Unusual travel destinations: World's weirdest places to visit

There is a certain enjoyment in being completely confused. It's a reason some of us travel: to be baffled, to be surprised, to be shocked. To look around at our foreign surroundings and have absolutely no idea what's going on.

I've always loved that. It's not a judgment, or a criticism. It's a good thing. I want to be surprised when I travel, to find out that things in this new place I'm visiting are different. I want to discover the peculiarities that make a country or a culture tick.  

This weirdness that you notice while on the road  comes in different guises. It can be quirks of culture, or it can be unique attractions; it can be natural, or it can be man-made; in some cases it can be a complete mystery to even those who claim it as their own. Museums can be weird. Buildings can be weird. Entire cities or countries can be weird. And that's a very, very good thing to discover.

The Galapagos: A world within itself

Craig Platt gets up close with the unique and diverse wildlife of the Galapagos Islands on a catamaran cruise. The reporter travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre and LATAM

In this search for the world's weird and wonderful, I've cast my eye around for places that fit  several criteria. Some locations are naturally different, and will always be that way. Others are normal for most of the year, but then let all of their weirdness out at once. And others still have consciously embraced a way of life that to everyone else might seem strange, but to them is just right.

These places are really weird – and they're definitely worth seeing for yourself.

THE PLACE

Thames Town, China

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

Because this is England – only you don't have to go all the way to England.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

It might be just an hour from central Shanghai, but Thames Town couldn't be further from traditional China. This enclave has been designed to look like an English village,  with a church, a pub and a fish and chip shop that are exact replicas of their British counterparts.

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THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

Thames Town is great for the pure discombobulation of walking the cobbled streets of an English village while surrounded by Chinese couples having their wedding photos taken.

DON'T MISS

Taking tea in a mock-Tudor mansion.

ESSENTIALS

Thames Town is in Songjiang University Town – take a train from Shanghai to Songjiang then a taxi. See cnto.org

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to China

THE PLACE

Christiania, Denmark

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To experience a hippie "paradise".

THE WEIRD FACTOR

Say you picked up Nimbin, Australia's infamous hippie enclave, in its entirety and plonked it down on the north shore of Sydney. That's essentially what Christiania is: an autonomous, alternative, self-proclaimed utopia that exists, bizarrely, in the centre of Copenhagen.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

It might be ramshackle and oddly intimidating, but Christiania's version of hippie heaven is as unique and fascinating as it out of place in the orderly Danish capital. 

DON'T MISS

The best way to experience Christiania is to simply stroll around.

ESSENTIALS

While visitors are free to enter Christiania, bear in mind photos are prohibited. See www.visitcopenhagen.com

See also: The European neighbourhood that declared independence

THE PLACE

Oaxaca, Mexico 

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WHY YOU SHOULD GO

Because there is no better way to pay respects to the dead than with tequila.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

There is nothing strange about Oaxaca City, in central Mexico, for much of the year. However, for three days in October and November the city is overrun with zombies, ghosts and cadavers as locals dress up for the Day of the Dead festival – a celebration of the lives of those who have passed. 

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

Though it sounds morbid, the Day of the Dead is actually a colourful, joyful and respectful celebration, one that visitors will be encouraged to join.

DON'T MISS

Visiting Xoxocotlan cemetery for a midnight celebration.

ESSENTIALS

Day of the Dead is  October 31  to November 2. See www.visitmexico.com

See also: 10 of the world's darkest festivals

THE PLACE

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

There is no other place on Earth like it. 

THE WEIRD FACTOR

You want strange? How about an iguana that swims in the ocean and snorts salt out of its nose? Or a cormorant that has shed its wings through evolution? Or a giant tortoise? Or a whole swag of animals that have no fear of humans? They're all in the Galapagos.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

All of these strange animals and the volcanic archipelago that they inhabit make for one of the most amazing tourism experiences around.

DON'T MISS

Seeing a giant tortoise lumbering around in the wild.

