Ray Nayler

From a chess-obsessed town to one popular with retired circus freaks, these places are keeping it weird.

Elista, Russia

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The king is threatened daily in this Russian town because here, it’s all about chess. Play a game on the enormous chessboard painted on the ground in the Town Square or head to Chess City, a domed complex that hosted the 1998 Chess Olympiad. Indeed, some of the world’s finest chess players have paid a visit to Elista, which is the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia. Its other strange claim to fame is being the only Buddhist region in Europe; Elista’s chess complex includes a museum of Buddhist art.

World's Strangest Towns

Elista, Russia

The king is threatened daily in this Russian town because here, it’s all about chess. Play a game on the enormous chessboard painted on the ground in the Town Square or head to Chess City, a domed complex that hosted the 1998 Chess Olympiad. Indeed, some of the world’s finest chess players have paid a visit to Elista, which is the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia. Its other strange claim to fame is being the only Buddhist region in Europe; Elista’s chess complex includes a museum of Buddhist art.

Ray Nayler

World's Strangest Towns

Deep in the California desert exists a strange, lawless town, where folks live without running water, yet create outdoor art installations and host concerts.

Slab City, CA, is unafraid to embrace its quirks, and it’s one of a rare breed of towns that draw travelers for their novelty factor at a time when the world feels increasingly homogeneous, teeming with high-rises and chain stores. After all, we’re not talking about just an offbeat tourist attraction; these places take strange to a whole new level.

Related: The World's Strangest Beaches

Consider Thames Town: the Chinese knack for knockoffs has spawned this full-on replica of an English town in a suburb of Shanghai, complete with cobblestoned streets and red phone booths. Have a pint at the pub, post the photo to Facebook, and your friends will be none the wiser.

In upstate New York, Lily Dale is odd in an entirely different way, attracting an outsize population of mediums and psychics who claim to reconnect with the afterlife. Steven Cantor, who directed the recent HBO documentary No One Dies in Lily Dale, tried to capture the town’s peculiar energy.

“There are dozens of psychic mediums strolling the grounds, doling out messages from the beyond, particularly during regularly scheduled, immensely popular group sessions centered around an old tree stump, which they believe to be a vortex of spiritual energy,” says Cantor. “It’s something you have to see to believe.”

That sentiment applies to each of the strange towns that made our list, perhaps most of all Elista, a Russian town almost as passionate about chess—an enormous board covers much of the town square—as it is about Buddhism.

If you’re inspired to go hunting for the unusual, you may not have to look far. Just outside of Tampa, FL, there’s a town popular with retiring performers who keep circus trailers and elephants on their lawns. Your hometown might even take inspiration from a place in Australia that went to unconventional means to put itself on the tourist map—by covering its buildings in dozens of murals.

While every town has a story, these strange spots have the best punch lines.  

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