1000 Places

Wanderlust and Wonderlust: Atlas Obscura

In this month’s 1,000 Places newsletter, Patricia Schultz dives into Atlas Obscura, available now. 

I have always been the first to admit that my suggested list of 1,000 places was just an appetizer, a glorious sampling of the planet’s wonders. For explorers wondering where to go from here, convinced that there is still so much to be found outside of conventional guidebooks, the new book Atlas Obscura offers a roundup of over 600 places that are at once quirky and inspiring, oddball and fascinating—and sometimes just a little bit frightening. For those of you who feel that 1,000 Places succeeded in scratching the surface, Atlas Obscura widens your horizon even further, with curiosities and marvels it is hard to imagine exist.

Choose from natural wonders, ordinary-looking places with crazy back stories, amazing ruins, outsider art, and extraordinary collections (and yes, a few destinations that can even be found in the pages of my book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die). To get you started, I have almost randomly chosen three categories excerpted from Atlas Obscura  for a taste of some unusual out-of-the-way riches from around the world.

Quirky museums

International Cryptozoology Museum 

© Gay Bumgarner

© Gay Bumgarner


An 8-foot-tall (2.4 m) Sasquatch guards the door of this museum, whose 10,000-item collection includes hair samples of the Abominable Snowman, fecal matter from a yeti, and a life-size mold of a coelacanth, a fish once thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 1938. Owner Loren Coleman, a lifelong cryptic enthusiast, is happy to talk to you about mothmen, chupacabras, tatzelwurms, and his own travels on the bigfoot-hunting trail. Pick up a yeti finger puppet or bigfoot-shaped air freshener in the gift shop.

11 Avon Street, Portland.

Museum of Broken Relationships



When Croatian artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić’s 4-year romance came to an end in 2003, the former couple joked that they would have to set up a museum to display all the objects they had shared. Three years later, they opened the Museum of Broken Relationships.

The institution contains a fascinating gathering of former tokens of affection. Besides the standard teddy bears and letters, the collection also includes a tiny bottle filled with tears, an ax, airsickness bags, and a prosthetic leg. While some of the items are tragic—a woman used the ax to smash her exgirlfriend’s furniture—some are sweet. The airsickness bags are from flights during a long-distance relationship, and the prosthetic leg came from a man who fell in love with his physical therapist.

Ćirilometodska 2, Zagreb. Get the funicular to avoid a steep hill-climb. If you are in the wake of a recently ended relationship, you are welcome to donate an object for exhibition.

Museum of Counterfeit Goods



Knockoff Rolex watches, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, and imitation iPods are found in abundance in the markets of Bangkok—a situation that law firm Tilleke & Gibbins showcases in its Museum of Counterfeit Goods.

After raiding merchants on behalf of clients and seizing their forged goods to use as evidence, the firm ended up with rooms crammed full of counterfeit merchandise. In 1989, Tilleke & Gibbins began displaying 400 fakes in museum exhibits with the goal of educating the public on intellectual property infringement.

The museum’s stash of illegal items now numbers over 4,000. T-shirts, perfumes, jewelry, cell phone batteries, and prescription drugs sit alongside their genuine counterparts, the differences often barely noticeable. Accompanying guides examine the societal impacts of counterfeiting—the operations support child labor, human trafficking, and the drug trade, among other ills. Consumer health and safety are also shown to be at risk, due to forged medications, car parts, and baby food that don’t meet acceptable standards.

One of the more surprising aspects of the museum is the banality of some of its exhibits—apparently there is a market for counterfeit ballpoint pens, toothpaste, and stationery, along with the usual designer-label luxury goods.

Supalai Grand Tower, 26th floor, 1011 Rama 3 Road, Bangkok. Buses from the Khlong Toei MRT station stop right outside. Make an appointment at least 24 hours in advance.

Natural wonders

Firefly Squid of Toyama Bay

Brian J. Skerry/National Geographic

© Brian J. Skerry/National Geographic


The firefly squid is a 3-inch-long (7.6 cm) cephalopod found in the waters surrounding Japan. Its standout feature—a series of photophores that make the squid glow a brilliant blue—is ordinarily concealed by the dark, 1,200-foot-deep (366 m) water it inhabits. But every year, from March to May, millions of firefly squid surface in Toyama to spawn and are swept ashore by the currents of the bowlshaped bay.

