From holy shrines to nuclear bunkers, some places have been hidden from the public for centuries. And even now, in an age of increasing transparency and satellite imagery, a few nooks and crannies remain completely off-limits, with only a few very select people allowed in on their secrets. Here, then, are 19 places you can forget about putting on your travel bucket list.
19. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
On the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the world’s nations store samples of their seeds, meaning that they will be able to keep growing crops even if their own stores are destroyed. Unlike with a normal bank, however, you can’t just walk in and make a withdrawal: access is strictly controlled, making this one of the most secure storage facilities on the entire planet.
18. Mount Weather, Virginia
Deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center represents your best chance of surviving the apocalypse – but only if you’re on the guest list. And, in case of a national emergency, only the highest level civilian and military leaders will be allowed to take shelter here. Even in peacetime it’s heavily guarded, with members of the public kept well back.
17. Room 39, North Korea
Even by North Korean standards, Room 39 is hard – if not impossible – to access. Thought to be found inside the Workers’ Party headquarters in downtown Pyongyang, this is a place about which very little is known, including how it got its name. It is, however, reckoned that Room 39 is tasked with filling the party coffers by fair means or foul: weapons deals, drug trafficking and money counterfeiting are all believed to be handled here.
16. Snake Island, Brazil
The Brazilian government forbids anyone from visiting Ilha de Queimada Grande, which is 20 miles off the seaboard of Sao Paolo, and for good reason: it is home to several thousand golden lancehead vipers, whose venom dissolves flesh. Indeed, just a mere handful of scientists are allowed on Snake Island – a policy that keeps both humans and the endangered reptiles safe from harm.
15. Area 51, Nevada
Air Force testing facility, or proof that aliens exist? Speculate all you want, but you won’t get to see inside Area 51. In fact, Area 51, part of the larger Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada, has been off-limits since the 1940s, and the CIA only acknowledged its existence in 2013. What really happens in there remains a mystery to most of us.
14. Surtsey Island, Iceland
One of the world’s newest islands, Surtsey – named after the Nordic leader of fire giants – was created after a volcanic eruption in 1963. Visitors, however, are barred from setting foot on the fascinating rocky outcrop, which was found just off the coast of Iceland. This is because Surtsey is what UNESCO calls “a pristine natural laboratory,” so unless you’re a scientist with express permission, stay well away.
13. Bohemian Grove, California
On paper, it’s just a campground set on 2,700 acres of land in California. But Bohemian Grove hosts just one retreat a year, with only a select few invited. Does it merely represent a chance for the rich and powerful to relax away from the public gaze? Or is it where presidents and media giants set the agenda? As outsiders, we’ll never know for sure.
12. North Sentinel Island, Bay of Bengal
Just 28 square miles in size, the “human zoo” of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal is completely off-limits, even to scientists. The reason? It’s home to 500 natives who remain isolated from the outside world. The exclusion zone isn’t just for the benefit of the islanders, though; sailors have reported that the hunter-gatherer tribe members threaten them with primitive weapons whenever they get close.
11. Niihau, Hawaii
Not for nothing is Niihau, Hawaii – which was procured by the Scottish Sinclair family in the 1860s – known as “the Forbidden Island.” Indeed, only native Niihauans and descendants of the Sinclairs are allowed to live there, and only invited guests can visit.
10. Ise Grand Shine, Japan
The Grand Shinto shrine in Ise is one of the most sacred in Japan and certainly among the most safely guarded. You see, visitors can access parts of the complex, but the inner sanctuary is reserved for the high priest or royalty. Despite this, however, six million people a year visit the complex, though none leave with a selfie, as photography is banned here.
9. The Church of Our Lady of Zion, Ethiopia
Only men may enter this historic church, found in the town of Axum in northern Ethiopia. But even male visitors are completely barred from the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion’s inner sanctum, which is purportedly home to the Ark of the Covenant. Indeed, a single monk reportedly guards the legendary Ark, which is said to contain the stone tablets of Moses. These guardians are appointed for life.
8. Pine Gap, Australia
Just a few miles outside of Alice Springs – itself inaccessible enough – Pine Gap is Australia’s most secretive electronic monitoring base. Employing 800 people, it’s partly run by the CIA and plays a key role in directing drone strikes. This, naturally, makes it the focus of many protests, even if the public can’t penetrate the highly secure perimeter.
7. Mezhgorye, Russia
If you think pronouncing this place is hard, try getting inside. It’s set high in the Urals, it was only established in 1979, and few people believe that it’s a mere mining town. Certainly, according to some reports, Mezhgorye is actually a missile base, while other analysts think it could be hiding a nuclear bunker reserved for the Russian elite and the nation’s treasures.
6. RAF Menwith Hill, U.K.
A Royal Air Force Base that collects intel for U.K. and U.S. spymasters, Menwith Hill has been called the biggest electronic eavesdropping station on the planet. Understandably, it’s far from the most inviting place in England. In fact, the base is heavily guarded, and past attempts by political protesters to breach the perimeter fences have been dealt with severely.
5. Diego Garcia, Indian Ocean
Set in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the British-owned Diego Garcia island is home to a U.S. Navy base, and it’s strictly off-limits to anyone but military personnel or approved visitors. What’s more, according to some conspiracy theorists, there may be more being hidden there, including missing airliners.
4. The Queen’s Bedroom, U.K.
Buckingham Palace has long since opened its doors to tourists, but the Queen’s bedroom remains very much out-of-bounds. Indeed, the monarch’s private chambers are among the most secure rooms in England. And the Queen’s bedroom has been even more secure since 1982, when an unemployed man called Michael Fagan broke into the palace and encountered the Queen in her own quarters.
3. The Lascaux Caves, France
In 1940 a group of teenagers discovered paintings dating back some 17,000 years on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne, France, and soon the caves were attracting 1,200 visitors a day. These days, though, the caves are closed to the public to protect the prehistoric art from humidity and the carbon dioxide produced by visitors. Next door to it, however, a full-scale replica gives visitors a real appreciation of their wonder.
2. The Negev Research Center, Israel
According to the Israeli government, this center, located deep in the Negev desert, is solely for research. Many observers, however, believe it’s actually home of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Unsurprisingly, then, the Negev Research Center doesn’t exactly welcome visitors: its perimeter is well guarded, and there’s a no-fly-zone overhead, preventing prying eyes from taking a closer look.
1. Jiangsu National Security Education Museum, China
The tradecraft on display in the “Chinese Spy Museum” is hardly cutting edge – think maps hidden in packs of playing cards – but, still, the government is taking no chances. Unless you’re a Chinese citizen, then, this is one Beijing tourist attraction you won’t be able to tick off your list. However, an NBC report from 2009 revealed that “Chinese-looking Westerners” may be able to gain entry – arguably making this one of the least secure places in the country.