We’ve all heard of Area 51, the top-secret military base out in the Nevada desert. Is it home to an underground lab full of aliens, or is it just for military aircraft development? Even if you don’t believe in aliens, you know that if someone invited you to look around, you’d be right in there.
There’s something about places you’re told you can’t visit that makes you reeeeally want to go.
That left us wondering, where else in the world are we forbidden from entering that you’d love to sneak into? Here are our top picks of the most weird, wonderful and fascinating places you’ll (probably) never visit:
Poveglia - The world’s most haunted island
Most of us head off to Venice with a romantic idea of sipping on an Aperol Spritz and sailing down canals in a gondola. Little do we know that in the 1500s, a 4-mile boat trip across the Venetian Lagoon to the island of Poveglia would likely be your last.
Things went downhill on the island when Venetians began shipping plague victims there and leaving them to rot without any medical care. This turned into a morbid tradition through various epidemics, and it’s thought that around 160,000 people died of plague on Poveglia. Scientists believe that more than 50% of the island’s soil is composed of ash from human remains.
We’re not superstitious, but we can see why the locals called it “Island of Ghosts”. Somehow, the reputations of nearby islands Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo - also quarantine islands - seem to have recovered a little more since then.
The reason Poveglia hasn’t might just be down to the next bit. The bit that really makes Poveglia off-limits.
A psychiatric hospital opened there in the 1920s, with patients soon reporting ghost sightings and being kept awake at night by the sounds of plague victims’ screaming. The worst wasn’t supernatural at all - it came from the medical staff in charge.
The sickening stories of widespread abuse and shocking experimentation using primitive tools without anaesthetic are enough to make your stomach turn. But word has it that an especially evil doctor carried out his worst experiments in the hospital’s bell tower.
It’s said that the tortured cries that echoed from the tower could be heard across the island. In a karmic twist of fate, the same doctor met his own demise falling from that very bell tower.
The island has lain abandoned since 1968, with the Venetian authorities failing to find a permanent owner on several occasions.
Locals claim that screams can still be heard coming from Poveglia, while human bones continue to wash up on the shore to this day. And when people do try to sneak onto the island for a visit, they report feeling watched, hearing menacing voices and, in one instance, narrowly avoiding attack…
Svalbard Global Seed Vault - a doomsday prepper’s dream
Way up north on the island of Spitsbergen, in deepest, darkest Norway (or lightest, depending on what time of year you go), sits the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Designed to protect vital food sources against wars and natural disasters, it’s kind of like a Noah’s Ark for plants.
This “Doomsday Vault” is the ultimate apocalypse store cupboard, but on a global scale, where experts deposit and take care of seeds from around the world to avoid crop extinction. It’s primarily used by countries and organizations to store the most vital resources in case of disaster, with 1.1 million seed varieties currently in storage and space for up to 2.5 billion individual seeds.
The location was chosen for its remoteness, making it very unlikely to fall victim to natural or man-made disasters.
That’s not all, the vault itself is buried 120 m into a permafrost-covered mountain, like a Bond villain’s lair. Well above sea level, it’s practically untouchable by whatever comes its way. Yet at the same time, Svalbard is accessible by commercial flight, which offers practical access when it's needed.
Only those who work there or make deposits can access it, giving it a secretive reputation. But it really is just like a conventional bank, insomuch as only those who make a deposit can withdraw their own seeds.
For example, the war in Syria caused serious devastation, including the destruction of a seed collection belonging to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). As a result, ICARDA became the first body to withdraw from their stock at the Vault, and remain the only ones who have done so to date.
Even organised group tours can’t get a glimpse inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, although you can pick up a tour that’ll take you right past the door.
If you’re dying to combine some doomsday inspo with a bit of travel, though, the Baekdudaegan National Arboretum Seed Vault Centre in South Korea is open to visitors. As well as their own seed collection and live forests, the arboretum is, unexpectedly, also home to tigers.
North Brother Island - shipwrecks and Typhoid Mary
Just south of The Bronx, in New York’s East River, are two small, uninhabited islands. In 1885, a hospital for contagious diseases was built on the larger of the two, North Brother Island.
