Atlas Obscura


A website charts out all that is weird and wonderful in the world.

By Steve Korver

Attention, jaded travellers who are convinced that everything exotic has long become familiar to them. The website Atlas Obscura — “a compendium of this age’s wonders, curiosities, and esoterica” — should get you all worked up enough to hit the road again. Their Canadian listings alone should give you a taste of what’s in store: the Diefenbunker nuclear shelter in Ontario, the Gopher Hole Museum in Alberta, and the Downtown Hotel that serves Sourtoe Cocktails (a combination of champagne and an amputated toe) in the Yukon.  

When it was launched last summer, the website seemed to tap into something that was still missing from the internet and went immediately viral and contributors lined up to donate their own desperately odd destination — ones that have not yet been co-opted by package tours or beer ads.

Atlas Obscura’s mission statement is a noble one: it’s the place to look for: “miniature cities, glass flowers, books bound in human skin, gigantic flaming holes in the ground, phallological museums, bone churches, balancing pagodas, or homes built entirely out of paper.” And who isn’t looking?

Two 26 year-olds, the film-maker Dylan Thuras and the science journalist Joshua Foer, came together after discovering a shared passion for the desperately obscure. They met three years ago organising a society meeting for Athanasius Kircher, the 17th century Jesuit scholar and “last renaissance man” who is listed as the inventor of both the “vomiting statue” and the “cat piano”.

But their taste for the wondrous began much earlier: with travels across that most obscure and wondrous of countries: their very own US of A. Dylan Thuras recalls: “I was twelve and my parents took me on a family vacation around the mid-west which is filled with all kinds of bizarre places: Wall Drug, the South Dakota Badlands, and the most amazing and unbelievable was ‘The House on The Rock’. It was like entering a fantastical universe someone else constructed for you.” And indeed, its Atlas Obscura write-up does make it sound enticing. It’s a sprawling construction in Wisconsin that houses a collection of automated orchestras and a 200-foot model of a sperm whale.

Joshua Foer’s coming of age came later: “I was 19 and I bought a beat-up minivan and spent two months driving around the country. At the time, I’m not sure I could have told you why I was doing it, except that I was curious to know what the rest of America was like. I spent a lot of time trying to find wondrous and curious places. It was a life-changing experience.”

Both quickly realised that was no single, great resource for travellers like themselves. Until they realised the power of the Internet and user-generated sites. But while all are welcome to contribute, the listings are edited and fact checked. “We love these places and want to respect and honour them,” says Thuras.

So yes, it turns out that our Earth is still, as Thuras describes it, “a very big and very weird and interesting place, and there are plenty of things left to be discovered by the traveller.” Isn’t that wonderfully reassuring?


The editors of Atlas Obscura Editors give their top wacky destination tips — as of September 2009 (since “our favourites are always changing”).

 Dylan Thuras:
1. “The Root Bridges of Cherrapungee in India take at least ten to fifteen years to build. Locals guide tree roots over a river and have them take root on the other side. Some of these living bridges are over a hundred feet long and strong enough to support fifty people. There’s even a double-decker one.”

2. “The Gates of Hell is a 328-foot wide hole in the desert that has been on fire for thirty-eight years after a Soviet drilling rig accidentally drilled into a massive underground natural gas cavern, causing the ground to collapse and poisonous fumes to be released. To head off a potential environmental catastrophe, they set it on fire.”

3. “The Relampago del Catatumbo is a near-constant lightning storm over a river in Venezuela. For almost half the nights of the year, for ten hours at a time, there’s almost constant lightning. Weirdly, it is silent because all the electrical activity happens way up in the air. It’s just insanely cool.”

Joshua Foer:
1. “The other day someone posted an absolutely frightening place that I have no interest in ever visiting: Snake Island off the coast of Sao Paulo, Brazil that is filled with venomous pit vipers: one snake per square meter. Try to picture that…”

2. “The Tempest Prognosticator (a.k.a. the ‘Leech Barometer’) is an ingenious weather-prediction device that debuted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Leeches get really worked up before a storm, so if you attach bells to them you’ve got yourself a pretty good barometer. A full-scale working model can be viewed at the Barometer World Museum in Devon, England.”

3. “I long to visit New Zealand to see the Electrum, the world’s largest Tesla coil, in action. It stands four stories tall and zaps out three million volts. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Facebook Twitter Tumblr Email

Tags: ,

Posted in Uncategorized 10 years, 9 months ago at 11:23 am.

1 comment

Previous Post:   Next Post:

One Reply

  1. Thanks so much Steve for the fantastic write up!

    I bet there are some great things in Amsterdam that have yet to be added. Any suggestions?

    Thanks again,


Leave a Reply