Top 10 Cities for Urban Exploration

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Aldwych station -- part of the London Underground -- has been closed since the '90s. It's hardly abandoned, though: Restored to its wartime look, it's occasionally the site of tours.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Top 10 Cities for Urban Exploration

The pastime now known as "urban exploration," previously called "sneaking into manmade structures to check 'em out," has grown into a bona fide movement. Devotees around the world explore the hidden sides of cities -- abandoned buildings, underground tunnels, sewer systems, unused stretches of subway -- and they're usually seeking more than the thrill of the trespass.

True urban explorers neither vandalize nor steal. Still, what they do is more often than not illegal. It's also typically dangerous, as abandoned structures are not exactly the most structurally sound ones out there. Injuries are not uncommon. Deaths have occurred, like those of two 20-something artists who drowned when rains flooded the storm drain they were exploring, or that of a 23-year-old who fell into an open elevator shaft in an abandoned rubber factory [sources: Baker, Maher].

But the draws can be tantalizing: glimpses into past architectural eras, art, urban decay, antique machinery, and cultures gone and buried, often literally. It's fodder for photographers and historians. Some explorers climb what they find. Others seek only skin-tingling immersion in forgotten things.

While there's certainly no shortage of urban roads less traveled, by definition, these places can be difficult to uncover. Here, 10 of the most lucrative locations for urban exploration. Some are already popular; others have barely been touched. Many are about as creepy as it gets.

First, in Germany ...

The Berlin Olympic Village in busier days.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

10: Berlin

Big draw: Beelitz-Heilstätten Hospital

Long before Adolf Hitler was chancellor, he was treated at Beelitz-Heilstätten, a WWI-era military hospital, for a leg wound as a young soldier in 1916 [source: Hawkins]. Almost 80 years later, deposed East German dictator Erich Honecker was treated there for cancer.

The sanatorium was built in the late 1800s to deal with Germany's tuberculosis outbreak, and the complex is accordingly massive. It later became a German military hospital, then a Russian military hospital, and ultimately the stalking ground of a serial killer named Wolfgang Schmidt [source: Chalk].

More to explore:

  • Iraqi embassy: Quickly abandoned in 1991, furniture, typewriters, books and documents remain [source: Aljazeera].
  • 1936 Olympic Village: Built to showcase Aryan superiority, site of Jesse Owens' multi-faceted victory and, after World War II, barracks for Russian occupiers. The sprawling complex has been silent since 1992 [source: Scraton].
  • Spreepark Planterwald: Abandoned amusement park complete with motionless Ferris wheel. Enough said.

Next, to Belgium ...

Laeken's aboveground attractions include the beautiful Royal Greenhouse; below ground, however, lies a long-abandoned crypt complex.

© iStockphoto.com/ACMPhoto

9: Brussels

Big draw: Abandoned crypt, Laeken

Certainly Europe has no shortage of abandoned grave sites, but the town of Laeken, near Brussels, has a particularly good one (as far as these things go).

A series of tunnels runs beneath a cemetery in the village -- tunnels housing nearly 100 years of the city's dead in vault-lined walls. The crypt was abandoned decades ago when authorities determined the maintenance was too expensive, or so the story goes [source: Colette].

Crypts are eerie places. This crypt is remarkably so. Icicles hang from streaky skylights. Hazy light falls on inscribed names and dates of the dead, most still entombed there. Some vault covers are absent; dark, empty, coffin-sized spaces dot the walls. Flowers, most dead, some plastic, lie where family members left them on their last visits, lending the place a creepy sense of unexpected abandonment [source: Colette].

More to explore:

  • Fort de la Chartreuse, in Liège: An abandoned fort constructed in the early 1800s, but never used for defense. It was taken over by the people during the Belgian revolution, became a German prison during the world wars and then an American military hospital after Germany's second defeat [source: Forbidden Places].
  • Hasard collieries, in Cheratte: Coal mine built in the mid-1800s and abandoned in the 1970s, especially noteworthy for its gothic architecture and the mining equipment left behind [source: Forbidden Places].

Now, to the American West ...

Far below the circus-tent canopies of Denver International Airport lies a network of tunnels -- restricted to all but a few people.

Gary Conner/Photolibrary/Getty Images

8: Denver

Big draw: The airport (That's right, the airport.)

Denver International Airport (DIA) is more than simply one of the largest and busiest in the world. It's also the subject of some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories of modern times.

There are tunnels there -- extensive networks running beneath the airport -- where few people are allowed entry.

Aside from baggage handlers, that is. These tunnels were built as the main routes of a state-of-the-art baggage-handling system designed specifically for DIA, which failed immediately and miserably, and currently host the working, low-tech system that gets bags from one end of the sprawling airport to the other [source: Johnson].

Some conspiracy theorists believe the airport was built as a decoy -- a sort of key to the unfolding of the end of days or a secure location for the righteous when that time comes. Secret governments and the Freemasons play into the theories, too.

Those tunnels are essential to the story, but there's more: DIA was (somewhat controversially) constructed in what used to be the true middle of nowhere, far from the city center and general populace; inside, commissioned murals depict apparently apocalyptic messages; and an inscription in one terminal wall seems to loosely reference the New World Order, a famous conspiracy theory involving a one-world government [source: Mahers].

