Considering the staggering rates of global expansion and technology development, it’s impossible to imagine that there is even a sliver of this planet that remains undiscovered or unexplored. So there’s a certain comfort in knowing that, even today, there are mysteries that remain unexplored.
From man-made, guarded structures to natural enigmas protected by environmental science, a slew of spots across the globe are entirely forbidden to outside travellers. Picture islands teeming with vipers, extraterrestrial secrets, locked mysteries of religion, virgin wildlife and entire societies that have never made contact with the outside world.
Many of these locations are still shrouded in intrigue, with their goings-on staying behind closed doors. Other locations are better understood, though still off-limits due to a variety of safety, scientific or governmental regulations.
While the allure of the taboo and forbidden is undeniable, you’d be hard-pressed to swindle your way into these forbidden places — and in many cases, you probably wouldn’t want to. Still, in a world full of places you can discover, it’s intriguing to consider the places you can’t.
Snake island , Brazil
About 93 miles off the coast of Sao Paulo, Brazil is Ilha da Queimada Granda, also known as Snake Island. To what does it owe this title? Researchers estimate there are between one and five snakes here per 10 square feet. The snakes, specifically golden lanceheads, are known for their poison, which literally disintegrates flesh around their bites.
So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that you’re not allowed to visit Snake Island…
Lascaux Caves, France
In the quest to discover the history of the human race, there is one spectacular place that provides enormous insight. The Lascaux Caves in southwestern France are home to a series of stunning Paleolithic paintings, estimated to be up to 20,000 years old. The paintings, which plaster the walls of the cave, are hauntingly vivid, depicting stags, cattle, bison, cats and more. But the most incredible of all the paintings can be found in the Hall of the Bulls, which is known for its four bull murals, one of which is 17 feet long.
Sadly, the caves have been banned to the public since the 1960s, as they have been invaded by fungi and black mold, both detrimental to human health. Plus, human presence is considered destructive to the works of art.
Fortunately, though, you can experience the next best thing: Last year, a museum and cave replica right next to the real deal opened to the public.
Area 51, United States
A conspiracy theorist’s playground, Area 51 has stumped the public for decades. The hidden military base in the Nevada desert has kept its purpose a secret for quite some time, though many like to believe it’s kept for alien testing.
One thing is for sure — attempting to access the forbidden area would be highly irresponsible, as the grounds are protected by mines and other defenses.
North Sentinel Island, India
On North Sentinel Island, a small island in the Andaman chain in the Bay of Bengal, natives have long been opposed to the influences of the modern world. In fact, the Sentinelese people who live on the island refuse communication with any outsiders, and are willing to get violent to protect their isolation. Following the 2004 tsunami, when the Indian Coast Guard flew a reconnaissance mission over the island, men reportedly emerged from the forests to shoot arrows at the helicopter, which did not land.
The Sentinelese have lived on the island for some 60,000 years, and with the protection of the Indian government — which prohibits visitors of any kind — it has successfully resisted anthropologists, authorities and tourists.
Bohemian Grove, United States
Talk about a boys’ club. This 2,700-acre campground in Monte Rio, Calif., is the ultimate playground for men. Each July, the Grove hosts a two-week bacchanalian blowout for VIPs around the world. Past and present members include U.S. presidents, government members, business leaders, artists and musicians. The event comes with a saying, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” which means there is to be no business wheeling-and-dealing while on the grounds. Most infamously, there are rumors that Bohemian Grove hosted a Manhattan Project planning meeting in 1942 which resulted in the atomic bomb, though this cannot be proven.
Membership is highly exclusive. Translation: You won’t be accepted. (Assuming you’d even want to be.) And the goings-on are highly top secret.
Ise Grand Shrine, Japan
Japan has shrine culture down pat. There is estimated to be upwards of 80,000 shrines in the island nation. But none is more important than the Ise Grand Shrine, an intricate temple that happens to be one of the most expensive in the country due to the detail of its architecture.
The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years (at a million-dollar price tag), in order to symbolize the Shinto tradition of death and renewal of nature. The current iteration was build in 2013. And unless you’re a member of the Japanese imperial family, there’s no chance you’ll be entering the hallowed halls of this ancient, significant representation of Japanese culture.
Heard Island, Australia
There’s the ends of the earth, and then there’s Heard Island. One of the most remote islands in the world, Heard Island technically belongs to Australia but can be found somewhere between Madagascar and Antarctica.
