One of the best things about traveling is the sense of excitement as you explore a new place for the very first time. Well, what can be more exciting than exploring ancient underwater cities?
A whimsical sunken world with stories of forgotten civilizations, the thrill of (literally) diving into ancient mysteries… it’s the perfect activity for thrill-seekers and for those who simply love archaeology!
To that end, we’ve compiled a list of known underwater cities that you can visit in person! Not all of the world’s known underwater cities can be explored for leisure though. There are some that you can only admire from afar. Now, let’s…dive…right in!
Underwater cities you can explore
1. Pyramids of Yonaguni Jima (Japan)
Here’s a fun fact that will blow your mind! What if I told you that the Great Pyramids of Giza might not actually be the very first pyramids? It sounds unbelievable but it might just be true!
Lying in the depths of the East China Sea off the coast of Yonaguni Island is a series of unique stone formations, including an underwater pyramid! Discovered in the mid-1980s, the enigmatic Pyramids of Yonaguni Jima are often the subject of intense debate. The most common theory is that this ancient sunken city is the mythical continent of Mu, an ancient civilization that disappeared much like Atlantis.
While the very existence of Mu is a mystery, what is certain is that the structures beneath the ocean could potentially be 5,000 years old. This makes this “Japanese Atlantis” older than even the Egyptian pyramids!
Apart from the pyramid complex, there are also temples, roads, walls, and even a castle on the ocean floor. Some of the rocks even have ancient carvings of animals on them, including what appears to be a sphinx! Thankfully, if you’d like to uncover the mystery yourself, this is another one of the few underwater cities you can explore up close.
2. Shicheng a.k.a Lion City (China)
We now move on from the Japanese Atlantis to China’s “Atlantis of the East.” Unlike the Pyramids of Yonaguni Jima, we actually know for sure what happened to the underwater city of Shicheng (also known as the Lion City). An unfortunate victim of modernization, the city was deliberately sunk in 1959 to build the Xin’an Dam.
Miraculously, despite being built way back in the 16th century, much of the city’s buildings and structures remain intact today, even as it sits beneath the surface of Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang Province. Today, the area is a bustling tourist destination and a haven for diving enthusiasts.
Diving into the water, you’ll be able to see the well-preserved remains of Shicheng. Expect broad streets, majestic buildings, and ornate statues. On the surface of the water, you’ll be able to see a cluster of little islets. Just know that what you’re actually looking at are mountain peaks that were submerged along with the city!
3. Dwarka (India)
As far as underwater cities go, the legendary ancient city of Dwarka (not to be confused with modern-day Dwarka on the west coast of India) is one of the most popular in India.
Once considered nothing more than a myth, this legendary city was discovered in the mid-1900s. When it was unearthed, it was hailed as an important historical and cultural milestone. That’s because Dwarka has a deep cultural significance for a country where Hinduism is the main religion.
That’s because, according to legend, the ancient city of Dwarka was founded by the Hindu deity Krishna! Meaning “Gateway to Heaven” in Sanskrit, Dwarka is potentially over 9,000 years old. That is based on archaeological remains found over 100 feet underwater in the Gulf of Cambay! It most likely sank in around 1,500 B.C. due to a tsunami.
Since its discovery, local governments have put into motion plans to turn the underwater ancient city into a scuba diving site and tourist attraction, making Dwarka one of the few underwater cities that you can explore up close!
4. Port Royal (Jamaica)
Now, if you’re a fan of pirate tales then you’ve most certainly heard of the legendary Port Royal in Jamaica. Port Royal was once the seat of power of the British government. However, most people know it today as a haven for pirates in the 17th century. In fact, even the famous legendary pirate, Blackbeard, called Port Royal his home.
Unfortunately, an earthquake and tsunami in 1692 saw two-thirds of the port city consumed by the Caribbean Sea. While there were attempts to rebuild the city, a string of natural disasters, fires, and the cholera pandemic continually hampered progress. Another major earthquake in 1907 sealed the fate of this once illustrious port city.
While the part of the port that remains above land isn’t much to look at, the underwater remains of the sunken city is an absolute diver’s paradise! You’ll be able to explore the ruins of the sunken pirate city and even learn about its rich history! Don’t worry, we’re pretty sure Davy Jones isn’t lurking in the water!
