Urban curiosities: the weird and wonderful hidden gems to seek out on your travels

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Amy Swales

In every part of the world, there are hidden gems and points of interest that can be easily missed by guide books and travel companies – unless you know where to look.

The incredible, the unique and the downright bizarre are documented in Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, with entries including a temple of insects, an art museum dedicated to human hair, the UK bridge where dogs commit suicide, and chapters devoted to abandoned spots, strange architecture, mummies and bones and “very large things”, among many, many others.

In celebration of the weird and the wonderful, we picked out seven urban curiosities you might not know about. From secret city railways to explosive churches to eggs you probably don’t want to pack in your lunchbox, here are seven of the world’s most curious city wonders.

Extracted from Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras & Ella Morton (Workman). Copyright © 2016

Main image: Moonspenders

  • Easter Rocket Wars, Greece

    Since the 19th century, a pair of rival parishes on the Greek island of Chios have celebrated Easter, not with bunnies or eggs, but by launching thousands of flaming projectiles at each other’s churches while congregants quietly observe Mass inside. The origin of this Orthodox yet unorthodox tradition is uncertain, but likely began as an act of defiance against Ottoman occupiers during the 19th century.

    Image: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

  • The Fremont Troll, US

    In a freeway underpass beneath Aurora Bridge, Seattle, is a giant cement troll clutching a Voltswagen Beetle. His left eye is a silver hubcap. The 18-foot-tall concrete monster has lived under the bridge since 1990, when the Fremont Arts Council held a public art competition to enhance the underpass. Visitors are encouraged to climb on him, but modifying the troll’s looks is frowned upon. (This doesn’t stop people painting his lips and giving him tattoos, though.)

    Image: Moonspenders

  • Tongzi Dan, China

    Every spring, the streets of Dongyang fill up with vendors selling a popular seasonal product known as tongzi dan. Also called ‘boy eggs’, the traditional delicacy is made by collecting the urine of boys under 10 and using it to hard-boil them. After boiling, the eggs are removed, their shells cracked, and are placed back into the simmering urine to soak up the robust flavour. Tongzi dan have been street fare in Dongyang for hundreds of years; the smell of steaming urine heralds the arrival of spring. Residents attest to the appetising taste and medicinal properties of the eggs, believing they increase blood flow and lower internal temperature. Acquiring the urine is simple: local schools line their hallways with plastic buckets.

    Image: ChinaFotoPress

  • The Petite Ceinture, France

    The ‘little belt’ railway ringing central Paris served urban travellers from 1862 to 1934, connecting five main stations. The 20th-century expansion of the city and the Paris Metro eventually made the circular railway obsolete. Stretches of the track now exhibit a quirky blend of idyllic nature and gritty urban life – plants and flowers grow between the rails against a backdrop of vivid graffiti and street art. Bridges, tunnels and the original tracks remain mostly untouched.

    Image: Atlas Obscura

  • Witches Market, Bolivia

    Dozens of vendors line the street, selling folk remedies, dried reptiles and llama foetuses that are said to bring prosperity and good luck. ‘Witches’ wander through the market offering fortune-telling services, spiritual advice and traditional medicine cures. If you’d like a glimpse of your future, look for the people wearing dark hats…

    Image: Atlas Obscura

  • Lyon's Secret Alleyways, France

    In the 19th century, traboules – secret indoor alleys and staircases that run through buildings, connecting one street to another – provided safe and efficient passage for traders as they made their way to the silk market. There are as many as 400 traboules in town, but only a few are open to the public.

    Image: Imagebroker

  • Central-Mid-Levels Escalators, Hong Kong

    Residents of Hong Kong’s affluent, elevated Mid-Levels commute to the city’s main business district in a unique way: instead of hopping on a train, tram or bus, they spend 20 minutes riding a series of hillside escalators. Built in 1993 to ease road traffic, the escalators comprise the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system. A total of 20 escalators, plus three moving walkways, cover 2,600 ft, with a vertical climb of 443 ft. Around 55,000 people use it each day; from 6am to 10am, they all run downhill, from 10.30am to midnight they run up.

    Image: Simon Grosset


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.

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