Filmmakers love Craco, Italy. "Passion of the Christ," "Saving Grace" and "Quantum of Solace" were all filmed here. But the ancient southern Italian town, founded around 540 C.E., is not attractive to filmmakers because it features a pristine beach or a bustling city center. No, filmmakers love it because it's a mysterious, rather forlorn, abandoned city [source: Hill].
For centuries, Craco was a prosperous place, featuring a university, four plazas and a monastery. But innumerable natural disasters — namely landslides, flooding and earthquakes — slowly chipped away at the city's structures and residents' fortitude. Unable to compete against Mother Nature, Craco's final 1,800 residents left in 1963 [source: Hill].
Many people don't realize there are a fair number of cities like Cracos around the globe — places that have been abandoned by their citizenry, who often leave all of their possessions behind when they evacuate. Residents flee these places for a variety of reasons, often because of natural disasters, but sometimes because of manmade ones, too. If you choose to visit some of these locales, you'll see dozens or even hundreds of impressive, but lonely, structures that offer hints of their glorious pasts.
Enjoy the creepy fascination of a deserted town? Then check out these 10 spots and start planning your visits.
Flowers bloom and trees stretch skyward, despite the obstacles in their way: crumbling buildings, smashed automobiles and mounds of broken concrete. Here in Beichuan, China, a city in Sichuan province, all of the town's structures and their accoutrements remain in one form or another. But the people are long gone.
In May 2008, Sichuan province was rocked by a powerful 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the region and killed more than 70,000 people. One of the hardest-hit cities was Beichuan. The city's surviving residents were relocated to a town in Yongchang, 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) away. Afterward, Chinese authorities decided to turn all of Beichuan into a memorial for those who perished. The ruined city was left as-is, with the remaining standing buildings stabilized for safety [sources: Taylor, Amusing Planet].
Today tourists can walk throughout the city, which looks pretty much exactly as it did the minute the earth stopped rumbling. In addition to listing buildings, smashed vehicles and innumerable piles of rubble, you'll see the national flag fluttering above the ruins of the Beichuan Middle School and the quake-re-routed Jian River, which flows through a mountain road tunnel and onto a broken bridge, cascading over the fracture and onto the earth below [sources: Taylor, Amusing Planet].
Bodie, California sits 75 miles (121 kilometers) southeast of Lake Tahoe near the California-Nevada border. This gold-mining town, which boomed in the late 1800s, once had 10,000 residents. Bodie was a rough-and-tumble place that supposedly had 65 saloons as well as numerous brothels, opium dens and gambling halls. Fights and shootings were common. The gold in the nearby Bodie Hills eventually became too expensive to extract, so the residents left [source: Bodie].
Today Bodie is a state historic park. Although two major fires devastated many of its structures long ago, about 100 are still standing. The state has elected to keep them in a state of arrested decay, meaning the interiors were left intact and the exteriors supported for safety reasons. You can't go inside the structures, although you can look through windows. Some of the buildings you'll see are a Methodist church (one of only two churches in the town), a barber shop, homes and the Boone Store and Warehouse, which is filled with hundreds of artifacts, such as original Edison lightbulbs and Trojan condoms.
Over at the schoolhouse, it looks as though the students just up and left. Dusty books still top the wooden desks, maps are pulled down for study and the teacher's desk is topped with a yard stick, a hat and a pen. A highlight for visitors is taking a tour of the town's old stamp mill, one of the best-preserved in California. Stamp mills extracted gold from quartz, then turned it into bullion bars [sources: California Department of Parks & Recreation, Bodie].
Centralia was a coal-mining town in 1962 when disaster struck. A coal vein under the town caught fire and began to burn. There was no way to extinguish the underground blaze, which is destined to burn for decades, until all of the coal in the vein — plus all of the coal in the interconnected veins — is depleted. Initially, residents weren't concerned, as the fire was far underground. But after a decade or so, the inferno began negatively affecting their lives [source: Roadside America].
