Rusting amusement parks. Crumbling asylums. Entire cities with apartment buildings, parks, monuments — and no residents.
The world is full of weird and wonderful abandoned places, from a shopping mall in Bangkok that's home to thousands of koi to a Mexican village half-buried by lava. The melancholy beauty of places like these has made them sought-after destinations for photographers and thrill-seeking travelers. You may have seen evidence of their exploits online and thought, "I have to go there!" And you can — but make sure to follow these rules for exploring abandoned places.
It's tempting to assume that no one will notice or care if you sneak into an abandoned mansion. But chances are good that someone still owns the property, and if you enter without permission, you're trespassing. Take the time to do your homework, find the owner and ask if you can visit. Web Urbanist suggests identifying yourself as a photographer, not an "urban explorer."
When visiting abandoned places, the most obvious hazard is falling through rotten floorboards — but there are often much more sinister, invisible dangers. For example, the toxic ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma, was abandoned in 2006 after mining made the ground unstable and many of the town's children were found to have elevated levels of lead. Perhaps the most famous of all toxic ghost towns is Pripyat, Ukraine, the city left abandoned after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Sightseeing tours of Chernobyl are available and operators promise that visitors won't be there long enough to absorb harmful radiation, but the site is carefully controlled.
Some of the most beautiful ruins you'll ever see are accessible to the public, although they aren't often easy to reach. World Heritage Site Skellig Michael is a rocky island off the coast of Ireland where Christian monks built a community between the sixth and eighth centuries. They lived in beehive-shaped cells of stacked rock that stand to this day. But understand that even visiting public, sanctioned abandoned sites is not risk free. In 2009, two American tourists fell to their deaths on Skellig Michael in separate incidents.
Part of the eerie charm of exploring an abandoned place is the sense that its human occupants have only just left. You may see magazines left on nightstands or children's toys scattered on the floor. Resist the temptation to grab an artifact on your way out. At best, you're diluting the experience for other urban explorers; at worst, you're desecrating a historic site.
Preservation groups often hold the keys to visiting abandoned sites. For instance, New York City's long-closed Old City Hall subway station, built in 1904, can only be toured by Transit Museum members. Or if you're interested in touring abandoned cemeteries, consider joining volunteer efforts to clean and restore them. It goes without saying that you should never, ever try exploring abandoned places alone.
The clock is ticking for some abandoned places, as time, neglect or redevelopment threaten to destroy them forever. One dramatic example is an abandoned movie set: the alien buildings of Mos Espa, the town built in the Tunisian desert by George Lucas for the filming of "The Phantom Menace." A sand dune is slowly moving in to cover the buildings, and tourists flock there to see a little bit of "Star Wars" before it's swallowed.
The beach resort of Varosha, in Cyprus, is a lovely place — or was until 1974, when its residents fled the Turkish invasion. The ghost town has been fenced off and abandoned ever since, and unauthorized visitors run the risk of being shot by military guards. Exploring dangerous abandoned places is just not worth it; enjoy someone else's pictures instead.