All great towns have a life of their own—and that means, sometimes, they die. In many cases, a town that dies simply vanishes from the map. The people move on; the buildings are knocked down to make way for something new. Sometimes, however, the skeleton of a town is left behind—and with it, just maybe, the ghosts of its past glories or tragedies.
In this way, these ghost towns can find a sort of new life as haunting—and possibly haunted—destinations for those who want to step into a past gone by, if only for a little while. Here are 10 of the most fascinating ghost towns around the world, all of which you can visit without having to do any trespassing…
Before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the city of Pripyat had a population of 49,360 people. When the disaster occurred, Pripyat was evacuated within two days. Among the city’s landmarks are an abandoned theme park complete with an unused Ferris wheel that was scheduled to open just hours from the time of the evacuation. Recently, Pripyat was featured in the HBO series Chernobyl—the historical recreations of the town were filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Centralia, Pennsylvania, United States
Many of the ghost towns on this list were abandoned long ago, but Centralia, Pennsylvania—which served as the inspiration for the movie version of Silent Hill—was only condemned by the government in 1992. Even today, a small handful of residents may still eke out a living in the environs of the town, which had a population of more than 1,000 at its peak. What makes Centralia so eerie is the reason it was abandoned in the first place: An underground coal mine fire has been burning continuously since 1962. Even today, visitors to the town are warned of sudden cracks appearing in the empty streets and plumes of toxic smoke.
On June 10, 1944, Nazi troops from the 2nd SS Panzer Division massacred 642 people in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, mostly women and children. The townspeople were locked inside a burning church, and those who tried to escape were gunned down—only one of those residents, Marguerite Rouffanche, managed to escape with her life. A new town was later built alongside the ruins of the old, but the original still stands as a memorial, where the Centre de la mémoire d'Oradour museum tells visitors about the tragic history of the place.
Shi Cheng, China
Called the “Atlantis of the East”, the ghost city of Shi Cheng exists in a place somewhat harder to reach than most of the other towns on this list—40 meters beneath the surface of Qiandao Lake. While the city was purposely flooded in 1959 as part of a project to create the Xin’an River Dam and hydroelectric plant, some of its stone architecture dates back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Forgotten for decades and “rediscovered” in 2001, today the sunken city is a popular spot for visiting divers.
Built on the archipelago of Svalbard, the coal mining town of Pyramiden holds the record for several of the northernmost objects in the world, including the northernmost swimming pool and the northernmost grand piano. After the Soviet realized that coal mines in the area (the town’s raison d'être) were unprofitable, the government-owned mining company moved out of the area. In March 1998, the last of the coal was extracted, and residents left behind their homes. Tourists don’t necessarily have to rough it, however. In 2013, the Tulip Hotel reopened in town expressly to serve those hoping to visit the abandoned city.
Named for James Humberstone, a chemical engineer who emigrated from Britain to Chile in 1875, this town in the Atacamba Desert was once the heart of a saltpeter mining empire. In those days, saltpeter was in such high demand as fertilizer among the industrializing countries of the world that it was called “white gold.” And almost all of the world’s saltpeter came from the Atacamba Desert. Unfortunately for Humberstone, World War I killed the saltpeter industry, and no one has lived or worked in this Chilean ghost town in more than half a century—yet the dry desert air has preserved the old mining town much as it was decades ago. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Virginia City, Montana, United States
Never entirely abandoned, Virginia City is nevertheless a shadow of what it once was. During the Gold Rush, the town was near the site of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver mine in the United States, and boasted a population of around 25,000, including minor celebrities like Calamity Jane and John Bozeman. Today, only a few remain. The lawlessness of the Gold Rush led to a spate of murders and robberies in and around Virginia City in its heyday, but it was the depletion of the mines that ultimately led to the town’s near desolation. Visitors to Virginia City, which is still the seat of Montana’s Madison County, can see a town that remains largely unchanged from how it was more than a hundred years ago.
During the diamond rush of the early 1900s, the area around Kolmanskop was said to be so rich with the precious gems that you could scoop them up from the ground with your bare hands. As German diamond hunters filled the area, the town was built up in the style of a German city. More than a century later, Kolmanskop is a tourist destination that has been nearly reclaimed by the desert. Visitors wade knee-deep in sand to see buildings that have been scoured by the wind and half silted in. Located in a Sperrgebeit, or restricted zone, due to its proximity to still-active diamond mines, Kolmanskop is operated by the Namibia-De Beers joint mining concern, and tourists need a permit to visit the abandoned town.
Abandoned after the Russian Revolution, the village of Pegrema is home to some of the best extant examples of the region’s fine wooden architecture, including a wooden chapel that is almost completely intact. Not exactly accessible except on foot, the desolate village is nonetheless a tourist destination today.
Tombstone, Arizona, United States
Tombstone isn’t exactly a ghost town—at least, not quite—it was saved from that fate partly because it remained the county seat until 1929. Today, this famous Wild West town is a tourist attraction, home to just over a thousand permanent residents who host more than 450,000 visitors each year. Home of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral and one of the West’s most well-known Boothill cemeteries, visitors to Tombstone today can see historical reenactments, visit shops and hotels, and even stop to smell the world’s largest rose bush.