People became ill from breathing in carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, by-products of the fire that began seeping into their homes. A gas station owner had to shutter his business when the burning vein threatened to blow his underground gas tanks. Residents began fleeing the town, and in the mid-1980s, Congress approved $42 million to help Centralians relocate. Soon the vast majority had left. In 1992, the governor declared eminent domain over the remaining homes, and evicted the residents. Some resisted and filed suit against the government; in 2013 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania agreed to let seven people stay until their deaths [sources: Centralia Pa, Roadside America].
Tourists have been visiting the nearly abandoned city for decades, though they are officially discouraged. In the early years, the main danger was the toxic seeping gases. Today the biggest problem is sinkholes, which can form in areas where the timbers supporting the mine have burned away; plus, the ground is softened from the fire's steam and gases. The government has bulldozed most of the compromised structures. However, you can still see a handful of old, abandoned homes; the old cemeteries, which look especially creepy when wisps of smoke from the fire drift through them; the vents that were inserted into the earth to help the gases escape and the striking Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which still holds services [sources: Centralia Pa, Cheney].
Henry Ford is often viewed as a visionary. After all, the automobile manufacturer installed the first moving assembly line, instituted manufacturing principles such as interchangeable parts that were adopted by innumerable other industries, and created model company towns to go along with his famous Model T [source: PBS]. But not all of his moves were wise ones.
In the early 20th century, English and Dutch rubber barons controlled the industry. This didn't suit Ford who needed lots of rubber for his car tires. So in 1927 he decided to create his own source by establishing a plantation and company town in the Amazon, where rubber trees thrived. Soon workers were dispatched down to the new town, dubbed Fordlândia. Despite Ford's many earlier successes, Fordlândia was a flop, largely due to Ford's ego. The locals didn't care for many of his dictums, which included eating American-style food, working during the heat of the day and prohibiting alcohol. Worse, Ford didn't properly research how to create his rubber plantation, and the trees suffered from leaf blight, pests and fungi. After spending $20 million (the equivalent of $200 million today), the project was abandoned [sources: NPR, Bellows].
When you visit Fordlândia today, you can stroll among its ruined American-style bungalows, rotting buildings and vine-covered fire hydrants. Many structures are still impressive in appearance, including the sprawling Princess Isabel school, established in 1931, and the golden-domed Sacred Heart church. The town is marketed as a stop on certain tours of the Amazon and is a six-hour boat ride from the city of Santarem [sources: Coldwell, Bellows].
Humberstone and Santa Laura, Chile
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everyone wanted sodium nitrate, a white, powdery compound used in agricultural fertilizers and explosives. Turned out Chile's Pampa desert contained the world's largest saltpeter deposit. (Note: Chile saltpeter or sodium nitrate should not be confused with ordinary saltpeter, which is potassium nitrate.) Once this was uncovered, more than 200 saltpeter works were quickly constructed in the region, and thousands of workers poured in. The saltpeter works produced great wealth for Chile [sources: Strochlic, UNESCO].
But nothing lasts forever. The mines boomed from about 1870 to 1930, until the less-expensive synthetic sodium nitrate was created. By the late 1950s, the mines and company towns were abandoned. Some families fled, not even taking their clothes or household furnishings [source: Strochlic].
Today, two especially well-preserved sites remain: Humberstone and Santa Laura. Tourists heading to Santa Laura will find industrial buildings and equipment, such as the old administration house, a leaching shed and a saltpeter grinder; the latter two are the only intact ones left in the world. Humberstone is home to the workers' former homes, plus public spaces and communal buildings. In addition, you can see remains of the railway line linking the two towns as well as the old saltpeter works. In 2005, UNESCO placed the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works on its World Heritage Site list for their "exceptional testimony to technological progress and global exchanges which were the cornerstone of the industrial era" [source: UNESCO].