As if being a quarantine island wasn’t enough, the water surrounding the islands was known for dangerous swells and hidden whirlpools - the aptly named Hell Gate. The island’s first major incident came in 1904, when 1021 people were killed in a shipwreck on its shores. If the ghosts of a thousand sailors aren’t enough to give you that eerie vibe, the next major inhabitant will be.
Mary Mallon, commonly known as Typhoid Mary, was first quarantined on the island’s hospital in 1907. She showed no symptoms of typhoid, yet people she fed in her job as a cook kept mysteriously dying. She didn’t believe she carried the disease, and spent the next 3 years trying to prove it through a variety of unsavoury lab samples...
She ended up being released not because they decided she didn’t have typhoid, but because authorities decided it was inhumane to keep her forcibly locked up. They made her agree not to work as a chef again, and sent her on her way. She didn’t much enjoy other jobs, though, and soon began leaving a wake of typhoid deaths behind her once again.
After a solid attempt at evading police by using a fake name everywhere she worked, Typhoid Mary was arrested 5 years later and sent back to the island in 1915. This time, for good. She was kept completely separated from all other patients for fear of just how infectious she might be, and eventually died after 23 years living in her own little cottage there.
The hospital eventually closed, being used briefly after World War 2 as a home for veterans and then as a drug rehabilitation clinic in the ‘50s-’60s. But despite all the death, pain and suffering the island has seen, the reasons you can’t visit are actually pretty mundane.
Firstly, the former hospital buildings are completely dilapidated, and it’d be incredibly dangerous to move around them. Secondly, the island is part of a Protected Nesting Area for birds like herons, cormorants and egrets. Yep, that’s right - the main reason you can’t visit this presumably haunted, disease-ridden island is because you might disrupt the birdies.
Mount Athos, Greece - No girls allowed
Shrouded in tradition and mystery, Mount Athos is considered the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity around the world. Since monks first arrived at the mountain in the 9th century, their way of life has hardly changed (though we’re guessing the cars and electricity are new).
It’s not just Greek monks that you’ll find there. Men come from around the world to search for Christianity in its original form, and isolate themselves in order to become closer to god. In fact, there’s such an emphasis on avoiding distraction from prayer that women (and even female animals!) are not allowed on the mountain - or even within 500 metres of the cliffs the monasteries are perched on.
Near constant prayer is the priority across the twenty monasteries, which are home to over 2000 monks. Between prayer services, however, they keep busy working on everything and anything that their community needs - carpentry, cleaning, fishing by the shore, and even making their own wine.
That wine is actually an essential part of their daily life and is served throughout the day, including for breakfast. But breakfast only comes after an 8-hour prayer service starting at 3 am. Despite the early wake-up calls, the community now receives so many applications that there is a waiting list, and it’s considered harder to get accepted there than Harvard.
Some residents of Mount Athos unsurprisingly find all that a bit intense and choose to leave monastery life behind - but not to rejoin the outside world.
Instead, these monks choose greater isolation, moving to the cliffside cabins of Karoulia, where they will live out their days in complete solitude. They don’t even communicate with their neighbours, and the only things they share their homes with are the bones of previous residents…
Plymouth, Montserrat - the Caribbean ghost town
Completely abandoned and smothered in layers of grey ash, Plymouth somehow remains the capital of Montserrat. Following over 400 years of lying dormant, the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano erupted in July 1995 and caused complete devastation. The whole city had to be evacuated, and within a few weeks, the lava flow had left it covered in debris.
Repeated eruptions over the next two years eventually left the city blanketed under metres of ash and 19 people dead. Many locals left the island for the UK or Antigua, while those who stayed abandoned the southern regions entirely, and an exclusion zone was put in place around the volcano.
Eruptions continue to this day, and Plymouth and the surrounding areas are nothing more than eerie ghost towns. The once-fancy Montserrat Springs Hotel is now a post-apocalyptic shell of its former self - there’s an overgrown pit where the swimming pool used to be, and phones and paperwork still lie on the tables where they’d been left.
