If it weren’t for modern wastewater systems, we’d probably all have cholera. The deadly disease festers in sewage-laden waters—outbreaks in the 19th century killed hundreds of thousands of people, and even today, it runs rampant in areas without adequate plumbing infrastructure.
To remind us of that devastating prospect, the sewer exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England, once included a life-size diorama of a funeral for an epidemic victim. The idea was to show what our (short) lives would be like without the help of sewers and related purification systems to prevent disease. Although the funeral diorama was removed as part of a gallery remodel in 2012, the museum now takes visitors through a simulated sewer, crafted from the bricks of a 19th century model, with “fake poo glazed on the walls, piped in sounds of scurrying rats, and a pumped-in odor.”
To experience the real thing, here are five place across Europe and the U.S. to explore these underappreciated urban marvels:
Paris is known mostly for what’s above ground: food, romance, the Eiffel Tower, fashion shows, city life. But a bustling network exists underfoot as well. While the catacombs—underground cemeteries—may be more famous, the city’s old sewer system is a worthy attraction, too. It was the first sewer system to offer tours, way back in 1867, popularized by Victor Hugo’s mention of the fetid netherworld in Les Misérables. At Le Musée des Égouts, the sewer museum, visitors can learn about the history of the system and see parts of it up close—including a giant iron ball that gets squeezed through the tunnels as water builds up behind it and cleans the tunnels by pushing muck out with it. The dark, dank tubes even form their own underground city, with bright blue street signs designating each tunnel. Also on view in the tunnels: a “sewer wagon” (pictured here) and a “sewer boat.”
On a tour, visitors learn about each major era of Paris sewer history, going all the way back to when King Philippe Auguste first installed drainage gutters around the year 1200. The network developed gradually over many centuries, until the modern system was built in the mid-19th century by Baron Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine, and engineer Eugène Belgrand.
In the 1949 film The Third Man, Orson Welles’s character runs down to the underground waterway of Vienna—and that same spot is where today’s Third Man Tour begins. In 2007, a publicity manager at the sewer company began using the film to promote the sanitation system, and the tour he created now shows three minutes of the classic flick underground, projecting it onto a wall near where part of the movie was filmed. Visitors can also see an eerily lit filtration system that shows some of the work done by sanitation employees.
The history of Vienna’s sewer system goes back much further than that of Paris, to around the first century AD, when the Romans built a highly sophisticated sewer system in their military camp in present-day Vienna. The Middle Ages, however, were an odorous time in Vienna, as in most European cities, with garbage flowing into all kinds of tributaries and epidemics breaking out due to unsanitary conditions. Finally, starting in the mid-19th century, the city began building the modern sewer system. In this historical photo, a man sweeps water down a Viennese sewer tunnel, protected from the flow behind him by a dam.
For a look at ancient Roman sanitation, head to Italy, where travelers can see parts of the Cloaca Maxima. Built in the sixth century B.C.E., the Cloaca initially served as a way to drain swamp water so that workers could build the part of downtown Rome known as the Forum Romanum, and it later became a sewer system. The Cloaca was also considered sacred, according to Mark Bradley, an associate professor of ancient history at Nottingham University, who has explored the dark tunnels. And not only did the sewers evacuate waste from the city, they also evacuated people.
“There’s a very longstanding tradition in the history of Rome where unwanted elements of society—so criminals, deposed tyrants even Christian martyrs—would be cast down here, symbolically to be flushed out of the city,” Bradley told the BBC. Perhaps most famous example was Elagabalus, a “depraved young emperor who made a complete mess of Rome” in the third century. After he was assassinated, his body was dragged through the sewers and eventually out of the city.
Construction of the Cloaca was grueling work—so much so that, as one scholar writes, laborers tried to escape and some even committed suicide, until crucifixion was instituted at the worksite to deter further mutiny. Today, some parts of the system remain functioning in downtown Rome, where they treat storm and sewage overflow during heavy rainstorms. (Crucifixion, luckily, is no longer on the scene.)
Parts of the Cloaca are visible above ground in the Shrine of Venus Cloacina in the Roman Forum (a shrine to the goddess of the sewers) and near the Arch of Janus. In general, the insides of the system aren't open to the public, but extra-curious and determined explorers can apply for a permit via foreign research institutes, Bradley told Smithsonian.com, or go through Roma Sotterranea (Rome Underground), an institution devoted to studying Rome's underground past and that has the authority to take people into the tunnels.
Twice a year, visitors can go on underground tours of drains built in Sydney in the late 18th century. Currently part of the city’s stormwater network, the tunnels welcome visitors only periodically due to safety concerns—authorities require time to treat bacteria and funnel in fresh air to make sure that visitors stay safe. Tickets have been in high demand, with several thousand people signing up for a ballot system each year to snag one of a few hundred spots.
On tours, Sydney Water, the city’s water authority, teams up with Sydney Living Museums to show visitors a number of features, including the Tank Stream, which served as colonial Sydney’s first and primary source of fresh water for almost 40 years, and still flows today as part of the stormwater system. (It’s also a cultural significant place for the Gadigal aboriginal community, the traditional owners of the Sydney Cove area). Tour-goers explore underneath the city along a 60-meter-long section of the stream and tunnel, parts of which date back to 1789. The city also offers a tour of some of the water system’s reservoirs, including the Petersham reservoir, pictured here.
New York, New York
Happy Valentine’s Day: On February 14, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection hosts a tour of the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant—“for those seeking an alternative Valentine’s Day experience,” as one press release announces. The tours, which have been returning each year by popular demand and which also run near Earth Day, take place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and cover the wastewater treatment process. They also provide great views of the city from atop what are known as digester eggs, pictured here.
As the city explains, these futuristic, stainless steel-clad structures process as much as 1.5 million gallons of sludge every day (yes, the official term is sludge), using heat and a lack of oxygen to break the sludge down into materials that are later used as fertilizer. Newtown is the largest of the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, and went into operation in 1967 (the digester eggs were added in 2008 as part of a $5 billion upgrade). For the past few years the eggs have glowed blue and white at night, courtesy of lighting designer Hervé Descottes. Visitors confirm that the eggs offer a spectacular view of the city, as well as a fascinating look at what keeps the people of New York going strong. And as one Valentine’s Day tourgoer put it, “I think long walks on the beach are overdone.”