5. Olous (Greece)
Given the sheer popularity of the legend of Atlantis, it is practically impossible to talk about ancient sunken cities without mentioning Greece. Even though we do not know yet whether Atlantis is real, there are a couple of ancient underwater cities in Greece that are just as equally beautiful and full of mystery.
Olous was once a bustling city of 40,000 people. Now, it slumbers beneath the waves of the Aegean Sea. It lies off the northern coast of the city of Crete and its walls are visible from the shore when weather conditions are optimal.
Most experts believe that Olous was a Minoan city that thrived in ancient Crete between 3,000 and 900 BC. The demise of Olous was a gradual one that came as a result of rising sea levels. Of course, because of this, not every part of the old city sank. The ruins of a basilica still stand strong on a little island not far away from the sunken remains of the Olous.
Olous is one of the Greek underwater cities which you can explore up close. But even if diving into the ruins of an ancient city doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can still check out some of the artifacts retrieved from the seafloor at the Archeological Museum in Heraklion.
6. Baia (Italy)
It’s time to take a short trip from Greece to neighboring Italy! Even though Atlantis is by far the most popular ancient sunken city, Italy is also home to some famous underwater cities. Take, for example, the ruins of Baia in the Gulf of Naples.
Quick history lesson: Baia was an ancient city of Rome that was destroyed and dragged underwater due to volcanic activity. However, unlike another famous Roman city destroyed by a volcano (we’ll get to that in just a bit), most of the people were able to flee the city before it disappeared under the water. That’s why the sunken city now looks like a massive garden of decorative sculpture more than an actual city.
This is actually a reflection of what Baia once was: a summer getaway for wealthy Roman nobility. Even Julius Ceasar had an estate there! You won’t find many houses in the underwater city (yes, you can explore it) but you’ll be able to see plenty of marble statues that are an ode to the once-forgotten city.
Fun fact: Remember that “other” ancient Roman city destroyed by a volcano? The ruins of Baia actually lie pretty close to the remains of the tragic ancient city of Pompeii. So if you really want to, you can visit both on the same day!
7. Atlit Yam (Israel)
The Neolithic Atlit Yam of Israel is an underwater city that is full of mystery. Discovered in 1984 off the coast of modern-day Atlit, the sunken city is likely a remnant dating back almost 9,000 years. This makes it one of the oldest known underwater ruins.
Despite its age, Atlit Yam is surprisingly well-preserved. As you dive among the ruins, you’ll be able to spot plenty of everyday structures and architecture, including wells, granaries, and storage houses. Perhaps the most enigmatic thing about this ancient city though is the stone circle in the middle of it all.
Experts have so far not been able to decipher what the stones were for, with some arguing that they were random formations while others believe it was used for ritualistic purposes. If you ever have the chance to see them up close and you find out what they really were, don’t forget to let us know!
Underwater cities you can admire from afar
8. Pavlopetri (Greece)
At first glance, you’d think that Vatika Bay in Laconia is just another typical location for a beach getaway. In reality, it is the edge of the ancient sunken city of Pavlopetri, arguably the oldest known underwater city in the world!
Experts believe that the city dates back to around 5,000 years old! Despite numerous excavations starting in 1967, we still aren’t sure exactly which civilization lived in the ancient port city. However, the Mycenaean period (between 1,600 and 1,1100 BC) and the Minoan Period (3,000 to 1,450 BC) are the two likeliest answers.
The city features a complicated network of roads and irrigation systems, centered around a large central plaza filled with temples. Unfortunately, because Pavlopetri is a UNESCO World Heritage Zone, you won’t be able to dive into exploration mode (see what I did there?). However, you can snorkel above the ancient city and check out some of the ancient ruins that have been brought ashore!
9. Mahabalipuram (India)
Another ancient sunken city you can find in India is Mahabalipuram. It lies around 60km south of Chennai and houses a group of monuments that are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, it is a major tourist destination in the country but it is the underwater section of the city that makes it stand out.
What makes the sunken part of Mahabalipuram so special is that its discovery was one that was both accidental and tragic. The discovery of the sunken parts of the city (known as the Temples of Mahabalipuram) came after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. As the tide receded, eyewitnesses spotted boulders and walls peeking out from the water. After extensive exploration, what excavation groups found was the submerged remains of the old port city, which was said to have flourished during the Pallava Dynasty in the 8th century.