The old church bell tower barely reaches above the ground, and 5-storey buildings are reduced to just one storey peaking up through the layers of ash.
The country’s tourism industry was decimated by the disaster, although resorts in the north of the island have slowly managed to rebuild it. Public access to the exclusion zone is still expressly forbidden, but certain tour companies can get police permission to enter, so long as there isn’t too much seismic activity going on.
Remember, if you do manage to find a tour, you’ll be at the volcano’s mercy. One way to look at it is, the more dramatic your volcano pictures look, the further away you want to be!
Mount Kailash, Himalayas - the Stairway to Heaven
A Himalayan mountain that in relative terms isn’t that tall, nor that hard to climb… and yet nobody’s ever reached the top. Some might call that suspicious.
Mount Kailash is as significant to eastern religions as Jerusalem is to western religions, earning itself the title of “Stairway to Heaven”.
Hindus believe it to be the home of Shiva, while Buddhists believe it is the home of Demchok, a god of tantric meditation. In the Jain religion, Mt. Kailash is the place where their founder, Rishabh, first became spiritually awakened, and in the Bon religion, it is the spot where their leader Shenrab first descended from heaven.
You’d think that would mean thousands of intrepid mountaineering pilgrims would attempt the ascent each year, but it’s commonly believed that to do so would be an insult to the gods. In fact, in 2001, the Chinese government received such a backlash for issuing permits to a team of hopeful Spanish climbers that they then banned all attempts to scale it.
But surprisingly, there are no records of a successful climb ever taking place, even before the mountain became off-limits. Some stories point to superstition as the reason for this, with one explorer being told, “only a man entirely free of sin can climb Kailash.” He felt that message so deeply that he chose to turn back.
The stories associated with the mountain only add to its mystery and power, as it’s said that circling Mt. Kailash once will erase a lifetime’s worth of sins. On the other hand, circling it 108 times will get you into nirvana. Could be worth a try...
Watch out, though - it’s said that breathing the mountain air causes rapid ageing. One tale talks of a group of Russian hikers who got a little too high up, immediately felt years had been taken off their lives, and all died exactly a year later.
To balance all that out with a bit of fact, various scientists claim that Mt. Kailish sits at the centre of the Earth, and is known as the Axis Mundi - making it precisely 6666 km from the North Pole and 13332 km away (double the previous) from the South Pole. In fact, all that makes it feel a little too perfect, especially when you consider that the mountain has four faces, each of which perfectly face north, south, east and west.
Eynhallow, Orkney Islands, Scotland -
The Orkney Islands have a wealth of tales and mystery, passed by word of mouth, from generation to generation. And Eynhallow is no exception. The island lies abandoned only 500 m from the Mainland, surrounded by treacherous tidal surges that would quickly make you wish you’d worn your sea bands.
Legend has it that it was used as a summer home by the Finfolk, an evil group of magical, shape-shifting mer-people, who called it Hilda-land (Hidden Land). The island was seen as some kind of connection between a parallel world and our own, and once it fully appeared in the human domain, the Finfolk were driven from their home.
You won’t find much evidence of magic there these days, but the name alone alludes to its spiritual history - Eynhallow translates as ‘Eyin Helga’ in Old Norse, which means ‘Holy Isle’. Mentions of the island in the Orkneyinga Saga under the year 1155 point to it having been a site of religious education, which certainly seems possible following more recent discoveries.
Since crofters were driven off the island by disease in the 1850s, archaeologists have uncovered significant evidence of spiritual activity on the island. This includes a 12th century stone church - or perhaps a monastery - as well as ruins of a medieval home, prehistoric burial mounds and even Stone Age walls.
Technically, you can visit Eynhallow these days - but only one day a year as part of an organised tour run by the Orkney Heritage Trust. Folklore hasn’t managed to pass along the full history of the island or its significance, but wandering among what remains while listening to the stories offers plenty of intrigue.
So there you have it - our favourite interesting and eerie spots around the world that wish we could visit! Would you ever sneak into any of these places? Where else would you add to the list? Let us know!