Access to the tunnels is restricted, of course; but most of the other evidence is open to the ticket-holding public.

More to explore:

  • Abandoned weapons silos, military airfields and nuclear burial grounds.
  • Abandoned air-traffic-control tower at what used to be Stapleton Airport, the only remaining evidence of DIA's predecessor.

Then, eastward ...

The Packard plant is dangerous enough that the fire department can't even venture inside.

© iStockphoto.com/hillaryfox

7: Detroit

Big draw: Packard Automotive Plant

It's no surprise that the parts of "Motor City" abandoned by the motor makers would offer a lot of ghost-town structures. The Packard plant is one of the biggest. It was built in 1903, closed and converted into an industrial complex in the 1950s, closed again in the 1990s, and finally looted down to nothing [source: Detroiturbex].

Now, what's left is the damaged bones -- brick walls, scattered cinderblocks and beams warped by fires no one puts out; frames of the between-building bridges that sheltered workers in the Detroit winter; mounds of tires, rubble and broken glass; and the occasional truck driven into the building to haul away looted materials, oddly left behind.

The structural state of the plant is such that the fire department has been ordered to stay out -- thus the fires burning freely [source: Lam].

More to explore:

  • Belle Isle Children's Zoo: Opened in 1895, closed and then reopened in the 1970s, and finally abandoned in 2002 [source: Preuss].
  • Countless abandoned synagogues, churches, hospitals, fire stations and entire residential neighborhoods.
  • The old Cass Technical High School building: Vacant since 2005, when Cass moved next door, and still filled with desks, bookcases and copy machines. Diana Ross and Lily Tomlin both went to school there [source: Detroiturbex].

Heading now across the Atlantic ...

Aldwych station had a bustling side-life during World War II: This concert (with the audience standing on the tracks) was given by the Entertainments National Services Association in 1942.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

6: London

Big draw: The London Underground

It's the oldest subway system in the world, with initial construction dating back to the 1850s, offering urban explorers something most underground railways can't: a seemingly unlimited supply of unused tracks, tunnels and stations.

There are long-vacant stations, including Down Street, which closed in the early '30s; and ones like Aldwych, closed to the public in the '90s (but still open to the occasional film crew), both of which sheltered Londoners during World War II bombing raids [source: Cooper].

Other underground paths, like the well-secured Post Office Railway line that closed in 2003, were in use so recently they offer a tour of lines in near-working condition for the most resourceful of urban explorers (read: those willing and able to commit the felony of breaking in) [source: Silent UK].

More to explore:

  • Millennium Mills: A flour mill built in the 1930s and one of the biggest ever in London, abandoned in 1992 and currently vacant [source: Derelict London].
  • Strand Union Workhouse: Built in the 18th century to house and employ the indigent, converted to an infirmary in the 1830s, when social services were cut back. Charles Dickens lived just blocks from the workhouse, and many believe it inspired "Oliver Twist" [source: BBC].

Back to the United States, the Midwest now...

Underneath the streets of St. Paul, a network of tunnels called the Labyrinth links abandoned and in-use sewer, phone and gas lines, among others.

Lake County Museum/Getty Images

5: Minneapolis-St. Paul

Big draw: The Labyrinth

"Tunnel system" would be a ridiculous understatement. Beneath the city of St. Paul, Minn., a massive, varied, nearly pristine world of interconnected tunnels reaches at least five stories deep and goes on for miles. Built in the 1800s in the heart of the city, it includes seven very different but ultimately connected systems, some overlapping in areas, some still in use, serving such varied utilities as phone systems, sewer systems, water and gas lines and power for the city's long-gone electric street cars. Each system reveals different architectural styles, with occasional carvings in the sandstone walls, presumably the work of those building the tunnels [source: Action Squad].

No one is allowed in. Access requires rappelling skills.

More to explore:

  • Ford Motors mining tunnels: Where the auto giant used to mine its own materials for glass.
  • Cambridge State Hospital: Infamous for abusing its mental patients.
  • Hamm's Brewery: Open from the 1860s to the 1990s, where beer-making equipment still remains [source: Action Squad].

Moving northeastward ...

In addition to the abandoned Amtrak line, New York City of course also has its extensive subway system. This 1870 engraving shows the opening of the Broadway tunnel.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

4: New York

Big draw: The "Freedom Tunnel"

In the 1930s, Amtrak ran underground commuter trains from a hub in Manhattan. The tunnels were abandoned when cars reduced the need for that network, and now they're some of the most famous in the world.

Between 1980 and 1996, graffiti artist Chris "Freedom" Pape painted murals on the tunnel walls -- thus the unofficial name [source: Vandalog]. But the tunnel has come to mean more than that.

Depicted in the 2000 documentary "Dark Days," the Freedom Tunnel was for years home to outsiders, people no longer able to or interested in living in the world above ground. There was a whole dark city down there, right under Manhattan, now abandoned again but still displaying the art for which it was named and physical reminders of the people who lived there.

