Admiring the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel? Check. Taking a selfie in Angkor Wat? Been there, done that. Petting baby tortoises in the Galapagos Islands? Definitely on the bucket list.
The world seems to have become smaller than ever for avid globetrotters. Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel blasé about the wonders we’ve seen. Perhaps this is one reason for the increasing popularity of the anti-tourist attraction — the shut-down subway station, the functional sewage tunnel, the crumbling factory, or the eyesores of concrete tower blocks. Around here, a new guided tour called “Ugly Munich” recently attracted a great deal of attention.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an urban explorer or a fan of brutalist architecture, you may still enjoy the aesthetics of abandoned places. The forgotten histories of their inhabitants, the slow process of decay, and the gradual return of nature make for a fascinating mixture. In case you are looking for inspiration for your next vacation — admiring the midnight sun in Greenland is so 2015 — here’s an array of deserted destinations around the world, as well as the stories of their rise and fall.
The Hotel: Monte Palace (Azores)
There are probably few scenic lookouts that provide a more breath-taking vista than the mountains overlooking the twin calderas of Sete Cidades and the serene, blue-green waters of their volcanic lakes. In 1980s, when tourism on the Azores was largely in its infancy, some overeager investors wanted to cash in on this priceless view located on the main island of São Miguel.
The Monte Palace luxury hotel was supposed to provide a five-star accommodation with 88 rooms, two restaurants, a bar, and a nightclub right on a mountaintop. Depending on whom you ask, that valiant attempt last fewer than twelve months, or maybe two years at most.
Today, tourists aren’t drawn to the “palace” by the promise of a king-size bed or a complimentary fruit basket, but rather by the ruined building itself. After vandals had done their damage and looters made off with whatever they could, there’s no longer a security service to keep out visitors. Though the curious do enter at their own risk, they flock here for an unusual kind of Instagram snapshot or, indeed, the marvelous views from the rooftop.
The Theme Park: Spreepark Berlin
Abandoned theme parks have their own special vibe. What should remind us of family outings and harmless fun suddenly takes on a sinister aura, dredging up long-forgotten fears rather than happy childhood memories. There are plenty of such places around the world — from the plastic Matterhorn ride at Nara Dreamland (Japan) to the signature dragon aquarium of Ho Thuy Tien (Vietnam) to the rusted Ferris wheel at Prypiat Amusement Park (Ukraine), which has become emblematic of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Seven years after its closure, the Spreepark Berlin — established in 1969 as the only theme park in East Germany — returned to an unexpected afterlife: from 2009 to 2014, it was possible to join guided tours on the abandoned lot, which also served as a popular backdrop for shooting music videos, police procedurals, or Hollywood action thrillers.
Unfortunately, a fire on the premises killed off the park a second time, but when it comes to the perfect “fairy-tale turned spooky nightmare” ambience, the Spreepark remains unsurpassed. And there might still be a “happily ever after” ending as the tours have just been resurrected this summer.
The Town: Kolmanskop (Namibia)
The ghost town of Kolmanskop, Namibia, is inextricably linked to the German colonialism in Southwest Africa. A German foreman overseeing the construction works for a railway line asked the laborers to look out for precious stones — and the crew promptly stumbled upon a diamond deposit.
This discovery resulted in a short-lived mining boom in the middle of nowhere: though only ten kilometers separate the settlement from the Atlantic Coast, the region has an extremely arid climate. The average rainfall amounts to less than two centimeters a year. But that wasn’t enough to deter businessmen and adventurers.
Before long, they’d erected the replica of a tiny German town: the bosses resided in lavish villas; their (white) staff lived in modest dwellings, and the (black) miners, mostly local Aawambo people, were relegated to barracks on the outskirts. The “get-rich-quick” heyday of diamond mining didn’t last long. The deposits were depleted in the 1930s, and the lack of gemstones quickly revealed the absurdity of keeping iceboxes and running a bowling alley in the Namib desert.
Today, Kolmanskop is an open-air museum, where you can literally watch the sands of time at work. What about the foreman who started it all? His house was built on sand rather than diamonds, figuratively speaking. First, he became a millionaire — before losing most of his newly acquired fortune in the Great Depression.
The Ship: Homebush Bay (Australia)
This picturesque sight of a rusted ship hull metamorphosing into a floating forest looks like the perfect illustration of nature vanquishing technology. The former steam collier SS Ayrfield lies stranded in Homebush Bay, on the banks of Sydney’s Paramatta River.
The area used to be a center of heavy industry in New South Wales, but when the sector went into decline, the river bay more or less became a waste dump for ship-wrecking operations (hence the abandoned vessel) and toxic chemicals. Even today, you shouldn’t go fishing in Homebush Bay, and there are plenty more wholesome places to go for a swim.
But the lush vegetation sprouting on the carcass of the steam collier also reminds us of successful renaturalization efforts around the bay. Though the waters are still contaminated by pollutants, most of the dioxin, at least, has been cleared up, and around the bay, salt water wetlands have been recovering thanks to natural heritage sites.
While you are in the neighborhood, don’t miss out on the opportunity to pop over to Sydney’s Bicentennial Park to explore their mangrove boardwalk or join a bird-watching tour!
The Station: City Hall NYC
Just like former amusement parks, closed subway stations — aka “ghost stations” — are a perennial favorite among urban explorers and fans of abandoned places.
The oft-cited term “ghost station” is a literal translation of the German term Geisterbahnhof: it was originally coined to refer to several spots in Berlin’s public transport network where the trains from the Western part of the city would just pass through without stopping and which passengers from East Berlin were forbidden from entering.
By now, the sinister-sounding phrase has to come to include all kinds of disused underground stations. My favorite is Kymlinge in Stockholm, by the way, a ghost station said to be literally haunted by a phantom train. However, Down Street on the London Tube — repurposed to serve as a bunker during the Blitz — or City Hall in New York City will probably prove less elusive than spectral subways. City Hall is particularly famous for its unique architecture, with a curved platform, vaulted ceilings, art déco chandeliers, and stained glass skylights.
Both ghost stations have become visitor attractions for those interested in urban history and the hidden nooks and crannies of a megacity. If you are planning to travel or move to NYC or London, just check out the London Transport Museum or the New York Transit Museum. Thanks to their guided tours, trainspotters and history geeks can haunt the best-known ghost stations.
The hefty prices for this peculiar pleasure (50 USD and 75 GBP, respectively) don’t seem to deter the real enthusiasts. When I tried to join a Hidden London underground tour in May, but hesitated slightly because of the expense, it was sold out within one or two days.
Have you ever visited any abandoned places? What are your favorites?
(Image credits: 1) Abandoned Dairy Factory (4) by flickr user Jan Bommes 2) Stairs in the Monte Palace Hotel by Wikimedia Commons user Stefan 3345 3) Abandoned Amusement Park (11) by flickr user Jan Bommes 4) Kolmanskop Sand by Damien du Toit from Cape Town, South Africa 5) Homebush Bay Shipwreck at Dawn by flickr user Brent Pearson 6) NYC City Hall Subway Station 1 by flickr user Joe Wolf)