Tunnels are usually dark, dingy and tediously practical places. But it's not all bleak underpasses – around the world, some tunnels are extraordinary historic achievements and others have been turned into incredible art projects. From monsters dug through mountains to gurgling passages through glaciers, these tunnels are destinations in their own right…
The Laerdal Tunnel
Cutting through the Norwegian mountains between Aurland and Laerdal, the Laerdal Tunnel symbolises the Norwegian mission to connect the fjords by road. The tunnel is 24.5km long and the snazzy, multi-coloured lighting displays, designed to replicate a sunrise, are a part of the deal. When the tunnel opened, it was feared that drivers would get bored of the monotony. So lighting was used to make it look as cool as possible. See visitnorway.com
The Gotthard Tunnel
The whole digging through the mountains thing isn't exactly new, though. The Gotthard Tunnel opened in 1882, busting through the Saint-Gotthard Massif and providing a railway route through the Alps. At 15km long, it was the longest transport tunnel in the world for more than 20 years. But more importantly, it allowed for a pan-European rail network connecting the North Sea to the Mediterranean.
The Channel Tunnel
Where? UK to France
When it opened in 1994, the Channel Tunnel changed geography and thousands of years of politics. Suddenly, Britain was no longer an island off the coast of Europe. High speed train connections through the Channel Tunnel brought London within a couple of hours of Paris and Brussels. It hasn't exactly brought closer political union, but being able to take the Eurostar has cut away that sense of isolation. See Eurostar.com.
The Seikan Tunnel
Similarly historic, the Seikan tunnel links the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. The tunnel is 53.85km long, of which 23.3km is along the seabed. The railway tunnel opened in 1988, and at points is 240 metres below sea level. The Seikan Tunnel cost an astonishing $US7bn – 12 times the original budget – and the Shinkansen trains whizz through at 140km/h.
The Langjokull Glacier tunnels
A network of tunnels has been built inside Iceland's Langjokull Glacier. As they've been carved from the ice, these tunnels very obviously look cool – especially with coloured lighting installed behind the tunnel walls in places. What you might not expect is how cool the tunnels sound. You're inside a moving glacier, and you can hear the water flowing through. It sounds like it's being noisily piped through a central heating system. Into The Glacier runs tours. See intotheglacier.is
Central Deborah Gold Mine
Where? Bendigo, Victoria
Photo: Bendigo Tourism
There's essentially a vast underground city dug beneath the city of Bendigo. Over the years, miners have hacked away at the mud and rock in search of gold. Many of them very successfully, too. Now tourists can follow in the miners' footsteps. At the Central Deborah Mine, a series of tours plunge down the mine shafts, then weave around the tunnels to discover what life was like for the miners. See central-deborah.com
Where? Rome, Italy
Underneath Rome, there's a network of catacombs. These tunnels were a way around a law banning burials within the city, although they weren't initially dug by the Romans. The originally digging was quarrying work carried out by the Etruscans. The Catacomb of Callixtus is the most famous, as many Popes were buried there. There are around 20km of passageways within the catacomb, and it's possible to visit a fraction of them on a guided tour. See catacombesancallisto.it
The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
Where? Shanghai, China
Stretching 646 metres under the Huangpu River, the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is an absolute gimmick-fest. You travel through in an automated Maglev train, which has clear compartment walls. This enables you to get the full sound and light show experience, as the tunnel turns into a flashing, pulsating whirlwind of colour. The whole psychedelic journey takes about five minutes.
The Leake Street Tunnel
Where? London, UK
Underneath Waterloo Station, the Leake Street Tunnel has been pedestrianised and turned into a legal street art zone. It has become known as the Graffiti Tunnel, but the works on display are way more impressive than mere tagging. The tunnel acts as a sister project to the Leake Street Arches, where bars, board game cafés and Polish restaurants have moved into the railway arches. See leakestreetarches.london
The Drammen Spiral
Most tunnels are boringly straight. Not the Drammen Spiral. Most tunnels are about connecting places. Not the Drammen Spiral. This 1.65 km tunnel takes the shape of a spiralling helix, doing six loops as it climbs to an observation deck 180 metres above the town of Drammen. It's essentially takes the idea of a multi-storey car park, builds it into a hill and turns it into a tourist attraction at ludicrous expense. See drammen.no
Drammen from the top of the spiral. Photo: Alamy
The writer has been a guest of the British, Norwegian and Australian tourism authorities.
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