Open up your Instagram feed, and you probably don’t have to scroll too far before you see a friend posing in front of a cool building somewhere far, far away.
It’s the mark of a successful trip - you map out the most aesthetic spots before you go, and line up your visit juuuust right, so you can get the shot to share with the world.
More and more often, we’re compelled to hunt down these kinds of unique architecture when we’re travelling, but we don’t often stop to think why it’s actually been built like that - we just snap our picture and move on.
Well, it turns out, there are some pretty interesting stories behind these quirky homes and buildings. From intense weather patterns to an obsession with world records, I’ve picked out 6 of the most unusual that are worth visiting for more than just a photo.
Living underground in Coober Pedy
On a family road trip through the notoriously harsh Australian desert, we came across the mining town of Coober Pedy. Only, I didn’t see many shops or houses along the road.
Instead, I saw pipes of all shapes and sizes coming out of the ground. As it turns out, these were air vents for the houses under the ground. Yep, over half of the town’s 3500 people live in subterranean caves to dodge the extreme heat (and cold) of the desert. And it’s…kind of genius?
It all started with abandoned opal mine shafts - they were an easy place for people looking to make their fortune mining to set up their home in to shield themselves from the desert heat. Over the years, thousands of people built their homes, known as ‘dug outs’ into the hard rock underground.
When you visit, you’ll be greeted by a whole world below the surface - from the local bookstore to a church, and several underground hotels.
It’s a feeling I’ll never forget - stepping into the dark passageway of a shop, cut out of rock, and immediately feeling the cool air from underground. Once your eyes adjust, you’d be surprised with how normal it feels to be below the surface - all underground buildings have electricity and water, so it’s not like you’re missing out on much (apart from, well, sunlight).
When I stayed in Coober Pedy, we actually set up a tent in an underground campsite. And, in comparison to the pitch-black vastness of the desert, it definitely felt a lot safer to be surrounded by stone!
This isn’t the only place in the world where you can find life below the surface - Cappadocia in central Turkey was home to an ancient civilization who built their cities underground, and you can still visit the ruins today.
The white-stepped roofs of Bermuda
If you live in Bermuda, the roof of your house will probably look like a mini white Chichen Itza temple.
These funky roofs are iconic across the territory, but they’re not there for looks. They’re actually a really clever solution to one big problem - no fresh water.
Luckily, in comparison to other Caribbean islands, Bermuda tends to get a constant amount of rain throughout the year. So, how do they collect it? Well, that’s where the roofs come in.
The small steps act to slow down the water as it hits the roof, allowing it to be collected in gutters and flow through to underground tanks. Each house has one of these tanks, which is then the main source of water for the people living inside it. And they’re painted white because the sun’s rays reflect on the white paint, acting to purify the surface and cool down the house at the same time. It’s a pretty perfect solution.
When you think about it, it’s incredible that this simple design has meant that the people in Bermuda have lived there for hundreds of years without access to fresh water. It’s literally kept the population alive.
Well, what about the tourists? Unsurprisingly, we don’t put the same value on water as the locals, so hotels tend to use desalination plants to keep up with increased demand. But it doesn’t stop you from walking around Hamilton and checking out all the colourful houses with white roofs. And, if you’re stuck in a rain shower, you’ll be able to see the magic in real-time.
Ashgabat's obsession with marble
Turkmenistan’s former President liked breaking world records. And, over his time in power, he ticked off quite a few - highlights from the very long list include the largest enclosed ferris wheel, most fountain pools in a public place and the longest bike parade.
One of his lasting legacies, though, was his obsession with smashing the world record for the largest number of white marble buildings - 543 and counting.
OK, this entry is one you’re probably not going to be able to visit - the country isn’t called ‘the new North Korea’ for nothing. I’ve only really included it because of the bonkers idea that you’d actually build a whole city in marble, because…what?
But, if you do somehow find yourself in downtown Ashgabat, you’d likely be alone. Another cheery nickname is ‘the City of the Dead’ - alluding to the fact that there are very few locals around to actually use these opulent public spaces.
Unfortunately, behind those closed-off borders, there has been years of community displacement, destroyed infrastructure and human rights abuses. It’s no surprise that the average Turkmenistan citizen lives in a boxy, Soviet-style apartment - a far cry from the marble palaces that surround them.
Greenland's colour-coded houses
On a visit to Greenland, your first thought (after getting over just how freezing cold it is) may be something like “how cute, the locals paint their houses all different colours to cheer themselves up during the winters!”.
Well, not exactly. It turns out, colour-coding houses and shops was the easiest way for the illiterate population to tell the difference between the general store, the hospital and the fishmongers back in the day. Each type of building had a different colour - churches and shops were red, the police lived in black houses, and so on.