When railway employee Zacherias Lewala found a handful of twinkling stones in southwestern Namibia in 1908, little did he know how his discovery would transform that slice of the country, then called German South-West Africa. The stones were diamonds, and Lewala's discovery caused the city of Kolmanskop to rise from the Namibian sands [source: Kolmanskop].
Kolmanskop was created as a diamond-mining town, and in its heyday was home to 1,300, a mix of Germans and Namibians. The city featured elaborate German-styled homes, a post office, school, bakery, butcher shop and even an ice plant. The story goes that the first two buildings erected, even before the houses, were the pub and the skittle alley. Skittles, a game akin to bowling, was a popular form of recreation among the Germans. During the first six years of mining, an incredible 5 million karats of diamonds were uncovered here. Kolmanskop also became home to the first X-ray machine in the southern hemisphere, as it was used to uncover diamond thefts [source: Kolmanskop].
Eventually, mine production declined, and in 1928 a much-richer diamond vein was discovered 168 miles (270 kilometers) to the south. People began leaving the city, with the last family departing in 1956. Today, Kolmanskop is a melancholy tourist site. Visitors can book a one-hour tour out of neighboring Luderitz, where they'll be able to see the ruins of residents' impressive homes and businesses, plus the restored mine captain's home, butcher shop, gym and skittle alley. You do need a permit to visit [source: Kolmanskop].
The Soufrière Hills volcano has been burbling and belching on the island of Montserrat in the eastern Caribbean ever since its reawakening in 1995. That year, the nearby city of Plymouth — the British-owned island's commercial and governmental hub — was evacuated due to concerns over a major eruption. Good call: In 1997 the much-feared eruption occurred, covering the abandoned city in 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 meters) of ash. Nineteen people perished [sources: Skyscanner , Strochlic].
After the eruption, two-thirds of the island's 12,000 residents left for good, mainly to England. The volcano destroyed much of the country's commerce when Plymouth was buried, as well as most its farmland. Today, Plymouth, often dubbed a modern-day Pompeii, is still uninhabitable. Visitors typically aren't allowed to visit the town on foot, due to the continuing dangerous volcanic activity. But you can take boat tours and see Plymouth from the water. You can also climb Garibaldi Hill to the north for a view of Plymouth, assuming there is no current hazardous alert in place [source: Dark-Tourism].
In the past, tourists could easily spy the tops or upper stories of the town's buildings, partially buried in ash. But as each year passes, more of Plymouth's remains get covered. Still, many people are lured by the sight of the gray, unearthly scene, which could be described as apocalyptic — as well the chance to see a volcano in action [source: Dark-Tourism].
Pripyat was the site of the world's worst nuclear power disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. And strangely, it has also become a tourist attraction, complete with hotels and guided tour companies.
So how did this happen? When Reactor No. 4 exploded in April 1986, the 50,000 Pripyat residents were forced to leave. Clouds of radioactive particles flooded the air during a routine shutdown of the plant, making the city unsafe to live. Today it's still contaminated, although the curious may now visit some of the sites where the radioactivity has fallen to safe levels [source: Skyscanner].
One tour operator runs several trips of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including a 12-hour tour with stops at an abandoned hospital, school and secret military radar station. One of the most popular sites is the city's amusement park, which was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986. Visitors love to snap photos of the park's enormous rusted Ferris wheel, adorned by bright-yellow canopied cars. The tourists are also taken with the old Communist propaganda posters and artifacts, which harken back to the vanished days of the U.S.S.R. [sources: Isalska, Chernobyl Wel].
Before you go, remember that the area is still dangerous, and so plenty of rules govern a visit. Tourists must sign a disclaimer promising not to touch anything or sit on the ground. Before they leave, they get a body scan. If it blares a warning, the person will be "swept" of any radioactive dust before being permitted to leave [source: Isalska].
