SHIELDED FROM PRYING EYES
Humans are a naturally curious lot, and nothing is more frustrating than stumbling across an intriguing spot that's off limits to all (or all but a select few). Far from your average tourist traps, these places may even be steeped in local lore, but they often bar tourists for safety, security, or environmental reasons. Intrigued? We thought so. Here are 20 spots you'll have to admire from afar — if you're even allowed that close.
NORTH BROTHER ISLAND
It's hard to believe anything is out of reach for New York City's relentless crowds, but North Brother Island in the East River is as intriguing as it is off limits. The island quarantined patients with dangerous illnesses starting in the 1880s, including "Typhoid Mary." Later, it became a soldiers' hospital and a drug treatment facility, but fell into disrepair beginning in the 1960s. Today it's a bird sanctuary that attracts herons, gulls, egrets, and other birds who come to nest in solitude.
Uluru, a massive sandstone formation in the Australian outback also known as Ayers Rock, isn't off limits yet — but the clock is ticking. Would-be adventurers have one more year to scale the rock, which will be closed to climbers in October 2019. Uluru's cultural importance is the main reason for the closure, as the climb has long been seen as disrespectful to indigenous peoples to whom the rock is sacred. Safety is another reason: Since the 1950s, at least three dozen people have died during the hot, steep climb.
VAROSHA BEACH RESORT
A ghost town born from a conflict that divides Cyprus to this day, Varosha was the thriving heart of a resort city of nearly 40,000. However, residents and visitors fled in July of 1974, when Turkish forces invaded the island. They seized control of Varosha and blocked it off, barring all non-military personnel. Today, the resort remains a closed-off ghost town, and Cyprus remains partitioned by a United Nations buffer zone that separates Turkish control in the north and Greek control in the south.
CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF ZION
This humble Orthodox Christian church in northern Ethiopia's sacred city of Aksum is guarded by monks who are not allowed to step outside the church gate — or allow anyone to enter — as long as they live. What lies within, at least supposedly, is the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie: The Ark of the Covenant. The monks rarely speak to any visitors, and only reveal a replica of the Ark for a sunrise procession each month.
Around the turn of the 18th century, this tiny island in the Venetian lagoon served a simple purpose: It was a place for plague victims to come to die. Later, Napoleon used the island to store weapons, and in the 1920s, a mental hospital opened its doors for about 40 years. Local lore has it that one of the doctors butchered patients mercilessly before dying in a fall from the hospital's bell tower. While we're not sure why anyone would want to visit given its gruesome history, the island and its ruins remain closed to visitors.
SOUFRIERE HILLS EXCLUSION ZONE
One side of Montserrat, a Caribbean island in the West Indies, is lush and green. The other side? Well, it's brown and gray, covered in a thick layer of mud and ash thanks to the Soufriere Hills volcano. Eruptions began in 1995 and eventually destroyed the capital city of Plymouth. Residents fled, and officials were forced to declare the island's south side uninhabitable and off limits to anyone without special permission.
Zone Rouge — that's "red zone" for those of us who flunked high-school French — covers 42,000 acres in northeastern France. It's been left untouched since World War I, when the area saw extremely heavy fighting that left shells and munitions littering the countryside. The French government decided it would be too difficult to rid the area of explosives, instead moving residents out and closing the area to any further activities.
ILHA DE QUEIMADA GRANDE
Brazil's Ilha de Queimada Grande is the stuff of horror movies. About 90 miles off the coast of densely populated Sao Paulo, "Snake Island" ishome to as many as 4,000 deadly golden lancehead vipers. The snakes' venom can kill a person in under an hour by causing kidney failure and brain hemorrhaging, among other frightening conditions. Needless to say, the government has made the island off limits to most visitors, and even scientists have to come with a doctor.
Also known by its codename, "City 40," the Russian city of Ozersk in the Ural Mountains didn't appear on maps for decades. That's because it was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear program, built as a secret home for scientists and workers devoted to churning out atomic bombs. Sadly, many of its citizens died thanks to improper disposal of radioactive waste and incidents such as the 1957 explosion of a storage tank at the main nuclear complex. Still, the city and nuclear plant are active to this day, and the city remains closed to foreigners and even other non-resident Russians.