Now, locals can read each building's signs, so there’s really no need for the town to stay multi-coloured. Despite that, houses are re-painted their traditional colours and new buildings are allowed to have a similar paint job.
It does, of course, have the added effect of a picture-perfect winter postcard, which is definitely one reason to brave the icy temperatures!
Masuleh - where roofs become roads
Musuleh in regional Iran is unique for one really cool reason - the building’s roofs double as main roads.
It’s an ancient town built into the hillside, which means real estate is in short supply. Without having the space to cut roads into the side of the hill, they took the flat space of the roofs and joined them together, so people can get around easily.
When I say roads, I mean pedestrian walkways, because this is a strict no-car zone - for obvious reasons. The main streets are linked by a complex system of stairways and alleyways, alongside larger community plazas and places to gather.
It’s not only the unique photo-op, misty mountain views and rolling green hills that encourage tourists to come to visit - it’s also the traditional Persian food on offer, like lima bean stew (baghali ghatogh), and its proximity to a few of breathtaking waterfalls in the region. I think that's worth the 5-hour drive from Tehran, don't you?
People in Newfoundland hate their mothers-in-law
Whether you find yourself in Newfoundland for an iceberg tour, whale watching, or just to get out into all of those incredible natural landscapes, when you pass through a town or city, you’ll probably start to notice that the front doors of houses hover waaaay above ground level.
And, there aren’t any stairs leading up to the entrance - it’s literally a door to nowhere.
Colloquially, they’re known as ‘mother-in-law doors’. The story goes that they’re for pushing your unwanted mother-in-law out of the house, knowing she won’t be able to get back in through the door.
As much as that’s a relatable feeling for many, the truth of why they’re actually there is likely more practical than that - but not something anyone can actually agree on.
Theories range from skirting building taxes by leaving it unfinished, to complying with a 1940s safety regulation where houses needed to have 2 exits. Others say it’s because, during huge snowfalls, it’s handy to have a higher entrance that you can use with makeshift stairs made out of the ice.
I still like the idea that it’s to get rid of unwanted relatives - and so does the internet.
Assam's houses are next level
People living in the north-eastern region of Assam in India are no stranger to natural disasters. From monsoons to earthquakes, their houses have to deal with a lot to stay standing.
After one particularly bad flood in 2017, many Assam residents have gone back to traditional building methods - namely, chang gahar. These houses are on stilts, metres in the air, made from locally-sourced bamboo and thatched roofs.
Homes on stilts can be spotted all over the world, including the kelongs in the Philippines, palafitos in South America, and some houses in Thailand. The thing is that many of these are actually built on lakes and rivers, so the houses need to be built high above the waterline.
Chang gahar aren’t - they’re built on land. That just happens to be in a valley that floods multiple times throughout the year. It turns out, when your annual rainfall is over 3 metres, it pays to be as high in the air as possible.
Unless you’re a tea fanatic, one of the reasons you might travel to the region is the very river that causes the flooding - the Brahmaputra. It’s the 9th longest in the world, and is a nature-lover’s paradise, with river dolphins, one-horned rhinos and elephants just a boat-ride away.
Those picture-perfect homes in Greece
The last (definitely not least) entry on our list is arguably one of the most Instagrammable spots in the world - the whitewashed buildings of the Greek Islands.
You know the ones - all those white, glittering buildings on the hills of the Cyclades, their deep blue roofs mimicking the colour of the sea below. It’s all very romantic and summery - but why are they like that?
Well, it turns out the reason for all the white is 2-fold - to both reflect the harsh Greek sun/keep the buildings as cool as possible (for those playing at home, you’ll remember that white roofs do the same thing), and to prevent cholera.
Yeah, kind of a random fact, but in the 1930s, the white ‘paint’ people used on their houses was actually whitewash - a mix of lime and water, which happens to have antibacterial properties. So it became customary to use this solution to ward off diseases.
Fast forward 30 years and a military dictatorship then forced islanders to maintain the white and blue appearance for more patriotic reasons.
Now, it’s thanks to tourists like you and me (and our social media) that the locals keep up this iconic aesthetic. We travel to the pretty hilltop houses to flood our Instagram stories with happy snaps, and, in turn, that's the reason the owners of the same pretty hilltop houses continue to paint them.
And, with that - we’ve come full circle. While you may be busily planning your next trip to Australia or Newfoundland to see some of this unusual architecture for yourself (and I don't blame you!), I hope the next time you spot a quirky building, you'll take a minute to think about why it might be like that before snapping your picture. Because, as you now know, there's probably a little more to the story hiding just under the surface...