Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have been helping travelers travel since, well, forever. Looking for a good-quality affordable pizzeria on that long weekend to Rome? Sorted. And what about scenic walking routes through Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh? There is travel literature and brochures for all the pedestrian exploration you can find the energy for.
But what if you’re specifically seeking all the obscure, hidden gems around the world, places that would lead most people to blurt out “where?!?” at the merest mention? Indeed, there’s nothing worse than thumbing through your trusty travel guide en-route to your destination only to discover that the attraction you’re heading for must be booked at least five days in advance due to the throngs of tourists with the same idea as you.
This is a void Atlas Obscura has been filling since 2009, when Dylan Thuras and Joshua Foer – the 2006 USA memory champion, as it happens – swapped travel tidbits, tapped the wisdom of the crowd, and created an online compendium of weird and wonderful places. Places, more often than not, you or I likely have never heard of.
Here’s their story.
‘Hungary’ for travel
Foer and Thuras first met while working on a non-travel-related project together in 2007, but it was a trip that Thuras was to make later that year that planted the seed for what would become Atlas Obscura.
“I was headed off to go live in Budapest for a year, and I started talking to Josh about going exploring when I was there,” explains Thuras. “I mean, we both had this passion for unusual travel, and I had taken a lot of road-trips to strange and unusual places as a kid growing up in the Midwest. But one of the things we both realized, was that out of all the (travel) books that were decent, many of them were out-of-print, or weren’t all that comprehensive or lacked the ‘right angle’ on the world’s hidden wonders.”
So they started talking about how cool it would be to pull something comprehensive together – an ‘atlas’ of the world. Out in Hungary, Thuras started working on the seed content, they enlisted a developer to work on a site, and Thuras and his wife traveled across Eastern Europe in search of hidden treasures.
After returning to the US in 2008, Thuras and Foer continued to work on the content-base for the eventual launch the following year. “It started as a passion project,” says Thuras. “We knew that if we wanted to find these amazing places and hidden wonders, the best way was to ask everyone, and make it a user-generated, crowdsourced project.”
Indeed, the way they saw it, the only way they were going to discover all those amazing, crazy places at the end of dirt-tracks in New Zealand or Cambodia, was from people that lived there or had visited there.
So Atlas Obscura was born in 2009 with a few hundred articles at launch, designed to “set the tone” of the site and, basically, ensure it wasn’t a ghost-ship.
Today, Atlas Obscura is a completely full-time gig, with around ten staff who mostly work from an office in Brooklyn. There’s a small editorial team who manage the user-submitted content and freelancer-based feature articles - ”Everything that comes in from users goes through an editor’s hands before it gets published,” says Thuras – as well as a developer and people dedicated to working on an upcoming Atlas Obscura book, which is due for publication in 2015.
(Obscure) content is king
Now, ‘Places’ is where the user-generated facet of Atlas Obscura resides. These are all the little gems from around the world that aren’t the Golden Gate Bridge, Leaning Tower of Pisa or Great Barrier Reef. Instead, what you’ll find here are bone chapels, remote radio telescopes used in the Apollo 11 moon mission, and underground urban tunnels.
Any submission is assessed and edited by the good folks at Atlas Obscura. And if you come across an existing Place that you know well, you can edit the article – much like Wikipedia. However, any amendments must also be approved before they’re pushed live to the public.
In terms of starting off a new Places entry, you simply give it a name, drag the marker on the map to the location, give directions, enter your description – this could be a single paragraph or a fully-fledged article – and add photos.
Articles are a slightly different beast. They’re typically more in-depth, serving up context and relevant background information, and can cover anything from war-era Albanian bunkers, to broader essential guides to lost cities.
One of my favorite recent articles was abandoned water slides from around the world, a piece that highlights the role imagery plays across the whole Atlas Obscura site.
photograph by diebmx/Flickr user
Given the user-centric community facet of the site, events are also playing an increasingly bigger role in Atlas Obscura’s broader raison d’être, with New York, San Francicso and LA hosting around 4-6 Atlas Obscura gatherings a month.
“The greatest joy is hearing back from someone who says, ‘I used your website to find this really amazing place’,” explains Thuras. “So we try and make that a part of what we do, taking people into strange and unusual places, and exploring.”
