Llechwedd Slate Caverns not only includes seeing the mines, but can also offer the opportunity to zipline below ground or bounce around on a network of giant trampolines.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

Zipaquira, Colombia

Zipaquira Salt Cathedral

The underground church of Zipaquira, Colombia, located in an old salt mine

The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira sits 660 feet (200 meters) below ground in an old salt mine in small town in Colombia—but that doesn’t stop it from serving as many as 3,000 churchgoers each Sunday mass. Though technically not a cathedral (it doesn’t have a bishop), the Roman Catholic church is a sight to see. Spectacularly illuminated by pink, purple, green, and blue lights and entirely carved by hand, this underground attraction is worth the hour to two-hour train ride from Bogota, and can be paired with a visit to the museum of mining and mineralogy.

Cumberland Caverns

McMinnville, Tennessee, USA

Cumberland Caverns

The Bluegrass Underground takes place in Mcminnville’s Cumberland Caverns

For those who are really into “underground” music, the Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee let you jam out 333 feet (101 meters) underground. The acoustically pure natural space doubles as a stage for some of the world’s greatest bluegrass musicians during its monthly musical event, Bluegrass Underground. Take the short hike down to Volcano Chamber for an experience like no other, nestled into the jagged rock.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy, Australia

Coober Pedy, Australia

The whole town’s underground in Coober Pedy, Australia

Daytime temperatures higher than 120°F (48.8°C) make living ‘down under’ a necessity for the approximately 1,500 locals of Coober Pedy, Australia. The northern South Australia town is as big a destination for opal mining as it is for tourism, its subterranean hotels, restaurants, and art galleries attracting visitors below desert ground. Hide from the heat in this authentic Aussie town or brave the outdoors for some grass-less golf. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly unique.

Forestiere Underground Gardens

Fresno, California, USA

Forestiere Underground Gardens

Beat the Fresno heat with a visit to this underground estate

Turn-of-the-century immigrant Baldassare Forestiere wanted to stay connected to his Italian roots, so he literally planted them below Fresno, California. The Forestiere Underground Gardens is an enchanting subterranean home and terrace, inspired by Forestiere’s Sicilian hometown—and namely, perhaps, its ancient catacombs. The approximately 10,000-square-foot (929-square-meter) space features multiple rooms, a chapel, and a pond for fishing (because who doesn’t want to fish below ground?). Built by Forestiere over the course of 40 years, this 10-acre (.4-hectare) labor of love offers a glimpse of Italy and a unique respite from the California heat.

Dambulla Cave Temple

Sri Lanka

Dambulla Temple in Sri Lanka

The underground Dambulla Temple of Sri Lanka

A 100-foot (30-meter) tall golden Buddha is the centerpiece—and guardian—of the sacred Dambulla Cave Temple in Sri Lanka, located 92 miles (148 km) east of Colombo, 45 miles (72 km) north of Kandy, and 600 feet (183 meters) below a slab of cold, hard rock. Though there are plenty of cave temples around Southeast Asia, few are as majestic as this UNESCO World Heritage Site. With more than 150 Buddha statues as well as images of deities and kings, this five-cave complex is the largest and best preserved in the country.

Dom im Berg

Graz, Austria

Castle Hill in Graz, Austria

Go below famous Castle Hill for the best of the Graz underground

Dom im Berg might translate to “Cathedral in the Mountain,” but this underground Graz attraction hosts a club scene like no other. Journey below the iconic Schlossberg (also known as Castle Hill) to dance the night away at a sound-and-lights show that is unmatched throughout the city. Originally part of a system of World War II air-raid shelters, the vaulted space is now a destination for those wishing to have an experience yards below any other.

Qinshihuang Mausoleum

Xi’an, China

Qin Mausoleum in Xian, China

Qin Mausoleum in Xi’an, China

You’ve probably heard of the Terra Cotta Warriors, uncovered near Xi’an, China. But did you know that they were buried under an almost 30-story-tall funeral mound at the heart of a massive necropolis constructed for the first Qin emperor? These life-sized clay soldiers, each with a different face, were modeled after real people and—along with their terra cotta horses and weaponry—have sat waiting for their emperor’s command for thousands of years. Until then, they stand guard in excavated tunnels, which attract thousands of visitors below ground every year.

The Cavern Suite at Grand Canyon Caverns

Mile 115 on Route 66, Arizona, USA

The Cavern Suite at Grand Canyon Caverns

The Cavern Suite at Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona

For a room with a rockin’ view, check-in to the Cavern Suite at Grand Canyon Caverns, just 220 feet (67 meters) below the surface of sunny Arizona. One of the largest, deepest, darkest, oldest, and quietest motels in the United States is decorated in classic kitsch (you can find the record player by the stack of Nat Geo magazines from the ’70s) and is fed fresh air from limestone caverns some 65 miles (105 km) away. It sleeps six.

— Katie Coakley

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