The world's top 10 most stunning underground attractions

Ute Junker travels down to where reality can trump fiction.

Petrified trees, vast oceans, even prehistoric creatures. That's what lies beneath our feet, according to French novelist Jules Verne, who wrote the science fiction classic, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Verne's work may have been more fiction than science, but these real-life subterranean wonders rival anything he dreamt up. From salt cathedrals to trains that travel through limestone caves, here are 10 great reasons to go underground.  

 ICE CAVES IN AUSTRIA

For centuries, these amazing ice caves remained hidden in plain sight. Although the gaping cavern mouth can be seen from a long way away, locals in this part of the Austrian alps were convinced that the cave – from which a freezing wind blows even in summer – was the mouth of hell. Naturally, they weren't interested in exploring what lay inside. It wasn't until 130 years ago that a hardy mountaineer stepped inside the cave mouth and discovered a fantastical palace made of ice. His account of his discovery caused quite a stir when it was published, then was promptly forgotten for another 30 years. Nowadays, the 42km cave – catchily named Eisriesenwelt​, or World of the Ice Giants – is open every summer, with a fast cable car saving visitors the 90 minute uphill hike.

See eisriesenwelt.at

TUNNELS IN VIETNAM

No-one can understand the reality of war without having lived through it, but a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City gives you a tiny taste. The tunnels – part of a massive underground network built by the Viet Cong – were one of the key factors that allowed them to defeat the better-equipped Americans and their South Vietnamese and Australian allies.  At the peak of the conflict, which is known in Vietnam as the American War, the tunnel network stretched from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border. In this district alone, there are more than 250km of tunnels, some sinking several storeys into the earth. These claustrophobic underground spaces included field hospitals, weapons factories, kitchens and living areas. Confined in the narrow spaces, it is easy to imagine how terrifying it must have been to shelter here while bombing raids shook the walls.

See cuchitunnelstours.com

 CENOTES IN MEXICO

The white sand beaches of the Caribbean coast aren't the only unforgettable swimming experiences on offer on Mexico's Yucatan​ Peninsula. The peninsula's porous limestone landscape is punctuated by cenotes​, natural swimming holes formed by collapsing bedrock. Most of these freshwater cenotes have crystal-clear water; some even contain schools of small fish. Some cenotes, such as the dark pool at Cenote Dos Ojos​, feel distinctly cave-like; at others, such as Cenote Samula, swimmers floating on their backs gaze up past tree roots stretching down from the surface to wonder at the cerulean sky way above them. To the Mayans, these waterholes were portals to the gods; many of them maintain a distinctly magical ambience. 

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See visitmexico.com

FOSSILS IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Some buried treasure is particularly well hidden. Tourists had been visiting the striking stalactites and stalagmites inside South Australia's Naracoorte Caves for 100 years before someone stumbled across the cave's most valuable contents: an extraordinary cache of fossils spanning at least 350,000 years.  They record the untimely demise of the animals which fell into the caves through a hole in the ground and, unable to escape, eventually perished.  One hundred different species have already been identified but, with just 4 per cent of the site excavated, more discoveries lie in store. The most exciting finds are the fossils of long-extinct mega fauna such as a marsupial lion, a giant kangaroo and a wombat ancestor as large as a four-wheel-drive. 

See naracoortecaves.sa.gov.au

TURKEY'S UNDERGROUND CITY

Many visitors are drawn to Cappadocia​ by its surreal landscapes of tufa rock, but perhaps the area's most remarkable attractions lie underground. Cappadocia's plains are home to no fewer than 100 underground cities, half a dozen of which are open to visitors. The underground cities were a smart strategy for locals living in areas frequently raided by marauding armies; the soft volcanic rock common to the area allowed them to excavate incredibly elaborate settlements. The city of Kayseri​, for instance, covers eight levels, the lowest of which lies 20 metres below the surface. Up to 5000 people could shelter here, thanks to ventilation chimneys that kept the air fresh. The extraordinary facilities include churches and cemeteries, kitchens, olive presses and storage areas, as well as labyrinths and secret passages designed to ambush invaders.

See goturkey.com

MOSCOW'S GILDED METRO

While many aspects of life in Communist Russia were grim, at least Muscovites could enjoy a sumptuous morning commute. Moscow's subway system, opened in the 1930s, is the most lavish in the world, with marble walls, soaring ceilings and chandeliers. Must-visit stations include Ploshchad Revolyutsii​ with its 72 bronze sculptures depicting the people of the Soviet Union; Novoslobodskaya​ with its stained glass panels; the vaulted ceilings and baroque interiors of Komsomolskaya; and the ornate mosaics of the Metro's showpiece, Mayakovskaya​, depicting the bright Soviet future. Try to avoid sightseeing during the morning and afternoon peak. The Metro transports a whopping nine million passengers a day, most of them during rush hour.

See engl.mosmetro.ru 

COLOMBIA'S UNDERGROUND CATHEDRAL

You wouldn't think there is much you could do with an old salt mine, but the Colombians have proven themselves the masters of creative recycling. The salt mine at Zipaquira, outside Bogota, has been converted into one of the world's most unusual cathedrals. Two hundred and fifty thousand tonnes of salt were moved to sculpt out the cathedral, which stretches over several levels. The cathedral is popular not just with pilgrims, who worship at the stations of the cross, but with art lovers who come to admire its remarkable works of art, which include altars and sculptures made of salt and marble. 

See bogotaturismo.gov.co/en

THE SWAN KING'S GROTTO

Ludwig II of Bavaria, also known as the Swan King, was passionate about two things: composer Richard Wagner and building palaces. He spent so much on his extravagant projects, including the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, that his ministers eventually had him declared insane. His most intimate palace, Linderhof​, offers many revealing glimpses of the eccentric ruler, who apparently liked to relax by sitting in his Versailles-like Hall of Mirrors. His most idiosyncratic construction can be found beneath the palace. Inspired by Wagner's opera Tannhauser, the Venus Grotto is an artificial limestone cave with an underground lake and a golden swan-shaped boat, in which the king liked to be rowed around. 

See schlosslinderhof.de

 AUSTRALIA'S UNDERGROUND TOWN

With a landscape as desolate as the surface of the moon, searing summer temperatures and no natural water supply, Coober Pedy​ is no-one's idea of a welcoming environment. If it weren't for the riches that opal miners have dug out of the ground during the past 100 years, it is unlikely anyone would choose to live here. But live here they do, and to make it as comfortable as possible, much of the population spends as much time as possible living underground. Visitors to Australia's quirkiest outback town can sleep in an underground hotel, stroll through an underground art gallery and even visit an underground church.

See cooberpedy.net

SLOVENIA'S CAVE TRAIN

Keen to check out Europe's most visited cave? Then it's all aboard the Postojna​ Express. With 20km of passages and chambers to explore, the only way to see all the highlights of Slovenia's Postojna Caves is aboard the underground train. For more than 140 years, visitors have ridden the rails to explore the caves' unique eco-system, complete with beetles, bats, hedgehogs and a blind pink salamander. The highlight is the natural chamber known as the Concert Hall, which has exceptional acoustics and can fit 10,000 people. Check to see if any concerts coincide with your visit. 

See postojnska-jama.eu/en

Take a photo tour of the top 10 most stunning underground attractions around the world in the photo gallery above.

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