The island is known for its two active volcanoes, but for the most part it’s thoroughly blanketed in ice. Inhabitants include seals, birds and four types of penguins. Humans, however, are not permitted to visit, though landings to the nearby McDonald Islands are allowed solely for “compelling scientific reasons.”
Twisted doesn’t begin to describe the history of Poveglia Island, a small island between Venice and Lido in Northern Italy. For centuries the small island has been prime real estate for, well, dumping of the dead. The island became a quarantine colony in the 14th century for victims of the Bubonic Plague. In the 19th century, Poveglia became an asylum for the area’s mentally ill, where it was rumored that a cruel doctor performed experiments on the patients.
Today the island is abandoned, save for the ghosts of the tortured souls that once lived there. Tourists and locals are banned from visiting, unless you want to undergo a lengthy paperwork process. But as this is considered the most haunted place in Italy, that’s likely for the best.
Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City
The secrets of religion are some of the most heavily guarded in the world…and none more so than the Vatican Archives. Centuries of secrets remain a mystery within the vaults of the Vatican, from state papers to accounting to letters. Speculation on what lies beneath include evidence of demons, extraterrestrials and even the Church’s alleged contribution to the fascism of the mid-20th century.
Today only the highest qualified scholars and educators are allowed in the vault, and only after stringent review. Those looking to simply take a peek will sadly never know what sits between these storied pages.
Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China
The Terra-Cotta Warriors at Xi’an is one of the most important discoveries of all time. Thousands of unique, one-of-a-kind lifelike statues depicting ancient Chinese warriors filled underground caverns of the burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But while the site is one of China’s most prominent tourist attractions, the tomb itself still remains a guarded mystery.
The tomb will likely remain sealed for the foreseeable future, as it is rumored that there are booby traps protecting it from invaders. There is also a high concentration of mercury within the tomb that would be deadly to anyone who entered without the proper precautions. The only glimpse we have into this treasure are the 2,000 warriors that are exposed to the public. Still, it is said another 6,000 remain within the tomb, along with a myriad of other treasures.
Surtsey Island, Iceland
When ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off your bucket list, Surtsey Island is one that might have to go unchecked. This volcanic island lies about 20 miles off the coast of Iceland, and has existed as a natural laboratory since its inception in the 1960s. Scientists have explored the island as a microcosm of natural development, gathering information on plant and animal life, tracking the arrival of seeds, and monitoring the appearance of molds, bacteria and fungi.
Today the island is home to a variety of species of lichen, fungi and birds, as well as 335 species of invertebrates. But in order to minimize human disruption, only a select few vetted scientists are allowed on the island to behold its natural wonder.
North Brother Island, United States
Tragically beautiful North Brother Island is one of the many mysteries of New York City. Located on the East River between the Bronx and Riker’s Island, this abandoned island used to be the home of Riverside Hospital in the 19th century, where patients suffering from diseases like tuberculosis, yellow fever and small pox were quarantined. Later the hospital was used after World War II to house veterans, and then as a treatment facility for heroin addicts. In the early 1960s the hospital closed its doors, and it has since been left to crumble by the forces of nature.
Today, the island is closed to the public, as it serves as a nesting colony for black-crowned night herons.
Exclusive communities are one thing; in Russia there exists an entire town that is closed to the public.
Mezhgorye sits in the Ural Mountains, about 120 miles from Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Founded in 1979, this small town is said to be home to a nuclear missile site. Though unconfirmed, it is believed that the site contains automatic missiles that can be activated remotely. The town is guarded by two battalions that prevent any outsider from visiting. The only information we have on Mezhgorye is taken from satellite images, and The Kremlin claims that the site is used for mining, an emergency bunker for Russian leaders and a vault for the nation’s treasures.
The world may never know, and if it is a nuclear site, let’s hope we don’t have the opportunity to find out.
The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
One of the holiest sites in the world is, without a doubt, the Temple Mount. The holiest site for Jewish believers, this temple dates back to the first century BC. It is also the third holiest site for Sunni Muslims after Mecca and Medina. But within the Temple Mount is an even more holy and exclusive site — The Dome of the Rock.
This gold-topped Islamic shrine is iconic in the city of Jerusalem. There are already stringent rules in place for visits to the Temple Mount, but the Dome of the Rock’s entry is reserved strictly for those who practice Islam. Non-Muslims are not permitted within the holy walls.
