Potholing. Spelunking. Caving. No matter what you call it, caves offer unique opportunities to learn about the history and mysteries of our incredible planet. Yes, they’re dark. Yes, they’re oftentimes inhospitable. (Mexico’s Cave of the Crystals reaches sweltering temperatures up to 136°F with 99% humidity.) But they’re also wondrous, preserving remnants of some of mankind’s earliest civilizations. Caving may not be for everyone, but for those courageous enough to venture inside, you’ll certainly have something to talk about at your next family gathering. Ready to embrace your inner speleologist? Here are some of the coolest caves in the world that are open to the public.
Don’t let the name intimidate you—this dormant volcano hasn’t erupted in over 4,000 years. Its interior was first explored in 1974 and only opened to tourists in 2012. Typically when a volcano becomes dormant, the lava in its magma chamber cools and solidifies, sealing it off to exploration. However, for reasons scientists have yet to fully explain, the lava drained from Thrihnukagigur’s magma chamber, leaving its vast cavern empty. (And when we say “vast,” we mean vast. Among the iconic monuments that could comfortably fit inside are the Statue of Liberty, the Great Sphinx of Giza, and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue.) An open elevator lowers visitors to the floor of the chamber. From there, they can witness the colorful mineral deposits splattered across the volcano’s inner walls like a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s truly one of the more extraordinary experiences you’re likely to have in your lifetime.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitomo, New Zealand
Formed over 30 million years ago, this cave system on New Zealand’s North Island is home to a phenomenon found nowhere on Earth. Millions of Arachnocampa luminosa—a glowworm species found only in New Zealand—dangle from the cave ceiling, bathing each cavern in magnificent blue light. Visitors can explore the upper levels of the caves on a guided walk, then head to the lower level to float along the underground Waitomo River and gaze up at the magnificent luminescence.
Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave
Located only 25 miles from Salzburg, the 26-mile “World of the Ice Giants” is the largest ice cave on the face of the earth. Its miraculous ice structures began forming 1,000 years ago, as melting snow dripped into the limestone cave and refroze. Even in the heat of summer, a cool mountain breeze prevents the ice from thawing. Eisriesenwelt was formally discovered by natural scientist Anton Posselt in 1879, though at that time locals already believed it to be an entrance to Hell. The cave fell into obscurity for more than 40 years, but reemerged to the public eye when expeditions began again in 1912.
Phraya Nakhon Cave
Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, Thailand
It takes a bit of effort to reach this cavernous wonder, but it’s well worth the trip. The Phraya Nakhon Cave is home to the Kuha Karuhas Pavilion, constructed in 1890 in honor of King Chulalongkorn. The sunlight streaming through the cave’s collapsed ceiling makes the pavilion look like the stuff of fairytales. Reaching the cave, though, can be a trek. After parking in Bang Pu, you must either hike across Tian Mountain (30 minutes) or catch a boat to Laem Sala Beach (5–10 minutes). From there, a steep, rocky trail takes you up through the forest to the entrance of the cave. Try to time your visit to coincide with the most brilliant light of the day, between 10am and noon.
Isle of Staffa, Scotland
The uninhabited island of Staffa in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides is home to a truly awe-inspiring site. The crowning jewel of Fingal’s Cave is its hundreds of hexagonal basalt columns formed by a lava flow around 60 million years ago. These columns bear a striking resemblance to the landscape of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Legend has it that both sites were once connected by a bridge built by the Irish giant Finn McCool so he could fight his foe in Scotland. (Both landscapes were actually created by the same lava flow.) The size and cathedral-like arched ceiling of Fingal’s Cave help create a spectacular aural experience as the waves ebb and flow through the cavern. The cave’s acoustics are so magnificent that they have inspired such musical icons as Pink Floyd and Felix Mendelssohn.
This UNESCO-listed cave system in Slovenia’s Kras Plateau is among of the most important natural treasures on the planet. This “Underground Grand Canyon” features one of the largest subterranean chambers in the world. (At 460 feet tall, it could fit a 43-story building inside.) Archaeological evidence suggests that humans inhabited the caves as early as 3,000 BC. Modern exploration of the cave system began in the late 1800s, and today visitors can take a guided tour to explore the fascinating karst formations carved over millennia by the Reka River.
If you’re looking to explore an ancient cave system containing over 1,000 years of Buddhist art, the Mogao Caves are the place to be. Also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, this UNESCO site comprises a series of 492 caves carved into a sandstone cliff along China’s famed Silk Road. The caverns hold more than 2,000 painted sculptures and 484,000 square feet of murals dating back to 366 AD. The caves were credited with helping to spread Buddhism throughout Asia, as their location on the highly trafficked Silk Road trading route meant that the doctrines of Buddhism could be spread right along with goods like silk, tea, sugar, and spices.
During the 1st century, Emperor Tiberius used the Blue Grotto as a private swimming hole. For centuries after his death, legends of evil cave spirits caused local sailors and explorers to keep their distance. The grotto was eventually rediscovered in 1826, and has since become one of the most popular attractions in Italy. Visitors enter on a small rowboat and must lie flat so the vessel can squeeze through the narrow entrance. (It’s approximately six feet wide by three feet high.) Illuminated by the sunlight through the entrance, the cave’s waters glow an iridescent blue, appearing as though lit from beneath. To witness them at their most vivid, visit between noon and 2pm from April to June or September to mid-October. (Because the cave mouth is so small and the waves can be powerful and unsafe, the skippers may declare the cave inaccessible on any given day.)
Discovered in 1940 by four teenagers, the Lascaux Cave contains what scientists call the greatest collection of Paleolithic cave paintings in the world. The illustrations, which date back more than 17,000 years, include around 600 paintings and 1,5000 engravings depicting cows, horses, deer, and more. The cave opened to the public in 1948, but closed in 1963 after artificial lights and carbon dioxide from human breath began to damage the artwork. Today, visitors can explore an exact replica of the UNESCO-listed cave with a trip to Lascaux II.
More Caves Worth Visiting
- Reed Flute Cave – Guilin, China
- Chapada Diamantina Caves – Chapada Diamantina National Park, Brazil
- Skaftafell Ice Caves – Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
- Benagil Sea Cave – Algarve, Portugal
- Marble Caves – Patagonia, Chile
- Cango Caves – Western Cape, South Africa
- The Cave of the Hundred Mammoths – Dordogne, France