This time of year is also prime fishing season. Nets trawl the predawn waters, hauling up piles of squirming, glowing creatures and turning boats into beacons. The beaches are bathed in a blue glow as the adult squid—who have a one-year life span—lay their eggs and prepare to die. The Japanese government regards the annual light show as a “special natural monument.”

While the firefly squid are highly regarded for their magical visual effects, they are also prized for their tasty innards. After basking in the glow of the predawn bioluminescent bay, you can head to a sushi joint and feast on squid served raw, boiled, or turned into tempura.

If you’d like to learn more about the glowing squid before—or instead of—eating them, head to Toyama’s Hotaruika Museum, which bills itself as the only firefly squid museum in the world.

Namerikawa fishing port, Toyama Bay. Sightseeing boats depart from the Namerikawa fishing port around 3 a.m.

Singing Sand Dunes

Dunes in Abu dhabi

© forcdan


When the air is dry and the wind picks up, a haunting moan rumbles across the sand dunes southwest of Doha. The area is one of dozens of places in the world where the sand sings and the dunes boom.

The sound, which can last for minutes and varies from a hum to a roar to a whistle, occurs when loose sand grains on the top layer of a dune cascade down its slope. The exact means by which this creates the noise are unknown, but researchers at Paris Diderot University have found that the size of the grain determines the pitch of the note.

You can amplify the boom by causing an avalanche—try running along the top of a dune or sliding down one on a homemade sled. Thick cardboard and large trays work well.

The dunes are 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Doha, the capital of Qatar. Avoid going if it has rained recently.

Balls Pyramid

Auscape / UIG

© Auscape/UIG


Darkness had fallen. Two scientists were perched 330 feet (100.6 m) above the sea on a shard of an old volcano shaped like a giant jagged dagger. It was in this precarious position that they laid eyes on the best possible surprise: a nest of 24 giant stick insects, each the size of a human hand. David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile embarked on their 2001 trip to Balls Pyramid, a 1,844-foottall (562 m) volcanic remnant off the east coast of Australia, motivated by a shaky belief: that the stick insect, long thought to be extinct, was still alive. The insect, also referred to as a “tree lobster” on account of its unusually large size, once roamed the forests of nearby Lord Howe Island. Following the 1918 introduction of black rats to the island—which escaped from a supply ship that ran aground—the insects disappeared, and by 1930 were considered extinct.

Balls Pyramid, located 12 miles (19.31 km) southeast of Lord Howe, is hardly lush with vegetation—it is almost entirely rock, its near-vertical cliff faces inhospitable to fauna and off-limits to mountain climbers without government permission. But beneath a spindly shrub growing from a crack, there they were: two dozen tree lobsters.

No one could figure out how they got there. Were they carried by birds? Did their eggs float across on the sea? At first, the Australian government couldn’t decide whether they ought to be moved. But in 2003, a team from the National Parks and Wildlife Service scaled the pyramid and collected two pairs of stick insects for breeding in captivity. One pair died shortly after, but the pair dispatched to the Melbourne Zoo—“Adam and Eve”—met with success, producing eggs that became the foundation of the zoo’s now thousands-strong tree lobster population.

373 miles (600.3 km) northeast of Sydney. Flights link Sydney and Lord Howe Island, taking just under 2 hours.

Macabre Locales

The Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology


In 1871, criminologist Cesare Lombroso examined the skull of the autopsied body of Giuseppe Villela, a notorious Italian criminal he had just dissected. Upon discovering a concave section at the back of the head, which he dubbed a “median occipital fossette,” Lombroso was suddenly overtaken by a flash of insight. As he would write many years later: The sight of that fossette suddenly appeared to me like a broad plain beneath an infinite horizon, the nature of the criminal was illuminated, he must have reproduced in our day the traits of primitive man going back as far as the carnivores.

From this moment of clarity came Lombroso’s theory of anthropological criminology, which posited that lawbreakers were born “savage,” physically reminiscent of apes and lower primates. Large protruding jaws; low, sloping foreheads; high cheekbones; flattened or upturned noses; handle-shaped ears; large chins; hawk-like noses; fleshy lips; hard shifty eyes; scanty beard; and baldness were all evidence of the “criminaloid” phenotype.

As part of his studies, Lombroso collected biological and criminological specimens, including hundreds of skulls from soldiers, civilians, natives from “far-off lands,” criminals, and madmen. In 1892, he opened a museum in Turin, displaying the skulls and skeletons of murderers as well as wax models of their heads and the weapons used in their crimes.