Although no one is allowed to live in the Exclusion Zone, about 200 people have remained. Some of these folks and others attend services at Pripyat's striking turquoise-and-white St. Elijah Church [source: Isalska].
Situated 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) from the North Pole, Pyramiden is the northernmost abandoned city you can visit. It's tucked on an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. In 1936, the Soviet Union was granted the right to use the city's pyramidal-shaped coal fields (their shape inspired the city's name of Pyramiden). But it wasn't until after World War II that the Soviets began developing a city there, building a hospital, cafeteria, residential halls, swimming pool and even cemeteries for both residents and cats. It was meant to showcase the best of Soviet life and so was better equipped than other places in Russia. At the height of its popularity in the 1980s, more than 1,000 people lived there [source: Nuwer].
But the coal mines weren't profitable. Once the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Pyramiden's days were numbered. Over a six-month period in 1998, the last 300 residents shipped out, leaving plants on the windowsills, dishes in the cafeteria cupboards and linens on the beds [source: Nuwer].
Today several tour companies offer the chance to inspect this northern ghost town and Soviet-era specimen during mid-May to early October, depending on the sea ice. Overnight trips via snowmobile are also available in winter. Those staying overnight have the option of camping or staying either in the renovated Pyramiden Hotel or some repurposed shipping containers. One caution: Polar bears are occasional visitors, too. So one company recommends a guide or a visitor brings a rifle along [source: Terra polaris].
For centuries, Shicheng was a bustling city in China's Zhejiang province, some 224 miles (360 kilometers) southwest of Shanghai. But in 1959, Chinese officials decided a dam and hydroelectric station needed to be built in that locale, so after relocating Shicheng's 300,000 residents, the city was flooded. And forgotten. Then, in 2001, a local tourism official proposed using the ancient city as a means of luring diving clubs. Interest in this "Atlantis of the East" quickly grew, increasing in 2011 when underwater photos of the city were published [sources: Galloway, White].
If you'd like to see Shicheng, tours are available between April and November, although you need to be a diver with deep-water, night and buoyancy experience. (Shicheng lies under roughly 100 feet [30 meters] of water.) Those who meet the criteria are in for a treat. The ancient city, which covers about 62 football fields, features ornate stonework of lions, sneering dragons and phoenixes dating from the Ming to the Qing dynasties (1368-1912). Its city walls, built around the 16th century, sport five entrance gates, not the traditional four. Amazingly, the city is quite well-preserved; wooden staircases and beams are intact, for example, along with intricate drawings. That's thanks to its watery grave, which protects it from the erosive powers of wind, rain and sun [sources: Galloway, White].
HowStuffWorks hikes El Caminito del Rey, a very dangerous hiking path in Spain that was closed to the public for 15 years after several deaths.
Author's Note: 10 Eerie Abandoned Cities You Can Visit
I've never visited an abandoned city, but I've been fascinated with the notion ever since reading the book "The World Without Us," by Alan Weisman. The book goes into depth parsing out what the world would look like if all of the people disappeared. I read about how quickly plants and trees fill in abandoned spaces, sprouting up in the most unlikely spots, such as tiny cracks in concrete walls. And how the seas might dramatically change once no one was fishing them, pumping oil from their beds or chugging across them in boats and ships. It's quite fascinating how quickly the earth moves on without us.
This same thread runs through many of the places in this article. The ash in Plymouth, Monserrat, continues to erase all traces of the former city, as does the sand blowing around Kolmanskop, Namibia. And lush vegetation is slowly, relentlessly, overtaking buildings, vehicles and the like in places like Beichuan and Fordlândia.