Experts found several ancient granite structures in the water. While some believe these were part of a temple complex of the ancient city, others argue that the monuments belonged to a group of legendary Hindu temples that were swallowed separately by the ocean. Although scuba diving is a popular activity in Mahabalipuram, diving near the excavation site is not available to tourists at this point in time. Instead, you can visit the ancient temple that is above ground!
10. Villa Epecuen (Argentina)
Of all the underwater cities on this list, Villa Epecuen is the “youngest” of the lot. In fact, it is also one of the underwater cities where most of the structures are still above land! Developed in the early 1920s, Villa Epecuen was essentially a tourist village that was easily accessible from Buenos Aires by train. Much of the tourism was centered around Epecuen Lake, which was said to have offered healing properties.
Tragically, that same lake would prove to be the village’s undoing. In November 1985, a freak weather phenomenon caused a seiche (an abnormally large wave in an enclosed body of water) to appear on the lake. The seiche damaged a nearby dam and the village dyke. This caused the water to rise rapidly to a peak of almost 10 meters! After that, the village was abandoned and what remains now that the water has partially receded, is the ghostly remains of a once-bustling tourist town.
11. Muang Badan (Thailand)
Like China’s Shicheng, Thailand’s Muang Badan is an underwater city that came as a result of construction activities. When Vajiralongkorn Dam was built over Khao Laem Lake in 1984, the water that was displaced gradually flooded parts of the city of Muang Badan, submerging everything from houses and public spaces to a Buddhist temple that likely served as a gathering point in the city (now called the Sunken Temple).
Today, this sunken city which straddles the Thai-Myanmar border in Kanchanaburi Province is a tourist hotspot between the months of March and May. That’s because the dry months often cause the water to recede, revealing the ruins of the old city which you can explore on foot. The monastery, in particular, is a super popular location during sunset among photography enthusiasts.
12. Simena (Turkey)
The ancient city of Simena was once a bustling port and trading post nearly 4,000 years ago. Today, it lies beneath the waves off the shore of Kekova, a tiny island in the southwest of Turkey.
This ancient underwater city belongs to the Lycian civilization. Supposedly, they were the first civilization to practice a democratic system and the inspiration behind modern democracy. However, before you get your hopes up about exploring this historical city, well, you can’t. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Simena is a protected area, which means snorkeling and diving are prohibited activities.
Thankfully, you can still catch a glimpse of the submerged city though. During the low tide, you can see some of the stone structures peeking out of the water. Some of the walls and structures of the city are also visible beneath the surface of the water. There are also a handful of boat tours that can navigate the area to allow you a slightly closer look. However, it is still best to admire Simena from land.
13. Kalyazin (Russia)
The underwater city of Kalyazin in Russia is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location. Like the tip of an iceberg, most people aren’t aware of what’s underneath the surface of the water. Even though most of the ruins of Kalyazin lie beneath the Volga River, the belfry of its cathedral stands majestically on a little islet on the surface.
Kalyazin was once a bustling town but after the Russian revolution in 1917, it began to fall off the radar. A few decades later, the construction of a reservoir saw many parts of the old town flooded and submerged, with only the iconic belfry remaining above water. As the people left for higher ground, the sunken town was mostly forgotten. However, those who know about it frequently visit to admire the belfry-turned monument. In fact, when the river freezes during winter, you can even walk up to it for a closer look!
Similar sunken cities like Kalyazin include Sant Roma de Sau and Mediano, both located in Spain.
14. Heracleion (Egypt)
Speaking of pyramids, Egypt also has its own ancient underwater city. Heracleion is located northwest of Alexandria, off the coast of Abu-Qir. It lies almost 10 meters underwater and was at one point a major trading port in the Mediterranean.
Since its discovery in 2000, numerous excavations have been carried out in the sunken city. Plenty of artifacts have been uncovered as a result. These include statues, pottery, coins, and even entire wrecked ships that date back to the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty (around 300 BC).
While no one is allowed onto the site at the moment, there are plans to build an underwater museum to allow visitors to see the sunken city up close! In the meantime though, you can admire some of the unearthed artifacts in the Alexandria Maritime Museum.
And there you have it, 14 underwater cities that you can visit in person! We’re sure that in the next few years, more of these (literal) hidden gems will be unearthed. And when that happens, we’ll be sure to update the list. Who knows, the next time we write about underwater cities, we might even see Atlantis!