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.
There is no dying allowed in this remote Arctic town—well, you can die, but you can’t be buried here. You heard that right: no body has been buried in the local cemetery in almost a hundred years. Why? The perpetually frigid temperatures prohibit corpses from properly decomposing. Following the influenza epidemic of 1917, Longyearbyen banned burials in the town’s graveyard. The local polar bear population rivals the human one, and it’s not abnormal for the townspeople to shoot a bear in self-defense (hunting is illegal). Even after a polar bear takes its last breath in this mining town, it must also be sent away for its final resting spot.
Everyone in town knows the name Elsie Eiler, and it’s not just because she’s the mayor—she’s the sole resident. The population had been diminishing since the 1930s, when this northern Nebraskan town had 150 residents, and by 2000, it was down to one couple: Elsie and her husband, Rudy, who has since passed away. Now in her mid-70s, Eiler serves beer at the Monowi Tavern (with an official liquor license) and turned her late husband’s collection of 5,000 books into a one-room public library.
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.
For decades Gibsonton (a.k.a. Showtown) was the spot where carnival and circus folks spent the winter and where many chose to retire. The statue of a giant boot pays tribute to a past resident, Al Tomaini, a circus giant with size 27 shoes. For stories of more colorful local characters, stop by Showtown Bar and Grill. Still catering to the circus community, the town allows folks to leave circus trailers and elephants on the lawn. Just a short drive from Tampa, Gibsonton is also home to the International Independent Showmen’s Association, which runs the Museum of the American Carnival.
Thames Town, China
The Chinese reputation for knockoffs and enthusiasm for European products has spawned this full-on replica of an English town in a suburb of Shanghai, complete with cobblestoned streets and red phone booths. You can have a pint at the pub and a snack at the local chip shop and—rather less authentically—pose by statues of James Bond and Harry Potter. The faux-English backdrop is popular with couples taking wedding photos.
Lily Dale, NY
If watching Long Island Medium is your guilty pleasure, you must visit Lily Dale, a town of noted psychics in upstate New York. The town hosts lectures and was also the focus of a HBO documentary. Make an appointment with one of the many mediums in the town or attend a service at the Healing Temple. Either way, you will find yourself connecting with spiritual forces in this unique village of enlightened folks. Many find themselves drawn to meditate at the town’s Forest Temple. (Note that Lily Dale is a gated community; registered medium services are available year round, but most events are held exclusively in summer, when there is a gate fee of $5–10 per person; lilydaleassembly.com.)
Slab City, CA
There are no laws in this California town on the site of an old World War II Marine barracks in the desert near the Salton Sea. You know you’ve arrived when you see Salvation Mountain, a large installation by artist Leonard Knight. While there’s no running water, the town does have an open-air nightclub called the Range, run by a resident and with performances by local musicians on Saturday nights. The town attracts a mixed crowd of snowbird RV owners and folks really trying to live off the grid.
With street names like potato, bean, and pea (Herne, pictured), Supilinn naturally inspired the nickname of Soup Town. It’s actually an outlying neighborhood of the town of Tartu, and one that looks frozen in time. Its low-slung wooden homes look much as they did when it was a 19th-century slum.
A fire started at a mine in this town on May 27, 1962, and more than 50 years later, it’s still famously burning. Most of the residents were relocated in the 1980s after a young boy fell into a sinkhole in his yard, but a few stuck around and refuse to leave. Tourists gawk at the ghost town—it doesn’t have a zip code anymore—even as 10 people continue to call it home (as of the 2011 census).
Following the maxim that if you build it, they will come, in the 1980s, locals formed a tourism association and launched a campaign to paint murals (a strategy that had helped revitalize the Canadian town Chemainus). There are now more than 60 murals that depict historic scenes, as well as art studios open to the public and, as of 2003, an International Mural Festival. About 200,000 people annually visit Tasmania’s self-proclaimed “outdoor art gallery”—with a population of less than 1,000. sheffieldmurals.com
Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain
This small Spanish town along the Rio Trejo in Cadiz has a split personality: many residents in the lower half continue to live in cavelike structures built into a gorge. Large rock formations jut out over some streets, providing welcome shade during sultry summer months, and cafés make use of locally cultivated chorizo, almonds, and olives.
A UFO allegedly crashed in Roswell in the summer of 1947, altering this town forever. Now Roswell is alien obsessed, and even the local McDonald’s is shaped like a flying saucer. UFO tourism has attracted folks to this small New Mexico town, where visitors frequent UFO-themed shops like the Alien Zone and turn up for the annual summer UFO Festival. (The cult TV show Roswell provided an added boost.) Skeptics and believers alike will find much to think about at the International UFO Museum and Research Center (roswellufomuseum.com).
This small hillside village in the South of France is rife with conspiracy theories, most notably that the Holy Grail is hidden here. In the 1800s, priest Bérenger Saunière made lavish renovations to the local Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, and many questioned his source of funding, believing that he didn’t fund the renovations by simply selling masses and donations. It was rumored that Saunière unearthed documents in the church’s altar. Legend claims that these coded documents led him to hidden treasure, which he used to finance the renovations. Saunière was also the inspiration for the character in Dan Brown’s best seller The Da Vinci Code.