More to explore:

  • Columbia University tunnels: Underground network that once hosted, among other things, the Manhattan Project [source: GoG].
  • Hospital X: Abandoned network of buildings dating back to the early 20th century. "Jacob's Ladder" was filmed in one of its tuberculosis wards [source: GMD].

The Paris Catacombs feature legal opportunities for urban explorers.

Rune Johansen/Photolibrary/Getty Images

3: Paris

Big draw: The Paris Catacombs

In the late 1700s, an outbreak of infectious disease was traced to a cemetery in Paris. To save the living, the dead were unearthed and moved to old quarries beneath the city [source: Catacombs Museum]. Those quarries are part of the subterranean network known as the Paris Catacombs.

Over several decades, every cemetery in Paris was emptied, the bodies relocated to the tunnels that would finally come to house about 6 million skeletons, stacked against the tunnel walls [source: Tancock].

The Catacombs are open to the public -- no breaking in required.

More to explore:

  • Fort du Portalet, Bearn: Built in the mid-1800s to defend against a Spanish invasion, converted to a German prison during the World War II occupation, liberated by Spain in 1944 and abandoned in the 1960s [source: Forbidden Places].
  • Château Bijou, southern France: An abandoned castle (now protected as a historical monument) built in the mid-1700s and expanded in the early 1900s, noteworthy for its Italian-inspired architecture [source: Forbidden Places].

Next, over in Italy...

Private monasteries and churches in Rome also feature their own catacombs; this Capuchin monastery was photographed in the 1880s.

Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

2: Rome

Big draw: The Catacombs of Rome

You can't beat the Roman Catacombs for legendary significance: There are those who believe the Holy Grail is hidden in the tunnel beneath the Basilica of St. Lawrence.

The Vatican doesn't buy it, but that doesn't detract from the experience [source: Valsecchi]. Some of these burial tunnels, which run for hundreds of miles under Rome, date to the first century, when they were built as Jewish cemeteries; the Christian burial tunnels date to the second century and have hardly been explored, as the Vatican owns these and seldom lets anybody enter them [source: Valsecchi]. Popes and saints are among the dead buried in the Christian crypts [source: CCofR].

More to explore:

  • Manicomio della Marcigliana orphanage: Abandoned in the 1970s, now empty of everything that wasn't nailed down [source: Preuss]
  • Forum of Nerva, public gathering place dating to 97 AD, now underground and accessible via Rome's sewers [source: Capitolium].

Last, to sunny California ...

Hitler in L.A.? That's what Winona and Norman Stephens, California Nazi sympathizers, hoped would eventually happen when they built their ranch.

Heinrich Hoffmann/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1: Los Angeles

Big draw: Murphy Ranch

In 1933, Hitler became chancellor, the Nazi party took over the German government, and Winona and Norman Stephens built a Nazi commune in Los Angeles.

Herr Fuhrer, they believed, would someday come to rule there. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, though, the place was emptied out, and its inhabitants were charged as Nazi sympathizers [source: Almendrala].

Now, the compound known as Murphy's Ranch, once a self-sustaining community that supplied its own power and water, stored its own food, and had its own bunkers just in case, is a vandalized shell of its former self [source: Almendrala]. It's accessible to the public, and people come to see what remains of a U.S.-based Nazi cult preparing for Germany's victory -- and, inexplicably, Hitler's reign from a ranch in L.A.

More to explore:

  • Griffith Park Zoo, founded in 1912, abandoned in the 1960s when construction of the larger Los Angeles Zoo was complete [source: Preuss].
  • Linda Vista Hospital, built in the early 1900s as a medical center for people injured building the new railroad, now abandoned and frightening enough to have been the filming location for a number of horror movies [source: Riggs].

Through almost all of this -- abandoned crypts, hospitals, forts and zoos, and orphanages -- runs the theme of neglect, and a resulting eeriness to which urban explorers seem irresistibly drawn. There's plenty of it to go around, with abandoned structures and towns and tunnel systems lying unnoticed all over the world, ripe for discovery and recording. All are accessible to those willing to risk fines, prison and death; quite a few are accessible to those who'd rather not.

Either way, the hidden world awaits.

For more information on urban exploration, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: Top 10 Cities for Urban Exploration

Without a doubt, urban exploration is an intriguing undertaking, its motives often emotional, artful and of academic interest, its products often beautiful and revealing. And yet, the mentions of danger in this series are there for a reason: This intriguing practice is unsafe.

And often illegal, but many people will brush that off -- and really, what's a misdemeanor trespassing charge in the face of abandoned crypts and asylums? Bodily harm, though, is something different (I think), and my hope is that readers who are interested in urban exploring will also be interested in the physical risks involved. Death and injury in the course of exploring are not everyday occurrences, but neither are they so rare as to chalk them up to simple bad luck. Storm drains do flood unexpectedly. Unmaintained, century-old staircases do crumble. Open elevator shafts do disappear in dark, abandoned warehouses.

Do, then, keep in mind: There are many reports of urban-exploring deaths and near-misses. I just ran out of room.

Related ArticlesSources
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  • Action Squad: Minneapolis Urban Adventurers. (Oct. 15, 2012) http://www.actionsquad.org/
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