The 10 best spots in the world for the urban explorer (#urbex)
Have you ever wanted to ignore a no-entry sign, climb over a fence, or find your way through a no-entry hallway when no one is looking? Have you ever been intrigued by what hides under a manhole or behind a locked door in a museum or metro station?
Travelers are naturally sticky noses, and the idea of “alternative” tours is always tempting. Few of us, however, would take the risk of climbing a sewer, a tall roof, or an abandoned factory.
Then there are those who are at the extreme limit of the tourist spectrum for whom urban exploration (urbex for insiders) is irresistible. Urbex focuses on abandoned, hidden and forbidden urban structures that can range from disused hospitals and amusement parks to rail tunnels and sewage systems still in use.
Urbex may see you fined, jailed, injured, or even killed, but its practitioners say the risks are worth it for the adrenaline rush, the bragging, or just the chance to see places few people know.
Urbex was inspired by canyoning and caving; it is sometimes called urban speleology or urban speleology. It really started around the turn of the millennium when it was featured on cable TV channels. The use of social media, selfies and GoPros by urban explorers quickly increased its notoriety. Instagram hashtag #urbex now has nearly 10 million jobs.
At the same time, new urbex playgrounds are emerging: abandoned Soviet factories and military installations, then declining American cities such as Detroit, which ended up with abandoned industrial factories, churches, schools and even entire neighborhoods.
The main urbex cities include New York, Paris, London, Rome, Brussels and Odessa in Ukraine, which has 2,500 kilometers of interconnected catacombs, tunnels and anti-aircraft bunkers beneath its mostly off-limits streets.
Many urban explorers are content with DERPs (abandoned and ruined places), but bunkerologists and drainers specialize in military bunkers and storm drains. At the extreme are rooftopers, skywalkers (who perch on cranes, chimneys, etc.) and “builders”, who climb the exterior of buildings. The most famous is the title “French Spider-Man” Alain Robert.
Needless to say, none of these activities are advisable, but if you want to get a feel for the dystopian world of urbex, there are ways to get a glimpse into the surrender, the doomed, and the underground without getting lost in the illegal and the dangerous. Here are the 10 best places for the careful urban explorer.
Chernobyl city, Ukraine
Pripyat, Chernobyl Photo: Alamy
You can’t get more from DERP than an entire city. Chernobyl became infamous in 1986 when an accident at its nuclear power plant released radioactive waste, forcing it to be completely removed. Despite the continuous radiation hot spots, you can reach a Chernobyl tour which does not only pass inside the exclusion zone of the strange ghost town, but is within 100 meters of the contaminated reactor. Schools, homes and abandoned factories are other attractions. In the nearby town of Pripyat, which once had 50,000 residents, an abandoned public swimming pool, playground and Ferris wheel have become iconic reminders of its former life.
Seattle underground, United States
Following a devastating fire in 1889, parts of downtown Seattle were simply built on top of the ruins, leaving behind an extraordinary city buried with storefronts, walls, and untouched pathways beneath Pioneer Square. , like a Pompeii of the last days. Only a small part is legally open to explorers, which you can visit on Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Irreverent tales of questionable plumbing, exploding toilets, and 19th-century opium dens give it a humorous side that doesn’t entirely distract from the melancholy setting. For more entertainment, take the Paranormal Tour or the Adults-Only Tour that focuses on the sizzling stories of the abandoned red light district.
The sewers of Paris, France
Sewer-Sewer Museum Photo: Alamy
The vast array of underground sewers and other tunnels beneath Paris are infamous destinations for urbex adventurers looking for an illegal thrill. Corn Sewer Museum (Sewer Museum) will allow a legitimate glimpse under the sidewalks when it reopens this year after renovations. A guided tour takes you through historic sewage, drinking water, and telecommunications tunnels, where elevated walkways protect you from the sewage below, if not the smell. It’s a revealing look at Paris below some of its most famous streets, and surely the only museum in the world entered through a maintenance door. For more underground Paris, consult the Catacombs.
Hashima Island, Japan
Cathedral of Mechelen, Belgium
Saint-Rombaut cathedral Photo: Alamy
The towers of the cathedral are a must-see in old European towns, but in the picturesque town of Mechelen you are allowed to climb the architectural skeleton of Saint-Rombaut Tower, where you will find yourself among huge sleepers, organ pipes and the remains of wooden wheels that in medieval times carried building materials here. In no time you can see pigeons and hawks from high windows. When the chime begins to ring, it makes the tower vibrate; the largest bell weighs nearly nine tons. You can also get a close look at the mechanism that operates the tower clock. An outdoor platform at the top offers a 30-kilometer view over Flanders.
Philadelphia Penitentiary, United States
Al Capone’s “luxury” cell. Photo: Alamy
Eastern State Penitentiary was once America’s most famous prison and the country’s most expensive building when it was built in 1829. It looks like a giant Gothic castle, was closed in 1971, and is now a National Historic Landmark. While many old prisons are now open to the public, this one has undergone minimal touch-ups, leaving it with a very urban feel thanks to the peeling paint, crumbling archways and abundant rust. You are free to walk there yourself with an audio guide and enjoy the feeling of decay. Don’t miss the oddly serene and monastic cell of famous gangster Al Capone. Twilight tours have even more atmosphere.
Leper colony of Spinalonga, Greece
The small island of Spinalonga off the northeastern coast of Crete subverts all the usual stereotypes of the Greek islands, despite the glistening peacock seas. It was used to isolate (and almost abandon) Greek lepers between 1904 and 1957. You can inspect ruined lepers, a school, an incinerator used to burn clothes, and an abandoned cemetery, all locked away in the remains of Venice. 16th century. watchtowers and bastions pierced with dark tunnels. You might be tempted to try out your parkour skills through crumbling walls and fortifications on a hill dotted with fig trees and wildflowers.
Othello railway tunnels, Canada
Coquihalla Canyon. Photo: Alamy
Track running on railroad tracks is one of the most dangerous types of urban exploration, but disused railroad tracks reused for recreation allow us to run without risk to limbs and life. An early 20th century railway line through British Columbia Coquihalla Canyon is a spectacular example, since the engineering is as spectacular as the landscape. The crossings have been replaced with a cycle and walking path that climbs up the canyon via a series of tunnels and bridges over the turbulent water. The tunnels have no lights, and as you stumble through their dark middle sections, you might get a feel for the illicit track racing experience – minus the oncoming trains.
Catacombs of Naples, Italy
Fontanelle cemetery Photo: Alamy
Layer upon layer has been added to Naples since ancient Greece, and the result is the architectural treasure of the early Christian maze. Catacombs of Naples. The Catacombs of San Gennaro feature a 4th-century basilica carved out of soft stones, while San Gaudioso has centuries of tombs, mosaics, and frescoes from which the faces of the dead gaze out. For another macabre thrill, direction Fontanelle cemetery inside the caves on the outskirts of town. The skulls of plague victims were piled up here in the 17th century and now look sadly at visitors. Two mummified corpses in glass coffins are strangely fascinating and surprisingly moving.
Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
Wieliczka, Poland. Photo: Alamy
Not far from Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine has 300 kilometers of galleries and 3,000 rooms on nine levels – more than enough to get an urban explorer’s adrenaline pumping. You’d better, however, stick to the three levels and well-defined trails open to the public – don’t worry about missing out on the adrenaline rush, as a wooden staircase of 378 steps will have your heart racing. The salt mine began in the 13th century and was enlarged until it closed in 2007. Among the most striking sites are several glittering chapels carved out of the salt and a salt lake. You will have to climb 800 steps in all, unless you use the elevator, which will not give you any credibility in the Urbex street.
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