These gatherings aren’t your typical shared-interest meetups, which often happen in pubs and coffee shops. These ones happen in-situ, with each city’s ‘point person’ facilitating the trip – they’re essentially forums for people to not only meet like-minded explorers, but also discover new places at the same time.
Tickets are sold at the site of the meet-ups, with each gathering attracting anywhere between 30 and 150 people.
Atlas Obscura has yet to go down the native apps route, but it does have a pretty impressive mobile website. It’s fast, responsive and ultimately feels like a native app in many ways, though it lacks a decent menu-based navigation system.
However, it does have a very neat ‘What’s Near Me Right Now?’ option, which basically taps all the hidden wonders in your immediate vicinity.
You can filter this down even further by entering keywords based on your current location.
Looking to the future, there are plans in place for native mobile apps some time in 2014, and it is the type of publication that would work well as an iPad magazine specifically.
As a native app it would also make it easier to enable offline access to content, integrate with Google Maps and other third-party apps, and cement partnerships with tour operators. Essentially, it would help open things up to the more active travel community.
Also, while the existing mobile website does serve up personalized content based on location, imagine the opportunities presented by push notifications, which could automatically ping when you pass by a hidden World War 2 air-raid shelter?
While he no doubt gets asked this questions all the time, I asked Thuras what his top hidden wonders from the Atlas Obscura vaults were. A difficult question no doubt, but here are a couple of his picks. He split them into two broad categories – far-flung exotic places, and then those closer to home.
The Skeleton Lake of Roopkund, India
“In 1942 a British forest guard in Roopkund, India made an alarming discovery. Some 16,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons. That summer, the ice melting revealed even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lake’s edges. Something horrible had happened here.”
The Skeleton Lake is a fascinating story, one that baffled scientists for decades. How did all these people die? Well, it transpires that they date all the way back to 850 AD, and they were all battered to death by baseball-sized hailstones. More than a millennium later, the skeletons remain for anyone to see.
Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, Brooklyn
“Unbeknownst to the thousands of people who walk and drive along the busy streets of downtown Brooklyn every day, they are treading on a 165-year-old secret. At 17 feet high, 21 feet wide and 1,611 feet long, it is a big secret indeed, and one filled with greed, murder, and corruption.
The tunnel, built in 1844 by Cornelius Vanderbilt, was an attempt to avoid incidents of trains striking errant Brooklynites. It was to be the first underground, or “grade-separated,” transportation system: the world’s very first subway.”
The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel only lasted about six years after it was built, then it was closed and forgotten from around 1850 all the way through to 1980, when a guy called Bob Diamond unearthed it by studying some old microfiche in the library. He actually offered tours of the tunnel for a while, accessed via a manhole in the middle of what is a very busy thoroughfare, but these have since stopped.
If you’re bored of the usual travel guides and are struggling for inspiration on where to go for your next adventure, Atlas Obscura is a great starting point. You don’t even have to travel to the ends of the Earth – you can search by keywords and location, to find places in your own city, country or continent.
We’re told that the teams will shortly be launching location-specific landing pages, so that you can navigate to a very precise city or country, and peruse articles and places according to that region.
“We want to keep growing the database, and make it more functional as a utility for people,” says Thuras. “We also want to grow our events, and start holding regular events in other cities. There’s also the possibility of some kind of Obscura Society, and creating a big network of people, tour operators, organizations, museums and so on.”
In effect, this could mean that you could drop in to the Natural History Museum, whip out your Obscura Society badge, and someone will take you into the backrooms to show you the surplus specimens. This is all just an idea at the moment, but it’s an interesting possibility for sure, one that could open up access to a myriad of hidden wonders on your doorstep.
With around 750,000 unique visitors a month, Thuras has one eye on hitting the magic-million milestone, which shouldn’t be too far off. Indeed, it recently partnered with the Washington Post Company-owned Slate magazine, which sees them produce fresh content for the publication rather than syndicating its own existing pieces, and should go some way towards helping Atlas Obscura gain more mindshare among intrepid travelers.
Atlantic Avenue Tunnel – Wikimedia Commons