Underground Cities: Travel below the surface of five American towns

Underground Cities: Travel below the surface of five American towns

Image for postCity Hall Station in New York

On your next trip to the United States, you can visit the attractions everyone can see or you can go underground. By ?underground,? we don?t mean secret, although some of the places on this list certainly seem so, from San Francisco?s speakeasies to the backway into NYC?s City Hall Station. We mean literally underground ? as in beneath the surface, below where many travelers dare to go.

With that in mind, here are America?s five best subterranean cities:

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Seattle, Washington:

As a nation, the US isn?t really old enough to have true ruins ? cities under cities like in Athens or Rome. Except Seattle. Underneath present-day Pioneer Square, you?ll find abandoned streets and office buildings ? even a beauty parlor. They?re remnants of the first Seattle, built in 1851 then destroyed by the 1889 Great Seattle Fire. Afterward, mud covered the town, so locals built eight-foot retaining walls and paved over the destruction, raising street-level 22 feet. Today, Underground Seattle lies beneath. To see it, buy a 22 USD ticket from Bill Speidel?s Underground Tour. Youth and senior discounts available.

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San Francisco, California:

San Francisco?s downtown hosts a number of historic, basement speakeasies, particularly near Jackson Square and along Columbus Avenue. For example, Bourbon & Branch (501 Jones St) operated as JJ Russell?s Cigar Shop during Prohibition. It did not sell tobacco.

If you insist on drinking above ground, Wilson & Wilson is directly upstairs. Don?t be alarmed when you visit the site to make reservations: Yes, it says Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency. In keeping with the Prohibition theme, the bar?s named after a purse that patron Lorraine Adeline Wilson stashed between the walls in 1932.

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Washington, DC:

San Francisco may be a city of bars, but the nation?s capital is one of museums. Below Dupont Circle in tunnels originally constructed for Washington, DC?s 1940?s streetcar system, there?s an art gallery: Dupont Underground (19 Dupont Circle NW). In the 1960?s, the space briefly served as a fallout shelter, but today it houses rotating exhibitions. Generative video artist Brandon Morse is featured through January 27th.

Unlike most DC-area attractions, Dupont Underground is not free. The space hosts a wide variety of events ? from concerts to yoga ? so admission varies. Non-event viewing is available Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons.

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Chicago, Illinois:

Pedways don?t often make must-see attraction lists for good reason: They?re boring. But not Chicago?s. For starters, it?s under ? and not above ? ground. The buildings on top control what the pedway looks like below, so every so many feet it completely changes. Of course there are shops ? 22 Victorian stained-glass windows lie underneath Macy?s. A mural in the Millennium Park section shows actor Heath Ledger dressed as The Joker from Batman, riding a motorcycle across town. Chicago was the inspiration for Batman?s Gotham City and parts of Christopher Nolan?s movie Dark Knight were actually filmed in the pedway.

New York, New York:

Instead of going up in a skyscraper, try going down ? straight downtown to City Hall Station. But you won?t find it on subway maps: The stop hasn?t been used since 1945. It?s gorgeous. City Hall was originally designed to show how beautiful public transit could be, so the station?s filled with Guastavino tiles and chandeliers.

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Tours are remarkably difficult to get into with New York Transit Museum requiring visitors become members then compete in three annual ticket rounds. So forget that and take the 6 line downtown. When the conductor yells last stop, don?t get off. The train will pass through City Hall before heading back uptown.

(A version of this article ran in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Cara.)

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