Following his death in 1909, the museum added the final cranial item to its collection: Lombroso’s head, carefully preserved and floating in a glass chamber.

Via Pietro Giuria 15, Turin. Get a bus to Via Pietro Giuria.

Sourtoe Cocktail



The story of the Sourtoe begins with Captain Dick. A former cowboy, truck driver, and professional wolf-poisoner, Dick Stevenson was poking around a cabin on the outskirts of town in 1973 when he found a jar. Inside, preserved in alcohol, was a human toe.

Known for his madcap schemes—he boasts of having organized “the first nude beauty contest north of the 60th parallel”—the captain wondered how he could best make use of the toe. Then, after several drinks, it hit him: cocktail garnish.

The Sourtoe, served every night at the Downtown Hotel since 1973, is Stevenson’s enduring creation. Originally it adhered to a strict two-ingredient recipe: champagne plus pickled toe. Over the years, however, the Sourtoe rules have relaxed. Any liquid, alcoholic or otherwise, may now be used, but drinkers must abide by the official chant: “Drink it fast or drink it slow, but the lips have got to touch the toe.” Those who accomplish the wince-inducing task receive a certificate of membership in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.

The same toe is used for every drink—alcohol keeps it sterile—but incidents of accidental swallowing have resulted in a succession of donated toes. The first toe, amputated from a man’s frostbitten foot in the 1920s, went down the throat of an intoxicated miner in 1980. Toe number two, donated when its owner developed an inoperable corn, went missing a short time later. A baseball player swallowed toe number three, another frostbite casualty, in 1983. Five toes have since been donated to the bar, the most recent arriving in a jar with a message: “Don’t wear open-toed sandals while mowing the lawn.”

Sourdough Saloon at the Downtown Hotel, 1026 Second Avenue, Dawson City.

Self-Mummifying Monks of Shugendo

Courtesy of Ken Jeremiah

Courtesy of Ken Jeremiah


The monks of northern Japan who followed Shugendo, an ancient form of esoteric Buddhism, sought to achieve enlightenment through difficult, ritualistic physical and mental challenges. At least two dozen monks successfully enacted an extreme form of self-sacrifice: They brought about their own deaths by slow, excruciating self-mummification.

The entire process took about ten years. During the first of the three stages, the monks spent 1,000 days eating a strict diet of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. (Due to its high water content and heat retention, fat accelerates decomposition.)

In stage two, the monks restricted their diet even further, consuming only bark, roots, and a tea made from the toxic sap of the Urushi tree—a substance more conventionally used to lacquer wood. This caused vomiting, sweating, and excess urination, achieving the goal of bodily desiccation and insuring that any maggots attempting to feed on the post-mortem flesh would be poisoned.

Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb 10 feet (3 m) underground, where he would meditate and recite mantras while sitting in the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was a bamboo air tube and a bell. Each day, he rang the bell to indicate he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.

Hundreds of monks attempted self-mummification; few were successful. A thousand days after the final ringing of the bell, when the tombs were opened, most bodies had decomposed. These monks were resealed in their tombs—respected for their endurance, but not worshipped.

The monk with the most outlandish story is Tetsumonkai, who, according to legend, killed multiple samurai and fell in love with a prostitute before joining the seminary. Newly devoted to a life of self-sacrifice, he castrated himself, hand-delivered his carefully wrapped penis to the lovelorn woman, and cut out his left eye in the hope that it would end the outbreak of ocular disease in Edo. Having decided he needed to leave his body to the world in order to bring salvation to mankind, Tetsumonkai entered his tomb in 1829. His mummy, still in the lotus position, is on display at Churenji temple at Mount Yudono.

From Tokyo, get the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Niigata and switch to an Inaho limited express, getting off at Tsuruoka. This will take about 4 hours. From there, get a Yudono-bound bus to Oami. Churenji and Dainichibo temples are within walking distance.

Excerpted from Atlas Obscura.

9780761169086_3dAbout the Book

It’s time to get off the beaten path. Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 700 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.

Created by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden and the mysterious. Every page expands our sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is. And with its compelling descriptions, hundreds of photographs, surprising charts, maps for every region of the world, it is a book to enter anywhere, and will be as appealing to the armchair traveler as the die-hard adventurer.

Anyone can be a tourist. Atlas Obscura is for the explorer.

Order Atlas Obscura today!

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