ESSENTIALS

The Galapagos can be accessed by air from Guayaquil in Ecuador. See www.ecuador.travel

See also: Spectacular Galapagos killer whale attack caught on camera

THE PLACE

Hearst Castle, US

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

Why tour the world seeking history and culture when it's all been crammed together here?

THE WEIRD FACTOR

When you're a passionate collector of art works, curios and entire antique ceilings, and you also have far too much money, you end up doing what publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst did, and build a mountaintop mansion to house it all.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

While Hearst Castle is an odd pastiche of architectural styles with a wide range of  artefacts and a wild disregard for budget, it's an amazing place to tour and pretend you're one of Hearst's movie star dinner guests.

DON'T MISS

The Neptune Pool, a reimagining of a Roman grotto. 

ESSENTIALS

Hearst Castle is a four-hour drive north of LA. Tours cost  $32; www.hearstcastle.org

See also: 10 former palaces and castles you can visit

THE PLACE

Nazca, Peru

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To witness one of the mysteries of human civilisation.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

No one is quite sure what motivated the Nazca people of central Peru to scratch out, over about a thousand years, a series of huge and perfectly rendered pictures in the rocky desert floor. Whatever the reason, their drawings of monkeys, birds, fish, and even a ghostly human shape, can still be seen from the air. 

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

Taking a light plane ride over the Nazca Lines gives visitors the chance to fully appreciate the complexity and otherworldliness of these 2000-year-old marks.

DON'T MISS

Pack your camera, because there are several hundred designs to photograph.

ESSENTIALS

Joy flights over the Nazca Lines depart from Nazca. See www.peru.travel

THE PLACE

Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To see Mongolians at their coldest and strangest.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

In summer this is just any old lake, albeit a beautiful one. In winter, however, it's an enormous block of ice upon which games including tug of war, wrestling, and horse-drawn sleigh races are staged. This is also home  to the Dukha people, an ancient tribe of reindeer herders.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

The natural beauty of the Khovsgol area is reason enough to visit, but this is also home to a unique culture that is all but cut off from the rest of the world.

DON'T MISS

Time your visit to coincide with the Khovsgol Ice Festival in March.

ESSENTIALS

Lake Khovsgol can only be accessed by four-wheel-drive  – it's a four-day drive from Ulan Baator. See www.mongoliatourism.info

THE PLACE

Door to Hell, Turkmenistan

Door to Hell, Turkmenistan

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

This is a photo opportunity like no other.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

Almost 50 years ago, the collapse of a natural gas field formed a 30-metre-deep crater that began leaking flammable methane. Geologists set it on fire as a way of controlling it, and it has been burning ever since.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

Picture yourself in the middle of a desert, staring into a flaming abyss about the size of a football field. That's the Door to Hell, and it attracts plenty of thrill-seeking travellers.

DON'T MISS

Be there at dusk to see the flames at their best.

ESSENTIALS

The Door to Hell is in Darvaza, a four-hour drive from Ashgabat. See www.turkmenistan.gov.tm

See also: Turkmenistan - welcome to the land that taste forgot

THE PLACE

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To embrace your inner hippie – or hunt for a god.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

If you have ever wanted to study kinesiology, meditation, holistic healing, or lucid dreaming in  one of the most naturally beautiful locations in the world, then San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan is the place for you. 

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

There is more to Lake Atitlan than Westerners on yoga retreats. This is also the home of Maximon, a deity worshipped for his love of rum and cigars, whose wooden effigy can be found in a local home.

DON'T MISS

A stay at Casa del Mundo, a guesthouse on the lakeshore. 

ESSENTIALS

Lake Atitlan can be reached from the tourist town of Antigua. See www.visitguatemala.com

See also: 10 countries you (probably) haven't visited, but should

THE PLACE

Rhyolite, US

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WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To see a true Wild West ghost town.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

It doesn't get much eerier than walking through the ruins of Rhyolite, a mining town in Nye County, Nevada, that has been deserted since 1920. The crumbling facades are all that remain.  