More Great Links
- Amusing Planet. "Beichuan, The Preserved Ruins of an Earthquake Destroyed Town." June 15, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2016) http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/06/beichuan-preserved-ruins-of-earthquake.html
- Bellows, Alan. "The Ruins of Fordlândia." Damn Interesting. Jan. 15, 2013. (Aug. 28, 2016) https://www.damninteresting.com/the-ruins-of-fordlandia/
- Bodie. "Bodie State Historic Park — Bodie, California." (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.bodie.com/
- Centralia Pa. "Is Visiting Centralia Pennsylvania Dangerous?" Nov. 18, 2014. (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.centraliapa.org/visiting-centralia-pennsylvania-dangerous/
- Centralia Pa. "Who Made Centralia's Residents Leave?" Oct. 14, 2014. (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.centraliapa.org/who-made-centralias-residents-leave/
- Cheney, Josh. "Visiting Centralia: Pennsylvania's Toxic Ghost Town." Uncovering Pa. (Aug. 31, 2016) http://uncoveringpa.com/visiting-centralia
- Chernobyl Wel. "Retro Chernobyl Tour." (Aug. 30, 2016) http://www.chernobylwel.com/EN/14/1-day-retro-chernobyl-tour/
- Coldwell, Will. "Top 10 ghost towns and modern ruins you can visit." The Guardian. Oct. 27, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2016) https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/oct/27/top-10-ghost-towns-visit-modern-ruins
- California Department of Parks & Recreation. "Bodie State Historic Park." (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509
- Dark-Tourism. "Montserrat." (Aug. 30, 2016) http://www.dark-tourism.com/index.php/montserrat-west-indies#b
- Galloway, Lindsey. "China's Atlantis of the East." BBC. July 24, 2014. (Sept. 1, 2016) http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20140711-chinas-atlantis-of-the-east
- Hill, Bryan. "Craco: The Abandoned Medieval Ghost Town of Italy." Ancient Origins. Aug. 1, 2015. (Sept. 2, 2016) http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/craco-abandoned-medieval-ghost-town-italy-003527
- Isalska, Anita. "It's hot: Chernobyl now a tourist zone." CNN. April 26, 2016. (Aug. 30, 2016) http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/14/travel/chernobyl-tourism/
- Kolmanskop. "Kolmanskop." (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.kolmanskop.net/
- Kolmanskop. "Kolmanskop Facts." (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.kolmanskop.net/Kolmanskop-Facts.html
- Kolmanskop. "Visiting Kolmanskop." (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.kolmanskop.net/Visit-Kolmanskop.html
- NPR. "Fordlandia: The Failure Of Ford's Jungle Utopia." June 6, 2009. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105068620
- Nuwer, Rachel. "A Soviet Ghost Town in the Arctic Circle, Pyramiden Stands Alone." Smithsonian. May 19, 2014. (Aug. 30, 2016) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/soviet-ghost-town-arctic-circle-pyramiden-stands-alone-180951429/?no-ist
- PBS. "Ford installs first moving assembly line 1913." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dt13as.html
- Roadside America. "Centralia Mine Fire." (Aug. 31, 2016) http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2196
- Skyscanner. "10 abandoned cities around the world you can visit." (Aug. 22, 2016) https://www.skyscanner.com/news/10-abandoned-cities-around-world-you-can-visit
- Strochlic, Nina. "10 Abandoned Cities You Wouldn't Want to Visit Alone (Photos)." The Daily Beast. Oct. 30, 2013. (Aug. 22, 2016) http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2013/10/30/10-abandoned-cities-you-wouldn-t-want-to-visit-alone-photos.html
- Taylor, Alan. "Sichuan Earthquake: Five Years Later." The Atlantic. May 13, 2013. (Aug. 30, 2016) http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/05/sichuan-earthquake-five-years-later/100513/
- UNESCO. "Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1178
- White, Alan. "You Can Visit An Ancient Chinese City That's 100ft Underwater." BuzzFeed. Feb. 23, 2014. (Sept. 1, 2016) https://www.buzzfeed.com/alanwhite/theres-an-ancient-chinese-city-100ft-underwater-and-you-can?utm_term=.dvkB33oLW#.se8166mja