There's a reason "Fort Knox" has worked its way into the lexicon as shorthand for any super-secure place. This depository for precious metal bullion houses about half of the U.S. Treasury's stored gold — that's 5,000 tons of glimmering gold bars — and is protected by a specially selected squad of United States Mint Police. Fort Knox even housed the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights during World War II, and no single person knows all the procedures it takes to open the vault.
This volcanic island off Iceland's southern coast is definitely a newbie by geological standards, having erupted out of the ocean in the mid-1960s. The windswept, isolated speck has remained almost entirely free of human interference as scientists study how plant and animal life takes hold on newly created land. Because of that, tourists won't be getting a glimpse of this virgin landscape anytime soon.
OLD CITY OF SANA'A
The Old City of Sana'a, inhabited for more than 2,500 years, is a stunning example of early Islamic architecture. Ancient tower houses, public baths, mosque turrets are all the more scenic because of their setting in a high mountain valley. Though visits aren't restricted by the Yemeni government, the city remains firmly out of reach for most tourists because of persistent terror attacks, civil unrest, disease, and famine. The U.S. Embassy in Sana'a suspended operations in 2015, and the State Department warns against all travel in Yemen.
Discovered by teens in 1940, Lascaux Cave contains stunning examples of prehistoric paintings and engravings made some 20,000 years ago. After World War II, tourists flooded the cave, but access was cut off in the '60s because experts were afraid the artwork was starting to deteriorate. Sadly, visitors have been barred ever since. All is not lost, though, as the French government has spent $64 million on a replica cave, with the paintings painstakingly copied over three years.
No list of fascinating but forbidden places would be complete without Area 51. For years, conspiracy theorists have insisted the desert military installation has housed everything from captured aliens to a set for the filming of a phony moon landing. The truth may be less exotic, as the military acknowledged in a declassified report that it had been testing experimental aircraft at the site. Whatever is actually there, Area 51 remains very much in use, and very well guarded by cameras, motion sensors, and guards who are authorized to use deadly force.
SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED VAULT
Locked away on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is a hedge against doomsday scenarios as diverse as global warming or nuclear war. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, housed in an abandoned Arctic mine, holds close to 900,000 seed samples from around the globe intended to help governments jumpstart crucial crops in case of catastrophe. Though tourists can explore the exterior of the vault, they aren't allowed inside.
It seems crazy that an entire island in the tourist mecca of Hawaii is off limits to most visitors, but it's true. Niihau, Hawaii's seventh-largest and westernmost island, is known as "The Forbidden Island" not for any insidious reason, but because it's been in the hands of a single family since the 1860s. The owners allowed native Niihauans to stay, but otherwise restricted access. Today, there is one small settlement with a single school, but no roads, cars, or internet access.
TOMB OF QIN SHI HUANG
Efforts to build the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, spanned nearly four decades and required hundreds of thousands of workers. The result was indeed elaborate, and experts say there are numerous rare treasures, Chinese rivers simulated using mercury, and even traps rigged to fire arrows at anyone who approaches. Archaeologists have dug up a massive army of terracotta warriors at the site, but for reasons of safety and logistics, the tomb itself remains sealed to both experts and visitors.
NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE
The trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange may be a little calmer than pop culture has led us to believe, but good luck confirming that. While you can snap a photo outside the grand Wall Street façade of the NYSE, you're no longer welcome to catch a glimpse of the action inside unless you've been specially invited. Though the NYSE offered public tours for decades since its opening in 1939, they were halted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sadly, there are no plans to resume them, either.
ISE GRAND SHRINE
Rebuilt every 20 years in accordance with Shinto tradition, one of the religion's most sacred spots is actually two shrines (one outer, one inner) that draws visitors from across the country and the world. However, while the outer shrine is accessible to tourists, the inner shrine is strictly off limits unless you happen to be a senior Shinto priest — or a member of the Japanese imperial family. You'll even be prohibited from looking at it, as the view is blocked by a curtain.
VATICAN SECRET ARCHIVES
Highlights like the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms make the Vatican Museums one of the most popular sights in all of Rome. One fascinating thing that isn't on the tour? The Vatican Secret Archives. Housing a staggering 12 centuries' worth of documents, the fortress-like archives include 53 miles of shelving and a fire-proof bunker, and have inspired plenty of conspiracy theories about what's inside. Only scholars that have undergone extensive vetting are ultimately granted access.