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

It's a real Wild West ghost town.  This isn't a movie set or a recreation – it's an actual ghost town. If that's not cool enough, there is also a series of sculptures by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski nearby.

DON'T MISS

The old bank is the largest of Rhyolite's ruins.

ESSENTIALS

Rhyolite is a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. See www.travelnevada.com

THE PLACE

Skeleton Coast, Namibia

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WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To see one of the world's most unforgiving coastlines.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

There is a creepy feeling as you drive down Namibia's Skeleton Coast, as the waves crash and the fog rolls in on one side, and the featureless desert stretches out to eternity on the other. You can see why so many ships met a tragic end here.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

There is a surprising amount of life in this harsh environment. Colonies of seals occupy Cape Fria and Cape Cross, while desert elephants roam the interior.

DON'T MISS

One of the eeriest shipwrecks is the Eduard Bohlen, which lies half buried in sand at Conception Bay.

ESSENTIALS

To explore the Skeleton Coast, hire a car in either Windhoek or Swakopmund. See www.namibiatourism.com.na 

See also: Namibia by train: The weirdest place to travel on earth

THE PLACE

Bermuda Triangle, Caribbean

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To sunbathe in one of the most allegedly dangerous places in the world.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

It's hard to know what is more bizarre: the fact so many ships and planes have disappeared here without explanation; or the fact that they actually haven't. While much of the folklore around this part of the Caribbean fails any rigorous examination, it's fun to indulge in the pretence.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

Being inexplicably lost at sea would be a bad thing, so it's nice to know that the Bermuda Triangle isn't really dangerous. It is, however, stunningly beautiful. 

DON'T MISS

A stay in Bermuda itself – if you're brave enough to fly there.

ESSENTIALS

For more on Bermuda and the Bahamas, see www.gotobermuda.com or www.bahamas.com.

THE PLACE

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

This is one of the world's strangest sites of pilgrimage.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

First there was one crucifix, placed on a hill in northern Lithuania after the 1831 rebellion against the Russians. Then more were added, and more, to the point where now,  about 185 years later, there are   more than 100,000 crucifixes, effigies and carvings on the Hill of Crosses.

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

Aside from the "wow" experience of seeing so many crosses on a lonely hill, this is a site of pilgrimage for many in the Baltic States, particularly Lithuanians, who see it as a symbol of independence and endurance.

DON'T MISS

Set aside enough time to properly explore the crosses.

ESSENTIALS

The Hill of Crosses is three hours north-west of Vilnius. See www.lithuania.travel

THE PLACE

Slab City, US

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WHY YOU SHOULD GO

To see what happens when Americans ditch the trappings of modern life.

THE WEIRD FACTOR

For those who seek true freedom – freedom from rental payments, freedom from restrictions, freedom from society – Slab City is the answer. This caravan-dwelling settlement of retirees, hippies, drifters and oddballs in the Californian desert is off the grid, and off the planet. 

THE WONDERFUL FACTOR

While there are tourist attractions at this former army base – from the brightly painted Salvation Mountain to the East Jesus art installation – the main lure is simply to witness life away from the world. 

DON'T MISS

Check out a talent show at The Range, Slab City's version of a nightclub, to appreciate the true uniqueness.

ESSENTIALS

It's free to visit Slab City, three hours drive east of San Diego. See www.visitcalifornia.com

FIVE WEIRD BUT WONDERFUL CITIES

PORTLAND, US

The city's slogan is "keep Portland weird", and its residents take that seriously. Portland is the bastion of hipsterism, as well as alternative culture – there's an annual naked bike ride, plus a vegan strip club. See www.travelportland.com

TOKYO, JAPAN

There are cafes in Tokyo where you will be served by people dressed as manga characters. In others, you can pet rabbits or hedgehogs. There are fetish dens in Roppongi, and a Robot Restaurant of Shinjuku. It's gloriously bizarre. See www.jnto.org.au

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

There are about 120,000 people in Reykjavik, and none of them have surnames. Well, not that are passed down through generations. Also, building developments have been altered so as not to disturb the homes of make-believe fairy people. See www.iceland.is