Niihau, United States
Hawaiian island-hopping is a beloved pastime for travelers. But if you think you’ve hit all of the islands, think again.
One mysterious island, Niihau, is nicknamed “The Forbidden Island,” and that is not an exaggeration. Even its visibility remains elusive, as the only way to catch a glimpse of it is as the sun sets over Kauai’s Kekaha Beach, when its silhouette emerges. The island has been owned by a single family for more than 150 years, and has been kept off limits to the outside world.
The only people who can enjoy the island’s splendor are its residents, all of whom are descendants of those who lived there before the island was purchased in the 1860s.
The Queen’s Bedroom, U.K
Buckingham Palace is one of the top attractions in not only the U.K., but the world. The palace is the Queen’s official London residence, and has been the home of Britain’s monarchy since 1837. But while there are public tours available of many of the rooms and grounds of the palace, one room remains strictly forbidden: The Queen’s Bedroom, where her Majesty often stays.
That is, of course, unless your name is Michael Fagan, who was able to break into the Queen’s Bedroom in the 1980s in one of the greatest security breaches of all time. The act involved him scaling a 20-foot wall and hoisting himself up a drainpipe — all so he could win a bet with some friends.
Coca-Cola Recipe Vault, United States
Forget finding Jimmy Hoffa or who killed JFK. The real great American secret can be found in a can of Coca-Cola. The legendary mystery formula is secured under lock and key in apurpose-built vault in Atlanta. The map to the world-famous elixir is kept in a metal box inside a 6.6-foot-high step vault, which is in turn protected by a barrier. The area has surveillance with armed guards, and the door can only be opened via keypad with hand scanner.
Getting your hands on the Declaration of Independence might be easier than finding out what makes Coke taste so good.
U.N. Buffer Zone, Cyprus
In 1974, Turkish troops invaded Cyprus, escalating a civil war between the split Greek and Turkish residents. The U.N. took control of a “Buffer Zone” in the capital, Nicosia, after the fighting ended in a ceasefire.
This historic no-man’s land is surrounded by walls separating the Turkish community from the Greek community. Inside the walls are abandoned homes, businesses and a small airport that, as The Atlantic put it, have remained “frozen in time” for decades.
Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Ethiopia
Though some scholars are dubious, this church is allegedly the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, also known as the ornate chest that houses the Ten Commandments. And there is only one person allowed to view the Ark: a special guardian monk anointed by a predecessor.
The church dates back to the 4th century AD, and the grounds also include the remains of Tekle Giyorgis I, former Emperor of Ethiopia.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
Located on the remote island of Spitsbergen, this subterranean seed storage facility was carefully built 400 feet into a mountainside. The complex houses approximately 840,000 samples of 4,000 different species of seeds from all over the world. The bank operates like a safety deposit box, allowing governments to leave seed samples for safekeeping in the event of a major global or regional event that would wipe out major food supplies.
Only official “depositers” are allowed inside what is ominously described as “the final back up.”
Moscow Metro-2, Russia
A world of secret tunnels and phantom trains sounds like something out of Harry Potter — unless, of course, you’ve heard of the Moscow Metro-2.
In preparation for a nuclear catastrophe, the KGB built a secret metro system that mirrored the public Moscow metro, except that it’s larger and buried about 600 feet underground. Four lines connect government buildings like the Kremlin with the Federal Security Service headquarters, the government airport and several other important locations.
Next time you see a manhole in Moscow, you might want to give it a second thought.
Fort Knox, United States
“Harder to get into than Fort Knox” is a saying for a reason. Impossible to get into, this Kentucky military base has served many purposes throughout history, but today it is known as the safeguard for America’s gold.
The fort has been opened once for news media and Congress in 1974, and never again since. Obstacles you’d have to overcome to get your hands on America’s gold include minefields, barbed wire, electric fences, armed guards and cameras. Oh, and all of the army units based there have Apache helicopters ready for the “Go” signal.
Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, Ukraine
Thirty years ago, disaster struck nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl, sending radioactive clouds billowing into the air. Evacuations began immediately, but as the extent of the damage became clear, Soviet military officials declared an Exclusion Zone within a roughly 18-mile radius of the plant, turning the city into a veritable ghost town. Today much of the Zone still remains completely off limits.
Tourists can get special permission to go, but it’s near impossible to do so. With a radiation level that is still highly dangerous, it might be a better use of time to scratch other destinations off your bucket list anyways.