DUBAI, UAE

About 50 years ago, this megalopolis of the biggest, most expensive and most luxurious of everything was little more than a fishing village. That Dubai now has a 154-storey skyscraper and a ski resort is phenomenal. See www.visitdubai.com

BARCELONA, SPAIN

The works of architect Antoni Gaudi are as strange as they are beautiful, from the dripping-wax facade of his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, to the animal mosaics of Park Guell and the ghoulish jaws of Casa Battlo. See www.barcelonaturisme.com

See also: Seven of the world's best cities we love the most 

FIVE MORE WEIRD BUT WONDERFUL MAN-MADE PLACES

CAPPADOCIA, TURKEY

This series of pillar-like rock formations would be weird enough on its own, but people actually live here. In Goreme, the soft volcanic rock has been carved out to form houses, churches and monasteries. See www.tourismturkey.org

BONE CHURCH, CZECH REPUBLIC

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There are more than 40,000 human skeletons in Sedlec Ossuary, or the "Bone Church", in Kutna Hora. Those skeletons have been  used as art works, with bone chandeliers, candelabras, and pyramids on display. See www.sedlecossuary.com

BUNKER 42, RUSSIA

Anyone who has ever harboured fantasies of hiding out in a Russian war bunker and firing nuclear weapons at the US would be: a) a bit of a problem; and, b) perfectly catered to at Bunker 42, a Stalinist headquarters turned Moscow tourist attraction. Bunker42.com/eng

RENNES-LE-CHATEAU, FRANCE

There are some deep mysteries surrounding Rennes-le-Chateau. One is whether, as legend has it, this village is the hiding place of the Holy Grail. The other is how Dan Brown managed to pinch the town's conspiracy theories and turn them into a bestseller. See www.rennes-le-chateau.fr

TEMPELHOF AIRPORT, GERMANY

Wander around the Berlin suburb of Neukolln and you'll find hipster bars, live music venues, cafes, and a whopping great Nazi-era airport. While Tempelhof's runway area is now a public park, much of the huge terminal building, which has war bunkers and prison chambers in the basement, is deserted. See www.visitberlin.de

FIVE WEIRD BUT WONDERFUL AUSTRALIAN PLACES

COOBER PEDY, SA

Thanks to the scorching heat and solid rock, many of Coober Pedy's 1600 residents live in "dugout" houses below ground. These cave-homes cost the same as a normal house, and don't require aircon. See www.cooberpedy.sa.gov.au

WYCLIFFE WELL, NT

The truth is out there – or at least the residents of this Northern Territory village think so. Wycliffe Well is the self-proclaimed "UFO Capital of Australia", though it's hard to say how many sightings there have been. See www.wycliffe.com.au

NIMBIN, NSW

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Photo: Andrew Bain

This former hippie utopia (founded in the '70s by partygoers keen to live the dream on a permanent basis) has lost a little of its shine, but it's still an odd place, where marijuana laws seem not to apply. See www.visitnimbin.com.au

PORT ARTHUR, TAS

What was once a convict prison is now the most haunted place in Australia, with claims of paranormal activity. Whether you believe them or not, Port Arthur at night is seriously spooky. See www.portarthur.org.au

MENA CREEK, QLD

Deep in the northern Queensland rainforest lies … a Spanish castle. Seriously.  In the 1920s, Spanish holidaymaker Jose Paronella began work on his dream home, a mansion that is now a tourist attraction. See www.paronellapark.com.au 

See also: The most beautiful places in Australia

ABOUT THE WRITER

Fairfax columnist Ben Groundwater has always enjoyed uncovering the weird and wonderful across the globe. "My absolute favourite place for finding bizarre things is Tokyo," he says. "This is the city of 'maid cafes', of robot restaurants, hedgehog cafes, bars made to look like dungeons, girls in cosplay outfits… There's never a dull moment."

See also: The 13 best cities you've never thought of going to

See also: The world's most liveable cities

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